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Hatters' Lives Remembered; A CT NewsTimes 2011 Article

Boston area
A cut and pasted story from the NewsTimes, looking back while there was still time to do so...

Enjoy the read!

Patrick Wild still remembers his grandmother's wrist and the thin gray line that ran across it.

His grandmother, Catherine Tierney, was a trimmer in the Lee Hat Factory in Danbury -- one of the hundreds of women who sewed linings and hatbands on the millions of hats the city produced in the early decades of the 20th century.

The line was a needle that became embedded in her wrist. Rather than get a doctor to remove it, she carried that steely memento of her hatting days with her to the grave, said Wild, Bethel's town historian.

New Milford resident John Pierpaoli, 58, was a coner -- the worker in charge of making the first, very rough version of a hat -- at the Lee company during its last days of operation in the 1970s.

He was paid by the piece, and on a good day he could make 60 dozen hats. Because he worked fast, the others in the shop -- getting paid, in their turn, for the hats he made -- liked to be teamed with him.

"I could make a hat in 10 seconds," Pierpaoli said. "The women in the fur shop would say, `Hey, let me work with John today.' "

Dorothy Creter, 89, of Danbury, remembers her father, Andrew Hallabeck, coming home from the McLachlan Hat Factory with his hands bright orange-red.

He was a sizer -- also known as a wetter-down -- who worked shrinking the tall, rough cones into something more resembling a hat. Hallabeck spent his days with his hands in steaming-hot water that sloshed on the floor constantly, leaving the workers to constantly stand in deep puddles.

Hallabeck also -- for a while -- had the mercury shakes so bad his wife had to help him dress and eat.

"He told my brothers, `If any of you go to work in a hat shop, I'll cut your hands off,'" Creter recalled.

All these memories -- and there are still plenty around Greater Danbury today -- are part of a lost world.

A lost world in danbury

The days of a one-industry town, when each wave of immigrants coming to Danbury found work as hatters, has been gone for nearly a half-century, even though the last hat shop in the city -- the last, shrunken remnant of the Mallory Hat Factory -- closed in 1987.

"And that finished it,'' said John Rotello, who worked at the local Stetson plant until it closed. At 56, he and Pierpaoli may be among the few relatively young hatters alive in the area.

The men and women who worked in the factories -- and their memories -- are going away as well. Each year, more of these former hat workers die. And when they do, they take what they remember of factory life with them.

Part of those memories are of a different sense of a social order. In the 1930s and 1940s, a well-dressed man and woman always wore a hat -- especially in Danbury and the towns that surround it, where jobs depended on hats.

"In those days, any salesperson who wasn't wearing a hat, they wouldn't talk to them,'' said Helen Collischonn, 83, of Danbury, who worked in the office of the Melton Hat Co. in Bethel from 1949 to 1953.

And yet, the hat business lives on in Danbury. It's legacy is the city that survived it.

"The city is the city it is because of hatting,'' said Brigid Guertin, executive director of the Danbury Museum and Historical Society.

"It brought prosperity to the city and gave immigrants a chance at the American dream. People came here, bought homes, raised their families here. Since the 1850s, a portion of each wave of immigration worked in the hatting industry,'' Guertin said.

"The per capita income in Danbury was high. Compared to a lot of factory towns, there was a high rate of home ownership,'' said state Sen. Michael McLachlan, whose father, Harry, owned one of the last hat shops in the city. "It was good to Danbury.''

Boston area

ebb and flow of hatting

Here is a brief history of hatting in Danbury:

It was a cottage industry in the early 1800s and became a small factory business by the mid-1800s. Then, thanks to the railroad -- not to mention a plentiful supply of water and the convenience of the open industrial sewer that was the Still River -- hatting exploded.

"You could tell the color of the hats you were making by looking at the Still River,'' said Bob Reynolds, 86, who worked at the Mallory factory in the 1940s and 1950s.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Guertin said, the city produced a million hats a month. There were 33 hat factories in Danbury, as well as many ancillary shops scattered throughout the area.

By the 1930s, however, the hat business was waning, as people no longer believed they had to wear a hat. After World War II, returning veterans who had spent a lot of time with a helmet stuck on their heads were done with hats.

Although some of the small shops hung on, hatting was all but gone as a way of life.

Pete Tomaino, 66, lived across the street from the McLachlan hat factory. At night sometimes, he'd walk the factory floor with its watchman, Warren Doutney.

"I could go watch the whole plant,'' he said.

Tomaino also remembers his mother, Mary, and father, Sye, sitting at the dinner table on a Friday night after the McLachlan shop shut down abruptly.

"They were blind-sided,'' Tomaino said. "They didn't have any idea it was going to happen.''

Neil Viello, 88, worked at the Mallory plant for 20 years. In 1958, when Mallory's owner -- Stetson -- moved a lot of its operations to Philadelphia, Viello was given a choice: move to Philadelphia, or lose his job and the pension that went with it. He chose to stay in Danbury.

"I was out of work for a year,'' Viello said.

memories from THE `40s

But there are still a lot of memories about the industry in the 1940s.

Nancy Terrill, 75, can remember a family near where she lived on Seeley Street. The family's job, she said, was to drive to the docks of Bridgeport and return, trucking in huge bundles of furs.

The furs -- mostly rabbit -- came from Europe and Australia, according to Reynolds.

Josephine Tartaglia, 91, left high school at 16 to work as a trimmer at the Lee factory in the 1940s, sewing linings into hats. Her mother, Lucy Strippoli, worked in the same factory, hand-sewing leather bands into the hats.

"It was hot,'' she said of factory work in the summer in the days before air-conditioning was taken for granted. "But it was a lot of fun, with all the people working there.''

Hatters from Mallory used to go to the small grocery store Ted Hammer's aunt and uncle ran near the plant.

Hammer said some of the hatters who were friends with his uncle would go into the back room to share a drink. Those with mercury poisoning used to shake so much they could hardly hold the glass.

"My uncle used to tell me, `Hold his glass. Don't let whiskey go to waste,'" Hammer said.

After a few drinks, Hammer said, the shakes would subside but never go away.

Hammer also remembers his father -- who worked at the Mallory plant -- coming home with hands so badly stained with hat dye that he'd rub them with "Star Water" --what Hammer thought was a Clorox solution -- to get rid of some of the dye.

It was embarrassing, he said, to shake people's hands with such discolored skin.

Dorothy Creter said her father rubbed his hands with formaldehyde to get some of the redness out.

"He said he had no fingerprints," she recalled.

Pete Molinaro, 75, of Danbury was a coner at age 17 at the McLachlan factory, the youngest coner in the plant.

"I was earning $65, $70 a week in those days, which was pretty good for someone who was 17, 18 years old."

But Molinaro also remembers a factory filled with dust and heat.

"OSHA would have had a field day in those plants,'' he said, referring to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration that didn't exist back then.

On really hot days, the plants would shut down.

"That was my favorite part -- the days off,'' Neil Viello said. "I used to go to Candlewood Lake. I met my wife there on one of those days.''

life after hatting

Molinaro left hatting in 1943 to serve with the U.S. Army in Europe. In 1946, he returned to the city and hatting, then quit in 1955 to take a job with the U.S. Post Office.

"I was due to get out,'' he said.

Some never got in. Albert Lourenco's, father, also named Albert, was a 40-year blocker at the Lee hat factory who came home every night and tabulated his piecework accounts in a little notebook.

Lourenco, 64, worked at the Lee factory one summer.

"I said to myself, `This is not what I want to do,''' Lourenco said. Instead, he eventually owned Danbury Rent-A-Truck, a business his sons are taking over.

Once out of hatting, many people became carpenters. Or installed flooring. They got jobs at the post office, at the Federal Correctional Institution, on highway crews.

Reynolds stayed in hatting, taking a job at a factory in Norwalk before becoming an engineering consultant.

John Rotello has worked for the Danbury Parks and Recreation Department since 1986. He likes the job, but if there were a hatting shop still open in town, that's where he'd be.

"You felt you were making something,'' he said. "It was something you grew up with. It gets in your blood.''

Contact Robert Miller at bmiller@newstimes.com

or at 203-731-3345.


One Too Many
Thanks for sharing this article. This serves as a reminder to me that the vintage/antique hats that we all covet are excellent because the people that made them were excellent. It's rare, I think, in this day and age to find the passion and dedication to the craft that those hatter's possessed. This article also reminds me, when I don my beautiful early era hats, that many of the front line hatters literally, albeit unknowingly, sacrificed their lives to make them.
Albany Oregon
What a fantastic article. As an Oral Historian, I recently did an interview with a Professor Emeritus of History from OSU. He was from there and while in school, he and his wife lived above a "hatter" working in the "plants". The interview went on from there. I need to get back with him and do a more detailed interview focusing on his time in Danbury. Cool history.
Boston area
What a fantastic article. As an Oral Historian, I recently did an interview with a Professor Emeritus of History from OSU. He was from there and while in school, he and his wife lived above a "hatter" working in the "plants". The interview went on from there. I need to get back with him and do a more detailed interview focusing on his time in Danbury. Cool history.

The school teams in Danbury are still "The Danbury Hatters!" Gotta love it, eh?! MUCH better than the school team name at Babson College, where my daughter was sought out by the Girls' Softball coach. She was accepted there, too, but she just couldn't see herself as being one of the "Beavers."

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