Montgomery Mills lasted nearly 40 years in borough
MONTGOMERY – For nearly forty years, one of Montgomery’s most prosperous industries was Montgomery Mills, Inc.
Manufacturing had been a major part of Montgomery’s economy before the town was officially founded in 1887. According to Joan Wheal Blank’s book Around Montgomery, the Montgomery Machine Company opened in 1870 to manufacture woodworking equipment. The town eventually had two planing mills and many of the Decker-owned factories built furniture, so many jobs were centered around woodworking. When Montgomery Mills opened, it was the first fabric mill in Montgomery, so special classes were offered to teach people how to operate looms. In a time when America was still recovering from the ravages of the Great Depression, so many local people were anxious for a steady job that the mill had a waiting list for their training classes.
The stage was set for the new company in 1940 when Montgomery Table Works sold much of its property for the new mill. On Thursday, February 20, 1941 the Montgomery Mirror reported that the new equipment was arriving and being set up to prepare for the opening. At the time the article was written not all of the machinery had been installed, but at that point the mill contained sixteen looms, one quiller, a side jacquard, and eleven flat knitting machines. It was reported that additional looms and another forty-nine knitting machines would soon be added. The mill began operating in late February of 1941.
Montgomery Mills had barely opened its doors when it narrowly escaped disaster. According to the Montgomery Mirror some manufacturing at the Table Works continued in adjacent buildings until the spring of 1941 when a disastrous fire burned much of the complex. Extinguishing the inferno required the efforts of nearly two hundred firefighters. But before it was over, telegraph lines had been destroyed and bricks collapsed onto the train tracks that caused delays and trains to be rerouted. Homes around the area were saved thanks to the efforts of firemen who sprayed water on nearby buildings, but the heat caused windows to crack. It was said that many homes were saved by their slate roofs that didn’t catch on fire from heat and flaming debris. Despite a brush with near calamity, Montgomery Mills wasn’t affected and was able to continue to operate and provide good paying jobs for four decades.
Pearl Harbor was attacked just months after the factory opened, and when America went to war, so did Montgomery Mills. According to Jim Winder of Montgomery, some of the machinery was switched out and the company made machine gun belts for the government. The belts held rows of cartridges that were fed through machine guns. Winder started working in the dye house in 1959, and after the war was over the mill had a long term contract with the government to make gold-colored fringe for flags.
Originally Montgomery Mills had a three-story brick building between Montgomery Street and Broad Street and a small office building on Montgomery Street that had been built in 1916 for Montgomery Table Works. Eventually as the company expanded, a massive one story complex was built behind the original three-story structure.
At its peak, the mill employed over 1600 people. Art Bastian, currently of Inman, South Carolina, was born and raised in Montgomery and got his first job out of school at the mill in 1954. He began working in the dye house and eventually became the superintendent of that department. He recalled that not only did the mill employ many Montgomery residents, but from many surrounding towns as well. Some of his employees commuted from as far away as Sunbury.
Jim Winder commented, “We dyed about twenty-thousand pounds of yarn a day to keep the mill running.” He said that the process required absolute precision and explained that when the yarn was used to make fabric edgings such as braids and ball fringe, the dye had to be applied in such a way that it wouldn’t run onto white fabrics when washed with pillows, curtains, or other goods that had the stitched edging. Bastian said the dye house operated all three shifts. “All the yarn had to be dyed to the color that matched the customer’s specifications, and it had to be done in a hurry,” he said.
Muncy resident Doris Baysore was born and raised in Montgomery and worked at the mill for 26 years. She recalled that as a child, many of her neighbors had jobs at the mill. Montgomery Mills would eventually be her first job, and her sister Ruth worked in the office building on Montgomery Street.
Baysore began working at the mill at the age of nineteen on the third floor. The machine she worked had to be operated by a switch she controlled with her knee. After a few months she developed a blood clot in her knee and had to take a few months off to recover. When she returned to work, she went to the weaving department in the new building. Baysore’s job required her to watch twelve machines simultaneously and she spent a lot of her shift walking back and forth along a row of machines to make sure they had enough thread. She would shut the machines down and replace thread as it was needed. “It wasn’t a hard job for anybody. It was busy, but not difficult . . . It was a great place to work.”
Baysore said that entire families, husbands, wives, and their grown children worked in the mill. She said the mill was not particular about their employees’ ages. She remembered that they would hire older people nearing retirement and let them do jobs that could be done sitting down. Jim Winder said that when married couples with small children worked at the mill, typically men would work first shift and their wives would work second shift so that one would always be at home to watch the children.
Sue Thomas of Watsontown also felt that Montgomery Mills provided great jobs. Shortly after high school she got a job in the office processing invoices. She recalled that by the end of her shift, her hands would be black from handling carbon paper all day. Thomas said the benefits that the mill provided were excellent. She got into a motorcycle accident and had to take a two-week leave of absence to recover. Although she knew she had medical coverage, she was surprised to learn that the mill still paid her full salary while she was off recuperating.
Montgomery Mills manufactured fabric, fringe, ball fringe, tassels, drapes, bamboo blinds, curtain blinds for industrial-sized windows, gerber blinds, plastic window blinds, and webbing for plastic lawn chairs. Doris Baysore commented that, “It was a big deal when plastics were added.”
Art Bastian said the mill also made supplies to make carpeting, but the carpeting was assembled by other companies. Additionally, the mill made some of their own needed products in house, such as spools and quills.
When the 1972 flood hit the area, Bastian said that it flooded the basement and part of the first floor, and that operations had to be moved to other parts of the factory until repairs and clean-up were complete. The mill went back to full operations slowly. But ultimately the end came to Montgomery Mills in 1975. The closing of the mill left employees with the option of unemployment or relocating with the parent company to two different locations in the South. Bastian was one of seven employees who chose to move his family to South Carolina, while others moved to Texas. Most workers looked for other jobs locally. The announcement that the mill was closing was a shock that wasn’t foreseen by many community residents. The closing of the mill has been attributed to a combination of changes after the mill was bought by a corporation as well as union issues.