Crane endures in its original mills
In 1801, Zenas Crane established his first paper mill in Dalton, founding what would become known as Crane & Co.
The paper manufacturing firm, now known simply as Crane, went on to become a major Berkshire employer, and has provided currency paper to the federal government since 1879. But Crane's operations are still conducted in structures built around the time its currency contract with the federal government was signed.
"All of our operations are still in original buildings, primarily 19th century buildings, and we have added on to them over the years," said Art Sanders, director of Crane's operations for U.S. government products. He's been with the company for 17 years.
He said there are pros and cons to maintaining operations in the historic mills.
"Certainly the infrastructure is in place, including power and water sources," said Sanders. "And there's a lot of advantages to it compared to a greenfield development where you'd start from scratch, which would be very expensive for the type of manufacturing we do."
But as paper-making processes have shifted from by-hand procedures to high-tech machines, working in an older space can in some ways be prohibitive.
Crane's original building was a one-vat frame mill that was constructed in Dalton, according to the company's historical documents. The building's main section was two stories high, and was designed so that the upper part could be used as a drying loft.
To work around this, Crane has reconfigured the layout of some production lines, and added general space and ancillary processes to the paper-making machines.
"Some of the challenges are that the old structures of the building are multi-floored versus multi-leveled. There are old brick arches as opposed to steel openings, and a lot of columns. This amounts to less flow and movement within the space," said Sanders. "It made sense to the type of manufacturing process they used 150 years ago when they were actually hanging paper to dry."
Masonry was the predominant form of building construction in the 19th century instead of the steel frame construction that is prevalent today.
The Crane family, like other early Berkshire mill owners, built their paper facilities near the county's many rivers because they provided easy access to a source of power that could also be used to produce pulp and flush out systems.
"Today, that's also a challenge because of environmental laws," Sanders said, referring to industrial discharges. "In many cases, the [Housatonic River] wraps around Crane's buildings.
"Today, you'd never put a manufacturing building of that type right next to a river."
In the late 1950s, Crane & Co. launched a multimillion dollar anti-pollution program to help clean up and maintain the Housatonic River, the company's crucial artery in its early times.
Despite the initial costs needed to maintain the old mill spaces, Sanders said, "We don't [foresee] any movement away from our buildings."
Though the century-old (and, in some cases older) mills remain in the heart of Dalton, there are other signs that Crane's operations are changing within the down.
In July 2013, former Crane employee Steven Sears, his wife and a business partner purchased the company's former stationery facility on Flansburg Avenue, a 113-year-old structure that was originally constructed for use as a shoe factory.
Crane had closed the facility in 2012 when the company decided to consolidate its stationery division at a single site in North Adams.
Sears' group has several uses planned for the structure, which doesn't need a lot of rehabilitation.
"One thing I will say of Crane & Co. is that they've done an excellent job of maintaining their buildings," said Dalton Town Manager Kenneth E. Walto. "They're in superb shape."
Though Walto was happy to see the former stationery mill purchased by a local entrepreneur, he said the building "sold at far less than valued in the town."
Crane also owns Ashuelot Park, which includes the former Beloit Corporation's Jones Division facility on the Dalton side of the property, and the state-of-the-art plant that houses the company's technical materials division on the Pittsfield side. Crane spent $5 million renovating the Pittsfield side of the property in 2013, but recently put its technical materials division up for sale.
The company's contribution to the town's tax rolls won't be as great as it once was.
"Crane has been a wonderful corporate citizen," said Walto. "But for tax purposes, [Crane] will no longer generate the kind of tax revenue we were used to seeing."
To reach Jenn Smith:
or (413) 496-6239.
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