American Woolen in Stafford thrives while other area mills are repurposed

Jul. 24—The American Woolen Co. — the only textile mill still operating in Stafford — is not only surviving but thriving and producing natural fiber textiles out of its state-of-the-art, 168-year-old plant on Furnace Street.

The company recently began shipping fabrics to the U.S. Army for dress uniforms and some of the houses that sell clothing with its fabrics include J Crew, Rag and Bone, and Hickey Freeman.

Founded in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1899, American Woolen survived the outsourcing that destroyed much of New England's textile industry, CEO Jacob Harrison Long said.

Long and his partners bought the company's trademark in 2013 and a year later looked to Stafford as its new base of operations, buying the three-campus cluster of mills from Loro Piana, an Italian luxury cashmere and wool apparel company that had closed. For 26 years Loro Piana had operated at the site, which was formerly a textile mill known as the Warren Woolen Co. and the Warren Corp.

American Woolen's roots date to the first half of the 20th century when it was the nation's worsted and woolen apparel fabric leader, manufacturing in more than 60 mills throughout New England and employing more than 40,000 people, Long said.

Fabric sold nationwide, overseas

The new owners bought all of the Warren Corp.'s machinery and added more so the mills now use modern equipment as well as some from the 1940s, Long said. The mills design and make natural worsted and woolen cloth, known as "noble wool," and then American Woolen sells the fabrics to manufacturers across the U.S. and Asia who make luxury clothing, he said.

In the genre of textile mills in north-central Connecticut, American Woolen's survival and success in the 21st century is a rarity.

Connecticut's abundant rivers at one time provided waterpower for mills, many of which operated in the state from the 19th through the first half of the 20th century and became major employers.

Over the years, however, a number of these once prolific mills ceased operating for various reasons, including when demand for their products dropped, millwrights died and there weren't others skilled enough to take over operations, or there were fires and floods that damaged the structures, said Richard N. Symonds Jr., who writes books about mills in Tolland County for local historical societies.

Often, he said, the mills were subsequently sold for other uses.

Long prefers when mills that are still standing are not re-purposed.

"With such beautiful structures, why repurpose them?" he asked.

Manufacturing tradition continues

He was drawn to the mill campus in Stafford for its potential to continue a manufacturing tradition that the country seemed to be losing with offshoring.

"Manufacturing is going through a renaissance; the 21st century will be a bit more like the 19th," he said. "Manufacturing suffered during the 20th century but we are now returning to former values of appreciating things made in the USA."

Long believes making fabrics in the historic mill buildings adds to their appeal because they're American made and, in particular, infused with the feel of Connecticut's landscape.

"We operate in New England, our DNA is New England," he said. "Our setting here — with coastline, forests, hills, mountains, beach, and flora — gives us design inspiration."

The company employs 40 people and plans to draw more from the community, Long said.

Jesus Robles, a machine operator, has been with American Woolen for 25 years and loves the company and his work.

"I'm proud of the job we do, from start to finish," he said. "I especially like that we can see the quality of what we're giving the customer."

Logistics shipping manager Wendy Batz also said she likes being part of making a quality product. Every time she goes to a store she notices how certain fabrics don't feel good and don't have the quality of American Woolen's.

Batz began working at the Stafford plant in 1979 when it was under the Warren name.

'I love it here'

Finishing supervisor Dave Miller, who has been working at the mill for a total of 33 years, left after the former owner closed the company. He went to North Carolina for a few years and worked for a factory making socks but didn't like the robotics the company used.

"I'm a fabric guy, not a socks guy," Miller said while he loaded wool into a wash cycle to eliminate contamination, and then neutralized a long roll of fabric after an acid wash that had removed impurities.

"I wanted to come back and help get this new company going," he said. "I love it here and particularly that the fabrics are American made."

As mills went out of business, Long said, communities suffered.

"The decline of the mill predated the decline of the town," he said.

In the near future, he said American Woolen plans to open a mill store and offer tours of the mills so people can see how the fabrics are made and, especially, how mills are still being used for manufacturing in this day and age.

In Tolland County, there were once 22 to 30 mills per town, Symonds said. The topography with so many waterways and abundance of natural resources created a favorable environment for developing mills, he said.

Among the many reasons mills closed were shifts in the economy, changing tastes and focus of needs, poor business management, a loss of natural resources or damage to the mills, he said. Some, however, were so well built that their structures were appealing for other uses, he said.

Repurposing other mill sites

—The Hilliard Mills site in Manchester: Located on Hilliard Street and listed on the State Register of Historic Places since 1989, this former textile mill complex is fully renovated and now home to a variety of small businesses, including recording and photography studios, retailers, organizations, and a wedding planning company where couples of all gender combinations can marry, Town Historian Susan Barlow said.

Aaron Buckland founded the mill in 1780 and operated it until 1824. During those years, Barlow said, its wool was reportedly used in 1789 to make George Washington's suit for his inauguration, to produce blankets for soldiers fighting in the War of 1812, and to make blankets and clothing for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Barlow said the mill kept weaving until the mid-1930s but the Great Depression took its toll on the business and, after a flurry of activity during World War II, then the mills fell silent.

During the years of operation, the mill employed a huge number of townspeople and paid them good wages, Barlow said.

This, in turn, was good for the town's economy. "People had money to spend at the barber, restaurants, the grocery store," she said.

The mill owners were also good to their workers, paid them in cash, and provided them with housing, Barlow said.

—Cheney Silk Mills in Manchester: Such was also the case with the Cheney family who built the Cheney Silk Mills in Manchester between 1872 and 1917, which eventually became the largest silk manufacturer in the country, Barlow said.

"In the early 1920s, the mills employed 4,700 workers from Manchester and the surrounding area, which was 25 percent of the town's population," she said.

She said the Cheneys were extremely generous and built schools, gave land to churches that were getting started, held employee picnics, and built the reservoirs that are still in use today.

Many of the mill buildings on Pine Street were converted to modern-day apartments in the 1980s, Barlow said.

—Somersville Mill in Somers: Located on the banks of the Scantic River at 40 Maple St. in Somers, the Somersville Mill site was a leading producer of textiles from 1879 until it was sold in 1969.

But in many ways the mill lives on in the heart of Somers Board of Selectman Timothy R. E. Keeney, the great-great grandson of Rockwell Keeney who founded the Somersville Manufacturing Co. on that site with his brothers and served as its first president.

The company manufactured fine woolen cloth for men and women's suits and overcoats, and was at one time the largest maker of camel hair in the country, he said.

Keeney's family operated the company for 90 years. His father was its last president.

In addition to employing hundreds of townspeople over the years, Keeney said the family-owned business built housing for its workers, a recreation hall, and a skating pond.

The mill, which the Keeney family sold to competitor Wyandot Industries of Waterville, Maine, had been vacant since about the mid-1980s when it burned down in 2012.

The Somersville Mill Strategic Planning Ad Hoc Committee, which Keeney chaired for a while, got a $2 million grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development in 2016 to conduct environmental testing and clean up at the site.

Keeney said the town and committee commissioned a study for possible uses of the property and determined the best and highest use might be housing.

Somers is still in the process of negotiating with a development company, he said.

—The Casket Building in Enfield: The town of Enfield is also in the midst of determining the best use for a former mill property at 33 N. River St.

It once housed the Casket Building, which made parts for coffins but was recently vacant and owned by the town. However, a massive fire on March 24 led to the building's demolition.

Before the fire, the town had been making plans for the site's development as part of an area revitalized by the future train platform and was looking into getting the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Since the fire, the town has removed most of the rubble and is waiting for final approval from Amtrak to clear bricks and other debris from the area near

the tracks. Town Manager Christopher Bromson said he's hopeful all remaining materials will be removed by the end of August.

Enfield is no longer actively marketing the property, as it considers options for the best use of the former Casket Building for either redevelopment or parking for the future train station, he said.

The state Department of Transportation is on schedule for the final design and engineering of the station. The expected construction start date is late 2022.

In addition, Bromson said, the town is in the final stages of concluding a multiyear negotiation with Eversource to acquire its property on the west side of North River Street for parking.

"Although we are very saddened by the loss of the Casket Building, we see this as an opportunity to potentially use the Eversource property and the former Casket Building property for parking for the proposed pedestrian bridge between Suffield and Enfield," he said.

Suffield First Selectwoman Melissa Mack has joined Enfield officials in discussions with the U.S. Department of Transportation Build America Bureau in seeking funds to rebuild the Suffield bridge as a walking bridge and fishing pier.

For more coverage of Somers and Ellington, follow Susan Danseyar on Twitter: @susandanseyar, Facebook: Susan Danseyar.