Amsterdam will soon say goodbye to the Chalmers Knitting Mill, a massive brick and concrete complex that represents the city’s last major textile operation, built at a time when Amsterdam ranked second in the nation for producing knitted goods.
Though abandoned and derelict for a generation, the mill for decades played a major role in the livelihood of the South Side neighborhood over which it towers.
In the early years, most employees walked to work there, most for jobs that paid only pennies an hour.
For Elizabeth Sardonia, now 96, the Chalmers Mill could be likened to a sweatshop by today’s standards. She started there at age 16, after undergoing training required due to her age, and worked there until she was 64.
“It was hard. We got very little pay,” said Sardonia, who lived closed enough to the mill that she could go home for lunch. She recalls working for 5 cents an hour in her early days and getting promoted to train new employees how to use the sewing machines.
“We worked for nothing. It was hot,” she said, noting there was no air conditioning, just fans.
“You did the best you could; we all had to work,” said Sardonia, who was one of 12 children. The Great Depression had already begun when she was went to work at Chalmers.
“How many times we used to come home from work and cry because it was a bad day. But you went to work the next day just the same, and punch that clock,” she said.
The typical shift, she said, was 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and “if you were lucky enough you were chosen to work a few hours on a Saturday” for overtime pay.
Began on north side
Chalmers got its start in 1901 when David Chalmers, John Blood, John Barnes and Howard Hanson created Chalmers Mills in a small factory building on Washington Street north of the Mohawk River, according to a history compiled by the state Historic Preservation Office for the facility’s nomination for the National Register of Historic Places.
(The mill complex was added to the register, but the designation will not stop the demolition scheduled to begin shortly.)
Chalmers and partners employed roughly 100 people at the outset and business blossomed making underwear of a mesh-type fabric called “porosknit” that was light and breathable.
Around 1910, Chalmers came out with a new style of men’s underwear. Commonplace at the time was the “union suit,” one-piece long underwear with buttons up the front and buttons on the backside. Chalmers was the first to separate the two, offering a top and a bottom.
Two years later, the Amsterdam Board of Trade reported that the output of the city’s knitting mills ranked second in the United States, employing more than 6,000 people and producing $10 million in products a year.
Flush with business, Chalmers executives started building a new mill on Bridge Street on the south side of the Mohawk River in 1912, completing the first section in 1913: a four-story brick building in the shape of an “L.”
A seven-story addition made of concrete was completed in 1916 by the Turner Construction Co., which became famous for concrete buildings, valued for their fire-resistant properties.
About a year after the addition was complete, the U.S. entered World War I and Chalmers Knitting Company landed a government contract to make undergarments for the Army and Navy.
But a new fabric, a softer cotton called “nainsook,” started growing in popularity and eating into Chalmers’ business.
The 1930s and the Great Depression made the company vulnerable to competition from companies in Southern states making use of cheaper non-union labor, further cutting into the company’s business.
The company saw a reprieve of sorts when World War II broke out, and it landed more government contracts. During the war, the Chalmers work force jumped to 600. The pay was much higher than when Sardonia started there, as the first-ever federal minimum wage had taken effect in 1938: 25 cents an hour. It jumped to 30 cents an hour in 1939. Payroll ledgers strewn about an office at the Chalmers Mill today show workers making about $15 a week in base pay in July 1941, and taking home closer to $20 in some cases with overtime.
At the end of World War II, David Chalmers sold the buildings to Lester Martin and Company, according to the state Historic Preservation Office. The company continued to exist for a while longer, at least on paper, but a long succession of owners and tenants had begun, and the mill complex would never again see a work force of 600.
Among the last tenants in the mill complex were Edmond-Stearn, which employed 120 in knitting and dying, and Montco, a company formed by local residents in 1960, employing 200 people to make sportswear on contract.
Joel Kaplan, who was president of Montco from 1960 to 1980 — the company’s entire existence — said that in 1960, foreign manufacturers held only about 20 percent of the U.S. garment market. But gradually, he said, company owners realized it was cheaper to have their wares made in Hong Kong, Korea and South America, creating pressure on those that kept production in the United States.
By 1978, following several strikes by unionized workers, Edmond-Stearn shut down.
“They closed up and moved everything down South prior to when I went out of business,” said Kaplan, now retired but still living in Amsterdam.
By the time Montco closed in 1980, foreign manufacturers had captured about 75 percent of the U.S. market, he said.
Kaplan said there was one last venture in the Chalmers Mill after Montco folded: Montco production supervisor Beatrice Fredericks — “the floor lady” as everyone called her — put up $8,000 and 30 women contributed $1,000 each to continue producing garments under contract, he said. Her operation grew to about 120 people but lasted only about five years.
And that was the end of 70 years of textile production in the mill complex.
Busy South Side
The South Side wasn’t always the quiet neighborhood it is today. With Chalmers and other commercial and industrial operations in full swing, many South Siders could walk to work.
Philip “Flip” Bracchi, who was in charge of shipping for Montco from 1966 to 1979, recalls the scene after arriving to work at 5:40 a.m.: Dozens of women would file into the building and head for the sewing machines that were lined one after the other in long rows.
The sewing machine line was the biggest part, with smaller operations focusing on buttons and zippers, binding, inspecting the finished product, pressing, boxing and distribution.
Bracchi recalls the firm making undergarments and then women’s sportswear, pants, tops and vests.
“We had a good time, most of the people were happy,” said Bracchi, now retired and running Herc’s, a South Side tavern.
He said the Chalmers facility was one of several places to work on the city’s South Side — a part of the city that differs greatly today from when the Chalmers building was bustling with employees.
Back then, the South Side was loaded with taverns and eateries, and hundreds of employees throughout the neighborhood kept them packed “three deep” for lunch, Bracchi said.
There were three gas stations nearby, a lumber company, a rail line, restaurants, taverns and a trash incinerator. Bracchi thinks there was even a brothel on Gilliland Avenue, too.
Gill Russ, 76 recalls starting work at the factory about when he was 17. The company landed government contracts to make military undergarments used during the Korean War, he recalls.
“I learned a trade there,” said Russ, a machinist who repaired sewing machines and other equipment and later moved on to work at other companies as a machinist.
Russ said the operation was dominated by female employees — he recalls a ratio of five women to every man — but he doesn’t remember the women spending much time at the water cooler.
“They stayed right on the machines,” he said.
Those stationed on the sewing machines were paid by the piece — meaning the more they got done, the more they were paid, he said.
Officials in the city of Amsterdam began considering reusing the Chalmers Knitting Mill buildings for housing in the 1990s as part of a redevelopment project and it was eyed as possible low-income housing, said former city Assessor Michael Chiara. His father, Michael Chiara Sr., started working as a teenager at the plant when it was still run by the Chalmers Company and rose to become an executive for Montco.
For Chiara, the impending demolition of the Chalmers Mill is bittersweet.
“In my personal life, it played a massive role,” said Chiara, whose uncles and aunts also worked there.
“From a personal standpoint, it’s a shame. But it’s gotta come down,” he said.
More recently, the city mulled a proposal from Long Island developer Uri Kaufman, who wanted to create luxury apartments in the riverside buildings.
That plan fell apart amid the housing market collapse, trouble with the title to the property and a general desire by many to have the eyesore gone and the site available for redevelopment.
Amsterdam Fifth Ward Alderman Richard Leggiero, who worked in the mill complex early on in his working career, said the demolition of the factory will add to several other projects expected to reinvigorate the city’s South Side, which he represents.
Bridge Street is set to get new sidewalks and road surfaces under an $800,000 project, and a new pedestrian bridge connecting the south to the north over the Mohawk River is in the planning stages.
The city on Jan. 4 awarded a $1.75 million contract to Ritter and Paratore Contracting Inc. of Utica for the demolition project.
Leggiero said the company’s plans must be approved by the state, which is providing funding. Then, before it does any actual demolition, the company must find and remove contaminants, which are known to include transformers and tanks filled with a substance near the section of the plant that was used for dyeing.
Officials said that following removal of contaminants, contractors are planning to grind up the bricks and concrete and fill it back into the ground at the site, which will then be available for redevelopment.
If all goes as planned the building will be leveled by the summer, Leggiero said.
“The sooner it comes down, the better for everyone and maybe we can really start seeing things happen,” he said.