Today, the city of Beacon, NY is experiencing a resurgence as the “Brooklyn of the north”, home to art studios, hipster coffee shops, and affordable housing. At the turn of the twentieth century, when my grandparents lived there, it was know as NY State’s hat making capital, second only in US hat production to neighboring Danbury, Connecticut. Beacon had at one time 50 factories, ranging from small to very large operations such as the Tioronda Hat Factory. Along with its sister plant, the Dutchess Hat Works, Tioronda employed 650 workers in the 1880s. The Dutchess factory alone produced 450 felt hats a day in the late 19th century.
The hat factories that sprang up in Beacon took advantage of the Fishkill Creek, both for water needed for washing and dying wool, and for water-powered turbines. The local rail system made it possible to send the finished products for sale in New York City showrooms.
Although my father’s paternal grandfather and great grandfather both worked on the railroad, my great aunt was listed in the 1910 US Federal Census as a trimmer in a straw factory (no doubt at one of the local straw hat manufacturers, such as the Genuine Panama Hat Company or the Schrader Hat Company). On the maternal side, one great aunt was a wool hat trimmer, another a stenographer in a hat factory, and my great uncle was listed as a hatter (specifically, a maker of wool hats). Neighbors worked in the local silk and wool mills, or in hat factories and shops as managers, bookkeepers, machinists, hat finishers, sizers, box makers, and milliners. A few of the hatters were recorded as working in fur. Although many of the workers were born in NY State, some were immigrants from Russia, Germany, Italy, and Ireland.
The hat industry in Beacon died out during the 1930s and 40s, due in part to the depression, changing clothing styles, and cheap imports. The old factories and warehouses of Beacon are being repurposed to support its new businesses and residents. Some buildings have been converted to beautiful lofts and condominiums, restaurants, breweries, art galleries, and an art museum.
- Hudson Valley Magazine, A History of Beacon as it Celebrates its Centennial in 2013, 2013.
- Beaconarts.org, Beacon Historical Society: “Hats Off to Beacon!”, 2016
- Historic Beacon by Robert J. Murphy and Denise Doring Van Buren, Arcadia Publishing, 1998.
- Roundhouse Beacon (a restaurant and hotel that occupy the former Matteawan Manufacturing Company hat factory site), About.
- Aryeh Siegel Architect, Creek Loft Condominiums and Apartments, 2017.
- The Highlands Currant, Converted Mill, Lofts at Beacon is Home to Artists and a Gallery, 2014.
- Diaart.org, Dia Art Foundation to Open Museum in Beacon, New York, to House on the World’s Most Significant Collections of Contemporary Art, 2003.
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