Old Sparhawk Mills was a fixture in Mill Creek for over 35 years. The company was incorporated in 1922 and was originally located in Portland. After just a couple of years, however, the business moved to South Portland and it remained in operation on Cottage Road from 1925 to 1961, then moved to Yarmouth.

Old Sparhawk Mills was a braided rug manufacturer that operated from 60 Cottage Road in South Portland from 1925 to 1961. South Portland Historical Society photo

A manufacturer of handmade hooked and braided rugs (and, later, machine-woven rugs, as well), Old Sparhawk Mills specialized in reproductions of original colonial-era rugs.

The primary raw material was wool fabric (scraps and salvage) that they would purchase from Maine mills. Wool cloth would be cut into strips and dyed, and rug designers could create designs using colors to match or complement the customer’s other home furnishings.

According to a company brochure, “In Colonial times, with suitable coverings for the roughly hewed pine floors practically unavailable, by making Hand-Braided Rugs the resourceful and enterprising first mothers of this country were able to express their artistic ability and by toilful hours to fulfill one of their strongest and natural instincts, that of beautifying and making their homes more comfortable. For many years during that period few other than these home-made rugs were used … Old Sparhawk Braided Rugs, entirely hand made and faithfully patterned after the best examples of this ORIGINAL Colonial floor furnishing … are made identically as in Colonial days, except that NEW woolen cloth strips are used in making the braids rather than the remains of cast-off clothing of questionable wearing and color qualities … the rugs are made entirely by hand – many of them in the country homes of the descendants of the originators of this art.”

A 1938 advertisement for hand-braided rugs from Old Sparhawk Mills. South Portland Historical Society image

The company was proud to have been the supplier for all of the hand-braided rugs at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Not only did they provide all of the rugs during the original restoration, but as any additional or replacement rugs were needed, it was Old Sparhawk Mills that supplied them.

In addition to employing about 20 people in the large building on Cottage Road, the company also contracted with hundreds of women throughout Maine to help make the hand-braided rugs. According to an article in the Portland Sunday Telegram in 1927, “the Sparhawk company furnishes the patterns, all colored, and the material, to these women and they manufacture the rugs, following the designs and colorings with the accuracy possible only to those thoroughly familiar with the work.”

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Ernest Gowell was the general manager of Old Sparhawk Mills from at least 1925 until his death in 1941. Gowell was also a South Portland city councilor and served as the chairman of the city council in 1939. South Portland Historical Society photo

The original incorporators in 1922 were John Cox, Charles Merriam and Elton Thompson. Only John Cox appeared to have taken an active role in the business at the beginning, when they were located at 393 Fore St. in Portland. Cox was the treasurer and a rug designer. Elton Thompson was a practicing attorney in Portland.

In 1925, Ernest F. Ginn and Ernest E. Gowell appear to have acquired the company. Ginn was listed as president, but he was a Portland building contractor and appears to have been solely an investor. Gowell was listed as the company treasurer and general manager. They subsequently moved the business to what would become its longtime home at 60 Cottage Road in South Portland. The Philip Doyen Shipyard had previously operated from the site.

In 1932, seven rare rugs were stolen from Old Sparhawk Mills. One of these rugs was valued at $4,500. It was a rare hooked rug that was kept at the mill as a specimen in antique colonial design. Because of the uniqueness and value of that rug, when the four thieves attempted to sell it, they were caught and arrested.

In 1936, the Old Sparhawk Mills took center stage when a traveling carnival set up in Mill Creek and one of their monkeys escaped. The monkey in question was named Mary Pickford. She was normally part of a carnival act where she would drive a miniature car in a race against another monkey, Douglas Fairbanks. Well, Mary escaped and four people from the carnival spent an entire day trying to catch her.

According to a story in the Portland Press Herald, “a well-meaner, thinking that experience is the best teacher, had summoned Samuel Silverman to the scene, apparently esteeming the latter’s long experience with the escapades of Bridget, who until last summer frequently had haunted the Willard Beach treetops. Mr. Silverman promptly suggested the garden hose and banana method, consisting of first drenching the fugitive with water to drive it from the tree and then inducing it back to captivity with a luscious banana.”

The tactic did not work, unfortunately, and Mary Pickford ended up on the roof of the Old Sparhawk Mills. The men lowered food through a skylight, enticing Mary Pickford to enter the building, then closed the skylight so that they trapped her on the top floor. They then entered the building, and found Mary Pickford swinging from the rafters, but they were finally able to get her down and return her to the carnival.

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A circa 1951 aerial view of Mill Creek. South Portland City Hall can be seen at lower left. The street coming up from the lower right is Hinckley Drive, and the Old Sparhawk Mills building is on the other side of Cottage Road at far right. South Portland Historical Society photo

Throughout the history of the company’s operation in South Portland, the business was owned and managed by the Gowell family. Ernest Gowell served as the treasurer and general manager from at least 1925 to 1941. At the time of his death in 1941, he was the majority shareholder.

Ernest Gowell was born in 1883 in Poland, Maine. He was a graduate of Edward Little High School and Bliss Business College in Auburn. After working in Boston for a few years, Gowell and his wife, Ruby, moved to South Portland around 1909 where they raised their three sons, Earle, Ralph and John. The Gowells lived first at 5 Sixth St. and later at 12 Sixth St.

Ernest’s wife Ruby was also active in the business, including working as a rug designer. Ernest Gowell was very active in the South Portland community, serving two terms on the school board (one year as its chair), then was elected to the city council in December 1936. He served as a councilor in 1937 and 1938, then served as chairman of the city council in 1939.

After Ernest Gowell died in 1941, his son Ralph took control and became president of the company. Ralph ran it with his mother Ruby through 1944. In 1945 and 1946, Ralph had left and the company ceased operation for a time. By 1947, son Earle had returned from serving in the Army and he restarted the company with his mother.

In 1961, the company acquired Maine Braiding Company, of Cumberland, Maine. Earle Gowell decided to consolidate the operations of both Maine Braiding and Old Sparhawk Mills, and he moved the company to a new home at the Royal River Mills in Yarmouth. The company continued in operation there until Earle Gowell’s death in 1967.

After Old Sparhawk Mills moved to Yarmouth, the building on Cottage Road was used for storage for a time, but it was torn down in June, 1965, to make way for construction of a grocery store. The store was first known as Martin’s Food Mart, part of a chain of small grocery stores owned by John Martin. The store later became Martin’s Shop ‘n Save and is now operated as a Hannaford supermarket.

Do you have photographs of the Old Sparhawk Mills, or a braided rug made by them? South Portland Historical Society would love to hear from you. The 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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