Growing Up with Forstmann Woolen Mills

I thought you might be interested in my recollection of the woolen mills. I grew up in Garfield, New Jersey, which is on the Passaic River. Directly across the river were the Forstmann Woolen Mills, which received much of their early power from a canal, which ran parallel to the river. The Dundee Dam created the canal, upstream, which diverted water into the canal and supplied waterpower not only to the Forstmann mills, but several others. New Jersey Worsted was also located there, as well at the Botany woolen mills which produced some of the finest wool cloth in the country. Indeed, the Botany name was the one sought after especially in men’s suits. Forstmann and Botany mills were competitors. I owned a number of garments, which carried two labels ­ one would say the name of the maker of the garment, the other would be either Botany or Forstmann, which assured the buyer that they were getting the best.

The Gera Mill was located in Garfield, within a twenty­minute walk from my house. Nearly every day, weather permitting; I would take my two little sisters for a walk to the Gera Mills, where sheep were kept in a fenced in grassy area beside the mill. There were usually about ten sheep there, and they were shorn periodically. We would feed the sheep stale bread ­ probably not a good idea, but the sheep loved it and would come running to the fence for our treats.

There was a Julius Forstmann Foundation, which awarded scholarships each year. Eight students competed ­ a boy and girl from each high school in Garfield, Passaic, Clifton, and a large Catholic School­ Pope Pius XII, located in Passaic. I was selected as the girl from Garfield High School. We had to take exams ­ I recall they lasted pretty much all day with a break for lunch, which they provided. We actually sat in the Board Room at Forstmann Woolen Mills­ I recall the beautiful long table, the leather upholstered chairs, and the painting on the wall ­ I assume it was Julius himself. Everything was very ornate and I was impressed by what was obvious opulence. I was fortunate enough to be the winner that year ­ a $1,000 scholarship, which in 1949 went a very long way! There was a second scholarship of $500 and a third of $250. Since my family had little money for college, I was indeed grateful to the Julius Forstmann Foundation.

During WWII, the factory whistles were used as air­raid signals. We knew the code ­ three short blasts repeated a number of times. The all clear was one long blast ­ a minute’s pause, then another long blast. We all knew the whistles well, since they were used to announce the beginnings and endings of shifts as well as lunch and dinner times. Thus, in all my childhood I knew the various factory sounds beginning at 7:00 am ­ then 11, 12 noon, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 11pm. The whistles were also used to announce which schools were closed during winter snowstorms ­ each town had their own code. I would lie in bed listening ­ and hoping to hear the code for Garfield. On New Year’s Eve all the factories blew their whistle at midnight­ that went on for about ten minutes.

Garfield was a mill town ­ not in the sense of the factory owner owning the houses, but there were block after block of two story houses. One family on the first floor, another family lived above. Front yards were tiny ­ maybe eight feet from sidewalk to front steps. Back yards were a bit larger and usually had a small vegetable garden. The majority of families living there were first generation Americans, coming from virtual all the European countries with the exception of Spain, Portugal, and Scandinavia. The majority were Italian, Polish, Russian, and German. During WWII, the woolen mills produced wool for army uniforms and civilian clothing with the Forstmann label was virtually nowhere to be found. Fortunately, the quality of the fabric was such that the same suit, coat, pants could be worn for years! Garfield was a town where higher education was rarely aspired to. Parents were only interested in their children behaving them selves in school, and after high school getting a “good” job, which meant one that wasn’t seasonal, thus avoiding layoffs, and where, after many years, one could become a foreman. I graduated in a class of 183; only four of us went to college. My father had left school after 4th grade to go to work at Gera mills. My mother finished eighth grade and worked in a handkerchief factory ­ one of many factories in Passaic. May father carried a deep scar in his leg from his work at the mill. The young boys had to retie the yarn when it broke by stepping between the spinning strands ­ a misstep and the yarn would cut like a knife. He would not talk about it ­ said it was over and done and that’s just the way life was.

I have enjoyed sharing this with you ­ though it may not be what you were looking for. It has brought back many, many memories! Alice E. Johansen October 22, 2008