James D. Wise, the president of one of two major carpet manufacturers in Amsterdam, broke the news at noon on Saturday, Jan. 29, 1955 on WCSS radio.
Bigelow-Sanford was consolidating its northern factories in Thompsonville, Connecticut, eliminating 1,650 jobs in Amsterdam. Most of the workers involved were producing Axminster, a patterned carpet with a cut pile.
Amsterdam native Dave Northrup recalled listening to the radio report that confirmed widely circulated rumors. “It cast a real pall over the city.” The announcement ushered in what historian Hugh Donlon called “dark days.”
Wise cited competition from new tufted carpet mills in the South, plus competition from woven carpet plants in America and overseas as reasons for a consolidation. Local lore has held that corporate control passed outside of Amsterdam when the local Sanford family merged their company with Bigelow-Hartford in 1929.
After the January announcement, New York Gov. Averill Harriman publicly pressured Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, the company’s largest stockholder, to do what he could to save jobs in Sanford’s home town.
Sanford, then living in Florida, told reporters, “Conditions in the carpet industry are very bad making it necessary for us to cut down on our overhead.”
Local leaders had prepared for the possibility of Bigelow-Sanford’s departure. A community drive had raised $300,000. Land was secured for an industrial park on Edson Street and work began on a new factory building. Officials offered the building to Bigelow-Sanford.
The president of the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce, Karl Kempf, told The Daily Gazette that unsuccessful efforts had been made to bring about a merger of Bigelow-Sanford and Amsterdam’s other major rug maker, Mohawk Mills. Kempf said, “Such a merger would have been of obvious benefit to Bigelow-Sanford stockholders.”
Kempf said the move to Connecticut was, “An injustice both to Amsterdam and to the company’s stockholders.”
Fred Krokenberger of the Amsterdam textile union said his members had filed only four union grievances in four years, while workers in Thompsonville had participated in 17 work stoppages in two years.
Some said the move was engineered by Connecticut Gov. Abraham Ribicoff, who had met Bigelow-Sanford executives at their Madison Avenue offices in New York City in December 1954.
In Thompsonville, a section of the town of Enfield, prayers of thanksgiving were offered at Sunday church services that weekend.
Theodore Misaszek, president of Local 2188 of the Textile Workers Union in Thompsonville, was pleased for his workers and community but added, “We feel sorry for the people of Amsterdam and our sincere sympathy is with them.”
In October 1955 more than 2 million square feet of Bigelow-Sanford factory space, divided into 21 parcels, was offered for sale at an Amsterdam auction, along with company houses and vacant lots. Historian Donlon said property assessed at $5 million brought total bids of only $300,000.
In 1956, Amsterdam’s remaining carpet giant, Mohawk Carpet Mills, merged with Alexander Smith, a rug manufacturer in Yonkers. The new company was called Mohasco.
For a while, management jobs from Alexander Smith helped boost Amsterdam’s troubled economy. But gradually Mohasco moved manufacturing south -- building new tufting mills in the Carolinas and Georgia. Labor was cheaper. Land and tax breaks were plentiful.
By 1968, carpet manufacturing ended in Amsterdam. The corporate offices stayed for almost two decades more. The last tie with the Mohawk founding family was broken when Herbert Shuttleworth II retired in 1980. The corporate offices left Amsterdam in 1987.
Thompsonville merchant Frank Tokarczyk happily told a reporter in 1955 he hoped Bigelow-Sanford would stay 125 years in Connecticut. However, by 1971 the company had closed its Thompsonville mills and moved to Southern states.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]