The centerpiece of Ludlow’s National Register Historic District is the old brick mill on Main Street.
BY ANITA RAFAEL
That’s how various notices in the trade journals of the late 1800s read. Just that. “Ludlow Woolen Mill, manufacturing beavers.” That is the kind of out-of context fragment that can send a rookie historian down a rabbit hole chasing an explanation: Why, more than a century ago, was a huge woolen mill in a small village in Vermont’s Green Mountains making… beavers?
Luckily, discovering what a woolen beaver is turns out to be a cinch. There are some on display at the Black River Academy Museum on High Street in Ludlow. On a small table, below a photo of the mill, there is a whole stack of old beavers. They are dyed fabulously rich, dark colors-black, brown, navy blue, and maroon and there are even some beavers in stylish green plaid and blue plaid. Plaid beavers!
Now, to bring you up to speed-beaver is a type of felted woolen cloth. It’s soft, thick, and napped. It’s not faux fur. It was woven for the garment industry at many mills throughout New England and beyond to be tailored into “coatings” and “cloakings”. It is luxurious and warm, even when wet. Beavers make excellent blankets.
The story of the woolen mill at 145 Main Street is directly linked to the stories of hundreds of Vermont family farms that raised sheep. At the start of the 19th century, the state came down with “Merino mania.” There were perhaps more than 1.5 million sheep in Vermont in the 1830s, outnumbering the people here six to one in that decade. In every sense, the key to the success of any value-added economy is the availability of low-cost raw materials close at hand with which to make things, and so, with that many sheep grazing on the mountainside pastures nearby, the woolen mills flourished and the mill towns grew. It’s obvious: more sheep, more mills, more people coming to town for jobs.
The historical essence of Ludlow as we see it today is its mill town character.
With its emblematic clock tower and its iconic, albeit shortened, chimney, the mill remains one of the town’s most significant architectural landmarks. It is the largest building in Ludlow’s National Register Historic District, designated 14 years ago. Within living memory of many Ludlow residents who worked there, General Electric once ran a drop forge operation at the mill. GE workers made parts for for engines, among other items, until 1977. Adapted for mixed re-use three years after GE moved out, the building is now a condominium association of more than 30 units, residential and commercial. (Insider’s tip: Plan a stroll through town with the Self Guided Walking Tour, a booklet for sale from the Black River Academy Museum. bramvt.org/gift-shop)
In 1912, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map described the fire protection elements throughout the mill.
The first textile mill on this site, built in 1834 (Andrew Jackson was the U.S. President), was a five-story building that burned in a major conflagration 30 years later. In the era before steam power, the Black River was the engine that turned the waterwheel, which is why the mill was built there: good access to coursing water. After the fire, only three floors were rebuilt. There were “thirty-eight broad looms, seven sets of cards, and over 3,000 spindles” according to an 1891 account. The mill was producing 150,000 yards of cloth a year. Do the math: that comes to 8 miles of beavers annually.
Between 1837, the year the mill failed during a nationwide depression, and the mid 1900s, a lengthy parade of proprietors ran this textile mill with varying degrees of success, enlarging it to add sections for spinning, carding, dressing, finishing, and dying. Sometimes it was referred to as the flannel mill. Some of the owners renamed it. In successive deeds it is referred to as the Green Mountain Woolen Manufacturing Company, the Okemo Mills, the Ludlow Woolen Company, and the Verd Moot Mills Company.
A major flood severely damaged the mill in 1973.
By 1940, there was yet another name and a new owner: it became the Gaymont Woolen Mill, operated by the Gay Brothers Company, industrialists in nearby Cavendish. An issue of the Vermont Tribune reported this: “Gaymont Mill is now equipped with modern machines with three shifts. Gay Brothers has 262 workers at present.”
During WWII, much of the Gay Brothers Company’s textile output went to the war effort. According to the Cavendish Historical Society,
…the (Gay Brothers mills flourished with contracts for Navy Overcoats, khaki material and blankets, 200,000 of which went to ships which transported troops. One very famous ship, the Queen Mary, received some 10,000 /../ blankets as she had been converted into a fast troop carrier ferrying the Atlantic. Blankets also went to our workers, the Maritime Commission, and to other organizations under the ‘Lend-Lease’ Program. Some blankets and uniform cloth even went to the Russians.
The annotations on old photographs and various vintage postcards that depict the mill are likely to have any one of the names it was given, just for the sake of confusion it seems. Often the captions simply state “mill-Ludlow”. But it was not the town’s only manufacturer. Among the enterprises that came and went in Ludlow there were other textile mills, sawmills, grist, cider, and potash mills, brickmakers, a tannery, a cigar factory, a toy factory, and a chair stock factory.
Ludlow is a tranquil community nowadays. At dawn and dusk no chorus of factory whistles blow to signal the workers’ changing shifts. But try for a moment to picture the Ludlow of, say, 120 years ago as a bustling place of “makers.” Back then, on the Rutland Railroad’s 50-mile-long line that ran between Bellows Falls and Rutland, the town was the principal commercial hub.
Balconies on the mill’s facade were added during the conversion to residential use.
It’s wonderful to be able to peer into the past like this and pull up noteworthy names and numbers, but once in a while the oddest things also “make history.” Such is the case at the old woolen mill, as recorded in a book about Ludlow, written by Joseph N. Harris and published, posthumously, in 1940. Harris, in the chapter that recounts every detail of the mill’s conveyances, included a remarkable event that happened there that had nothing to do with beavers and looms, or property and proprietors. Here is his telling of the evidently unforgettable incident, involving a woman named Mrs. Mary Gardner; her age chivalrously unmentioned:
The chimney was built in 1866, and is one hundred and one feet high. Before the stagings were taken down after its completion, Mrs. Mary Gardner went to the top, and had her photograph taken there. She had been a cook at sea for many years, was afraid of nothing, and had said, while the chimney was being built, that she could go to the top. A Frenchman, Samuel Carey, who was employed about the works, offered Mrs. Gardner three dollars, if she would go to the top of the chimney, but refused to pay it after the feat was performed.
There’s a stockpile of interesting facts and stories to dig through about this 156-year old mill, about the bygone days of textile manufacturing throughout the Okemo Valley, and about the sheep craze in Vermont. But seriously, someone should endeavor to find out a little more about Ludlow’s most fearless woman, Mrs. Mary Gardner. And who now has that photograph of her at the chimney-top? We’d all like to see it!
Anita Rafael lives and works in a restored 1840s carriage barn in Wardsboro, VT. Her lifestyle and local history articles appear regularly in regional publications.