Becker Building, site of Governor’s Mill/Globe Mill

Becker Building. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania

1151 N. 3rd Street

The area bounded by 3rd Street and Germantown and Girard avenues is the site of one of the oldest industrial enterprises in Philadelphia. From the time when this neighborhood was marshy meadowland to the highly urbanized present day, various industrial ventures on this spot have produced everything from mustard to furniture. In 1701, William Penn established the Governor’s Mill, a grain mill, here near a three-acre pond. Powered by the Cohocksink Creek, the mill had a succession of owners and purposes over the course of the 18th century. Each enterprise struggled because of the lack of roads and the difficulty of transporting raw materials and finished goods through the swampy terrain of then-rural Northern Liberties, which was crisscrossed with numerous creeks and streams. By the middle of the 19th century, drainage and road paving ushered in the era of the mill’s success as Pennsylvania’s largest textile mill, the Globe Mill.

Built in 1700-01 and often referred to by Penn as the “Town Mill,” the Governor’s Mill was run by Penn’s commissioners in Pennsylvania, including James Logan and Isaac Norris. From the earliest years of its existence, the mill seemed to be more of a burden than a boon. The same ponds and creeks that provided water power for the mill also hampered the transport of materials to and from the site. Penn wanted industry situated outside of the city of Philadelphia proper, but that meant contending with the lack of roads and development in the outlying townships like Northern Liberties. In a 1708 letter to Penn, Logan complained, “Our mill proves the unhappiest thing of the kind, that ever man, I think, was engaged in. . . I wish it were sold.”

Six years later, Logan got his wish. In 1714, Thomas Masters purchased the mill for his wife Sybilla’s business venture—she had developed and patented a method of cleaning and curing Indian corn into what she named “Tuscarora Rice.” Sybilla Masters was the first woman, and the first person in the American colonies, to receive an English patent, and her method of processing cornmeal also became the first American medicinal patent. Thomas Masters was originally from Bermuda and was one of wealthiest and most prominent citizens in Philadelphia; he had previously served as mayor of Philadelphia (1707 and 1708) and as provincial councillor (1720-23). At the time he purchased the Governor’s Mill, he already owned 600 acres in the Northern Liberties, in addition to property within Philadelphia’s city limits. The Masterses marketed Tuscarora Rice as a cure for consumption. It was not unsuccessful; few believed in its medicinal powers, and, as in Penn’s day, the undeveloped marshy terrain around the mill made it difficult for customers to obtain the product.

The landscape of the neighborhood around the mill seemed to have doomed any enterprise that took up residence at 3rd and Girard, and the Masterses were the first in a succession of proprietors of the Governor’s Mill throughout the 18th century. It changed hands several times and saw at least four additions to the mill complex. The land remained rural and swampy, and was frequently inundated by the overflowing creeks and ponds into the early 1800s. Early 19th-century accounts report incidents of horses and riders sinking into the Northern Liberties’ marshes, and also of the area being a bucolic destination, a place to admire nature. In her 1773 journal, 22-year old Sarah Eve, who lived near the mill-dam at 5th & Thompson wrote, “This morning being fine and pleasant, Josey and I took a walk through the woods where we gathered a variety of wildflowers; every season has its beauties.”

After the failure of Tuscarora Rice, the Masters family held on to the mill, even after a fire burned through several of the complex’s wooden buildings in 1740. In 1760, the family sold the parcel to Benjamin Jackson, who with his partner Captain Crathorne outfitted the mill to produce chocolate and ground mustard. After Crathorne’s death, the mill continued as a chocolate and mustard works until 1790, first under Crathorne’s widow, and later under W. Norton & Co.

By 1792, the mill, now known as the Globe Mill, began its transformation into its 19th-century incarnation as a textile mill. With weaving machinery installed to handle flax and hemp, the Globe became one of the earliest water-powered textile mills. For a time (at least until 1803) the mill complex also housed a calico printing works.

While remaining a textile mill, the Globe again passed through several combinations of owners throughout the 19th century, usually including members of the Camac and Craige families. In the early part of the century, bridges, roads, and dams were built, swamps drained, and land leveled, allowing the mill to fully harness the power of the Cohocksink Creek and efficiently transport products. By 1832, under Craige, Holmes and Co., the Globe Mill employed 114 men and women and 200 children, and generated over 500,000 pounds of cotton. It remained Pennsylvania’s largest textile mill until 1850. In 1852, Seth Craige, now the sole owner of the Globe property, sold part of the complex to a dentist and part to Samuel Needles’ woolen manufactory; as many as ten smaller textile manufacturers rented other spaces.

The mill property changed ownership several times yet again in the closing years of the 19th century. City directory and property records are inconclusive about the parcel’s actual use until it was sold to David Becker in 1924 for his furniture manufacturing business. The 20th century was decidedly the site’s most stable period; D. Becker & Sons, a family business, occupied 1151 North 3rd Street until 2004. In the tradition of many Philadelphia small manufactories, Becker & Sons made furniture on-site. By the late 20th century, most of the furniture manufacturing industry had moved to North Carolina or to China, and so Steven Becker (grandson of the original proprietor, David), reinvented D. Becker & Sons as dealers of institutional furniture, outfitting places such as nursing homes and assisted–living facilities. In 2004, the Becker family sold the building. In 2006 the new owners of the Becker Building completed the conversion of the upper floors into residential apartments, while the ground floor houses Near and Far, a custom imported furniture and fine art gallery.

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