Riverdale Mills witnessed birth of plastic-coated wire mesh

Written in 1989 as Riverdale Mills Corporation promotional material, this article was originally titled “How we got started, how we got where we are, where we are going.” It is re-printed in the MLA newsletter, May, 2010, with permission.

Riverdale Mills Corporation was founded by James M. Knott, Sr. and his family in 1980 to make money from an idea he had started working on in 1957. The idea was that the lobster traps, used all along the New England coast and also in Canada, would work better, fish better, and last longer if they were made out of plastic-coated steel wire mesh rather than wood, the material that had been used for centuries.

From wooden lath traps to today’s modern coated wire, all in one company. Photo courtesy of Riverdale Mills.

Knott made some plastic-coated steel wire mesh at his factory in South Natick and gave it to some lobster fishermen on Cape Ann, north of Boston. Some lobstermen nailed the coated wire mesh on their wooden traps and others made complete traps out of the new material.

Acceptance was slow, and for many years, sales were often less than a truckload a year. About twenty years went by without much demand developing for the materials. Meanwhile, Knott sold his company and went to work for the new owners as manager of the plastic-coating operations, which grew at a rapid rate while the lobster trap mesh business just idled along.

In 1976, a young engineer from Maine by the name of J. Pike Bartlett, Jr. discovered the product, which was then being used for other purposes in the greenhouse business. Bartlett started experimenting with specially-designed meshes, and he began building lobster traps in Friendship, Maine and selling them to lobster fishermen in the area. Bartlett named his new company The Friendship Trap Company, and the business began to grow rapidly.

By 1978, Knott felt it was time to do something different. He decided to leave his old company and start a new one concentrating on making a better-quality, plastic-coated wire mesh that would meet the demands of lobster fishermen, crab fishermen, people in aquaculture, or anybody else who needed high-quality, plastic-coated welded wire mesh that would combine the strength of steel with the corrosion resistance of plastics.

The first order of business was to find a place to make the new product. After looking in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, Knott found a place that met his needs—the abandoned Kupfer Brothers paper mill in the Riverdale section of Northbridge, Massachusetts.

The old Kupfer Brothers mill had been vacant and abandoned for three years when Knott and his wife first saw it in November, 1978. All of the roofs were leaking, almost all of the windows were broken, many of the floors were rotted through and in several places, the buildings had collapsed. But, some of the buildings were still structurally sound, and because most people who looked at the property were put off by its condition, the owners were willing to sell it for an affordable price. On the morning of May 10, 1979, the final papers were signed, and that afternoon, clean-up and fix-up were started at the old mill at Riverdale. It was a year before some of the mill buildings were fixed up enough to be useful. While that work was going on, a new plastic coating line was being designed and built right on the premises by Knott and his two sons, Andrew and James, Jr., who had joined the business.

Most of the new coating line was made with parts salvaged from equipment left in the mill by the former owners. Tanks were made form steel plates pried up off the floors in unused parts of the mill buildings. Rolls were taken from machines abandoned at the site. And gears, chains, sprockets, bearings, shafts, etc. were built in to the new line by the Riverdale employees and by local contractors.

After some start-up problems, the coating line was a success, and the first shipment was made in December 1980, a year and a half after the mill was purchased. The business grew rapidly because the product was far better than anything else available at the time.

By 1984, Riverdale had established itself, but three problems remained. One was finding manufacturers of wire mesh who would consistently deliver a product meeting the high standards Riverdale had established for itself and that the industry had come to expect. The second problem was that the best quality wire meshes came from overseas and could be bought by Riverdale at a reasonable price only when the foreign exchange rates were very favorable. The third problem was that buying from overseas sources required careful planning, because orders took as long as three or four months to arrive. Because customers often had difficulty predicting their needs so far in advance, business was sometimes lost to competitors who had lower-quality, lower-priced product on hand.

Early in 1984, it was decided to solve these problems of quality, price and service by buying equipment overseas that would produce the best-quality mesh in the U.S. and that would produce it as fast or faster than any competitor in the U.S. or overseas.

The first high-speed welder was installed and started between Christmas and New Year’s Day in 1985. It was the widest and fastest welder of its type in the U.S.

A new wire-drawing machine was installed in September, 1986. It was the first computer-controlled high-speed drawing machine of its kind in the U.S. About six months later, a new galvanizing line was installed. While the new equipment was being installed, work on the buildings continued. In 1985, the Worcester Area Chamber of Commerce presented the mill with its Silver Hammer Award “for renovation and restoration of The Riverdale Mills.” We intend to keep right on growing so long as there is a market for high-quality wire mesh products sold at reasonable process and delivered on time.