Thursday, October 23, 2008

Caretaker to Silent Machines

A friend/customer of mine has an odd job. It is odd in many ways.

His duties began on the floor of the old Goodall Woolen Mills when he graduated from high school thirty plus years ago. He came on after the beginning of the end that started When Burlington Mills shut down the recently purchased Goodall facility and moved the operation to warmer climes in the South. The mill was broken up as different owners from away exploited the space and the machinery to continue to produce textiles for the clothing industry. Just another piece of meat on the factory floor, my friend became the dedicated mill rat and worked his way to foreman or supervisor of one of the many departments that process raw wool into the fine fabrics America loved to wear, sleep under, and show off at church on Sunday.

The typically sad American scenario played out as the mill passed from foreign outfit to foreign outfit. With each sale, the levels of production dropped and the work force shrank. Through all these changes, my friend managed to hang on. His abilities and dedication always obvious to any new owner coming in.

Finally about ten years ago, the Mill was closed for good. Foreign competition had won. Employees were let go. Some machinery was moved out or consolidated into storage, and Mother Nature began her insistent assault on buildings left empty. Yet my friend is still there. The last soul still stirring daily in the empty shell of a once proud factory. He keeps the doors closed, the lights on, and a close eye on the place as it slowly decays and falls apart. Every day for over ten years, my friend has monitored this place. Not even taking a day off, he has been there when the Mill needed him. Cleaning up after vandals. Meeting mucky mucks who might just maybe take this fine space and turn it to production instead of gathering dust. Occasionally sweeping or cleaning up as a token effort against the insistent decomposition.

My friend took me on a walking tour of the mill a few weeks ago. It is so massive and spread out, we spent 4 hours and I am sure what I got was the quick tour. We walked past huge looms lined up and silent. We strolled through empty spaces once filled with machines that hummed 24/7. In the dye room, I saw the big vats that once handled tons of wool before it was woven into tweeds, mohair, and blankets for horses and human alike. The huge steam turbines that once powered everything are quiet now. The looms have stopped humming. I was impressed with the silence of this fact. Huge machines seem out of place unless they are running, making noise, vibrating the floors as they produce that which they were designed for. And here is 400,000 square feet of silence. Nothing but the echoes of us closing doors and stirring up dust. It was a sad walk. My friend walks it everyday. He is the last person who cares.


Randal Graves said...


That's about all I can come up with.

1138 said...

Man don't cha know.
There isn't a week goes by that I don't hear about an American mill being closed.
The one thing that amazes me about your story is that someone is still being paid to caretake the facility after this number of years in non production.
I don't think any of the glass factories I worked in are even still standing due to the level of asbestos (which by the way we have never been contacted about.)

Demeur said...

I've done so many of those types of buildings whether it was asbestos or DDT (remember that?) and it's sad to think of what they once were and now are just a shell.

1138 - Check with your local Dept. of Labor and Industries they have records on every asbestos job for the last 30 years. At least they're supposed to.

Ruthi said...

I see a lot of those mills here in Maine. My Hubby showed me all those mills that was closing too. I am new in this country. From where I came from, we picture the United States as a powerful and rich country. Now that I am here, I was kinda disappointed because everything I know about your country is totally the opposite. But I am hopeful that USA will bounch back after all, I am now living here.

Gary ("Old Dude") said...

between ever increasing wages, combined with the costs of meeting every more stringent osha mandates,--more and more of our heavy industries are unable to compete and turn out a competitively priced product

1138 said...

Demeur nope the dept of Labor here in Georgia wouldn't have squat about factories in the N.Y. Finger Lakes region but I get your point.
On the other hand I know that the data was massaged before it was recorded (that what happens when a former US Senator is also a former CEO of the company.)
The data would do me as an individual no good anyways - it was needed years ago before the assets of the company were sold off or destroyed. Before so many have died since or been scattered across the country.

Asbestos affects spouses, children, and other locations workers frequented like the stripper bars outside the gate (and the employees of those venues.).

BBC said...

I'll try to get back to you on this in the morning, when I haven't been drinking.

El Cerdo Ignatius said...

Crum, this story of this mill, and the trend behind it, illustrate one of the great tragedies of the last fifty years in the United States and Canada. It is especially poignant in New England, which as you point out was at one time a thriving manufacturing region with many of these mills and plants.

My wife's mother and father, following their marriage in 1957, moved to the USA for a spell and worked in textile plants in Biddeford, Me. and then in Haverhill, Mass. My father-in-law worked at a company in Haverhill that made women's shoes. I hope it isn't, but I would bet that the place is out of business now and has been for a while.

In the midst of the economic upheaval of the past few weeks, and the reckoning that is going to grip the West, particularly America, in the next few months, I am wondering if there isn't a bit of hope for some of these plants. Maybe, just maybe, part of "The Way Forward" includes an honest and resolute attempt by North American consumers to buy products made in North America. I realize there are times when this is not possible or practical, but part of our effort could be a commitment to buying less overall, but switching to higher-quality American-made products (versus cheap stuff made overseas). It stands to reason that a united effort could both correct our proclivity to overconsumption and breathe a bit of life into the North American textile and manufacturing sectors.

We are supposed to be economic animals - but that doesn't mean we ought to live by price alone.