The Hills Family Papers (1830-1948) document the lives of several generations of Hills family members. Leonard Mariner Hills (1803-1872) and his wife, Amelia Gay, moved to Amherst in 1829. At that time, Leonard opened a small shop in East Amherst for the manufacture of straw hats. With the advent of industrialization, Leonard moved his shop to Amherst, and opened a factory, one of the first in Amherst. (Photographs and a description of the factory circa 1909 can be found in the collection.) Although it was based in Amherst, the company did most of its business in New York City where Leonard's son Henry Francis Hill (1833-1896) served as the company's sales agent. Although the business was ostensibly profitable, the New York office went bankrupt in 1870, and the company itself was dissolved in 1935.
Both Leonard Mariner Hills and Henry F. Hills were prominent citizens in the town of Amherst and were responsible for many civic improvements. Leonard Mariner Hills was president of the Amherst & Belchertown railway company, the first railroad company to come to Amherst. He also established and served as president of the First National Bank of Amherst. With his son Henry, he provided the original endowment for the Massachusetts Agricultural College. Henry F. Hills was one of the first directors of the Massachusetts Central Railway Company, the Amherst Gas Company and the Amherst Water Company. Henry was also an active church member and participated in the movement for the improvement of the grounds of Wildwood Cemetery. His wife, Adelaide Spencer Hills, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Henry F. Hills married Mary Adelaide Spencer of South Manchester, Connecticut in 1863. (For a genealogy of Mary AdelaIde Spencer, see genealogies of the Pitkin family [her mother's family], p. 120, and the Hollister family [her grandmother's family].) Their home, fondly referred to as "The Homestead," on Main Street in Amherst, first served as a summer home before becoming a permanent residence. They lived in New York City during the winter. Henry's father, Leonard M. Hills, built an almost identical home next door on the comer of Triangle and Main Street. The houses are still standing today, and currently house the Amherst Woman's Club (L.M. Hills House) and the Amherst Boys and Girls Club (H.F. Hills House.) Henry F. Hills and Adelaide Spencer Hills had five children: Leonard, Mary, Emily, Caroline and Susan. Leonard, and Mary's husband, Frank Whitman, joined the Hills Company.
Biographical sketches of chief members represented in the Hills Family Papers:
|LEONARD MARINER HILLS (1803-1872)
||Leonard Mariner Hills was considered a "major pioneer of industry and prominent citizen of Amherst." He was the first to systemize and develop hat manufacturing as an industry in the U.S. He came to Amherst in 1827 and worked for two years at the carriage making firm of Knowles & Thayer. In 1829, he married Amelia Gay from Connecticut and established a small hat manufacturing shop in East Amherst.
- developed the hat making industry from the piecemeal/cottage industry method, through having women bring the finished hats to the factory, to the hats being completely made in the factory.
- established and was president of the First National Bank.
- president of the Amherst and Belchertown Railway Co., the first in Amherst.
- instrumental in getting the railroad to run its tracks through upper Amherst, rather than along East Street.
- gave, with his son, Henry, $10,000 for the maintenance of the Botanical Gardens at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts).
- worked with Austin Dickinson on a town beautification program (planted trees).
- gave a fund for the poor working women of Amherst.
|HENRY F. HILLS (1833-1896)
||For more than 40 years, Henry F. Hills was identified with manufacturing and business enterprises in Amherst, and was a prominent town figure. He believed in progress, was a man of action, and was responsible for bringing many public improvements to the town.
- one of the first directors of the Massachusetts Central Railway company induced the Town of Amherst to subscribe for stock.
- one of the original stockholders in the Amherst Gas Company - prominent in its organization, and president.
- assisted in the organization of the Amherst Water Company. friend of Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst (forerunner of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst)
- helped secure the $50,000 appropriation from the town.
- with his father, Leonard M., contributed $10,000 toward a fund for the Durfee plant house and established the Hills botanical prizes at Massachusetts Agricultural College.
- aided In the purchase and Improvement of Wildwood Cemetery. member of the East Congregational church; then member of the Village Church member of the building committee which built the present building in 1867.
- member of the Union League Club and the New England Society of New York City.
- served as Superintendent of Amherst Schools.
- moved to South Carolina to improve health; returned to Amherst.
HILLS COMPANY CHRONOLOGY
The Hills Co., which manufactured palm leaf hats, was in fact two companies. The first one, the L.M. Hills Co., started by Leonard Mariner Hills in 1829, was based in Amherst, Mass. Business was also conducted in a New York City office. The New York City office went bankrupt in 1870 and the entire company was sold in 1872 to H.D. Fearing, Leonard M.'s son-in-law, and became the H.D. Fearing Co., which continued the business of manufacturing hats in Amherst. In 1877, the Hills Co. was reorganized and incorporated by Henry F. Hills, Leonard M.'s son, who built his factory across the railroad tracks from the H.D. Fearing Co. factories. The Hills Co. was dissolved in 1935, after more than 100 years.
L.M. Hills Company established Leonard M. opened a straw hat manufacturing shop in East Amherst - receipts for that year totalled $5,000.
Leonard M. sold half of land in Tolland, Connecticut to his brother, Samuel Hills (see Samuel Hills deeds, College Archives).
317,236 palm leaf hats manufactured.
Business expanded to include "Shaker hoods," a popular hat at the time.
Mills were built at Factory Hollow.
Company followed hat manufacturing process: the palm leaf was bleached, split and dyed at the mill. Prepared palm leaf was sent out to women's homes to be braided into hats and woven into webs for the shaker hoods. Hats were returned to the mill, bleached again, pressed, trimmed and packed for sale.
Hats were also imported from Spain and Italy to be finished in Amherst.
||Building for splitting palm leaf burned.
||200 employees. 250 hats made daily.
Mill buildings washed away by flood.
Buildings rebuilt on same site with "more ambitious ideas."
||Stock of palm leaf valued at $50,000.
||Leonard M. issued a patent for a loom for weaving palm leaf by power -- diminished use of home industry.
Hills Co. was the largest hat manufacturing concern in the U.S.
Company imported palm leaf direct from Cuba; supplied many smaller establishments.
Made 100-200,000 dozen palm leaf hats per year and 30-40,000 dozen shaker hoods per year.
||New York City office went bankrupt.
||Massachusetts the only state manufacturing palm leaf hats.
L.M. Hills Co. - largest hat factory in the U.S. - receipts $300,000.
Death of Leonard M. Hills
Company sold to H.D. Fearing (Leonard M.'s son- in-law), and name changed to the H.D. Fearing Co. - continued to manufacture hats.
Hills Co. reorganized and incorporated by Henry F. (Leonard M.'s son) - built factory across railroad tracks from H.D. Fearing Co.
Newspaper report states that the Fearing Co. sent more than 13,000 straw hats to New York in one week.
Fire destroyed both Hills Co. and H.D. Fearing Co. factories.
Fearing rebuilt at a cost of $100,000.
||Henry retired; son Leonard took over.
||H.D. Fearing Co. bought by G.B. Burnett Co., a New York commission house, which continued business until 1936 (the Burnett Co. operated a store on West 4th St. in New York which showed samples of straw hats and obtained orders to be filled by hat factories).
||Hills Co. dissolved.