Firm Roots Unbroken By Growth

Posted: December 21, 1988

WOOLRICH, Pa. — They stitched. They ironed. They sewed on snaps, buttons and collars.

Forty-seven years ago, when Glenn Geiswite started making red and black Woolrich hunting coats in this town formed around a factory, each employee put together an entire garment.

Now, Geiswite, 66, presses inseams only. And, depending on the particular type of shirt or pants or jacket he's producing, as many as 80 pairs of hands might also be involved in an intricate part of the process.

"We didn't do anything but hunting coats and pants and shirts," Geiswite said about his early years with the company. "Now it changes about every six months . . . different coats, different machines."

There's new technology and scads of new products, but much remains the same about 158-year-old Woolrich Inc., the people who work here and the tree-lined community of Woolrich - population 600 - located in Pine Creek Township, Clinton County, west of Williamsport.

In a very real sense, this is a company town of yesteryear, in which most of the people who live here work in the plant, as did their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

"The husband worked, the wife worked and the kids worked when they were old enough," said Martin Herlocher Jr., now in his 46th year with the company. "It was very much family-oriented."

Herlocher should know - he grew up in a company-built and company-owned house. His father, mother and brother worked for Woolrich, and his wife and son still do. He continues to rent a home from the company - for $110 a month.

"This is all I've ever known," said Herlocher, whose story can be repeated over and over.

"Everything you see, the company owned at one time," said Geiswite.

In fact, besides maintaining many of the homes its employees built when business was slow during the Depression, the company operates a small grocery and luncheonette and plays a prominent role in the community.

When it snows, for instance, company plows are quick to hit the streets - to keep roadways, sidewalks and parking lots open for employees to get to work.

A still-important hub is the local Methodist church, to which many company employees belong. And an employees' association is a booster of the community park and swimming pool.

Woolrich Inc. is the result of the woolen mill founded in 1830 in nearby Plum Run by I. John Rich, who settled in north-central Pennsylvania after arriving in Philadelphia from England.

He and a partner began selling woolen material to clothing manufacturers. The company only began producing its own garments many years later.

"Our original business was with lumbermen," said John Rich 6th, a descendant of the founder who, at 64, has semi-retired from the company but continues to serve on the board of directors.

"We followed the lumbering trade," said Rich. "The hunters subsequently adapted the lumbermen's dress, with a few embellishments."

From lumbermen to hunters to everybody, the company has continued products such as its trademark red and black plaid wool hunting coat and has ventured into areas ranging from sweaters and vests to skirts, blankets and briefcases.

About 7.8 million articles are either manufactured by the company each year or contracted out to another firm. The once-tiny woolen mill in this remote outpost has grown to nine sewing plants and three distribution centers in four states employing about 2,500.

Woolrich has business relationships with everyone from L.L. Bean to Ralph

Lauren.

"The industry has been so high-styled," said Herlocher, the company's chief standards engineer, who's responsible for deciding how much money employees - who are paid piece-rate - make per unit. "You used to run thousands of the same garment through, and people could pick up the pace."

Now, employees at the mill's principal plant are divided into groups in tiny cubicles and large rooms, their jobs ranging from designing particular patterns of plaids for skirts to using sewing machines to stitch labels on the

insides of collars.

By the time the 5.2 million pounds of raw wool is conveyed through the plant, it has been dyed, picked, carded, spun, wound, warped and woven - individual technical processes that do everything from blending together different colors to removing burrs and other foreign matter from the cloth.

Although the industry and technology keeps changing, and Woolrich - the company - has kept pace, the rural area surrounding the firm appears far removed from the cutting edge of anything.

Employees walk to and from the plant, and many of those who don't go home for lunch stop by the luncheonette, adjacent to the company store.

"This is corporate headquarters, which everybody finds hard to believe," said Herlocher. "Even people in the area don't realize how big Woolrich has become."

On a recent day, a sales executive of the firm - fresh back from a business trip to New York - stopped to chat with John Rich 6th, who had recently returned from his hunting camp and was still wearing his hunting clothing - Woolrich-made, of course.

"During hunting season, when they want me," he said, "they have to come out in the woods."

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