The textile industry in Wayne County had its start about 1830 with the construction of the Pioneer Woolen Mill by Erastus Baker in Mount Pleasant Township.
The textile industry in Wayne County had its start about 1830 with the construction of the Pioneer Woolen Mill by Erastus Baker in Mount Pleasant Township. This mill along the Lackawaxen River is considered to be the first textile mill in the county and it operated until the 1880s. By 1846 James Birdsell opened the Birdsall Woolen Mill in Seelyville. This extremely successful textile mill eventually employed 160 workers in their Seelyville factories. The Maple Avenue factory closed in 1930 and in 1957 the closing of the other mill in Seelyville brought 111 years of textile production to a close.
Dexter, Lambert & Company from Paterson, New Jersey opened the Bellemonte Silk Mill in 1881. Restored, renovated and re-purposed as the Hawley Silk Mill, this castellated structure is now home to a number of local businesses in an up-scale setting. It was in June of 1880 that Catholina Lambert and his civil engineer, Joseph Street arrived in Hawley at a site near the falls of the Wallenpaupack Creek. Recognizing the roaring falls as an excellent source of power, Mr. Lambert instructed Mr. Street to build a silk mill at that site. Construction on the massive bluestone structure began at once and an elaborate dedication ceremony was held in June of 1881. Local newspapers reported that Mr. and Mrs. Lambert, accompanied by sixty-seven friends and associates from Paterson arrived in Hawley aboard a special railway coach. The reception was held on the second floor of the building and featured tables laden with the finest food and delicacies of the season. Among the notable invited guests were Captain and Mrs. Joseph Atkinson and Mr. and Mrs. H. P. Woodward. The festivities ended at 5:50 pm and the guests boarded their coach to return to Paterson. It was expected that the mill would be in full operation in a week.
The machinery in the Bellemonte Silk Mill was driven by a water wheel measuring sixty-one feet and powered by the falling water of the Wallenpaupack Creek. The building was heated by steam and gas lights were used to provide illumination. The company employed 500 women and girls from ages eight to thirty years. The annual wages amounted to approximately $160 each per year. In 1883 a hotel was constructed on the hill overlooking Hawley to provide accommodations for those females who did not have homes in Hawley. The theory was that providing the young women with adequate living accommodations under the supervision of a matron would avoid the unfortunate situations that were known to occur in other mill towns.
In 1886 Dexter, Lambert & Company built the Florence Silk Mill in Honesdale. By 1895 the mill employed 250 people. The business was re-organized by W. F. Suydam in 1919 as Lambert Silk, a branch of Dexter, Lambert & Company and opened a second factory in Hawley. In 1935 the building was sold to Banner Slipper Company and it was razed in the 1990s.
On the night of August 17, 1894 a fire, believed to have started in the elevator, broke out on the upper floor just over the main entrance of the mill. The watchman, Frank Foster, immediately sounded the alarm but, despite the valiant efforts of the Hawley Bucket Brigade, the interior of the building completely burned leaving only the stone walls intact until midnight when the back wall collapsed into the Paupack Falls. The loss amounted to $80,000 and left hundreds of people without work. Fortunately the silk, worth about $175,000 was stored in a building across the road. The insurance amounted to $100,000 and the mill was rebuilt with additional improvements. The Bellemonte Silk Mill was sold to the J.C. Welwood Company in 1914. Around 1943 it was purchased by the Vacca Company and later rented from the Vacca family by Leonard Sherman and called the Sherman Underwear Mill which closed in the 1980s. It was later operated for a number of years as Castle Antiques & Reproductions until its latest transformation into the Hawley Silk Mill.
Another well known textile manufacturing business began in Honesdale in 1899 when Jacob, Jonas and Samuel Katz opened the Katz Underwear Company. They started out under the Eagle brand with ten employees and constructed a building at the end of Sixth Street. The business rapidly expanded and by 1937 they employed 500 people and made 45,000 cotton undergarments per week. In 1949 they opened a new factory on Sunrise Avenue and by 1966 Katz was the largest employer in Wayne County with 630 employees. The company closed in 1992.
These are but a few of the plethora of textile producers and garment manufacturers operating throughout the county up to the 1970s. Slowly, the industry declined. Some factories have been adapted for re-use, some torn down and others stand empty leaving only the history of this once prosperous industry behind.