Biography of Charles H. Perkins

The years from 1830 to 1902, in which Charles H. Perkins lived, were years of mechanical improvement and advancement; and in the growth of industry Mr. Perkins himself took an extensive part. The manufacture of horse shoes and sheet iron constituted a part of his work, but only a part; for his activities extended into many and varied fields. It perhaps does not seem possible to the casual observer that a horse shoe should be sufficiently complicated to permit of the invention of thirty mechanical devices pertaining to it; but such was the number of inventions designed by Mr. Perkins in connection with this seemingly simple product. Inheriting from a line of practical ancestors a strong mechanical bent, he made full use of his talents in a variety of fields; while he was dearly loved among the people of Providence, Rhode Island, whither he came at the age of twenty-nine years, for his achievements and for his excellent qualities of character alike.

Mr. Perkins was descended from a family that had been highly esteemed both in England and in America. The immigrant ancestor of most American Perkinses was John Perkins, of Ipswich, Massachusetts, born in 1590, it is said, at Newent, Gloucestershire, England, who came in the ship “Lion” in 1631 to Boston, with Roger Williams, bringing his wife Judith, son John, and probably other children. In 1633 he removed to Ipswich, and in 1636 was deputy to the Massachusetts General Court. Two of his grandsons, Joseph and Jabez, sons of Jacob, removed to Connecticut, where many of the family became famous. Noted bearers of the name have included Dr. Elisha Perkins, of Norwich, Connecticut, inventor of “metallic tractors,” used in treatment of diseases; the Rev. Nathan Perkins, 1772-1838, prominent divine; and the Hon. Seth Perkins, lawyer, and the Hon. Elisha Perkins, of Yale College fame in the period about 1781. Among the early immigrants of New England of the Perkins name was the Rev. William Perkins, born in 1607, son of William Perkins, of London, and grandson of George, of Abbots Salford, in the County of Warwick, yeoman. The Rev. William Perkins came to New England in 1631, was a freeman in 1634, a deputy in 1644, lived at Ipswich, Weymouth and Gloucester, and died in Topsfield in 1682. Among the grantees at Hampton, New Hampshire, appeared Abraham Perkins, who settled there in 1628.

Early in the history of the iron industry, the Perkinses became active in this field of work in the Taunton and Raynham regions of Massachusetts. On August 27, 1830, was born Charles H. Perkins, in Taunton, where his parents lived before him. His father was David Perkins, a descendant of a long line of mechanically gifted and skilled iron workers; and he died while the son was very young. At the age of six, Charles H. Perkins was put to work on a farm near Taunton, receiving no wages beyond his board, but being permitted to attend the district school a few months each winter. At thirteen he was apprenticed to learn the blacksmith’s trade with Gilbert and Wheeler, who had a small country blacksmith shop near Taunton, and he made his home with the family of Mr. Wheeler, who was very kind to him. Later, Mr. Perkins employed Mr. Wheeler as a traveling salesman, and so retained him until his death. It was in 1857 that Mr. Perkins invented his first horse shoe machine, having meanwhile learned the machinist’s trade in Taunton after 1846. In 1848 he served as foreman; and soon afterward met George M. Morse, who became a successful manufacturer at Putnam, Connecticut, but who then lived in Providence. Mr. Morse induced Mr. Perkins to go to Putnam in 1850 and to take a position as machinist in the mills of Milton S. Morse, his father. The warm friendship between George M. Morse and Mr. Perkins lasted thereafter until Mr. Perkins’ death. While living in Providence at that time, Mr. Perkins was a member of the old fire department.

While he lived at Putnam, he was engaged in many different enterprises, setting up machines and engines. In the financial crash of 1857, the mills closed because of the general cotton trade depression, whereupon he turned his mind to invention. His first success was with the self-oiling axle, which had a fair sale, considering his lack of capital and consequent inability to introduce it beyond his own locality. When he made his important horse shoe invention, in 1857, he realized the necessity of removing to a more advantageous place, and in 1859 went to Providence, Rhode Island. He had as a partner E. A. Cutler, who furnished the greater part of the capital, the cash capital of Mr. Perkins at that time amounting to but two hundred dollars. The style of the firm was at first Cutler and Perkins, but later, the Union Horseshoe Company, under which title it was chartered. This firm made many horse shoes for the government during the Civil War.

In 1864, Mr. Perkins severed his connection with the company, and commenced the manufacture of sheet iron with the Perkins Sheet Iron Company, which rolled the first Russia iron made in this country and continued in that business until 1867. In that year he discovered an entirely new process for making horse shoes, and started the Rhode Island Horse Shoe Company, with A. and W. Sprague as financial backers. The mill was at Long Pond, and was a part of the vast industries owned by A. and W. Sprague, which included the Sprague Mowing Machine Company and the Comstock Foundry Company. Of the new iron works Mr. Perkins was made manager. After the Sprague failure, in 1873, Mr. Perkins, with F. W. Carpenter and R. W. Comstock, bought out the Rhode Island Horse Shoe Company. In 1874 the works of the company were removed from Providence to Valley Falls, in the same State, where a large establishment was erected to meet the demands of the rapidly growing business, the product having increased from half a ton a day to more than sixty tons a day. The company was reorganized in 1891 as the Rhode Island Perkins Horse Shoe Company, of which Mr. Perkins was general manager until his death. The company became famous the world over for the manufacture of the Perkins horse shoes and mule shoes, toe calks, toe weight shoes in three different weights, the Goodenough shoe, the Perkins snow shoe, cowboy shoes, X. Z. steel shoes, the Perkins sideweight hind shoe, and others. The thirty devices perfected by Mr. Perkins in connection with the horse shoe revolutionized the horse shoe industry. He never hesitated when he thought it advisable to abandon completely old ideas and launch forth on new lines. The rolling of creased bars, double iron, toe and sideweight shoes, calked shoes, continuous calks, countersunk shoes—all these were his inventions. Perhaps the most interesting of them all was the manufacture of toe and sideweight shoes by a process of rolling and finishing altogether novel. He was an early inventor in the line of continuous rolling mills, and the first man in this country to substitute belts for gears in operating small mills. He perfected machinery for the pointing of horse shoe nails, and took several patents for improvements in toe calks; while, as an iron manufacturer, his reputation was widespread, his advice having been eagerly sought by inventors along other lines and always freely given. His inventions and activities were not entirely confined to the iron industry, the bell punch and register so long used in horse cars having originated with him. He also built the first power house of the Union Railway Company, at one time considered the most complete in the country. The fine plant of the horse shoe company at Valley Falls was of his own invention, he having had charge of the rebuilding after the fire of 1887. Content to acquire a fortune by slow and steady accumulation of money through legitimate business methods, Mr. Perkins was conservative and non-speculative in his commercial operations. He was connected with several companies, in addition to those enumerated above, including the Dean Cotton Company, the Hinkley Iron Works, the Metcalf Machine Company, S. Morse and Company, the E. A. Cutler Company, and the Perkins Land Company. Of the Perkins Land Company he was president at the time of his death, and with the others he was associated in an important capacity at one time or another.

Naturally of a modest and retiring nature, Mr. Perkins nevertheless held numerous offices in civic life. His political allegiance he gave to the Republican party, and though he never sought political preferment he was honored by many important trusts. In 1858 he was sent to the General Assembly of Rhode Island; and, in 1866 and 1867 and again in 1871, he was a representative in the City Council of Providence. In those positions he served with the fidelity and ability and efficiency that were characteristic of him. Strong fraternal affiliations were also his, for he belonged to the Free and Accepted Masons, in which order he was active in St. John’s Commandery of Knights Templar. He likewise was a member of several clubs and societies, among them the Central Club, the Pomham Club, the West Side Club, and the Squantum Club. Fond of outdoor life, especially gunning, he used to spend the winter season very frequently in Florida. An attendant and a liberal supporter of the Roger Williams Free Baptist Church, he lived his religion, detesting shams and makeshifts of all kinds and heartily despising an untruth. Mr. Perkins lived, from June, 1863, until his death on April 2, 1904, at the southwest corner of Westminster and Harrison streets. For some years he kept a summer home at Warwick Neck, known as the old Arnold place.

Charles H. Perkins married, on June 27, 1854, Lucretia Bundy, of Putnam, Connecticut, a native of Woodstock, that State, where she was born August 15, 1837, daughter of Prosper and Lucretia (Vinton) Bundy, and granddaughter of Timothy Vinton, a soldier in the War of the American Revolution. Prosper Bundy was a painter, born April 20, 1805, lived in Putnam from 1849 until his death, October 20, 1880. His wife was born April 13, 1810, in Woodstock, and died October 13, 1884. She was a descendant in the fifth generation from John Vinton, the immigrant ancestor of the line, and through his son John, John’s son John, and this John’s son Joseph.

The children of Charles H. and Lucretia (Bundy) Perkins were six in number:

  1. Frederick F,., who was a prominent business man of Providence, until his death in 1918; he married Ella J. Walden.
  2. Estella A., died in infancy.
  3. Charles Henry, Jr., who married Josephine V. Nicholas; they had a son, Charles H., 3d; Mr. Perkins died December 20, 1928, after years’ association with the Rhode Island Perkins Horse Shoe Company.
  4. Ernest C., died in infancy.
  5. Willard Clifford, who married Rachel Cross; they have three children, Frances L., Ella J., and Ada R.
  6. Ada Lucretia, who became the wife of Henry A. Kirby, a record of whose life follows.

Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.

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