STORY: HEATH STILTNER | PHOTOGRAPHY: BEN ASHBY | BOOTS: WOOLRICH
Just after the American revolution, but before the Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars, and the Cold war, rural north-central Pennsylvania was little more than a largely spread out collection of family farms that collectively formed small communities. The United States was a small nation of only 24 states, only slightly developed, and surround by wilderness completely. It was in one of these small communities that one of America’s oldest heritage companies planted its roots. When John Rich II boarded a ship in Liverpool early in the nineteenth century, it’s doubtful he could’ve ever imagined that his voyage to the land of opportunity and entrepreneurship would allow him to build such a lasting legacy but today the family tradition and the mill still stand, a testament to the 183 year-old and oldest-running woolen mill in the U.S.
In 1830, When John Rich II moved from a small community near Philadelphia to the north-central community of Little Plum Run, Pennsylvania, the area was little more than the typical landscape of family farms and lumbering communities. The son of a wool carder – the process by which wool fibers are straightened – Rich had migrated to the U.S. years earlier with a great depth of knowledge about the wool industry. It was using this knowledge that he first began his career in operating woolen mills in Mill Hall before moving to Little Plum Run to join his business partner Daniel McCormick where they would begin the legacy that is Woolrich. Little Plum Run acted as the perfect beginning for the young upstart, so much so in fact that by the fourth year they had outgrown the small community. With a growing production demand, the limited access to water power for their growing factory operation forced Rich and McCormick to relocate the mill to a nearby community called Chatham Run in 1834.
The Pine Creek Township began development first with the establishment of a sawmill that would build three log homes for the Rich family and their mill employees, along with a three-story brick woolen mill factory measuring thirty-five feet by fifty-five feet. In 1843 Rich bought McCormick’s interest in the company, becoming the sole proprietor and going on to turn the township into Woolrich, PA, the home to eight generations of the Rich family who still own and operate the company today. From that point, the community around Woolrich sprang to life, with several generations of Rich’s starting community housing, the Woolrich Community United Methodist church in 1868, and the iconic mile-long drive into town lined with 50-foot pines planted by members of that church after the unfortunate passing of M. B. Rich in 1930. The Woolrich community is one that seems untouched by modern industry, still made up of the families who have worked the mills for generations, along with Rich and Brayton families.
The Rich family has always controlled the company in one way or another and the current president, Nick Brayton, and vice president Joshua Rich, are no exceptions as they represent the seventh and eighth generations of the Rich family. Nick’s father Roswell Brayton, Jr. was a sixth generation Rich whose parents, Roswell Brayton, Sr. and Catherine Rich, moved from Rhode Island back to Woolrich, PA. in 1953. Robert F. Rich, great-grandson to founder John Rich, had asked that his daughter Catherine move to Woolrich with two-year-old Brayton, Jr. so that Brayton, Sr. could help run the woolen mill and modernize the factory. Brayton, Jr. grew up in the community of Woolrich and recalled in his opening letter to Woolrich: 175 Years of Excellence that his childhood was filled with memories of sneaking into the woolen mill with his cousin John William Rich and jumping from one 500-pound bale of wool to another while sneaking by the factory watchman.
Brayton, Jr. passed unexpectedly in 2007, leaving the Woolrich legacy in the hands of his son and the 7th generation of the Rich family, Nick Brayton. In 2010, Nick and his cousin and 8th generation Rich, Joshua Rich, started to take up ownership of the Woolrich, Inc. company together. “Throughout my college career I never planned to be the President of Woolrich,” Nick admits. “I grew up in the factory like my father, but I remember how late he had to work and how frustrated it made him sometimes. I had boiled it down to just that thought, and like most kids in my situation I guess I thought that wasn’t what I wanted.” However, when Nick was asked to take up the position, he knew it was the right decision for him and for Woolrich.
Since taking up control of Woolrich, Nick and his cousin Josh have started the transition into bringing some of Woolrich’s most popular items back to domestic manufacturers. “We’ve always woven our own wool here at the mill,” Josh says, “but in the late 80s and early 90s we had to start manufacturing some of our most popular items abroad to keep up with market demands. Now, we’re working to bring back some of those most classic items back, like the Woolrich Buffalo Plaid Shirt Jac.” Josh and Nick enlisted the help of their popular Italian branch and Executive Vice President Patrick Nebiolo to help bring back to light that iconic American heritage past the company is known for.
The last couple of years have seen tremendous growth for the company in finding a new younger audience in heritage-minded Generation Y. “We started taking our shirts and blankets to Penn State tailgating events and realized we had a whole new audience that was aware of our company history and standards, they’re now some of our best clients,” says Leah Dole, Woolrich’s marketing and advertising director. Leah has started collecting swatches of the company’s past through archiving customer’s antique and vintage Hunting Shirt Jacs.
“We want to keep the stories of everyone’s history with Woolrich alive. Those stories are so much a part of our community here,” Nick explains, “we have families that have worked here for generations. That’s the great thing about our products too, not only can a grandson have the same style Shirt Jac that his grandfather wore hunting, but he can inherit it.” The Woolrich family and company are still very much alive in Woolrich, PA. With its iconic pine-tree-lined mile-drive into town and 1830s mill, the town stands as a gleaming example of American industry and its lasting quality.