Owners had impact beyond their years
Their era began in the 1800s with a flurry of industrial activity, and ended a few decades ago when most of their rambling brick mills ceased operation.
What they accomplished when they ranked among Berkshire County’s most prominent citizens is vague today in the minds of many.
Yet, their famous names have never left us. Plunkett, Stanley, Crane, Pomeroy, Brayton, Mar shall, Renfrew, Smith, Hough ton, Arnold, Peck, McKay, Clapp, Blackinton, Gallup, and more. We drive on streets that bear the names of those early Berkshire industrialists, and visit public buildings or parks that are named after them.
Products of the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, these men and their families must have seemed larger than life. They were personally identified in the public mind with employment, prosperity, grand mansions and generous donations in good times, and with layoffs, mill closings and intimidation of union movements in the worst times.
Their textile, papermaking, printing, shoemaking, machining, power transformer and electronic capacitor firms were -- like most others of their era -- founded and controlled by one man or a few partners. This sets them apart historically from the faceless corporate entities that have come to dominate manufacturing.
Since these large mill owners typically lived in the area then, the Berkshires were not as dependent on corporate decisions that were made outside of the county, said John L. Sprague of Williamstown, whose family operated the Sprague Electric Co., now home to Mass MoCA.
"Today, stockholders don’t really care about the company itself," Sprague said, "as long as the company is profitable. It was quite different back in the 1800s and early 1900s."
Sprague served 11 years as president of the firm that his father, Robert C. Sprague, had created in North Adams. Robert Sprague led Sprague Electric himself for over 40 years. In those days, John Sprague said there was a better chance that company decisions were also made with the Berkshires taken into consideration.
"A CEO then was in much more of a position to make unilateral decisions," he said, and in some cases, a local family controlled stock in even large national or international companies.
For one reason or another, most of the Berkshires’ large industrial employers eventually ceded ownership of their plants to larger corporate interests. General Cable Corp. purchased Sprague during the 1970s, and formed a larger corporate entity that was then acquired by the Penn Central Railroad. Soon after, employment at Sprague Electric in North Adams dwindled away.
Textile, papermaking and printing firms that were launched by individuals who grew wealthy in the Berk shires went out of business during economic recessions, or they were sold when family members grew old or decided to leave the business. An exception in the Berkshires is Crane of Dalton, which was founded in 1801 as a fine-paper manufacturing business by Zenas Crane.
Sprague said the level of wealth required to run a large corporation today, along with other changes in the industrial landscape, make it unlikely that a large manufacturing firm would locate in a semi-rural area like Berkshire County. Nowadays, it would take about 100 smaller firms to equal what was produced by one of the Berkshires’ large manufacturers when those businesses were thriving, he said.
The philanthropic activity generated by so many of those local industrial families who operated plants in the Berkshires is largely absent now, Sprague said, because the principals in the corporations that now own those businesses live elsewhere.
The owners of the former James Hunter Machine Co. in North Adams or the textile manufacturing Plunkett family in Adams were particularly known for donating to causes or providing funds to construct public buildings, like hospitals or schools.
Berkshire County, like the rest of New England, was a leading manufacturing center for decades. The region was known nationally and globally for its industrial innovation before those industries and their once dependable employment began to migrate elsewhere.
The era of the major Berkshire industrialist began with a rapid evolution in manufacturing methods, like steam, the introduction of assembly lines, and then electric power. It shifted the workforce from agricultural to industrial employment. It spawned growth in the cities as the traditional production of goods by individual craftsmen was replaced by mass production.
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