Ball, braid and fringe maker’s musings
MONTGOMERY – Seated in a circle, former Montgomery Mills employees met to recall days spent during the manufacturer’s three and one half decades in the borough. The oral project, hosted March 15 by the Montgomery Area Historical Society, sought first-hand input concerning the former textile industry.
Work began with 47 employees in the building of the former ‘table works’ in 1947. Headquartered in New York City, the ball, braid and fringe making business grew to include 800 persons working the first shift, and lesser amounts on second and third.
Uses for fringe were identified as covering the area where lining materials join wood, such as baby carriages and caskets.
Many recalled the early days when company owned busses transported workers to and from the plant. Locations mentioned included Sunbury and Shamokin. Women were entering the workplace in the early 1940’s, and most families had but one vehicle.
Sam Wise was 17 when in 1952 he went to work at the mill. Wise described placement as follows: “The heaviest machines were on the first floor, about 150 knitting machines, then the cord machines and about 30 lighter weight ones on the third floor.”
Carl Wright was an employee from 1958 to 1975. He said that, “When in operation on the wooden floors, the machines were loud and the machines motion caused the building to sway. There were no eye or ear protection and no special shoes.” Many recalled it was not uncommon to get ones finger caught in the looms. Once as a wire machine was spinning in the tassel department, a women’s hair was caught.
When questioned about possible amenities, Joyce Taylor, supervisor in the ball/fringe section said, “There was no lunch room. We’d either clear a small table or eat at the machines.” Before the union’s arrival, most employees were paid by output of production. Taylor identified three of the fiercest competitors as being Dot Bush, Dot Ranck and Judy Buck.
Machine breakdowns resulted in loss of production bonuses, therefore swift repair was important. Two mechanics remembered were brothers Roy and Frank Dyer.
One pattern setter recalled was John Hall. It sometimes took as long as four days to thread a machine, attaching and tying each individual thread color in place.
In addition to weaving, there were the dye and lead departments. Cheryl Wertz said, “In vats, dyes coloring rayon and cotton were dumped into the creek and flowed into the nearby river. The water was whatever color they used that day. The toxins killed the fish so we knew not to swim there.”
In the lead department, balls were made to serve as curtain weights. Officials found they could purchase the same weights at a lower price at Minkin Salvage in Williamsport. After a time, it was discovered an employee was removing lead balls from the factory and selling them to Minkin. The scoundrel was not identified.
According to Wright, “The mill had five acres under roof, each identified by number including a building in Dewart. At one time, we were considered the biggest in the world at what we produced.” The ownership of two companies of which the mill was a subsidiary was Cosco and Sara Lee.
Taylor said that, “In 1963, ninety cents was the hourly wage. In mid 1967, unions came offering to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. Employees went with the union and the hourly raise amounted to $3.90, but bonuses ended. After we signed, we never saw them again. To me, that was the beginning of the end.”
Wright was one of the last employees when the mill closed in 1976. “I helped pack and ship the best machines when the company moved to Sumter, South Carolina and eventually to Mexico.”
According to Wise, “Montgomery Mill’s made some notable achievements. We had a military contract to supply cord used in uniforms and hats. Also, cord made here was attached to the flag on a moon flight. At one time, were considered the biggest in the world at what we produced.”