Pittsfield Woolen Mill/Bel-Air

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The sign on the chain link fence warns against entry because of high levels of lead and arsenic.  All that is visible is a concrete slab, outlining what was the main mill building of the Pittsfield Woolen Mill.  On either side of the fenced off property are the remains of two of the out-buildings.   Other traces that this was once one of the thriving manufacturing “villages” in Pittsfield are the bridge over the Housatonic and the worker houses within walking distance.  The dam just to the north of the mill re-directed water into the canal to power the carding machines and looms operated by 100 employees before the Civil War.

Henry Colt, the son of a Massachusetts judge, founded the company in 1852 and took over an abandoned building downstream from two other woolen mills on the West Branch of the Housatonic.  Colt had built a large stone dam that captured more water power for the production of “cassimere” cloth, a fine woolen twilled cloth akin to cashmere.   Working with wool produced sparks, and, the older buildings were particularly susceptible.  In 1861, fire did break out in the mill and destroyed the upper floors before recruits for the Tenth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers awaiting deployment for the Civil War rushed from their training camps across the street to extinguish the fire.

After the war, in 1873, the company was bought out by Bel-Air Manufacturing and continued to operate under that name until 1884. These buildings were then taken over by Wilson and Horton, new owners of the Taconic Mills, a neighboring, upstream mill.  Wool continued to be produced in these buildings until 1927.

Maps from the late 1800s show the main building separated into the functions of carding, weaving, burling (removing the small knots of wool in the fabric,) spinning and dyeing as well as outbuildings for storage and an office.  Across the river were a store and dwellings along Wahconah Street belonging to the company for workers.

In the late 1920s, Hathaway Bakeries bought the mill and used the largest building for its own flour operations.  By the 1950s, the complex was used for storage as well as a bottling company for Nehi, 7-Up and Royal Crown Soda.  Later owners included Goodwill Industries and Ski America.

Two fires destroyed the largest structures, the first in 2001 and the second, four years later.  In 2008, the Berkshire Brownfields Program received funding from the EPA to clean up contamination at the site.

Now, the two buildings that remain on either side of the fenced off slab that housed the bakery continue to function as residences and a place of business.


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