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Born in Brechin, Scotland in 1802, John Smith began working on farms and in mills to help his family after the death of his father in 1810. Smith left Scotland for America, arriving in Boston when he was fourteen years old. He worked as a machinist in Watertown. When he was seventeen he left Watertown to travel the country for a year before finally settling in Medway, Massachusetts where he once again worked as a machinist. Smith founded a machine company in Plymouth with Joseph Faulkner and Warren Richardson. The three men relocated the company to Andover in 1824 because of the water power there. By 1829 both Faulkner and Richardson were dead.

Smith’s younger brother, Peter, sailed from Scotland to join him in America. Peter brought along a friend, John Dove, and when they arrived in Andover they partnered with Smith in his machinery business. They eventually abandoned the machinery in favor of flax yarn. They all became wealthy men and were liberal with their money. Smith donated to Phillips Academy, Abbott Academy, and established Memorial Hall Library. While travelling in the South, Smith witnessed slaves being sold and the experience prompted him to become a staunch abolitionist. His anti-slavery beliefs led him to found the Free Christian Church.