June 10. 2013 5:03PM

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Ezekiel Straw, Manchester's man of enterprise

Special to The New Hampshire Union Leader

Ezekiel A. Straw, agent of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, at about the time of the Civil War (charcoal drawing in the Manchester Historic Association archives). 

In July 1856, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester consolidated all of its operations under the management of a single overseer, called the Agent. This person was Ezekiel A. Straw, who had started with the company in 1838 at the age of 19 as a novice civil engineer. He was a confident man of enterprise, who always had his eye on the bottom line. Historian George Waldo Browne wrote in 1915, "To him, more than any other man…is to be credited the (company's) record of success."

The Amoskeag was primarily a land development and textile manufacturing corporation, but its Machine Shop also engaged in non-textile related mechanical production. In 1849, the shop began making steam locomotive engines and would produce 232 of these during the next 10 years. By the late 1850s, Ezekiel Straw began to see something more interesting and potentially more profitable on the horizon: The manufacture of steam fire engines.

In 1859, the locomotive business was sold to the Manchester Locomotive Works. That year, the Amoskeag machinists begin producing the newly designed Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine under the supervision of its talented inventor Nehemiah Bean. These machines were mechanical marvels that were continuously improved over the years. The Amoskeag became one of the lead producers of fire engines in the United States. This undertaking brought the company a great deal of fame, but not a lot of fortune. In 1876 Ezekiel Straw decided to give it up, and sold the fire engine business to the Manchester Locomotive Works.

During the Civil War most of the textile mills in Manchester were shut down because of the lack of raw cotton, which was no longer available from the Southern states. Ezekiel Straw kept the Machine Shop operating in order to provide income for at least some of his employees. He replaced mechanics who had left for war with older textile workers who would not be called up due to their age. Early in the war the men in the shop pitched in and bought a large American flag. They made a pole from a pine log and topped it with a model cannon which they fashioned out of wood. They erected the pole on the south side of the shop building, and unveiled the flag for the first time on the 4th of July, 1861.

The Amoskeag secured an important contract from the U.S. government for the manufacture of special contract .58 caliber percussion muzzle-loading rifles for the Union Army. All the parts for these guns were made in the Machine Shop, and assembled on site. About 300 men were employed, making 125 rifles a day. The government sent 6 inspectors to Manchester who examined the production on a daily basis. Over 25,000 of these Amoskeag "rifle muskets" were produced, and the company also made 17,000 breech-loading carbines (a short, light-weight rifle). The carbine design was created by a German inventor, Edward Lindner. This part of the gun enterprise employed mostly workers of German origin who were knowledgeable about the mechanics of this type of weapon. The war was over before the carbines were assembled, so they were sold overseas.

During the war, from 1863 to 1866, the company also made McKay sewing machines. This was invented by Pittsfield, Massachusetts, native Gordon McKay to sew the soles of shoes to the uppers effectively and quickly. Most or all of the sewing machines made by Amoskeag were used for producing shoes and boots for the Union Army.

After the draft riots in New York City in July 1863, there was a rumor that anti-Union elements were intent upon seizing the guns in the Amoskeag Machine Shop. Ezekiel Straw ordered a brass field piece (small cannon) to be mounted at the gate just west of the bridge that spanned the Lower Canal, in line with Stark Street. Men from the First New Hampshire Battery manned the gun and also were stationed around the millyard at various locations. The Machine Shop was located at the site of the University of New Hampshire at 400 Commercial Street (in an earlier building), so the field piece would have been installed right across Commercial Street from where the Mill Girl Statue stands today.

Next week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Ezekiel Straw becomes the king of gingham!

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at aeaton@manchesterhistoric.org