It should come as no surprise to folks knowledgeable of this upstate city’s long history that the top half of any top ten all-time list of most successful Amsterdam manufacturing companies would be dominated by rug-making firms. After all, Amsterdam, New York’s long-time nickname was “The Rug City”.
1. Mohasco – After an earlier start by their dad at rug-making further south alongside the Hudson River, the four Shuttleworth brothers moved their family’s rug-making equipment into a vacant Amsterdam knitting mill that sat alongside the Mohawk River in 1879. During the next century they would outlast and outproduce the mighty Sanford’s as both Amsterdam’s and the world’s first family of carpeting via smart mergers and steady constant investment in cutting-edge technology. The very last family member to head the business, Herbert Shuttleworth III loved Amsterdam dearly, and was the guiding force behind getting New York Yankee minor league baseball to call Amsterdam home both before and after WWII. He also made sure that even though Mohasco moved all of its manufacturing operations to Georgia by the late sixties, the company’s corporate offices would remain in the Rug City until he retired in 1980.
2. Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company – John Sanford became Amsterdam’s first rug-maker in 1842. When a fire burned his mill to the ground in 1854, his son Stephen took over the reins of the business and resurrected it from the ashes of that blaze and built it into the largest rug-making business in the world. Over 3,500 employees worked there at its peak and the Sanford family had amassed a fortune of over $40 million by the time Steven died in 1913. Steven’s son John proved a worthy successor to his dad and engineered the 1929 merger with a Connecticut competitor, Bigelow-Hartford Carpet, Co. that enabled the combined firm to survive the Great Depression. And while the Shuttleworth’s brought baseball to Amsterdam, the Sanford’s sport of choice was thoroughbred horse racing and the family’s legendary stud farm became one of this community’s most historic landmarks for generations. Bigelow-Sanford closed their Amsterdam operations in 1954.
3. McCleary, Wallin and Crouse – The third and last of the big three Amsterdam carpet manufacturers, opening its doors in 1886. William McCleary, Samuel Wallin, David Crouse and a fourth original partner named David Howgate were all employees of the Sanford firm when they decided to strike out on their own in a small factory next to the Mohawk River on Amsterdam’s South Side. Their intent was to specialize on making narrow runner rugs. The business struggled mightily at first and it wasn’t until after Howgate died and a fire at the South Side plant forced the three surviving partners to relocate to Amsterdam’s Rockton neighborhood that the company turned the corner to profitability. It grew to employ 2,000 workers by the time it merged with the Shuttleworth Brothers in 1920 to form Mohawk Carpets.
4. Coleco – Started out as the Connecticut Leather Company in 1932, manufacturing shoe leather of all things. From there it went into leather craft kits (make your own wallet type products) in the 1950’s and then migrated into plastic extrusion by the 1960’s when it began turning out plastic wading pools in one of the abandoned buildings in Amsterdam’s Sanford complex and shortened its formal name to Coleco. By the 1970’s under CEO Arnold Greenberg, the company had become one of the early players in the rapidly emerging video game console business with it’s Telstar System and did especially well with handheld electronic games like Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man. They then followed up their Telstar system with a second generation game console called Coleco-Vision that performed well. But it would be a funny-looking line of padded cloth dolls called Cabbage-Patch Kids that would make the company a toy-making legend and an overnight stock market sensation. Perhaps overconfident and a bit too eager to double-down on their huge Cabbage Patch profits, management made bad decisions to purchase a major board game manufacturer and create the Adam Computer. Simultaneously game boards stopped selling, their computer system was a flop and Cabbage Patch sales fell off a cliff. By the late 1980’s Coleco had ceased its operations in Amsterdam where 3,000 people had been employed at it’s peak and declared bankruptcy. Several of the companies ranked lower on this list were more successful than Coleco in the long run but none had anything close to the explosive hit product this toymaker had with that funny looking doll.
5. Chalmers Knitting Company – At the turn of the twentieth century, men wore a single piece undergarment known as a union suit. Its primary purpose was to keep the wearer warm during the winter. The problem was the suits were made of nonporous fabrics, which meant that the wearer was kept warm in a cold environment but got hot as hell if he went inside! Then at the turn of the century, a crafty knitting expert and Amsterdam resident by the name of Martin Shaughnessy worked out a mechanical process that for the first time made it possible to knit a fabric while simultaneously leaving tiny holes at regular intervals. This permitted air to flow through the material and reach the body of the person wearing it. Called Porosknit, the fabric could be used to make a new type of undergarment that would be more comfortable to wear in all types of environments. In 1901 David Chalmers partnered with fellow Amsterdam businessmen John Blood, John Barnes and J. Howard Hanson in a business that hired Shaughnessy and put the new process into production. The Chalmers Knitting Co. was incorporated three years later with David Chalmers as its President. The company specialized in producing men’s and boys’ mesh Porosknit Union Suits for all seasons. Chalmers then invented the first two-piece undergarment that would quickly render the one-piece Union Suit obsolete. The Company backed all their products with the “Chalmers Guarantee.” By 1909, the business was doing well enough to build a multi-storied modern plant on Bridge Street in Amsterdam’s Southside. By 1919, Chalmers Knitting Co. was doing over six million dollars in annual sales and employing 750 people. By World War I the company’s underwear was known throughout the world, Chalmers’ advertisements were featured on a Times Square billboard and David Chalmers was chumming around around with the likes of Thomas Edison and Auggie Busch. Chalmers controlled the company until 1947 when it was sold to a New York City firm.
What are my other five all-time top ten most successful Amsterdam manufacturing businesses? You’ll have to wait until my full Amsterdam All-Time Top Ten book comes out later this year to find out their names and read my tributes to each but I will give you the following clues;
Two of them were in the business of helping customers keep things clean; one made lots of money helping customers hide defects; one made a mint helping customers keep their clothes on; and the fifth made a product that caused wet things like paint to dry and soft things like window putty to harden.
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