By John Galluzzo
Bourne Spooner saw slavery firsthand, and he hated what he saw. Apprenticed as a young man to a factory in New Orleans, he watched the deplorable working conditions of the pre-Civil War south and vowed to never replicate them when his own manufacturing dreams became reality. In 1824 he founded the Plymouth Cordage Company. By that time, he had started his journey as a lifelong abolitionist.
Taking to heart the old adage that says “you get out what you put in,” he treated his workers with respect. The Plymouth Cordage Company provided its employees with housing opportunities as early as 1925 and even built them their own library. The strategy worked. By the 1880s Plymouth rope was known worldwide as “the rope you can trust,” and by World War I the company was producing one-seventh of all the rope made on the planet. It took a century and a half to bring Spooner’s dream to a close, but by that time he had made the name of America’s hometown synonymous with not only cordage, but with laudable labor relations.
Waterfront land was easy to come by in 1824, when local residents still saw the ocean as a bringer of storms and a taker of life rather than the chief check mark on a vacation amenities list. For a business selling rope that would mostly form the rigging infrastructure of sailing ships, Bourne Spooner’s choice of land was perfect.
Not all fibers are made the same. Today there are synthetics, but in the beginning and through the Plymouth Cordage Company’s heydays, they were mostly drawn from plants like sisal, hemp, cotton and jute.
The Plymouth Cordage Company’s efficiency continued beyond its centennial anniversary and into World War II, when the company was presented with an Army-Navy “E” Award for “Efficiency in Production” of war equipment. Here, employees walk past a reminder of their role in the war effort.
Robert Thorn, foreman, lays medium-sized rope in about 1900. “Laid rope” is made of three twisted strands, usually to the right, and is the most widespread form of rope used in modern times.
Ropewalks were typically around 1,000 feet in length and proved to be fire hazards. Hemp fibers spun off into the dust could ignite easily. A 250-foot section of the Plymouth Cordage Company’s ropewalk stands today as an exhibit at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.
Plymouth Cordage Company Treasurer Gideon Francis Holmes and President Augustus Loring stand in front of the company’s library in 1899, which was built to educate and entertain the many immigrant laborers who found work and a new home in Plymouth.