The Giving Trees
Jan 12, 2015 06:06PM
They are simply visually unforgettable. As you drive the main road into the little village of Woolrich, they stand as tall, silent sentinels, all the way to the center of town. At over eighty feet tall, these Norway spruce trees tower over all the houses, and even the company factory that gave the town its name. According to David Becker, retail manager at the flagship store, the question most often asked by visitors to the outlet is about the trees—the Memorial Trees.
It was in 1936 that the Foremen’s Association bought Norway Spruce trees to line Park Avenue and, along with a Sunday school class that had been together for over twenty-five years, gathered to plant them. The reason for the memorial has been forgotten by many, but the bronze plaque near the beginning of this march of trees makes the reason for them plain. For these giants are a memorial to one man.
That man was Michael Bond Rich, senior officer of the firm John Rich & Bros. By all accounts, he was the man responsible for much of Woolrich’s rise in the early twentieth century. He was instrumental in the development and procurement of new machinery, the expansion of the main plant and of satellite plants in McElhattan and Avis, and in developing the reputation of Woolrich as a leader in outdoor clothing for hunters and outdoorsmen. He marketed the company’s traditional woolen products in new ways, as this country was developing a middle class that took vacations, traveled, and needed outdoor wear for recreating in the wilderness parks that were opening, as well as for hunting, fishing, and skiing.
Beyond the village that surrounded the company he managed, he was active on the Board of Directors of Dickinson Seminary (later Lycoming College), and on the board of the Lock Haven Normal School (later Lock Haven University). He was a representative in the State House in Harrisburg for two terms.
A devout man, he was active in the Woolrich Community Methodist Church, as a Sunday school superintendent and trustee, and as a representative of the church on various state boards. He taught Sunday school at Woolrich for over twenty-five years, and it was his class that helped plant the trees. He was known as one of the most active Methodist laymen of central Pennsylvania. Simply put, he was a philanthropist, a public servant, and a strong businessman with vision.
One of his visions for the village around his company was to improve Woolrich for its citizens, and he used the upcoming centennial to further his dream. Not wishing to merely have a special program, by the late 1920s he spearheaded the development of the village. A beautiful large park with pavilions was developed. A concrete pool was built in 1928 and a new school in 1929. All was completed by the time of the centennial in June of 1930, where the founding family and the employees and residents of this progressive little village, filled with opportunities to work, worship, and relax, celebrated together. As the Lock Haven Express wrote in 1930:
“The village of Woolrich has almost every modern convenience enjoyed by any large city…Houses are built singly, affording ample air and sunshine. A modern Graded school building of brick and steel construction was erected in 1929, with a capacity of 200 pupils.
An up-to-date general merchandise store, known as the Woolrich Store Company, is conducted for the convenience of the people of Woolrich and also is the headquarters for the post office.
A modern cement swimming pool, 50 by 150 feet, 7. feet deep, to which a modern bathhouse has been added for the convenience of the residents of Woolrich, was opened for use July 1, 1929.
During the summer season thousands of people avail themselves of the opportunity to visit and picnic in the Woolrich Park, a natural park covering an area of 20 acres. A community church, constructed in 1868 and rebuilt in 1907, is the house of worship of the residents of Woolrich.”
M.B. Rich even wrote a history of Woolrich’s first 100 years. In this book, he detailed the development of the business (complete with balance sheets!), the growth of the community church in Woolrich, and the extended history of the Rich family. It includes the balance sheet of the firm as it incorporated in January 1930, a pivotal step in the development of the company.
It was just supposed to be a complete history of the company that would continue on in his capable hands. Instead, it provides a clear snapshot of a business and a community just before so many things changed. For M.B. Rich suffered a heart attack at the wheel of his car, driving copies of the book back to Woolrich, and was killed in the resulting accident just a few miles from the village.
His death was, no doubt, a hard blow to Woolrich, now newly incorporated, and to a small community. There could not have been a worse time for such a shake up. It was August of 1930, and, across the country, people were suffering the worst economic disaster in history. The Great Depression was closing banks, decimating fortunes, and throwing millions of hardworking Americans out of work. The bread lines were long in the large cities. Tent cities of unemployed veterans of World War I were erected in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. No business could borrow money. Sales of goods were falling. Though somewhat protected by a company with a prudent, conservative fiscal policy and manufacturing a necessary product, the owners, managers, and factory workers in Woolrich could not help but be worried by the news around the world.
It was in this time and place that M.B. Rich’s will was executed. And, in that will, $40,000 dollars (which is over a half million dollars in today’s currency) was given to long-time employees. It was an exceptionally generous act by a man who had always been generous with his time and all his resources. Very simply, it was a lot of money, given to employees, upon his death. Given the economic climate, most people would have taken a sudden windfall and put it away for a rainy day, a day that looked to be on the horizon. That would seem prudent. Who could blame them for simply protecting their families and homes?
But the gift had a life of its own, for M.B. Rich had given to many people throughout his life, and this final great gift engendered something else in this close-knit company family. They gave half the money to the community church, and records state that the remainder was used to “help the less fortunate and support the community.”
The employees gave the money back—all of it. They did it because there were people that needed it more, and they were “doing okay.” And, they did it through the church and through an organization founded after M.B. Rich’s death: the Foremen’s Association. Starting in the early 1930s, the Foremen’s Association took care of the improvements that marked the great centennial that M.B. envisioned. The park was maintained, the pool kept in repair and operation. There was a fund for employees or members of employees’ families that needed a helping hand. The specter of want and fear that haunted other communities during the Depression could not find a foothold in Woolrich. The company kept employees busy, even if the job was building more housing. The Foremen’s Association worked hand in hand with the company to strengthen the fabric of the community. Together, they weathered the Depression, and by 1939 were fashioning the outerwear for Byrd’s expedition to Antarctica—and moving ahead.
By the end of World War II there was a new generation of the Rich family at the helm, and the partnership of generosity between the company, the Foremen’s Association, and the workers continued. John E. Rich, Jr. remembered the building of a community center, complete with a bowling alley and other forms of recreation for residents of the village at the church in 1949, with money from a trust fund from the Rich family. The association and the company took care of the trees, now growing at a rate of three feet per year. The trees quickly changed Park Avenue into a stunning entrance. The company owned a fifteen-foot right-of-way on each side, so the line of trees was maintained as a generally unbroken line. Driving into Woolrich was like a journey to a natural wilderness, as the wall of green hid the tidy houses, most built by the company, using the talents of their employees throughout the decades.
Karen Houseknecht, a longtime Clinton County realtor and resident remembers the sight of those trees as a child, when her mom and dad took them to see the trees in winter, and to see the Christmas lights in the center of the village. As a young realtor in the 1980s, she also remembers that the properties behind those trees on Park Avenue were in big demand. Even though the houses were not big, everyone wanted to live in this village with schools, pools, parks, and recreation centers. It was the strong bond between the people that created a special place to live and raise a family.
In 1963, the name of the association changed to the Employees Beneficial Association, which more accurately represented the range of services provided by the organization. They provided for higher education in the form of scholarships, not only for employees themselves, but for dependents, for the families. Of course, the park, pool, and help for struggling families continued. Ed Summerson, a long-time employee who worked his way up to the lead man in the cutting department recounted events planned like the annual picnic for employees and retirees at Knoebels amusement park. The company gave in like measure, by negotiating a contract for a new post office, built on company land. They then sold the land, at cost, to the church. That assured the community church and center with funding from a government lease as a steady stream of income that flowed back to the people in the village. As Ed Summerson concluded, “The Family Rich did more for this community than anyone realizes.”
All looked rosy for Woolrich in the next couple of decades, as they bucked the trend of factory closings and lost manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s that plagued most companies. Woolrich clothes, always practical and designed for the outdoors, became an important fashion trend. Sadly, that time was not to last. The partnership of company and village was sorely tested in the 1990s, as the forces of changing tastes and globalization created drastic changes and created the toughest times that Woolrich had to face. At the same time, leadership in the plant was changing, and a new generation was thrust into the pain of closing plants and laying off or retiring workers that had been with the company for decades. Against this tidal wave of problems, both the company and the association worked to give employees as much time as possible to find new employment before their plants closed. Woolrich employees had months to make adjustments, not days or a couple of weeks. Severance packages were created, and both classes in the plant and opportunities for training elsewhere were the standard, not the exception. But, for the first time in anyone’s memory, the workers had to be let go, and the pain for both the company and the employees is still felt today. Conversations with current employees have a sense of wistfulness for the old days when a problem in this little village could be fixed right here.
It was during this time that the trees themselves were trimmed. Retail manager David Becker notes that this was for safety reasons, as the trees now blocked all visibility for postal carriers and people getting out of driveways to go to work—for an increasing number to a workplace that was not in the village of Woolrich. And the association could no longer maintain and repair the pool, which was a large, increasing cost. It closed in 2001.
The times have been hard, to both company and village, both in the 1990s and again from 2008 to 2012, when another round of closings and layoffs occurred. But the gift of giving has been woven into the warp and woof of the community itself. When there is a food drive, the bins overflow with goods. Care packages for soldiers? You can count on the employees of Woolrich to exceed the request. Leah Dole, director of creative marketing, says that even the turkeys given to employees for Thanksgiving are an opportunity to see the community in action. “At least half of the turkeys are given back by the employees…they simply turn them around to people less fortunate.” Half a pallet of turkeys that are bought to grace a Woolrich table go out to the greater local area.
Then there is the Sheep Tree. Employees quietly make needs in the area known, and they are placed on a tree. No names, just ages, sizes, and requests for toys. Leah says that no need goes unmet on the Sheep Tree, and people in need and children who would not see presents this Christmas get the warm delight of Woolrich generosity in their lives.
Some traditions continue. The park is still vibrant and well maintained, and the Employees Beneficial Association is still active. To meet current needs, they are involved with Heartland, the eldercare home that now fills the village school that M.B. Rich built in 1929. As the current President of Woolrich, Nick Brayton noted, “The park is huge. Companies don’t look after parks and improve them over time.” But, don’t look for a newspaper article on the giving. This is not for the press, this is not to boast. None of this is done for publicity, but done by the company, the association, and the people of Woolrich from the heart. It is a culture of giving, with both hands. As Leah said, it “makes me feel good to come to work and know you’re working with people who care about each other.”
And the trees? Still there, impressing all who travel to the little village in the woods, an enduring symbol of a great gift, given by many to each other and to the world around them. They are a huge symbol of community spirit. Woolrich looks ahead, a bit battered by the rough and tumble of being a traditional manufacturing company in a global market just emerging from a very tough economic slump. The innovation of the company gives it a bright future, and the tradition of giving means that the brightness will shine on this area of Pennsylvania. Perhaps Nick Brayton, one of M.B. Rich’s great-great grandsons, put it best. “Whatever happens, Woolrich will have the community’s back, and the community will have Woolrich’s back.”