Milton Hosiery, German Roots

On July 17, 1994, a serious fire broke out in what people in Milton called the “old hosiery mill” (and the Delaware Coast Press mistakenly called “the old button factory”). The building in question was a one-story warehouse used by Draper-King Cole cannery, located at the intersection of Front and Atlantic Streets. By the time the fire was brought under control several hours later, over 200 firefighters from Lewes, Georgetown, Ellendale, Slaughter Beach, Rehoboth Beach, Millsboro, Greenwood, Harrington, and Houston would join the first responders from Milton’s Fire Station 85 to put it out. The Milton Fire Chief at the time, Lynn Rogers, told the Wilmington News Journal “The heat was so intense, you had steel beams 3 feet tall that were bent like pretzels.”

Former hosiery factory on fire, July 17, 1994 (photo courtesy Milton Fire Department)

The damage to the roof and interior was total and the building was never again used. There are no remnants of the building visible today, and its story is all but forgotten. This was, in fact, the former Portland Hosiery Mills building, which had long ceased manufacturing nylon stockings and was being used for storage by the neighboring cannery.

I believe the story is worth bringing to light. Portland Hosiery was the last company to own and operate the mill, but its origin is fundamentally the tale of one man – an immigrant – realizing a vision in the way other new arrivals in Milton had done before him. Secondly, the story of the hosiery mill focuses attention on Milton’s now-vanished garment manufacturing industry, one that provided employment for thousands of Milton men and women over a period of seventy years. The tag line “Boats, Beans, Buttons, and Beer,” while snappy and alliterative, fails to include garment manufacturing, a very important aspect of the town’s economic activity in the first half of the 20th century. Lastly, the hosiery sector of garment production in Milton is fascinating because of another little-known aspect: it was brought to the town by a German immigrant and owes a great deal to technology first developed in 19th century Imperial Germany, then exported to the textile mills of Reading, PA.

To understand how the manufacture of hosiery took root in Milton, we first need to look at a series of events that took place over a forty year period in Reading, from about 1890 to 1930, at the same time that women’s fashion tastes were changing dramatically. This convergence of technological innovation and style evolution would transform the hosiery industry, and bring 15 hosiery mills to all parts of Delaware by 1939. Two of these mills would set up shop in Milton, and this story about one of them could just as easily fit the other.

Beginnings of an Industry

Left: Ferdinand Thun (1866 – 1949); Right: Henry Janssen (1866 – 1948). The photographs were taken when the men were about 26 years old.

Ferdinand Thun and Henry Janssen were born within a week of each other and grew up in the town of Barmen, Germany without knowing each other. They each came separately to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, NY in the late 1880s, where they met by chance in a boardinghouse. Their home town of Barmen was the birthplace of industrialized braiding, a product for which there was high demand; braiding was needed to protect the hems of women’s skirts and dresses, which brushed the floor in the late 19th century, and for decorating other parts of their outfits. Braid was also an important part of military and other official uniforms, but was crucial to a new, rapidly growing sector: the electrification of American towns and cities. Braided sheathing was essential as a flexible protective cover for electrical wires and cables. The braiding machinery used in the U. S. was all German-made, and Thun saw an opportunity to enter the market with an American-made version. Not knowing much about braiding machinery, he returned to Barmen for a time to learn more about its manufacturing process.

Braided hemline on a replica of a dress from the Victorian era
Modern braided sheathing for electric cable

In 1892, when Thun returned to the U. S., he settled in Reading, PA, a major textile manufacturing center, and persuaded Henry Janssen to move there and join him in a business partnership – the manufacture of braiding machinery. At first the partners ran into stiff competition from German companies, and had to sustain the business by repairing other business owners’ machines. By 1896, however, they received their first large order for braiding machines, and the business began a long period of fast, unabated growth centered in the Wyomissing Valley to the west of Reading. By 1900, they were manufacturing their own braid using their own machinery.

A decision made by Thun and Janssen in 1899 would have a major impact on the company’s long-term fortunes, and generate industrial growth and employment in Delaware in the decades to come. In that year, the partners were contracted to salvage and repair some German-made hosiery knitting machines from a factory destroyed by fire. The partners envisioned building their own machine with design improvements, and put out a prototype by mid 1900. They went ahead with manufacturing more hosiery knitting machines, but by 1907 only 8 had been sold. At this point, they could have cut their losses and abandoned this part of their business. Instead. they continued production of hosiery knitting machinery. The decision was serendipitous; by 1908, hemlines were rising and ankles became (barely) visible, so silk stockings were now beginning to replace cotton socks. In 1913 and throughout World War I, hemlines rose rapidly. Thun and Janssen sold 100 full-fashioned hosiery knitting machines in 1913 (full-fashioned meaning the entire stocking was knit on one machine); by 1926, they were selling 1000 per year. They also used their own machines to produce hosiery, and by 1926 they were arguably one of the biggest hosiery manufacturers in the world under the name Berkshire Knitting Mills. Together with Textile Machine Works, which produced braiding machinery, and the Narrow Fabric company, which produced braided electrical sheathing, Thun and Janssen had created an industrial powerhouse that lasted into the 1960s.

Enter Walter Schulz

The next part of the story is taken almost entirely from an oral history related by Gladys Breuniger Schulz and set down on paper by her granddaughter Elaine Lawson. In her account, Mrs. Schulz describes her own girlhood and family matters at length, but also devotes a lot of attention to her husband Walter Schulz and her own role as his business partner. What is significant for us today is how his background as a teenage machinist, working alongside his father in one of the Krupp armaments factories in Imperial Germany, would take him on a journey from Berlin to America, and eventually to Milton. It is a familiar immigrant story of the search for a better life, one that has played out many times in the United States and right here in Milton. There is also an extraordinary element of luck – both good and bad – in how Walter’s life developed.

On June 24, 1921 Ernst Walter Schulz, who would later drop the “Ernst” from his name, arrived in New York City aboard the R. M. S. Orbita. Twenty-three years old when he embarked on his journey, he had already paid serious dues to his country; throughout the Great War, he and his two brothers served as machinists aboard U-boats, a military occupation with a 75% casualty rate. Walter narrowly escaped death twice. The first incident was on shore when he decided not to sleep at his assigned billet, a crowded house that was shelled and destroyed the night he was supposed to be there, and all its occupants killed. Near the end of the war, his submarine was blown up and sunk, but he and a few others managed to escape and swim to shore, suffering from hypothermia. His brother Eric’s sub was also blown up, and while Eric escaped with his life, he lost his hearing and the use of his right arm.

Left to right: The Brothers Schultz – Walter, Eric and Fritz ca. 1915 (family photograph)

For Walter, Germany after the Great War was a place he wanted to leave – a defeated country, her economy in ruins, wracked by hyperinflation, social upheaval, and food shortages. He originally intended to go to Brazil to work on his uncle’s coffee plantation, but a chance meeting with a man from Reading, PA on the docks in Hamburg would change the course of Walter’s life.

The man whom Walter chatted with – Max Miller – was a recruiter for the Textile Machine Works company, one of the three Thun and Janssen businesses. Miller was on a biannual trip to find German machinists and convince them to come to Reading. Learning that Walter was an experienced machinist, Miller persuaded Walter to change his plans, adding that Thun and Janssen would pay his passage to Brazil if things did not work out in Reading.

According to the ship’s passenger manifest, three other German machinists came with him; all four told the immigration officer that they were heading to the Reading, PA textile works, and it was quite likely that all four were going to be employed by Thun and Janssen companies.

The RMS Orbita, the ship that brought Walter Schulz from Hamburg to New York City

Walter went to work immediately in Spring Township, PA, for the Textile Machine Works company. He was a very quick study, and for the next fifteen years he traveled to every location where the company sold their machinery, supervising, fine tuning and troubleshooting installations. He was befriended by a fellow worker, Charles Breuniger, who brought him to his house so that Walter, who spoke no English in his first few years in the U. S., could converse in German with Charles’s mother Caroline. It was in the Breuniger home that Walter met his future wife Gladys for the first time; she was in her early teens, and his first sight of her was mostly of her pigtails flying as she ran out the door to meet friends. Walter was twenty years her senior.

Walter Schulz ca. 1937 in Olean, NY, on his last assignment for the Thun and Janssen businesses (family photograph)
Gladys Breuniger Schulz ca. 1938 (family photograph)

Walter Schulz and Gladys Breuniger married around 1926, when Gladys turned eighteen; Walter became a naturalized American citizen, and their first daughter Dorothy was born in 1927. The family lived on a farm in Bucks County, PA, while Walter traveled the length and breadth of the U. S. for his employer. Their lives were idyllic when Walter worked within commuting distance and could come home at night. He was, however, growing weary of the long distance travel he had to put up with most of the time. While working on assignment in nearby Landsdale around 1936, Walter met three men who proposed a partnership to build and operate their own hosiery mill. These men were knitters, familiar with the design, manufacture and marketing of hosiery products; Walter was needed for his deep knowledge of complex hosiery knitting machines.

The four prospective partners traveled throughout the South in search of a suitable site for their planned mill. They stopped off in Milton on the return leg of their trip. According to Gladys Schulz’s account, the town’s mayor persuaded them to locate their mill in Milton, and guaranteed he could have it built in a timely fashion, as he was a bricklayer. This part of the story may or may not be true; according to his obituary the mayor of Milton at the time, C. B. Porter, was a dairy farmer and ran an ice cream business.

The partners bought ten acres on Cave Neck Road where it meets Front Street and contracted for the construction of the hosiery mill. The venture was fraught with risk; the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and Gladys and Walter had to mortgage their farm to obtain the funds to complete construction. Gladys did not want to leave the farm in Bucks County, and was opposed to the venture; she believed her husband, with a secure job, would be able to retire to the farm after ten more years of work. Even Max Miller, who lured Schulz to Reading from the Hamburg docks, thought it was a bad idea.

Determined to realize his dream of owning his own business and breaking free of incessant travel, Walter pushed on with the project. For two years, the partners stayed in Milton during the week to supervise construction and return home on weekends. By 1938 the building was completed and the company chartered as the Milton Hosiery Company with a book value of $50,000. The cost of the land and construction of the building was valued at $12,000. The company began by manufacturing silk stockings, with six machines operated by men to knit the legs, and two operated by women to knit the toes, tops, and heels. The full complement of employees including administrative staff and those not engaged in knitting was 40, making the hosiery mill a significant employer in Milton.

Milton Hosiery Mill under construction ca. 1937. The woman standing at the center of the photograph is probably Gladys Breuniger Schulz (family photograph).
Milton Hosiery Mill completed and operational ca. 1938

In 1938, Gladys and Walter sold their farm in Bucks County and moved permanently to Milton. The family story is a little vague in the description of where they lived, but they referred to a “castle house” (a house with turrets) “on a canal.” The only structure that can fit that description is the George Megee house (now owned by the Zandos) overlooking the Broadkill River across from Milton Memorials Park.

Gladys Schulz Steps Up

Like her husband, Gladys Schulz was a quick study. Once committed, she dove into all facets of the operation and became a major asset to the enterprise. Starting with bookkeeping, she then learned how to calculate the cost of fulfilling an order of silk hosiery. This is not as straightforward as it sounds; she often had to reverse engineer a stocking sample – literally unravelling it – to determine the amount of each weight of silk thread required to produce it, and from that the cost of the materials that would be needed and the cost of the labor required. This housewife, married at 18 and a mother by 19, clearly had to push herself beyond whatever capabilities she had acquired in high school, and her calculations would be challenging for anyone with any level of education. In short, for the Milton Hosiery Company to stay in business, she had to calculate production costs with a high degree of precision. This she did.

Production costs were not the only challenge Gladys had to take on; almost as soon as production got going, there was an attempt to unionize the workers at the mill. This was led by the head knitter, a man who had lost his job at another site further north when union demands drove that concern out of business. In fact, high labor costs driven by unionization in the Northeast were driving many companies to relocate to southern states, where wages were lower and unions were ignored or suppressed.

Gladys met this challenge head on. While Walter was busy repairing machinery, workers at Milton Hosiery stopped their machines and walked into her office demanding the right to unionize, Gladys – outwardly steely and calm – gave them two hours to consider her position: there would be no union at her business, and the men could quit if they thought otherwise after they returned from lunch. The head knitter, who instigated the demands, was paid his wages and left. The rest of the men had no appetite for a fight, and talk of unionization ended.

Gladys Schulz was now the mother of a second daughter, Dorothy, but her energy was unflagging. At first her biggest issue was negotiating buyouts of the other partners, which she did successfully, but a larger challenge arose in 1940. Many men were being drafted, and silk thread from Japan was embargoed; the mill was losing its labor force and its raw material simultaneously. They tried rayon, but the results were not to their liking. Hearing that nylon was more suitable for hosiery, Walter purchased sixteen new nylon knitting machines, but they still had to secure a source for the nylon, a product fairly new to the market in 1940. That source was the Dupont Corporation.

With Walter Schulz occupied twelve hours a day maintaining machinery, it was left to Gladys to actually meet with the head of Dupont at his Empire State Building office in New York City. She was very persuasive. In spite of the fact that she was a woman, the Dupont company responded favorably to her pitch and sent the Milton Hosiery Mill a sample quantity of nylon thread. Walter showed her how to run the machinery, and she produced a small quantity of nylon hosiery which she sent out to be dyed. She sent the finished output to Dupont, and (to her surprise) Dupont sent the mill a shipment of nylon – the only mill in Delaware to have been so lucky. The switchover to nylon and the sourcing of a supply of that material most likely kept the mill from going under.

It turned out that knitting with nylon was challenging; humidity affected both the raw nylon and the needles. The latter were as fine as a human hair, and had to be handled with great care. The real problem, however, was labor. Once the U. S. entered WWII, the mill was losing workmen faster than it could rehire. Even the women who were hired in place of the men left after a short time for wartime industries that paid better. A workaholic by nature, Walter was working non-stop as it was, and pushed himself even harder, while Gladys was now working as hard as her husband in all facets of the operation. The strain and exhaustion was literally the death of Walter, who succumbed to heart failure on October 18, 1942.

Gladys soldiered on, short-staffed and working impossible hours while taking care of her two daughters and her own mother. An empathetic Milton banker with whom Gladys dealt regularly took one look at her exhausted state and urged her to sell the mill. She wanted to move back to Philadelphia so her oldest daughter could attend a business college, and she had certainly had enough of doing the work of a whole team of workers, so she did not resist the idea. Gladys put the word out that the mill was for sale.

All of the initial inquiries, however, were disappointing in one key respect: buyers wanted her nylon knitting machines, which were not being manufactured during wartime, but not the rest of the mill’s machines or the land and building. Gladys would not budge on this issue – it would be all or nothing.

Ovide Gabriel de St. Aubin, Jr. (undated photo, ancestry.com)

A white knight finally rode in to save her: Ovide Gabriel de St. Aubin, Jr. Groomed by his father, an immigrant from Quebec, to take over a substantial conglomerate of family businesses, St. Aubin recognized the value in acquiring the mill in Milton at a time when nylon was in high demand. Among the St. Aubin business interests was the Pohatcong Hosiery Mill in Washington, NJ. which the family was looking to relocate further south where unionization was not as prevalent as in the northern states. He made an offer for the entire mill, on the condition that Gladys continue to oversee operations and keep the books. Gladys resisted the idea of overseeing the mill, wanting to relocate to Philadelphia for the sake of her daughters’ education opportunities, but she did stay on so the deal could be consummated. After a rocky start. St. Aubin was able to provide enough workers so that Gladys no longer had to toil eighteen hours a day. It is not exactly clear as to when Gladys was finally able to move back to Philadelphia, but by 1948 Pohatcong had closed its operation in New Jersey and relocated to Milton. A short time later, probably late 1949, the mill was sold to Portland Hosiery Mills, who operated it until the 1960s. After Portland ceased operations in Milton, the building was leased to the Draper – King Cole Cannery for use as a storage facility.

Sources

Oral history related by Gladys Breuninger Schulz to Elaine Lawson

https://www.readingeagle.com/2018/01/28/ferdinand-thun-and-henry-k-janssen-were-destined-for-shared-success/

https://goreadingberks.com/the-knitting-mills-wyomissing-pa/

https://wyomissingfoundation.org/about/in-days-gone-by/the-story-of-wyomissing-industries/

https://wyomissingfoundation.org/about/in-days-gone-by/historyfounders/

13 thoughts on “Milton Hosiery, German Roots

  • Sallie macy

    Thank you!!! As always, so interesting!!! Sallie Davidson Macy

  • Betty Schulz

    Do you know where the Schulz family was from in Germany? Thank you.0

    • Phil Martin

      I believe the Schulz brothers came from the Berlin area, according to the oral history I used as a source. Are you related to the family?

  • Helen L Camenisch

    Any mention of the “new development”?
    My understanding was those houses were built around the same time to house the workers of the hosiery mill. All those small houses from Atlantic Ave to the VFW area. Street all named for trees. Pine, Boxwood, cedar etc.

  • Curt Hudson

    My Dad worked there until it closed. My understanding as a really young person was that it relocated to North Carolina and the workers were offered the opportunity to move down there with it and keep their jobs.

    • Phil Martin

      Yes, when Portland finally closed the mill, an offer to relocate to Siler City NC was made to workers (probably on condition that they not join a union). So many textile mills in New England and the northeast closed because of the push for higher wages through unionization.

  • Ellen calhoun

    I love your blogs, they are always so thorough and very interesting (at least to me).

    • Phil Martin

      Ellen, thank you for your encouraging and kind words! I have a small, loyal readership that a write for, and for posterity as well.

  • Helen Camenisch

    Great story as usual. Did you find any information about the New Development area of Milton that I was told was originally houses for the Hosiery workers who moved here to work at the Hosiery Mill? Those are the houses on Atlantic Ave. going out toward the VFW. Streets are all tree names. Thanks, Helen Camenisch

    • Phil Martin

      Hi Helen! Yes, Fred Harpster, whose father was brought in as plant supervisor when it was acquired by Portland Hosiery, wrote a reminiscence in the Chamber Clipper of September 7, 1994 in which he referred to the “New Development.” The company offered a free plot of land to any employee of the mill, on which he could build a house to live in. Harpster said the subdivided tract was formerly the Conwell Nursery, but I believe from what I have read that it was the Boxwood Nursery. This all happened long after Gladys Schulz sold the mill that she and her husband had built.

  • Wendy Harpster

    I was so excited to read of the beginnings of the hosiery mill! My grandfather, Bill Harpster, came from Washington NJ in 1949 to manage the mill. My father, Fred, accompanied him. The “new development”, indeed, came about in the 50’s and 60’s. Anyone who worked in the mill was given a lot to build on. The majority of the workers at the mill were knitters, working 3 shifts, as the machinery could not be shutdown. I recall Miss Helen Hastings, a very kind, gentlelady, as being the secretary at the mill. The knitters not only made ” clingalong stockings” for Sears, but also made children’s leotards. Many a time I had to try them on for fit or some other adjustments needed to be made! When the mill closed in 1965, our family did, indeed, move to Siler City NC. But, we returned to Milton in 1969. My father went to work at a hosiery mill in Milford. My grandparents continued to live in the blue house that sits to the right of where the mill was. Although, at the time, the house was smaller and light grey. My grandfather walked back and forth to work through the small plot of woods between their house and the brick mill. I have a few of the bricks from the building that I salvaged as the ruins were being cleared after the fire. Thank you, Phil, for bringing the history of the origins of the mill! Another thorough, interesting read!

    • Phil Martin

      I’m delighted to hear from s Harpster descendant! Your father’s essay, which was published in at least two newspapers (separated by quite a few years) gave me the clues I needed to find the story of the Gladys and Henry Schulz, the original owners. A phone call to one of the Schulz descendants paid off, and I got the oral history and photographs that were included in the post. Thanks for your interest in the blog.

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