Weaving the fabric of Brattleboro's woolen past

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BRATTLEBORO — Much of Brattleboro's building stock is over 100 years old. While traveling around town it is interesting to pass through the various sections that rose up over time and think back on their development.

Forest Square, Esteyville, East Village, Swedeville, Fort Dummer, Oak Grove, Whetstone Brook, Centerville, Meeting House Hill, and the West Village are some of the main areas that developed over a century ago. In each of these neighborhoods buildings have been repurposed through the years to flex with the changing times. In this article we are going to focus on what is now an old apartment building located at the end of "Sawdust Alley" on the south bank of the Whetstone Brook. Almost 200 years ago it began as a woolen mill.

Water power along the Whetstone Brook was one of the earliest attractions for settlers in the area. In 1762 a gristmill was established near the confluence of the Whetstone and the Connecticut River. In the same decade a sawmill was also constructed nearby. Joseph Clark built a wool carding shop in the same area using the Whetstone Brook power source. According to Mary Cabot's history entitled "Annals of Brattleboro," "It is to the water power of the Whetstone that the East Village owed its origin and its economic support for nearly a century."

Further west, one of the earliest mills established along the Whetstone was Stephen Greenleaf's sawmill in 1772. It was built in the area near the present location of the Vermont Country Deli. Continuing west on the Whetstone was Seth Smith's gristmill built in the 1770s near the present location of the Creamery Bridge.

In the early 1800s it was very challenging to operate a woolen factory. Much of the country was split along economic interests. The North was driven by industry and supported large tariffs on imports to protect the manufacturing concerns of the region. The Whig political party was popular in the North because of its pro-tariff policies. In the South the slave economy was propelled by the production of raw materials like tobacco, cotton and rice. The South exported those materials to other places in the world so they were opposed to large tariffs. The Democrats were in support of low tariffs and were popular in the South.

Most businessmen in Brattleboro belonged to the Whig party. Tariffs fluctuated on wool and wool products from year to year depending upon who controlled Congress and the White House. Some years, tariffs on imported wool and woolen goods were 40 percent and New England woolen factories could make strong profits, and other years tariffs could drop to 10 percent and the demand for locally produced woolen goods would disappear.

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This led to a lot of woolen factory ownership turnover. As the 1800s arrived there were two woolen factories established along the Whetstone Brook. One in the East Village was owned by Francis Goodhue and one further west on the Whetstone was owned by Edward Woodman. Woodman's Woolen Factory was located on the hill overlooking the Whetstone Brook near the crossroads of present day Birge and Holden Streets. In 1824 the East Village woolen factory processed 18,000 pounds of wool and the woolen factory that will be the focus of this article produced over 14,000 pounds of processed wool.

The Woodman factory had many owners. For a while it seemed unusual first names were a prerequisite for owning the factory. In the 1840s Zelotes Dickinson sold the woolen factory to Phylander Clark and it was renamed the Brattleboro Woolen Factory.

Another factor in wool factory turnover was the scale of production. The Brattleboro Woolen Factory advertised for farmers to bring in their locally harvested wool and trade it for already produced woolen goods. The wool factory relied on local sheep farmers to provide the necessary raw materials. Often, the raw material of wool was traded for finished woolen goods produced by the factory. The factory was part of the local barter economy and not well suited to scale up and compete regionally. As time passed and trade networks along the Connecticut River improved, the Brattleboro Woolen Factory offered to pay half cash and half finished goods to farmers who would bring their wool to the factory.

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Vermont sheep farming began to gain popularity in the early 1800s and peaked in the 1840s. As the United States continued to expand West and railroads developed, small-scale woolen mills like the Brattleboro Woolen Factory could not compete with large woolen mills located on the rail lines of southern New England. These mills near the coast were not dependent upon local wool producers. Unlike small, northern New England mills, they could benefit from lower priced imported wool during low tariff years. During higher tariff years the larger southern New England mills could purchase Western US produced wool that was cheaper than wool produced in New England.

In 1855 crippling tariff changes caused another sale of the Brattleboro Woolen Factory and a company from Springfield, Massachusetts bought the mill. The Civil War years are a bit of a mystery. According to local businessman Charles Thompson, James Fisk bought the mill for Jordan, Marsh and Company just as the Civil War began. Thompson, interviewed in the 1890s, said Jordan, Marsh and Company made woolen products for the military. It is known that during the war years Jordan, Marsh and Company, and local representative James Fisk, became very wealthy procuring government contracts for manufactured woolen goods. The legality of Fisk's work for Jordan Marsh has been in question for a long time. Later in the 1860s the woolen factory focused on the production of woolen petticoats known as Balmoral Skirts. The petticoat was a colored woolen undergarment designed to show at the hem of a drawn-up skirt for walking and sportswear in the 1860s and '70s. As these petticoats fell out of fashion the woolen mill faded.

By the 1870s the woolen mill had fallen on hard times and could no longer compete with larger, better supplied woolen factories. S.H. Edwards built children's carriages in the mill for a short time and by the 1880s Henry Fletcher had purchased the factory and converted it to a sawmill.

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The Brattleboro Woolen Factory operated at the end of Birge Street on what became known as "Sawdust Alley" for over 40 years and the water power located next to the building was still very valuable. In a few weeks we will focus on how the Holden and Martin Lumber Company harnessed the power of the Whetstone Brook at the site of the old woolen mill for another 50 years.

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