APRIL 2007 – NO. 14
The Things We Make
Though closed, the factories still hum in Waterville, Maine
The mid-'90s tech boom that buoyed the national economy didn't do much for central Maine, which had always supported itself with agriculture and pulp and textile manufacturing. The virtual world has little use for dairy cows, fabric, or paper products.
My home town, Waterville, has managed to avoid complete fiscal disaster because it is a service center, and because we have a transfer facility where interstate shipments are switched from train to truck or vice versa. Still, the reason people built banks and hospitals in Waterville in the first place, the reason the Québecois walked or paddled down to central Maine, was the manufacturing industry. Plenty of rivers meant plenty of power, and plenty of power meant plenty of jobs. The town that grew is now home to some 15,000 people; three- and four-story brick storefronts line both sides of Main Street, the Waterville Panthers play football in a field behind the high school, and people read the local paper and complain about whatever's going on at City Hall. This is our present, and I can only assume it will be part of the future when it comes.
As for our history, that is blank without the mills. There are three of them that pertain, or pertained, to Waterville. Each one has been tossed around by merger agreements and distant corporate parents, and each one has met with a different fate: there are two stories with mostly happy endings and then one story with a few sad endings and a question mark.
People don't always refer to the mills by their up-to-the-minute names — business deals are signed in minutes, but old habits take longer to change. Take, for example, the molded paper products factory straddling the town line between Fairfield and Waterville. It is now owned by Huhtamaki, an international packaging concern with American offices in Kansas and global headquarters in Espoo, Finland. Huhtamaki took the factory over in 1999 by acquiring the Chinet paper plate company, which had owned it for many decades before that. Plenty of people still refer to the place as Chinet, and some remember calling it Keyes Fibre, which is what it was in the very beginning. The old Chinet factory had a brief scare after the acquisition when some Huhtamaki heads showed up, disassembled one of the plant's largest machines, and had it transferred to a plant in Alabama, but then nothing else happened. There are not as many employees as there once were, but four hundred people are still busy making top-quality paper plates on the Waterville-Fairfield town line. A friend of my mother's sometimes gives us gift-wrapped parcels of plates bought at cost for Christmas — useful, in the summer, for picnics.
From the stone steps of City Hall in downtown Waterville you can see another factory, the one most people still call Scott Paper, directly across the river in Winslow. Its enormous smokestack is visible for miles, even though no one makes paper there any more. Scott began as a pulp mill called Hollingsworth & Whitney in the late 1800s, and its campus is not particularly attractive — grim industrial-looking brick buildings and a power station painted an artificial shade of blue. Some days, when Scott was running, its smokestack blew cloudy sulfur winds across the Kennebec, and there was one legendary day when Winslow residents phoned the police to complain that toilet paper was raining on their houses. At its peak, there were more than seven hundred jobs at Scott, mostly people from Waterville or from Winslow, whose population is half of Waterville's.
Scott was eaten up by Kimberly-Clark in 1995, a $9.5 billion merger that followed months of secret negotiations far from Maine. After the deal, one-quarter of the employees in Winslow were laid off. In 1998 Kimberly-Clark executives shut down the Winslow factory for good, ostensibly because it did not have some new machinery that had been introduced to other Kimberly-Clark factories; rumor had it that the real reason for the closure was the company didn't want its newest possession taking work away from its other plants. Kimberly-Clark took the best machines Winslow had and left everything else. Four hundred people were laid off, no discussion, no buyout options. Two years later, Kimberly-Clark celebrated its 125th anniversary with the publication of a glossy coffee table book entitled "Shared Values: A History of Kimberly-Clark."
So what can you do with a sprawling, empty paper mill? Well, apparently you can use the sprawl and the emptiness to make a decent amount of money. Because Scott was not a single brick building, like many classic New England factories, its individual structures could be cleaned out and rented to smaller construction and storage companies. Four years after the Kimberly-Clark closure, I spent a winter afternoon staring at the cavernous Scott buildings, many of which sported new signs for local woodworkers and trucking businesses. The parking lot has a sharp new sign with a list of all the tenants; it's become a proper industrial park, anchored by the warehousing division of Marden's, Maine's largest surplus-and-salvage store. There are miles and miles of metal supply shelves in the Marden's buildings, and there are sector maps so employees don't get lost.
A Marden's warehouse manager drove me around the place in a golf cart and said the industrial park was making a million dollars a year, more than it had ever made as a paper factory. Scott's jobs had been lost, but at least the local economy had a renewed source of revenue. The manager pointed up at the smokestack, which still loomed overhead. "Know what that is?" he asked. I shook my head. "It's a cell phone tower now," he said. "It got rented out to U.S. Cellular and they put their antenna inside."
The Hathaway Shirt Company sat at the end of Main Street in Waterville, facing east across the Kennebec. It occupied a beautiful red brick structure with rectangular paned windows and hardwood floors, and until it became another empty building overlooking a river, it was America's oldest shirt factory. It was a hard, sad loss.
Hathaway was named for its founder, Charles Foster Hathaway, a Massachusetts native who met and married a Waterville girl on a holiday up north in the early 1800s. He tried to build a shirt business in Massachusetts, but he had a falling-out with a partner, and besides, his new bride was miserable living so far from home. She begged him to move back to Maine and he agreed. For a while Hathaway shirts were made in the living room of the Hathaways' house in Waterville; then the business moved to a bigger building on Appleton Street, and from there to the factory on the river. Hathaway made shirts for soldiers in the Union Army and for presidents.
For many decades the name Hathaway had meaning outside central Maine. Ellerton Jette, the dashing Colby College graduate who led the company in the 1930s, was the first American clothier to mass-market Madras plaid. Advertising legend David Ogilvy had his big break with a Hathaway contract — it was he who conceived of "the Man in the Hathaway Shirt," a mysterious, dignified gentleman with a patch over one eye. The first Hathaway man was a minor Russian baron who had gone into modeling, and year after year he posed for pictures, wearing that season's best dress shirt. These advertisements appeared in the pages of glossy magazines around the world, and always at the bottom were the words: "For store addresses, write C.F. Hathaway, Waterville, Maine." Sharp dressers from San Francisco to Boston learned to "look for the red H," which could be found embroidered on the hem of every Hathaway shirt.
By the time I was in junior high, in the early '90s, business-casual was in, and stores like J. Crew and the Gap were winning shoppers away from department stores where Hathaway was sold. New ads replaced the baron with media celebrities like Ted Turner. Still, I grew up knowing that Hathaway was famous and important, and that those piles of button-down dress shirts were sent out into the world as Waterville's ambassadors. My father wore Hathaway shirts that my mother bought at the factory seconds store. My friends' fathers wore Hathaway shirts. Our friends and neighbors made Hathaway shirts.
Shirt-making is not an easy profession, but Hathaway workers tended to stay at it for decades. The factory's work day coincided almost exactly with school hours, so women with small children could be home when classes let out (and more than ninety percent of the Hathaway shirt makers were women). The factory didn't run on weekends and employees got time off at Christmas and again in the summer. Considering the alternatives in Waterville, the pay was excellent. It was not unusual for a daughter to work alongside her mother and a couple of aunts. One woman who sewed sleeves there told me that once, on a trip to Virginia, she stopped in a department store to look at the Hathaway display. When a saleswoman asked if she needed help, she said she was just checking on her product, and then the store's managers wanted to meet her themselves, because they admired her work so much.
Hathaway had more than one closure, and when the end finally came people had been aware for a while that it was coming. The question had become when, not if. The initial closure that triggered its long slow demise, the one that was the most unexpected and shocking, is the one that happened in April of 1996 under the command of one of America's wealthiest executives. It was not the final nail in the Hathaway coffin, but it was the first.
Hathaway had been bought in the 1960s by a Connecticut-based garment company called Warner's, which eventually changed its name to Warnaco to prevent confusion with the movie studio. Until then, Hathaway had been owned by the people who ran it, but for a long time life with a corporate parent seemed all right. Warner's was family-owned, the factory was busy, and employment was strong. Then, in 1986, a woman named Linda Wachner (a brash climber who'd gotten her start in the garment business as a bra salesgirl) engineered a sudden takeover of Warnaco.
Waterville was understandably anxious. The word "demanding" often cropped up in news stories about Wachner, ,  and before he was forced out, Warnaco's defeated chairman had sniped that she wasn't qualified to run the company.  Then again, perhaps it was just a case of gender bias in the business world. Wachner was named one of Ms. magazine's Women of the Year in 1986, praised for her bravery and corporate derring-do.
As soon as she took over Wachner reorganized Warnaco from top to bottom, shuffling executives and divisions like so many cards. According to one employee at Hathaway, she took a day to fly her private jet to Waterville, where she landed on the small airstrip on the edge of town, marched through the factory, and assured the workers that Hathaway was safe as long as she was in charge of it. A few of them believed her.
I knew that a close friend of my mother's, whom I'll call Mark, had served with Linda Wachner at the company, both locally and in New York. Mark has a pleasant smile, and I've known him all my life. I thought he might be able to tell me what Linda Wachner was really like, but when I tried to ask him about her, a good two years after the last shirts had been made at Hathaway, his face tightened.
"I haven't spoken to her in years," he said. "I have no idea where she is, no one does."
"I just wanted to know what you thought about her," I said.
"I can't talk about her," he said, and for a strange second he looked nervous. Then he looked away. "She was very demanding. Not everyone could handle it."
Some people in town told me I should talk to Neena Quirion if I wanted to know what had gone on in the factory before the Warnaco closure. Neena, I learned, had been the union shop steward at Hathaway during Linda Wachner's reign. The Hathaway union (UNITE, a division of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees) had, like the rest of the factory, been run mostly by women.
I drove to Augusta to meet Neena at her new job at the Maine State Employees' Union headquarters. She's in her mid-fifties, grandmotherly, with curling gray hair and glasses. Over her desk was a sign reading "A Woman's Place is in Her Union."
Neena, who was wearing a blue work shirt with UNITE embroidered in red over the chest pocket, was happy to talk about Linda Wachner. "She was a woman, I was a woman," she said. "I mean, I sat across from her in negotiations. The only difference between us was education, and the money. You'd think that being a woman she'd have compassion for the workers. That wasn't the case at all."
Warnaco's profits grew under Wachner's command, and for a few years Hathaway went on as it always had. Then things started to change. Advertising budgets were slashed. Production was scaled back. "She was making money for Warnaco," said Neena, "but she didn't want to reinvest it in Hathaway." Stories began to leak about Wachner's totalitarian management approach: she had a motto, "Do it Now," which she insisted her underlings write on their notebooks.  She hated to be interrupted and she hated to pause conversations, so she would have people follow her in cabs or on airplanes if she was en route and didn't want to stop talking. There were stories of screaming matches over boardroom tables. 
After ten years at Warnaco, Linda Wachner gave Hathaway's termination order. There was no advance warning. On the afternoon of May 6, 1996, Neena Quirion got a page from Hathaway's business manager. She called him back from the union office off the factory floor. "We just got word they're closing the plant," he told her. Ten minutes later all employees were summoned to the cafeteria, where Mark was waiting. He spoke briefly. Some of the women began to cry. Mark told them he had been instructed to let everyone have the rest of the day off, with pay. It was two in the afternoon. There was an hour and a half left on the clock.
Neena Quirion pulled a binder from her desk. In it she has kept old UNITE records from the Hathaway days. "We'd cut costs in half," she said. "That didn't sway her." According to the UNITE records she showed me, the cost of making a dozen Hathaway shirts was $124.53 in January of 1995. The following year that cost was down to $70.56. The factory turned out 21,828 shirts per week in January of 1995; a year later, just three months before the closure, Hathaway was making 35,712 shirts per week. The workers had given up raises and agreed to have Warnaco's productivity experts come in and change the way they'd been doing things for decades.
"I believe she just wanted to close it," Neena said, pointing to the pile of reports. "She'd made up her mind. It wasn't fun for her any more, I guess." A few weeks after the sale was announced, Linda Wachner told reporters that Hathaway was not earning enough money to make it a worthwhile holding. "We need to do the right thing for the company and the stockholders," she said. She did not mention that she, personally, was Warnaco's largest stockholder.
The Hathaway women launched a publicity campaign to save the company and its 500 jobs; they spent the spring and summer of 1996 writing letters to their biggest customers and talking with journalists and elected officials. Ruth Joseph, then the mayor of Waterville, convened a special task force (her mother and her husband worked at Hathaway). The New YorkTimes arrived on the scene and declared that there were four landmarks in Maine — the ocean, Mount Katahdin, L.L. Bean, and Hathaway, which predated L.L. Bean by 80 years.
Finally, in the fall, an investment group led by a former state governor managed to raise enough money to purchase Hathaway's business. The city bought the factory building with a $1 million federal loan. Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress, contributed funding. Hathaway contracted with Wal-Mart to produce its low-cost Puritan brand shirts. Some of the long-time stitchers were disappointed in the cheaper materials they were told to use, but their jobs were safe for a little while longer, and that was what mattered.
As it happened, Linda Wachner's job was the one that wasn't safe. There are those who would call this comeuppance, or irony, but Neena Quirion calls it "getting what she deserved." In 2000 Wachner was sued by Calvin Klein, who had licensed his denim business to Warnaco. He accused her of mishandling his products, adding (on record) that she was "vulgar" and "a cancer." Waterville snickered. The case settled in early 2001, but one month later, when 2000 earnings reports were unveiled, Wachner was forced to admit that her company had lost $338 million during the year. The costly legal battles hadn't helped. 
In the summer of 2001 Warnaco had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. Its stock value had fallen from 44 dollars per share to 39 cents a share.  Furious stockholders accused Wachner of lying to them, of pretending everything was fine so she could keep drawing her $10 million salary. The Warnaco board fired Wachner that November, and refused to pay the $25 million severance package she demanded.
A week later, in Waterville, the local investment group exhausted its resources and was forced to sell Hathaway for what would be the last time; a small garment company called Windsong took it over without much optimism. Half the workers were let go. Everyone knew this was Hathaway's last chance, or rather its last gasp. Windsong managed another quick contract with Wal-Mart, which kept the factory running for a little while, until Wal-Mart decided it could get its cheap shirts made even more cheaply in the south and overseas. Petitions for Army and Air Force contracts proved fruitless. In June of 2002 Windsong made a formal announcement: it would close the Hathaway shirt factory in Waterville, Maine. The cause of death was given as "foreign competition." Windsong retained ownership of the Hathaway brand name, which meant that it could produce "Hathaway" shirts in its overseas plants. Two hundred and thirty-five employees left the factory in Waterville in mid-summer, the last people to work there.
As for Linda Wachner, she took her own unemployment in stride. A few weeks after she lost her job she took off for France, where she told a Fortune writer that she was "terrific," and busy shopping the Parisian boutiques. 
Years after the Warnaco closure, many people in Waterville still point to Linda Wachner as the person who ruined Hathaway and closed America's oldest shirt factory. The local investment group, the city, and Windsong would never have had to fight for the company's life if she hadn't abandoned it. Hathaway had lived peacefully with Warnaco for decades until she came along. It was widely known that she had cut back on advertising for Hathaway and then complained that sales were down; some apparel industry experts tittered that her Hathaway budgets had been "stingy." She had substituted cheap blended fabrics for the higher-quality cotton goods Hathaway stitchers were accustomed to using, and she had steered the brand away from high-end stores.  Linda Wachner assured the press that she had done everything she could, and that frankly, she could have abandoned the operation even sooner. That's business. If you own something that costs more than it earns, you get rid of it.
Neena Quirion's notebooks include several newspaper clippings about Linda Wachner, including one from the Portland Press Herald, where Wachner's face was superimposed on a deck of cards. "Queen of the Mean Deal," ran the headline. Wachner's sharp features and short coif were easily cariactured. Neena turned a page, to a story about Wachner's ouster, entitled "Washed Up at Warnaco."
"Oh, she was not liked at all," Neena said, almost to herself. Then: "In fact, we had a cutout made of her. Cardboard, with her face on it. I don't know what it was for, one of our meetings or something. We put a UNITE t-shirt on her. Oh, my God. We were so mean."
"Do you still have it?" I asked.
"Oh yes," Neena said. "I have her in my garage. She's falling apart now."
I went to the Hathaway building in the South End of Waterville in December of 2003, a year and a half after the last workers left, a week before the city planned to cut off its electricity. [In the time since I wrote this story, a Rhode Island developer has come forward with a multi-million dollar proposal to turn the old factory into retail, office, and residential spaces, with room for loft-style living. Although it is tentative and contingent on a tangle of financial factors, the plan has brought people back to poke around the premises. The day I was there, however, I didn't see anyone outside.] Even though there was not much snow on the ground, shards of sunlight burned off solid surfaces. It was very clear and cold. The parking lot by the river was empty except for a pickup truck and my own car. The building looked empty, too, at least from where I stood. The paned windows were dark and impenetrable, row after row of them. The sign by the street still said HATHAWAY SHIRT CO., ESTABLISHED 1837. I wondered how long they'd leave it there.
I got out of my car and watched traffic driving north up Water Street, past Priscilla's Adult Bookstore & Video, past the Chez with its yellow plastic sign, past the muffler shop and the flower shop and the convenience store and the place that used to be a — was it a pizzeria? I couldn't remember. The cars cruised past the Kentucky Fried Chicken, past the parking lot where I stood, up to the stoplight toward Main Street. It was nice, watching the normal blood-flow of Waterville.
I walked the length of the parking lot to the water. The Kennebec doesn't even pretend to freeze here; the Ticonic dam keeps it rumbling year-round. Across the river was a steep, tree-lined incline, and then a row of homes and businesses in Winslow. To the left, upstream, I could see the bridges connecting Waterville to Winslow, the Ticonic for vehicles and the ancient Two-Cent Footbridge for pedestrians and history buffs. To the right was the small power station that used to supply energy for the factory. I heard a car behind me.
John Butera climbed out, his jacket zipped up to his chin. The shirt factory building, all 236,00 square feet of it, is available to any developer who wants a 236,000 square foot shirt factory building in central Maine. John Butera's job is to help the city find developers for the property and to give people tours of the factory. He is balding and confident, with neat glasses and an optimistic air.
I followed him through a side door next to the door that used to lead to the factory seconds store. That had been closed, too, after emptying its shelves of overstock inventory. John led me past a loading dock on the ground floor and up a flight of green metal stairs. "This property's huge," he said. "It's worth a fortune."
We walked into a long hallway lined with carpeted rooms that had once been business offices. There were postcards tacked on the walls here and there, a vase of dead flowers left on a small end table. John looked around. "I mean, hotels could come in. There are a lot of ways to go here. You could have retail on the first level, offices on the second, the top floors could be residential. A multi-use facility, they call it. That's my dream."
The offices were tasteful and spacious, with muted wallpaper and neutral carpeting. Many had windows with breathtaking views of the river below. I wandered around a corner. Behind a stack of cardboard boxes I found a tall, four-tiered shelf heaped with disconnected desktop telephones. Their cords dangled to the ground. "Let's keep going upstairs," said John.
We climbed to the third floor, which had been the assembly unit. Neena Quirion had told me that the assembly unit ran thirty lines at its peak, but was down to five when it was shut down. Now it was a long, high-ceilinged room divided by columns and bare metal racks and a few remaining conveyors. It was very silent. Some faded signs were taped to the columns. "Sure God Created Man Before Woman," said one. "You Always Make A Rough Draft Before The Masterpiece." "Do NOT use air hoses on clothing or body," said another. "Failure to do so will result in TERMINATION."
The thing is, John Butera was right. The property was worth a fortune. All over New England factory buildings were being bought up and reconfigured for new and lucrative purposes. In parts of western Massachusetts old factory buildings had been converted into galleries, yoga studios, lofts, even an upscale modern art museum. Surely a modest plan for a multi-use facility should be possible. All it would take was the right developer, someone with the right ideas and the right amount of money, enough to make the place worth the million dollar federal loan the city still hadn't paid off. John Butera seemed convinced it would happen. It wasn't a matter of if, but when.
The fourth floor had been the cutting room, where the backs and fronts of shirts (and the collars, which were assembled separately) took shape. There were dusty scraps of fabric lying in the corners of the room. The sun made bright diagonal lines across the hardwood floor, and I could see the river frothing white through the southeast windows. One of the problems, from a development perspective, was the fact that it would take about three million dollars, per floor, to renovate the factory for non-factory purposes. John tapped the wall. "Go to any New England town," he said, "and you'll find two things. A river and an old mill." He looked pensive.
We climbed the last set of stairs to the top floor of the factory. We found a couple of sewing machines standing there, big industrial ones with heavy steel legs and broad platforms. A half-made shirt hung from the edge of a machine, as though someone had simply gotten up to get something and forgotten to come back. I noticed some buttons piled alongside the machines — Hathaway buttons. Most shirt buttons have two or four holes, but Hathaway buttons have three holes, and are anchored to the fabric with a triangular stitch that is said to be especially secure. I picked up a few and slipped them into my pocket.
There was nothing more to see and nothing more to do. The silence of the giant building was beginning to make me nervous. I followed John back down the metal stairs, our feet clanging, back to the ground floor and a chilly area by the loading docks. Two old men in flannel shirts were sitting on folding chairs, watching the open dock doors. They were caretakers, the only employees left in the building. There wasn't much left to take care of, but sometimes kids wandered by at night and tried to throw rocks at the windows. One of the men, the younger of the two, wore a baseball cap and said his name was Steve and he had worked in the shipping department at Hathaway since 1981. His companion, Frank, looked to be in his late sixties, but he might have been one of those people who looks much older than he should; he had crooked teeth and a thick Maine accent. Frank had been the Hathaway janitor for thirty-one years and didn't trust the city government to do anything useful with the remains of the factory. "Look," he said, leaning back in his chair, "If I was a businessman running a business the way they run this town- well, I'd be busted. And now they think they're gonna find someone who wants to buy this place."
Steve snorted. "Yeah, and why don't they fix the roof before they talk about that?"
A middle-aged woman in sweatpants appeared suddenly, swishing a broom through the shadowy storage space to our right. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Frank and Steve waved. The woman's name was Shirley, she said, and she had never worked at Hathaway, but her friends and relatives had. She had been hired after the closure. They needed someone to come in and clean up. "There's a lot of lint and thread in the corners," she said, gesturing with her broom.
John explained that when the last Windsong officials vacated the premises, they sold off as much of the shirt manufacturing equipment as they could and abandoned the rest. Now the city had to get rid of it. It was mostly gone, he didn't know where. Africa, he'd heard something about Africa. Canada, maybe? Did that sound right? Frank and Steve weren't sure, either.
As we were talking a large container truck pulled up to the loading dock. The driver put the rig in park, climbed up the ramp, and showed Steve his clipboard. He was from New Jersey, he said, and he was sent up here to pick up some sewing machines.
I asked him where he was taking them.
He shrugged. "I'm taking them as far as New York, and then they go on a boat. That's all I know. I heard someone say India, I think."
Steve took the clipboard back into an office. The truck driver mentioned that he'd been on the road since early that morning and was dying for a hot meal. Was there someplace we could recommend? John told him to go downtown, where there is a cheap family-style restaurant called the Villager that has been there for as long as anyone can remember, serving things like homemade meatloaf and macaroni and cheese. The driver thanked him, and he and Steve headed upstairs to figure out how they were going to get the sewing machines onto the freight elevator. Shirley disappeared into the darkness with her broom. I followed John back outside. I had adjusted to the dim light inside the factory, and when the sun hit my eyes it was so sharp it made me stumble.
In the time since I finished this story, a Rhode Island developer has come forward with a plan for a $56 million renovation that would turn the former Hathaway building (and two adjacent structures) into offices, retail space, a convention facility, and residential lofts. Waterville is hopeful, even though he hasn't officially bought the building yet. City manager Mike Roy tells me the plan's success depends on several factors beyond the town's immediate control: the developer must find tenants willing to pay his rents, banks must provide financing, and a state cap on historic renovation tax credits could make the project prohibitively expensive. Still, "I am optimistic," Mike says. "That building needs to stay vital." — March 2007
Image credits: Illustration by Rob Grom, photographs by Bryan Bruchman.
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