Let’s take a look at the John P. Lovell Company in Ferry Village. In last week’s column, we left off in the fall of 1895. The company had just acquired the idle factory building that had first been built as a plush mill. Workers were inside setting up equipment and making tools that would be needed to manufacture bicycles.

Baseball was a popular pastime in the 1890s and superintendent Cobb supported the creation of a company baseball team, known as the Lovell Diamonds. South Portland Historical Society photo

The John P. Lovell Arms Company in Boston was a very old and very large retailer of sporting goods and firearms, and given the popularity of bicycles in the 1890s, this was a huge line for them. Instead of purchasing bicycles from the Iver Johnson Company for resale, the Lovell family wanted to make a greater profit by getting into the manufacturing end themselves.

While Frank Curtis had been employed as the plant superintendent in early October, 1895, when the bicycle factory was in the first stages of set-up, his tenure was very short. By January, 1896, Lyman Cobb had become the new superintendent and production of bicycles had begun in earnest.

Lyman H. Cobb was about 36 years old when he became superintendent of the Lovell bicycle factory. He was a very likeable and energetic boss. In March of 1896, he led the factory employees in the establishment of a bicycle club. At a boiled clam dinner held in the factory, the 50 members in attendance voted to name their new social club “The Lovell Excel Cycle Club” and elected Lyman Cobb as the club president. By June, 1896, the cycle club was very active and had leased space for a club room in the Spear’s building on Sawyer Street.

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

When he came to work for the Lovell factory, Lyman and his wife, Nellie, moved to South Portland and lived on Front Street in Ferry Village. He quickly became a respected voice in the neighborhood. Cobb was one of over 30 prominent members of the community who met in January, 1897, to form the South Portland Improvement League.

The bipartisan group of leading community members would meet to discuss the financial matters of the town and, most especially, to debate the question of whether the town of South Portland should become the city of South Portland. The Improvement League’s by-laws stated that “the object and purpose of this organization is to improve the social and financial interests of the people of South Portland.”


Frederick Harford, editor of the Cape Elizabeth Sentinel, was elected the group’s president and Lyman Cobb was elected as one of several vice presidents. Cobb was an active participant in the meetings.

The Lovell bicycle factory produced the very popular Lovell Diamond brand of bicycle. South Portland Historical Society image

Lyman Cobb had a keen and creative mind. Over the course of his lifetime, he was issued patents for over 20 of his inventions. One of his first was a dust-proof ball bearing for bicycles. He applied for the patent in December of 1896 and it was issued on Aug. 31, 1897.

Throughout its time in operation, the bicycle factory continued to grow. In May, 1896, they broke ground on a 30 x 80-foot addition to the brazing department at the factory. While they had initially focused on the manufacture of bicycles in 1896 and 1897, the company would soon expand into additional product lines.

In the summer and fall of 1897, the John P. Lovell Company built a large addition to the factory in Ferry Village. The new three-story building was 150 feet long by 50 feet wide. With this new space, they were able to start making other products that were needed in the John P. Lovell Arms retail stores – products like handcuffs and other police-related goods.

In December of 1898, the company made the announcement that it was now adding sporting guns and revolvers to its line of products manufactured at the South Portland plant. Not surprisingly, Lyman Cobb also applied for and received a patent in 1899 for a “breakdown firearm” or shotgun.

In 1899, there were signs of trouble at the factory.


While it had been producing about 10,000 bicycles per year, with 300 employees, they decided to lower production in 1899 and reduced staffing to about 200. In December, 1899, notices of a temporary shutdown were posted and the factory closed. Employees were paid their full wages and told that they would probably be starting up again in a few weeks.

Both the John P. Lovell Arms Company (in Massachusetts) and the John P. Lovell Company (in Maine) went through an assignment for the benefit of creditors. Lyman Cobb was named “keeper” of the factory in South Portland, but they were not able to reopen at that location. There was a significant amount of unfinished inventory in the factory building.

Lyman Cobb’s patent for a dust-proof ball bearing for bicycles was issued in 1897. South Portland Historical Society image

The year 1900 was a tough year.

Col. Benjamin Lovell, who had been the president of the John P. Lovell Arms Company, died that February. As Lyman Cobb was scouting a new location to do business, the land and factory buildings in South Portland were sold off to pay creditors in August. Cobb ended up securing a new location for the John P. Lovell Company and, by 1901, the company was back up and running at 41 Cross St. in Portland.

Lyman Cobb was now listed as a principal of the company, along with Henry Lovell (Benjamin’s brother) who appears to have been solely an investor, as he lived in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Cobb continued the John P. Lovell Company, not as a bicycle manufacturer but as a manufacturer of firearms. The company continued making firearms through 1904, when it closed and reportedly sold its machinery to the Harrington and Richardson Arms Company of Worcester, Massachusetts. Cobb went to work for the Iver Johnson Company, the same Massachusetts company that the John P. Lovell Arms Company had once used as their supplier of bicycles.

Throughout his nearly 15 years at Iver Johnson, Cobb also dabbled with a variety of inventions and successfully patented many of them, including: a rotary engine, various guns and selected gun parts, safety razors, a bicycle frame, an oil tank for motorcycles, various engine parts, and several other products. He was only 57 years old and still working when he died unexpectedly of heart failure in 1917.

According to his obituary, Lyman Cobb “was a man who enjoyed an especially large acquaintance and one who had many friends. He was a valuable man in the Iver Johnson organization, being responsible for the invention and development of many of the attachments and improvements in the firearms and motorcycles manufactured by the company, as well as in the planning and adoption of many of the designs of that company’s products.”

The design for a shotgun made at the Lovell factory in Ferry Village was based on this patent issued to Lyman Cobb in 1899. South Portland Historical Society image

Note: South Portland Historical Society offers a free Online Museum with more than 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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