The Ocean Steam Mills were incorporated by the Massachusetts legislature in March 1845 by Benjamin Saunders, William Balch and Edward S. Lesley. The purpose was the manufacture of cotton cloth. The company purchased a parcel of land on the corner of Kent and Munroe Streets extending to Carter Street.
In that year the company started construction of a four story brick mill building between Kent and Warren Street. The mill was built by Albert Currier, a local contractor, to the designs of Col. Fred Coffin.
The building was completed the next year and the manufacture of cotton sheeting and calico cloth was begun. The looms were built by Leslie. In 1866 the factory was enlarged and new machinery installed. About 1871 the property was sold and a new company, Ocean Mills, continued the operation until 1878. At that time the property again changed hands and a third company, the Ocean Mills Company was formed. In 1880 the second large mill was built (Building No. 1). This extended the industrial complex to the upper side of Ocean Street. Seth Milliken of New York in 1886 purchased the mills and the name was changed again to the Whitefield Mills.
Prosperity eluded the company however, and in 1889 the machinery was sold to a Southern manufacturer and other interests moved into the buildinqs. The oldest Mill was occupied by Burley, Stevens and Co., a manufacturer of boats and shoes. The 1880 mill was leased and occupied by the Bay State Cordage Co. This factory was later taken over by the shoe manufacturer. When it in turn closed, most of the complex was abandoned. Then, big times came when Hytron Radio and Electronics Corporation acquired the property in 1941 for the manufacture of proximity fuse components and radio receiving tubes for the military, and later, television receiving tubes and cathode-ray tubes. . The original Hytron Corporation, ("Hy" symbolizing high quality, and "tron" for electron), was a one-room establishment in Salem, Mass. There, two brothers, Bruce and Lloyd Coffin, made tubes by hand in the basement of their home in the early 1920’s. By 1928, the Coffin brothers out grew their basement production facilities and rented property in Salem. By the time World War II came, Hytron had only one Salem facility. During the War, personnel increased 600% and three additional plants were opened at Newburyport, Beverly, and Lawrence, MA. CBS-Hytron was awarded the Army-Navy "E" with star in recognition of its excellence in war production. They employed 6,000 workers, with five plants located in Massachusetts: Danvers, Salem, Newburyport, and Lowell; and a new, modern TV picture tube plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, CBS-Hytron enjoyed the reputation of being the world’s fourth largest manufacturer of electronic tubes and semiconductors.
In 1946, Hytron acquired a New York radio set manufacturing company—one of the country’s oldest. Shortly thereafter, as television set demand increased, the Newburyport picture tube plant was built in 1950, adjacent to the receiving tube building in the old mills. According to Jack Bradshaw, Newburyport‘s CBS-Hytron employed 3,500 at the time!
By merging with Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., in 1951, Hytron Radio and Electronics Company officially became CBS-Hytron, division of CBS.
The Coffin brothers retired from active management of CBS-Hytron in 1954. Charles F. Stromeyer, formerly vice-president in charge of manufacturing and engineering, was appointed President to succeed them. The CBS-Colortron and black and white picture tubes ended up being produced at the Newburyport plant which became one of the most modern and automatic plants of its kind in the world with electronic controls safeguarding production. Conveyor belts, in-line production equipment, and fingertip-controlled vacuum pickups insure a minimum handling of heavy, bulky picture tubes at a maximum of production speed. Air conditioning throughout the laboratory and chemical processing rooms aided in obtaining precise control over quality. A wide range of receiving and special-purpose tubes were also made in the Newburyport plant with a capacity equal to that of the Danvers plant.
Unfortunately, with a devastating affect on Newburyport; CBS closed its Newburyport facility in 1959. With the loss of over 3,000 jobs, it was the horrific disaster of having a single major employer shut down that spurred on the creation of the Newburyport Area Industrial Development (N.A.I.D.).
Since then until the late 1990’s, many smaller companies with far fewer employees occupied the Ocean Mills complex. The last buildings were owned by Bixby Box Toe Company and then finally abandoned. Later in 1996, it was turned into luxury condominiums (“The Courtyard”) by an architect who had retained its classic exterior intact and incorporated its original massive mill beams into a central atrium.
Turning historic buildings especially derelict commercial buildings into housing or even as in The Tannery into retail and small business establishments has been shown to be the wave of the future. This is called, in historic preservation terms, adaptive re-use. Signs of this economic technique are found all over the Newburyport Historic District with great success.
Autos, malls, economy cause Port’s decline, by Angeljean Chiaramida, Part of Port in Progress Archive, Daily News, March 19, 2007.
CBS-Hytron Pamphlet, 1954.
History of Newburyport 1764-1905, by J.J. Currier, volumes I and II, reprint, Newburyport 1977, p. 322.
Newburyport Daily News August 21, 1928
Newburyport Herald, March 30, 1880
O.B. Merrill, "North End Papers", Newburyport Daily News, Sept. 1, 1906.
Assessor’s Records 1890-1980