News from Vermont #386 When You’re In A Pinch

August 31, 2017

Hello again Maple People,
I grew up in an age when just about everything under the sun was made in the good old USA, but that has surely changed. It took an outdoor music concert to bring back memories of Montpelier’s most famous manufactured contribution: clothespins. Part of every outdoor musician’s essentials, besides their instrument and music on a stand of course, are a handful of clothespins. In fact, in preparing for a recent outdoor concert, a group of musicians I play with were busy using them to anchor their music down against a stiff breeze. Someone piped up, “Did you guys know that wooden clothespins are made in Montpelier, Vermont?”. I kept my mouth shut but knew different.
My memories suddenly came alive to a time in my youth when things were booming at the Montpelier clothespin factory. Back then, our family was still dairy farming. My father and I would go down there in the big farm truck to pick up loads of sawdust for cattle bedding. I have such fond memories of being in the truck bed with Dad, leveling out sawdust as it dropped in. The best part of all was collecting cull clothespins which were mixed in with the sawdust. To a young boy, that was real quality collecting.  My memories suddenly came alive to a time in my youth when things were booming at the Montpelier clothe
The National Clothespin Company of Montpelier, Vermont finally stopped production in 2008 after 100 years of being a major world player in making wooden clothespins. I learned that from Peter and Janet Merrill, owners, custodians, and undisputed global king and queen of wooden clothespins. Peter and Janet still reside over the same 100 plus year-old-building which has been retrofitted as a rental facility. Right now the old factory hosts a modern woodworking shop, office space, and a large area for sun do, qi gong, aikido, and tai chi (and why, the question begs, have so many of our displaced manufacturing buildings been retrofitted for “exercise” facilities?).
Janet’s father Jack Crowell, Jack of all trades around there for a long time, bought the place in 1966, the same year Peter, Janet and I graduated from Montpelier High School. Around that time, things were thriving for US manufacturers. The Montpelier company was supplying a substantial part of the clothespin demand in the US. and employing 48 people. Clothespin manufacturing was already waning before Jack passed away in 1996. Peter and Janet were left having to scramble with new ideas to keep the place going. They even bought a couple injection molding machines and, with an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude, made a line of plastic products for a time.
I asked Peter and Janet if they were bitter at all about the demise of their manufacturing plant. Peter’s response showed no glimpse of resentment: “just the way things are”, he said. Jack Crowell, on the other hand, was seemingly more sentimental, literally taking clothespins to the grave: His marker over in Middlesex Center Cemetery is, what else, a giant granite clothespin!
Betsy and I recently drove over to see Jack’s grave and, sure enough, there in the middle section of the cemetery stands a very unique memorial to a Vermont manufacturer. At the base of the clothespin memorial lies his catchy epitaph:
   Here lies old Jack Crow
   To bad he had to go
   While on this earth he was hell bent
   And one day he just up and went
And I say, “here, here”…we needed his “hell bent” energy, his spirit, his product! Wooden clothespins made in Montpelier, Vermont were of great quality and served the world well but, alas, fell victim to a changing economy. Now what’s left are a few relic machines, a new business model, and some memories of a product that, like the man himself “just up and went.”.

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