Homefront industries during World War II

By Bob Cudmore
Monday, July 2, 2012

American industries ran at full tilt during World War II. The Amsterdam carpet mills — Mohawk and Bigelow-Sanford — switched from making carpets to manufacturing blankets and canvas.

The local mills produced more than five million blankets for the war effort. Millions of yards of cotton duck were made in Amsterdam and used for tents, tarpaulins and gun covers. There were 5,500 employees at Mohawk alone, and the firm was presented the Army-Navy Production Award in 1943.

Two years after the troops came home, Mohawk Carpet Mills published a small picture book called “Smoke: The Story of a Fight.” The title linked the smoke of hearth fires and factories on the home front, “the servant of man,” with the smoke of warfare, “the master.” The cover of the book was made of canvas, produced at Mohawk. As for blankets, “Smoke” noted, “Men lived in blankets. Men waited in blankets. Men fought in blankets. Men died in blankets.”

The author of “Smoke” was carpet mill executive Reginald Harris, probably best remembered as a choral director and musician. Harris led the Mohawk Mills Chorus, predecessor of today’s Mohawk Valley Chorus, from 1940 until his death in 1960.

Both of Amsterdam’s carpet companies used their machine shops to produce a variety of war-related products. A 1942 Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce booklet titled “Little Journeys into Industrial Establishments of Amsterdam” reported the city ranked eighth in New York state industrial output.

Women were prominent in the workforce as men had gone to war. Bigelow Sanford’s machine shop was decorated with “colorful bouquets of garden flowers”and “feminine-looking slacks and aprons” were hung nearby. Nearly 500 male employees of the company had enlisted or been drafted. Some 900 Mohawk employees were reported serving overseas in 1943.

Other local industries worked on the war effort. Marcus Breier’s Sons was the parent company of Adirondack Sportswear, which made field jackets for the Army and aviator jackets for the Navy. The chamber booklet applauded the Breiers for instituting daily rest periods for employees and other efforts at employee relations.

The 600 workers at the Chalmers Knitting Mill on the South Side still made underwear in the 1940s, but most orders came from the military.

Smeallie and Voorhees paper mill on Forest Avenue was manufacturing 40 tons of paper board and wrapping paper a day, using waste paper as raw material. The finished product was used to wrap anti-aircraft and other shells, bomb pins and food containers for American allies.

Boxes were used for shipping during the war, and the Inman box factory on Guy Park Avenue was a leading manufacturer of boxes and paper box machinery. Started by Horace A. Inman in 1877, the company closed its Amsterdam plant years ago but the building is used as the local senior center.

Buttons were in demand during wartime and Amsterdam’s Harvey Chalmers & Sons made more than 3,000 clam shell buttons each day in 1942, although company president Edward Cooper said there was stiff competition from plastic buttons and zippers.

Collette Manufacturing Company on Clizbe Avenue turned from making a million baseballs a year and other sporting goods to projects that helped the war effort.

The author of the 1942 Chamber booklet was Earl O. Stowitts who wrote that Amsterdam’s industries were at the service of the government, “They are enlisted for the duration. And we may rest well assured that they wall nobly play the part assigned to them.”

Stowitts was born in the town of Root. He served only briefly as executive secretary of the chamber. Most of his working life he was employed at the Recorder, serving as managing editor for 24 years. He died in 1953.

Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact Bob Cudmore at 346-6657 or bobcudmore@yahoo.com.

 

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