A Little San Francisco Wool Mill History

Multiple large buildings, a wool mill, beside the water of San Francisco Bay, mid 1800s

I am writing a book about my adventures in sheep shearing, why we don’t have more 100% locally and domestically produced clothing, and what some phenomenally hard-working people are doing to change that. Today, I’ve been working on some historical bits.

I have a deceptively simple question: How many wool mills were there in California, at various points in its history? In order to substantiate and describe the loss of something, it helps to know if there indeed was a loss; if so, how great it was; and when and why the loss took place.

I did not know how many, if any, wool mills ever existed in CA. In my research about 1850s era CA, I see frequent references to “east coast textile mills” but not to “west coast textile mills.” California was linked by rail to the rest of the U.S. in 1869 and by ship long before that, so it seemed conceivable that raw wool may have been shipped as bales to east coast mills and remained there to be sold, given the larger east coast population and its thriving business centers. But shipping from CA was also onerous, dangerous and expensive. Rail tariffs, for example, made profitability for wool mills in Oregon impossible in the late 1800s and forced their closure (one of which would eventually become the Pendleton Woolen Mill).

The California Missions raised livestock, including sheep, for wool, leather, tallow and land cultivation. The missions “in the height of their prosperity” (I do not know exactly when that was) altogether held 268,000 sheep. In terms of wool related work, native women at the Missions are described as knitting and weaving, and the native men as shearing sheep and weaving rugs and clothing from wool. I’m going to dig further into how exactly wool processing was done at the Missions.

After the Mission period, there is the period of pre- and early-statehood in CA. To make my search a bit more feasible, I initially limited it to San Francisco. And, upon opening The Sheep Breeder’s Guide from 1861 (thank you, Open Library!), I had the confirmation I needed: an illustration of a wool mill with the caption The San Francisco Woolen Factory (Black Point).

A mid 1800s era sketch illustration of an early San Francisco wool mill on the water's edge

Where in San Francisco was Black Point? It’s not a phrase or neighborhood you hear about today. According to the National Park Service, it was what locals called Fort Mason: “For the next 10 years, until the outbreak of the Civil War, Fort Mason (known to the locals as “Black Point”)…”

Here’s another photo of the San Francisco Woolen Factory at Black Point, courtesy of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Note that it’s called the Pioneer Woolen Mill in this photo, which confused me at first, but having “Pioneer Woolen Mill” and “Black Point” together and describing one place would come in handy later:

Multiple large buildings, a wool mill, beside the water of San Francisco Bay, mid 1800s

The mill occupied prime San Francisco real estate and is described in a story from Daily Alta California newspaper on June 8, 1861:

“This establishment, at Black Point, is the pioneer of woolen manufactories in this State, having been erected in the year 1859. The main structure is constructed of brick, and one hundred and twenty-five feet in length, fifty feet broad, and two stories in height. Contiguous to this are storehouses and lodging-rooms, the whole eligibly situated for manufacturing purposes on the beach, and commanding a magnificent view of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the heights of Marin county. In front of the main building, and situated just at  the edge of the water, is the wash-house, to which every fleece after being assorted, from the finest Merino to the coarsest Mexican, is brought.

Here the cleansing process is gone through with, the wool being thoroughly rinsed in pure Artesian water, there being a well sunken on the premises, seventy-four feet deep, which yields forty thousand gallons per diem. Even this large quantity is insufficient  for the various wants of the factory, so that Bensley water and hill-side springs are also called into requisition. After washing, the wool is spread in great vats, on the beach and on the hill, and dried, which process consumes some twenty-four hours. In the rainy season the wool is taken into a drying apartment, where, by artificial heat, it is prepared for the picking process. This is very complete, and owing to the great improvements in the works of the factory, the wool is as carefully and thoroughly assorted from impure substances as is possible.”

There’s a valuable nugget at the beginning, when the Alta California states that this was the first mill in CA and that it was built in 1859. This may enable me to use 1859 as an “anchor date” to start my mill timeline. It also implies that, by 1859, there was a sufficient level of wool production (and by extension, enough sheep) in CA to make a mill a worthwhile business endeavor. The Alta California describes Merino and Mexican breeds, which lines up with what Mary Austin describes in her book, The Flock, published in 1906.

The “artificial heat” mentioned in the story, by the way, is later noted as being coal from Mt. Diablo. I had no idea Mt. Diablo was once a coal mine!

Elsewhere online, I found reference to the Pioneer Woolen Mill (the building of which is now a terrific wine tasting spot in Ghirardelli Square and on the National Register of Historic Places). Like the San Francisco Woolen Factory, the Pioneer Woolen Mill was credited with being the first mill in the state, opening in 1858, which would make it one year older than the San Francisco Woolen Factory. Uniforms for Union soldiers were manufactured at Pioneer during the Civil War. Though I’m not entirely certain and still digging, one of the mills burned in 1861 (the same year as the Alta California story, so it must have burned sometime after June 8, 1861) and “rebuilt as Pioneer.” What seem to be two mills were probably, possibly one.

I turned to the San Francisco City Directories to sort it out, the Yellow Pages of its time, with a categorized business index in the back. They are a treasure trove of historical information and a window on how cities change over time: one year a “Phrenologist” category appears, for example, but the listings in the category decline along with the practice. The directories increase in page size as the population increases; etc. But I digress.

In the 1861 directory, “Mill” is a category used only for food (rice, flour, etc.). But there is a category for Woolen Manufacturers, and the names stated are San Francisco Woolen Manufactory and another:

An old page from a directory that is an 1861 version of the Yellow Pages, listing San Francisco Woolen Manufacturers

By 1871, however, mills are not just for food: “Mills – Woolen” is a category and five are listed, including our first mill with a hodgepodge of both names, the “San Francisco Pioneer Woolen Factory.” The 1871 directory also includes the San Francisco Wool Exchange at the NW corner of Broadway and Sansome streets.

By 1881, there was enough specialized wool activity in San Francisco to warrant more specific categories. We see the addition of Wool Scouring, Woolen Mill Agencies, and Woolen Mills, and some of those categorized as Mills – Woolen in 1871 (Marysville, Oregon City and San Jose) are referred to as Woolen Mill Agencies in 1881. This implies that they may not have been literal mills.


The 1881 directory also had a wool related entry, for Teachers – Fancy Wool Work which is not included in the 1891 directory. Two teachers are listed, Lucy Otto and Josephine Recum. I am going to try to find both women in Census records to see if their professions are noted and if so how they are described. I will also head over to the historic knitting forum on Ravelry later on to see if anyone is familiar with the meaning of Fancy Wool Work. Does it refer to knitting? Something else? Please comment if you know!


By 1891 we have even more wool related categories (Wool Graders and Packers, and Wool Pullers) and the entries cover two columns, vs. the tiny portion of one column we saw 30 years prior in 1861. And something interesting happened to Marysville, which is now listed as “Marysville, Levi Strauss & Co., 14 Battery,” where Levi Plaza is today. I may need to visit the Levi Strauss corporate archive, if they have one.

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The 1891 directory also includes a spinning and dying company and a category for Worsted Yarns with a single listing:


Despite the index and list heavy format of the San Francisco directories, they still provide a glimpse into the attitudes, context and spirit of the times. The 1868 directory directly connects mills with independence and pride:

“Year by year the manufactures of these mills have increased in variety and fineness until at the present they produce fabrics that… rendered us independent of importations from abroad.”

I hope that the good works of our new crop of domestic wool producers, from Fibershed, to Valley Ford, to Mendocino Wool and Fiber, may also “render us independent of importations from abroad.” Independence and self-sufficiency are values we used to, can and should be proud of.


2 Responses to “A Little San Francisco Wool Mill History”

  1. Sean

    There is a little tidbit of wool history in this article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-actual-hollister

    Hawkins soon heard about a Colonel W. W. Hollister, who owned twenty-one thousand acres of agricultural land nearby. For many years, that land had been in the hands of Spanish clergy, after most of its Native American inhabitants had been expelled or drawn into the mission system. When Mexico gained independence from Spain, much of it was given to Mexican soldiers and settlers. After the Mexican-American War, Hollister bought his tract of land from Francisco Pérez Pacheco. Hollister had followed a southern path to California, from Ohio down through New Mexico and Arizona to Santa Barbara and then north. He’d started out with eight or nine thousand head of sheep, intending to move the largest herd of its kind across the continent. By the end, he had only a few thousand left, but when the Civil War began Hollister made a fortune selling wool that outfitted the Union Army.


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