Last week we talked about Isaac C. Atkinson’s plush mill that was constructed in 1892, then opened and subsequently failed in 1893. We continue our look at that old factory complex that used to exist off of Mussey Street, in the area that is now home to RiverPlace Apartments.

The John P. Lovell Company bicycle factory in Ferry Village. The site is now occupied by the RiverPlace Apartments complex. South Portland Historical Society image

When the plush mill opened, the mill consisted primarily of one 226-foot-long building. After the business ceased operation and an attempt to auction the building and machinery failed, the site was left idle, but there were still interested parties who could see its potential. The masonry factory building was located on the waterfront with a wharf, which would facilitate the transportation of finished goods.

It was just a matter of time before the right company would come along.

In the 1890s, bicycles were in high fashion. Especially in more populated areas, owning a bicycle made traveling very easy. A major company that was in the business of selling bicycles was the John P. Lovell Arms Company of Boston. Founded in 1840, the company was a retailer of sporting goods and firearms. Its original and impressive main store was located on Washington Street in Boston, but by the 1890s, the company also operated branch stores in Boston, Worcester, Providence, Pawtucket and Bangor.

The company opened a branch store at 180 Middle St. in Portland, on May 16, 1894. At all of its stores, it offered a wide variety of sporting goods, uniforms, fishing tackle, cameras, guns, revolvers and ammunition. The company would especially become known for the quality of its Lovell Diamond brand of bicycles.

Willard Twombly, a Portland inventor who hoped to start a line of ether-powered motor bicycles. South Portland Historical Society image

Of course, bicycles are normally propelled by one’s own power, however, a Portland man came to prominence in the 1890s with his invention to improve upon travel even further.

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In 1894, Willard Twombly of Portland, applied for a patent for a motor bicycle. An accustomed power source at that time was steam, but the space needed to store the water and fuel source made it an impractical choice for a bicycle. Twombly came up with the idea for a bicycle that would be powered by ether instead. Ether has a significantly lower boiling point than water (roughly 94 degrees Fahrenheit vs. 212 degrees). A small reservoir of gasoline would be situated on the bicycle and a small pump would spray burning gasoline under the ether. After the ether turned to its gaseous state, it would run through a condenser, making a closed circuit by reusing the ether.

It was an interesting idea on paper. One news article at the time claimed that the bike would be able to travel 100 miles on one tank of gas and reach speeds of up to 60 miles an hour.

Col. Benjamin Lovell, president of the John P. Lovell Arms Co. in Boston, expressed some interest in this new invention, but the idea needed to be tested. With the demand for bicycles so high, Twombly was unable to locate an existing manufacturer who would commit to building a prototype in a reasonable time frame. So he decided to test out his ether motor idea on a boat instead. A 16-foot boat was launched in August, 1894; Mr. B.A. Jacobs built the hull and Henry R. Stickney made the machinery. In its test run, the boat reached a speed of 8 mph, but the piston in the engine had rubber components and, since ether eats away at rubber, a leak formed around the piston and it was clear that more tweaking was needed.

Twombly’s design for a bicycle powered by an ether motor, 1894. South Portland Historical Society image

On April 30, 1895, a second boat was launched with an ether-powered engine. Named the Minnie S., this 30-foot boat was also built by B.A. Jacobs with machinery by Henry Stickney. The engine had been redesigned, based on what they had learned from the prior failure, and the boat could reach speeds of 12 to 14 mph. With that success, the John P. Lovell Arms Company committed to financially backing a new company that would manufacture boats and bicycles with ether-powered motors.

In a May, 1895, press release, it was announced that a new company in Maine would be formed with Col. Benjamin Lovell as its president (Lovell was the president of the John P. Lovell Arms Co.) and Willard Twombly as the company’s manager. The John P. Lovell Arms Company had also negotiated for the purchase of the idle plush mill. They announced a tentative plan – in addition to manufacturing bicycles and boats with ether-powered motors, the company would erect an additional building on the site for a large bicycle factory. Up to this point, John P. Lovell Arms had been outsourcing the manufacturing of its bicycles to the Iver Johnson Company of Massachusetts. On June 1, 1895, John P. Lovell, himself, purchased the plush mill property for $15,000.

Twombly’s first attempt at a boat with an ether motor, 1894. South Portland Historical Society image

On July 3, 1895, the new corporation was established, the Lovell Cycle and Ether Motor Company, with Benjamin Lovell as president and H.L. Lovell as treasurer. On Sept. 23, 1895, the new company purchased the plush mill property from John P. Lovell for $25,000.

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While the media was talking excitedly in the summer about the potential of soon-to-be horseless carriages to be produced at the factory, all of those plans had changed by the time a news story was released in October, 1895. At that point, the Lovell Cycle and Ether Motor Company had taken over the plush mill, had parted ways with Willard Twombly, and had made the decision to turn the existing building into a bicycle factory. About 25 men were employed in the plant at that time, working on installing the equipment and making the tools needed for bicycle manufacturing. The plant superintendent was Frank Curtis. He indicated that the company’s goal was to have 200 to 300 men employed by January, 1896, and that they would produce 10,000 bicycles that would be needed for the coming 1896 season.

After Curtis gave the reporter a tour of the facility, the question of the plans for the ether motors came up. Curtis said that the company had purchased the patent from Willard Twombly, but that they had no plans to manufacture either boats or bicycles powered by ether motors. According to the article, “The Lovell Arms Company owns the patent, but are not sufficiently satisfied as yet with the practicality of it to go ahead with it, especially since they have so many bicycles to manufacture.”

By November, 1896, Lovell Cycle and Ether Motor Company had changed its name to the John P. Lovell Company (which helps to make the distinction between the Maine corporation and the Massachusetts corporation which had “Arms” in its name).

We’ll continue the story of the Lovell bicycle factory next week, along with the story of the factory’s next interesting superintendent, inventor Lyman H. Cobb.

Note: South Portland Historical Society offers a free Online Museum with over 15,000 images available for viewing with a keyword search, and we are adding new content regularly. You can find it at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com and, if you appreciate what we do, feel free to make a donation by using the donation button on the home page. If you have photographs or other information to share about South Portland’s past, we would love to hear from you. South Portland Historical Society can be reached at 207-767-7299, by email at [email protected], or by mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]

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