A couple of weeks ago in the annual Berkshire Business Outlook, we published a list of early county industrialists whose deeds and accomplishments had a major influence on the Berkshire economy.
The Russell family also belongs on that list.
The four Russell brothers, Solomon Nash Russell, Charles Lewis Russell, Franklin W. Russell and Hezekiah Stone Russell (they also had four other siblings) left as much a mark on the Berkshires as the Arnolds, Cranes, Plunketts, Pomeroys and Spragues did.
Solomon and Charles operated the S.N. & C. Russell Manufacturing Co., a woolen manufacturer, which Solomon founded in 1843 (he brought his younger brother Charles into the company as a partner around 1856).
Franklin and Hezekiah worked at the family firm, too. But Hezekiah and Franklin also left their mark on local politics. Franklin served on the School Committee, and directed the Pittsfield Cemetery Corp. Hezekiah served as a selectman before Pittsfield was incorporated as a city, as a councilman after incorporation took place, and as a two-term mayor of Pittsfield during the early 1900s.
"In politics, he was always a Republican," according to Hezekiah’s obituary published in The Eagle.
The Russell’s lasting legacy in Pittsfield is the former Russell Woolen Mill on Pecks Road that Solomon and Charles built in 1863. It was constructed during the Civil War so the company could meet the Union Army’s increasing demand for woolen uniforms, and is still standing today.
The Russell family operated the mill until 1930, when it closed during the depression, but their business thrived back in the day. According to an article in an old family scrapbook, the firm manufactured broadcloth’s, thibets (a fabric used in dresses); and kerseys, a woolen cloth used to make work clothes, uniforms and coats. At one point, the mill contained 70 looms that annually produced 700,000 yards of material and employed 225 workers.
Franklin Russell, the youngest of the Russell clan, was a lifelong bachelor. He became president of the Russell Manufacturing Co. in 1899 after Solomon died, and held the office until he died in 1908. His death came four months after Franklin inherited a $232,000 estate from Solomon’s wife, Catherine.
Marshall Field, the famous Chicago department store magnate, was a cousin of the Russells and Franklin’s greatest accomplishment within the family business may have come in 1895 when he obtained a "loan of a large amount" from his relative when the company was in need of capital.
Here’s how The Eagle described the transaction.
"Mr. Field recognized the excellent business and administrative ability of Mr. Russell and he told Mr. Russell when he came to Pittsfield that he could call on him for any amount that he desired. Mr. Russell accepted his kind offer, secured a loan of a large amount and immediately under his direction of its affairs the mills picked up so quickly that Mr. Field was entirely paid off inside three years, with interest."
It was the start of a beautiful friendship.
"Mr. Field, whenever he came to Pittsfield, always called upon Franklin W. Russell and his brother Hezekiah S. Russell," The Eagle stated.
Hezekiah, who died in 1914, was the most adventurous of the four brothers at least in his youth. While Solomon and Charles were establishing the family business in Pittsfield, Hezekiah became "smitten" by gold fever at the age of 16. In 1854 he headed west, but only made it as far as the Midwest, where he worked on railroads in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Three years later he left the Midwest for New York where he sailed to Australia, a voyage that took 84 days. After working as a foreman for a telegraph company Down Under, Hezekiah decided to return home. His trip back to America became notable for its "features," according to The Eagle.
When Hezekiah told his family that he planned to leave on a certain vessel bound for Europe to "visit some of the interesting places there," his father wired "a sizable amount" of money that his son was supposed to pick up in Antwerp. But the funds were returned to the Russell family after the vessel Hezekiah was scheduled to sail on burned at sea.
It wasn’t until months later that the Russells received a letter in which Hezekiah stated he had suffered a leg injury in Australia that prevented him from making that trip. He finally made it back to North America in 1860, and after working briefly as clerk in an oil factory in Toronto, returned to Pittsfield for good in 1862.
Business, politics and adventure. The Russells did it all.
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at email@example.com.