Knitting the Past Together

Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman, Jr., City Historian

 

The passing of Laura Strang Burgoyne a few months ago in her 93rd year severed our community’s ties with one of its last direct links to a storied past as a classic mill town where the needle trades played a prominent role in employing hundreds of local women. Laura was the daughter of Arthur L. Strang and granddaughter of Edward H. Strang, a father and son team who established the Mechanicville Knitting Co. in 1892. From small beginnings in the 1870s, the textile industry played a continuous role in the local economy for over a century. Charles Crosby established the first two shirt factories here, but in 1886, he succumbed to the lure of free rent and tax abatement and relocated his 100 knitting machines to Cambridge. Union organizing by the Knights of Labor, then at the peak of its influence, had lured many shop girls to labor-friendly Washington County, probably another influence in getting Crosby to relocate. However, the greener pastures of Cambridge must have lost their allure, for Crosby reincorporated his firm in 1892, now listing Mechanicville as its headquarters. The entrepreneur also operated the Crosby Opera House on Hill Street, the venue for traveling dramas and vaudevillians, including the likes of George Burns, the centenarian more recently known for his movie role as God, who played Mechanicville prior to World War I. Soon after the Crosby shirt factory reestablished its presence here, five additional firms followed suit. Among the most extensive were the George P. Ide shirt factory and the Union Mills. But possibly the most interesting one of all was the Strang establishment, destined to leave a mark on the community for a half century.

In 1892, E.H. Strang, a local capitalist with interests in banking and the emerging electric power industry, hinted that he would seek backing for an extensive knitting operation here if village fathers could see their way to granting some concession guaranteeing the proposed mill an inexpensive supply of fresh water. Strang’s influence in getting the village to create a municipal water system in 1892 may have been indirect, and no official announcement regarding his request was forthcoming from the local government. However, he must have been reassured by the Village’s commitment because the Mechanicville Knitting Co. was incorporated on December 29, 1892, and soon afterwards built a large mill at the foot of Viall Avenue across the railroad tracks from the Commercial Hotel.

Ironically, the strength of the new corporation would be tested immediately because the worst stock market crash in US history (up to that time) flattened economic growth in 1893 and sent the nation into a four-year long depression. While many other local firms were forced into bankruptcy, the Strang Company not only survived; it prospered. In a peripheral move, civic-mindedness as well as financial considerations led E.H. Strang to organize a volunteer hose company in 1893 which bore his name; seventy years later, this same fire company would be called into action to try to preserve the original knitting mill. Meanwhile, business continued to grow in the early 20th century at such a pace that the company doubled its capitalization just prior to the outbreak of World War I. In 1914, the company implemented an employee bonus program, with each worker receiving an additional week’s wages at the end of the year. The following year, every employee was awarded 4% of his or her annual earnings as a bonus, a form of profit-sharing rarely practiced at the time, and a step implemented many years later only in larger industries under the pressure of strong labor unions. Textile firms everywhere were notorious for the boom and bust cycles which they experienced, as well as the labor strife that characterized their industry. However, almost alone among area needle trades shops, the Strang Mill was never beset with serious labor problems. The fact that the local press often reported that the company annually paid its "usual dividend" of 40% to shareholders while practicing its enlightened employee benefits plan went a long way to explaining its relatively smooth growth.

Although there are few local residents who recall the mill, those who do have positive remembrances. Despite the fact that she is nearing her 101st birthday, Theresa Mastrianni will never forget the greeting A.L. Strang gave her and her husband Jerome as they arrived in Troy by train from Vermont as newlyweds in 1920 in order to taxi them to Mechanicville. Mr. Strang did not act as a chauffeur for all of his workers, but in this case, he felt an obligation to a special employee who, along with his brother Anthony, ran three knitting machines in the mill until 1929 when the brothers left the firm to organize their own coal business. Lucy Cervini also remembers working at the mill, knitting children’s sleep wear under the supervision of Mr. Strang’s son-in-law, Fred Burgoyne, who established a strong rapport with those who worked for him.

While originally entering the market as a producer of knitted woolen underwear and heavy shirts, the firm switched to the production of children’s wear after World War I, marketing its Kozy Kids line of sleep wear primarily in New York City. E.H. Strang succeeded his father as President of the firm in 1917, and when he died in 1928, his brother-in-law, Fred Clute, took over direction of the mill. Yet, by the 1930s, like most textile producers in New York State, Mechanicville Knitting was being subjected to the same pressures which had already compelled many companies to move to the South. However, the local mill held out a bit longer than others by innovating with a product which would not catch on for decades: the sweatshirt. In fact, when Laura Strang entered Skidmore College, she took a few samples with her to test the interest of her fellow co-eds in the product. Cousin Don Strang, then living in Philadelphia, asked President Clute to send him some samples in the fall of 1938 because he had been able to interest football coaches in that area in having their teams don sweatshirts. Mr. Clute responded promptly to the appeal, sending the requested samples via Parcel Post while informing his would-be salesman that the products sold wholesale at $3.87 ˝ per dozen for boys, and $5.00 per dozen for men’s sizes. Obviously, inflation had not yet ballooned prices anywhere near to today’s average of $25 for a single shirt; a dozen shirts now would probably cost a week’s wages for many workers. Mr. Clute closed his letter by telling the young Mr. Strang, "I trust you will be successful in selling a lot of these sweatshirts…." We do not know for sure how many Mechanicville products were absorbed by the Philadelphia market, but despite a sudden downturn in the national economy, 1938 found the firm still employing 85 hands in a full-time operation which was consuming 100,000,000 yards of yarn a year.

In spite of its successful adjustment to the worst conditions of the Depression, the Strang family decided to cease operations prior to American entry into World War II, although formal dissolution of the firm was not filed with the County Clerk until November 5, 1942, almost fifty years to the day following its incorporation. Eventually, the mill property came into the possession of the city government. On June 8, 1967, the mill was destroyed in a spectacular blaze which tested firemen’s abilities to keep it from spreading north to the Canada Dry plant, or jumping the railroad tracks and torching the Commercial Hotel to the south. The fire was of such magnitude that firemen did not hesitate to throw rail switches, thus delaying train traffic through the city for hours. This was a step rarely taken except in the most extraordinary circumstances, and passengers aboard the Montreal Flyer had to sit in the local rail yard for four hours. Suspicion of arson arose immediately at the origin of the fire, and the police arrested two teenagers for sparking the conflagration even before the last flames were quenched. The building was a total loss, and what parts of the structure which did not collapse during the blaze were razed soon thereafter.

Around the same time that Mechanicville Knitting Co. was winding down its operations, the Kay Dunhill Co. began manufacturing women’s dresses in the old Ide plant on Hill and Hudson Streets on March 11, 1937. For almost another fifty years, what became known as the Korrell Co. continued Mechanicville’s role in the needle trades, a story which will be told at greater length in another installment.

Following her death this past January, a memorial service for Laura Strang Burgoyne was held at the United Methodist Church, of which she was a life-long member. Friends, relatives, her three surviving children (Barry and Bruce Burgoyne, Linda Foster, and their spouses), and seven grandchildren gathered at the service, during which Laura was fondly remembered for her dedication to her community and to preserving its history, but especially for the many years she spent shepherding young children during Sunday services at the Methodist Church. A life-long resident of Mechanicville, Laura was predeceased by her husband, Fred, her son, Arthur Burgoyne, a grandson, Shawn Burgoyne, and her brother, Harold E. Strang.