BENNINGTON -- The huge mill on Benmont Avenue has had many ups and downs over the years since a man named Seth Hunt had the center portion built between 1863 and 1865 for $575,000.
Jon Goodrich, who currently owns the mill, spoke about its past and present at the May 18 meeting of the Bennington Historical Society at the Bennington Museum.
"Bennington was at one time considered one of the (top) commercial spaces in Vermont and in all of the United States. Supposedly at one time it was fourth, holding that kind of title of commercial places," Goodrich said.
Many of the concerns in town were cotton mills. Others were metal mills. Ship anchors were built here at one time.
"It was very much an industrial place, supposedly, in the early 1800s," he said. "Cotton was prevalent, and they made a lot of cotton products here. Then wool became very essential, partly because there were an awful lot of sheep here.
"We didn't have a lot of sheep in Bennington specifically but the outlying areas and up north in different areas were very much sheep. And so Seth felt that he was going to develop this mill and he was going to put a lot of money in the centerpiece there."
The $575,000 Hunt spent then would be tens of millions of dollars today. This cost included many outbuildings and some housing, too. There are so many bricks in the building that they built a brick factory and patented their own way of making bricks.
Hunt started making Paisley shawls in the mill with as many as 500 employees.
However, the shawls the mill was making went out of style and he didn't have success with it. "It was only two years before it became a failure, he couldn't keep it going."
In 1874, the mill was sold to the Fisher brothers for $100,000 to make woolen overcoats. The new owners spent another $200,000 on the mill but also couldn't make a lasting success of it. In a "mill distress sale," R.R. Haines of Troy, N.Y., bought the mill for $50,000 in 1885.
Decades of prosperity
John S. Holden, with George Leonard, brought the mill in a bankruptcy auction in 1889 for $43,000.
Holden had been a mechanic and was an entrepreneurial type. "And for some reason he got (the mill business) going," Goodrich said. A major reason was apparently, his son-in-law, a man named Theo Thomas, who was a great salesman.
The Holden-Leonard Mill -- a name the property is still frequently known by -- made woolen clothes and employed between 200 and 400 people. When a major recession hit the U.S. in 1895, "Bennington went right into that recession but the mill maintained 200 to 300 employees," Goodrich said.
(By one account, some 2,500 people were out of work in Bennington at this time.)
Holden was a socially conscious man, doing such things in and for Bennington as helping open a YMCA branch and opening a company store.
During World War I, the mill was particularly profitable, due in part to the military's need for woolen products. Employment in the mill rose to 800. The mill hummed along until the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"During the Depression it fell apart. Sales started to decline, like it did all over," Goodrich said, "but it hurt Bennington tremendously and it hurt the mill. He tried to keep employment up to 200 through the Depression but it ended by 1938. It went bankrupt."
Decades of decay
In 1939, the property was sold at auction for $20,000 and eventually became a knitting mill. In the following decades, the mill had ups and downs -- mainly downs. Manufacturers using part of the mill came and went, such as North Adams, Mass.-based Sprague Electric, Benmont Paper, and Comi.
In the last decades of the 20th century, several development, environmental and business entities got involved with the mill to try to keep it viable. These included the Bennington County Industrial Corp., the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Southern Vermont Development Corporation, and the Vermont Economic Development Authority.
By the time Goodrich, originally from Cambridge, N.Y., came into the picture, the south wing of the mill was in much better shape than the other portions, only because it had been kept in use.
In 1987, Goodrich started Mace Securities International and located it on the third floor of the south wing of the mill.
"The truth is that I loved the building and I thought that it was worth keeping. There were a lot of talks now because Southern Vermont Development Corporation had failed to keep it going," he said. "Their goal was to make it a condominium-type facility and sell pieces of it. And the truth is, that's a good idea.
"Conceptually, it's a great idea, it's a way of converting the capital you've put into a place back to you by selling off portions of the building. And it was huge, so it was a good idea."
This has been done around the country with many mills. However, Bennington didn't -- and doesn't -- have enough people "who would give you $100,000 to buy a portion of an old mill. So it just wasn't working."
The site had lots of environmental problems, so SVDC departed. Goodrich came in, even today he's not sure exactly why. He started taking the old oil tanks on site out on his own and otherwise continued with the cleanup. Next, he got Comi and VEDA to give him a lease with an option to buy. He started leasing space and expanded Mace. "And that was a success and we did clean it up, and I started renting it to different people," he said.
The mill today
Goodrich bought the mill in 1999 and operates it as Vermont Mill Properties.
In total, the mill has about 210,000 square feet of space, about 195,000 of it usable. It has 180,000 square-feet of roof space -- equivalent to 100 homes -- and 600 windows. He heats 165,000 square feet with propane gas burned by 30 furnaces.
He rents to 100 different tenants, including 22 doctors.
"We have manufacturing in there, we have numbers of small businesses down there, numbers of photographers and massage people, all kinds of people that rent from us," he said.
A manufacturer will be occupying 25,000 square feet of space in December, with 30 to 40 employees. He declined to name the company, saying he will let it make that announcement when it arrives.
"So it continues to have lots of tenants, and if you need a space I get you space," he said of the mill.
Challenges include maintaining the old-fashioned slate roof, constantly repointing the exterior brickwork, and effectively covering over the wooden floors, which are all saturated with oil from decades beneath leaky machines. The building also has miles of sprinkler system.
"It is a difficult thing to maintain. I'm not complaining. I'm just telling you what it's like to have an old mill and some of the reasons that people don't like old mills because they are a constant pain in the neck."
Ideally, Goodrich would like to beak the mill up for condominiums, which would be right for the tenants and right for him. But Bennington just does not have the population or demand for this as far as he can tell.
Still, it has been a thrill for him to get the mill going.
"Has it been fun? Personally, it's been really fun. I've enjoyed every bit of it. I have to tell you that I really do like it."
Contact Mark Rondeau at email@example.com. Twitter: @banner_religion