Ghosts Of A Booming Mill Town Whisper Ware’s Past
“This was one booming town. It really, really was.”
As you drive west on Route 9, West Brookfield gives way to Ware. One sign announces you’ve entered the Pioneer Valley, another welcomes you to “the town that can’t be licked.” But Ware has sure taken a beating.
On the AM dial, the local radio station, WARE 1250, plays real oldies, the right mood as it happens for a town dwarfed by the past. You drive by a couple of empty mills, one with a handwritten sign saying it’s for lease. Cross a bridge over the Ware River, and you come to a weedy, vacant expanse where some of oldest mills in America burned down years ago. On its edge is a fortress from the 19th century called American Disposables.
Inside, company president Louie Despres talks about the past.
“This was one booming town. It really, really was.”
It was 35 years ago when Despres started American Disposables. His factory is one of the last ones still at work, and he’s struggling to survive.
He walks me down a short production line, one of two in the entire four-story building and the only one that’s operating. It sits like a single sofa, dwarfed by the industrial McMansion that houses it. From rolls of fiberized pulp, the machinery turns out what look like adult diapers and hospital underpads.
American Disposables makes both of them, but seeking a competitive niche, the company now specializes in a new product. At the end of the line, tended by a handful of employees, the packaging identifies these as training pads for puppies.
In 2008, American Disposables had its best year ever, Despres says. “We were running three shifts five days a week, and sometimes six days.”
American Disposables seemed to have found its niche, when suddenly its biggest customer, a company that supplies Wal-Mart, shifted its order for puppy pads to a factory in China.
Despres expresses both wonder and suspicion that Chinese factories “are bringing finished product (into the United States) for less than we can buy the raw materials.” Since the price of oil is the same worldwide, he says, he and other factory owners he knows are convinced that Chinese factories are subsidized.
Conjecture aside, sales at American Disposables plunged 85 percent. And Louie Despres had to slash his work force from 42 to 15.
“First time I’ve ever laid anybody off,” Despres says.
“I tell you it was tough. It was really, really tough. We’re a small company. The people who work for you are part of your family in a way. That was the tough part, saying, ‘We’ll call you.’ Well, it turned out that some of them have been laid off now for 15 months.”
Louie’s reference to family doesn’t stray far from home. His payroll includes sons and daughters he’d like to turn the business over to, and a brother who was laid off by another factory without hope of ever returning. Louie himself notes that he had expected to be able to retire by now.
Things started to look up earlier this year. Encouraged by increasing sales, Despres hired some people back, only to have to lay them off when sales fell again. American Disposables now has eight employees and runs half-time.
“Is there anything that can turn this town around or turn manufacturing around in this area?” I ask.
Despres answers after a long pause.
“I’ll be darned if I know what.”
“Seven days a week. ‘You just hear boom, boom, boom…’”
In the deep bowels of American Disposables, all the gates and gears are still in place as if waiting for the call to turn the river into power again. It’s hard to believe that factories on this mill site once employed 5-7,000 people.
The power of its rivers put Ware on its feet and people in its mills. It was one of the first towns in America to join the industrial revolution. Ware had shoe factories, cotton and woolen mills, then metal-working and carpet factories. The young Samuel Colt lived here before his revolver turned the Connecticut Valley into the high-tech center of Massachusetts and the country — the Silicon Valley of the 19th century.
“The mills were going day and night,” says John Trela. “Seven days a week. You just hear ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom.’”
Trela came to Ware in the last wave of immigration that brought French Canadian, Irish and Polish workers to the factory village over the course of two centuries. They put church steeples into the skyline and pride of place into Ware. At the Polish market on Pulaski Street, where Trela still makes kielbasa and kapusta or cabbage soup, he remembers employers transporting workers by car from out of town to feed the need for labor.
“Back then you could get fired or quit one job and within five minutes walk to another factory and get a job,” says John Mongeau, who worked in one of the same mills Trela did.
“It was that simple. Jobs galore. Yup.”
Imports Win, American Athletic Loses
Even in the 1970s, when the mills were well into decline, there was still work. And American Athletic really did make skates and athletic cleats for a nation. Mongeau brags about having putting the eyelets into the skates made for Olympic skating star Peggy Fleming. But the company owner was feeling the stress of competition.
“He went to Germany and bought these injection-molding machines to make the skates and shoes and just about everybody that worked in the factory lost their jobs,” Mongeau says.
Each injection-molding machine did the work of six and needed only one operator says Paul Opalinski, the current president of American Athletic. But even automation wasn’t enough to survive the competition, so his late uncle, the founder of the company, decided to switch to Asian-made skates and shoes altogether.
The last hundred factory workers were laid off. “That was hard,” Opalinski said. His uncle was a beloved figure in the community and donated millions to restore the Catholic Church that was at the center of the Polish community here.
American Athletic factory became a warehouse relegated to the basement. And the upper floors of the mill stories have been converted into a quaint looking bank center at the side of the river. “We only have six people (working for us),” Opalinski says, “because basically everything is imported from China.”
In come the goods from China. An employee opens the cartons, repacks the boxes of skates and shoes into another carton, staples it shut and sends the order off to retail customers in the United States. The mills that were once an engine of American manufacturing now employ just 14 percent of Ware’s work force. They used to employ 30 to 40 percent.
Worse yet, according to UMass economist Robert Nakosteen, “There are really no prospects for what’s going to take the place of the now departed manufacturing base.”
A Bedroom Community With No Foundation
In the new economy, Ware is called a “bedroom community.” It’s a pleasant way of saying there’s no work here and most people have to leave town to find it. Its hills and rivers and open fields may be beautiful, but you can’t eat the scenery.
Westbound on Route 9 and just past the mills, you hit Main Street, downtown. It’s more ghost than town, a drab row of small businesses linked by vacant storefronts. Its main intersection is kitty-cornered by Town Hall and a closed movie theater encircled by a fence on the sidewalk and posted unsafe.
The main business on Main Street flows to the opposite corners: a bottle redemption center and package store on one side and a very friendly Friendly’s on the other. Crowds only show up for parades.
“This used to be a street where there were dozens and dozens of stores where you could buy anything and everything, and now they’re all gone,” notes Charlie Lask.
His men’s clothing store, Nat Falk, is the last of the Mahicans. It has been here for 74 years. It has outlived department stores, five and dimes, women’s clothing stores and the commerce that once pulsed to the beat and boom of the mills up the street.
Longtime customer and retiree Henry Garceau, who’s in to buy a new suit for his part-time job at the funeral home, recalls his own factory career. He made egg cartons over in next-door Palmer in a union job with a good salary, overtime, benefits.
“Everybody had a decent paycheck,” Garceau says. “It paid off my home. So I’m happy with it.”
But his son-in law has been unemployed for a year now, supported by Garceau’s daughter, who works part-time at Wal-Mart. In the new economy of Ware, the jobs are low-tech, low-paying, and in stores, not factories.
“You basically have three employers in town that pay a living wage,” Lask says. And together the local hospital, Mary Lane, and two factories account for fewer than 500 jobs in a town of 10,000.
Turn Left Into The New Economy
Back into the car, back to the oldies, you drive a couple blocks, only this time you’re listening to a CD of Charlie Lask in his other career, as a musical impersonator of Neil Diamond. He’s covering Sweet Caroline.
“Good times never seemed so good.”
Route 9 goes straight through the center of Ware and west, but here the main flow of traffic turns south, at a right angle to Main Street and away from the factory village that once made it thrive.
This is Route 32, and it’s the road into Ware’s new economy. It goes to McDonald’s, to pharmacy box stores, to strip malls, one with a place called the Family Dollar, the next with a place called the Dollar Tree. The road leads to Wal-Mart and Lowe’s.
Bob Nakosteen, who studies the region’s economy at UMass Amherst, finds economic stagnation and little to cheer here in Ware. Retailers have become the biggest employment sector by far, he says.
“The jobs are low paid, most without health insurance, and that unfortunately is the quintessence, the future economically of Ware.”
Ware has become a place where laid off factory workers get excited at the prospect of a local pet store chain coming to a strip mall.