Ware, MA – The granite mill that sits on the banks of the Weir River in this small town on the edge of the Berkshires was built in 1840. It was situated just so because the river slopes 90 feet in under a quarter mile – an attribute convenient in the time of whale oil light and mechanical water power. The mill is a perfect example of the Arkwright building process, a concept developed in 18th century England and brought over to New England. The design is tall and narrow, with a limited width of 40 feet that maximizes the building’s exposure to natural daylight.
This elegantly proportioned bit of industrial art is bound internally by a massive rod, pulley and leather belt system that was designed to smoothly deliver energy provided by the passing river from submerged hydro turbines. The mill use has changed over time, but one can still see the groves worn in the maple floors by the American workers tending machines that converted raw cotton to find thread.
It’s an old mill that has seen a lot in its day – post-Civil War industrial brawn and Great Depression despair, floods and droughts brought on by both Mother Nature and the global economy. It has been rescued a few times, too – by a group of townspeople in the 1930s intent on saving their town’s livelihood, by a young man from Worcester in the 1960s looking to create a line of high quality, respectable women and children’s wear, and by his two sons in the 1990s who carried on their family’s legacy of manufacturing excellence.
Joe Lotuff Senior was that young man. On a recent Indian summer day, he stands in its lobby dressed in a perfectly tailored suit and a tan trench coat and reflects on his life. Joe moved to Ware in 1964 and developed his manufacturing business and his life there.
A family history in manufacturing guided him to Ware. His grandfather sold lace linens to prominent Main Line Philadelphia families. His father manufactured hose supporters for women but was squeezed out of the marketplace by DuPont’s burgeoning nylon business. But this changing of the guard allowed Joe to exercise his own ingenuity while still using the techniques passed down to him. So he started working on his own line of handmade girls’ party dresses.
Once he bought the Ware factory, his business evolved to contract sewing and then a line of women’s wear. He produced clothing for some of the best early American brands, among them Jones New York and John Mayer of Norwich, and then created his own private label.
Much like the mill, Joe has seen the ups and downs of American manufacturing. He has lived its story. This is Joe, in his own words, on his unique perspective:
On his early years:
My grandparents were both from Lebanon. My father was born in Philadelphia, and my mother was born in Worcester. I grew up working with my dad. He manufactured hose supporters for women. I worked in the factory. My father had a heart attack at a young age, and I was the oldest son. I was always the one that they would spend the time to tell that I might someday have to take care of my family. I grew up with that. Fortunately, my dad lived to be 88 but I had good training as a very young person.
On the pressures of international labor:
I remember that at one time – around the 1970s – the whole industry was going to off shore manufacturing. At that time, we had about 125 people working for us and I knew these people. If we decided to go offshore, we would have to close our factory. I just didn’t want to do that because we had such a group of faithful, hard workers. So we decided to continue to manufacture here but eventually we saw the writing on the wall. Our prices were higher because of the relatively cheap labor available elsewhere, and that forced us to give up our business. That’s what happened – we had to phase our business out because we continued to manufacture in the USA while others were able to offer more competitive pricing. We never went to off shore manufacturing.
On fostering the American Dream in a small Massachusetts town:
When we had people working in the factory – the mothers, the aunts – their goal was to work to make sure that their children did not work in the factory, that they were able to earn enough money to send them to school so they could have an education and not have to work in the mill. The very first generation that came over – that was where the labor was. But the people that worked in the mills worked so hard that they didn’t want to leave that for their children.
Living most of my life in Ware, I’ve seen their children grow up to be accountants, lawyers, doctors … That makes me feel good.
On seeing the flickers of a resurgence:
People want to support US manufacturers again ... You appreciate people that are artisans and people that can create things and people that are hard workers. You just love it. You love the feeling of the talent that people have ... It's nice to see that the next generation wants to manufacture in America.