Saturday, October 31, 2009

Milton's Hosiery History.

Remember silk stockings? What a mess they were. I am sure they were as much trouble to put on as they were to get off. Did you know that the Sears & Roebuck 'best' were made in Milton. Read Freddie Harpster's memories about the Portland Hosiery Mill. Fred's gone now , bless his soul.
Fred's Story: Sometime before September 1994 fire had all but destroyed the old Portland Hosiery Mill at the southeast edge of Milton, where Cave Neck road takes over from Atlantic Avenue. [Fred Harpster, who wrote this article, died Wednesday, October 28, 2009, which brought his memories to my mind, and the report of the 1994 fire that had kindled his memories sometime ago.]
He tells us he came to town on a dark and stormy night in 1949 or early 1950, admitting his memory was a bit hazy that far back about the dates but felt they were within reason, so be it. He and his father, who had been named the manager of Portland, resided at Lena Jefferson's 'room & board' on Federal Street. [Lena's husband, Webb Jefferson, operated a restaurant in downtown Milton. You need to be an old time Miltonian to remember Webb's, almost next to the theater. It was an eating place, hangout, coffee joint, whatever. Midnight oyster stew was the favorite to the after hours bunch who gathered at Webb's after all the bars in the county had closed for the night. Webb had several 'markets' to choose from, Lord knows just what creek they came from but usually they were fat and tasty. They were somewhat expensive too, because after midnight when you ordered one, the waitress made you pay, then when little Effie brought it to you, she made you pay. Then on your way out, Webb, at the only door to the place, made you pay. Happy days, nobody cares and never made a fuss, because Bill Betts, town cop, was handy.]
Back to Freddie;
He credits Miss Helen Hastings for her help with the early history of the building and adds that she was with the plant when it was taken over by Pohatcong Hosiery Mill of Washington, New Jersey and that she remained on the job until 1966 when Portland closed the operations.
The building was erected in 1938 by a Mr. Schultz when the ladies hosiery industry was moving southward. There were 72 hosiery mills in Delaware and a few of them centered about Lewes and Milton
Helen and Fred worked together worked together at the last mill to close, the Mar Clay Mill, at Milford in 1975.
When Fred and his father came to manage the newly acquired mill they brought with them more modern equipment to replace the old obsolete machinery which called for additions to the building, air conditioning was one improvement enjoyed by the workers. The post war machinery produced some cotton and silk stockings but the major part of the business was of nylon.
After Portland became fully operational. 30 knitting machines, running seven days a week, around the clock, with 110 or so employees, produced in the neighborhood of 10,000 dozen pairs of hosiery each week. A most up to date knitting machine, with 50 needles per inch could knit 30 stocking at a time. All of Portland's production went to Sears and was considered the 'top of the line'. The knitting was the only part of the manufacturing taking place in Milton. Company trucks hauled the product to Siler City, North Carolina for the dyeing and 'finishing'. That operation was owned by Sears and known as Kellwood Company.
Employees of Portland, if they so chose, could obtain a lot, free of charge, to build their home, in a new section of Milton, what was once the Conwell Nursery, located between Bay Avenue and Atlantic Street, soon known as the 'New Development'. Local contractors, Roy Murray and Glen Marvel, who had made the additions to the mill, were engaged to build most of the new homes. Standing in 1994, the 75,000 gallon water tower on the plant site, was used entirely for fire protection. It was built by Chicago Bridge and Iron Works.
The King Cole Company ended up with the building, using it for a storage facility.
Fred has said in his writing that many of those who came to Milton with the mill were not all that happy with the area, himself included, however, those who remained and became permanent residents could not be removed by a team of mules today. [The Sussex Tavern, across the street for the fire hall helped in that aspect, most of the knitters were well known there. John and Mildred Geyer where host and hostest that knew how to make you feel at home and have another beer.] [addendum]

Submitted: 10/31/09


  1. Great story Mr. Howeth!!

    John Wollter

  2. Love what you are doing. Thank you for all your hard work... 205 Lavinia St. Milton, De.