Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

John Rich II received a “warm” welcome when he visited winter logging camps in the dense forests of northern Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century. Tough, hardened lumberjacks valued the one bit of comfort and protection from frostbite that Rich proffered from the back of his mule cart: a simple pair of woolen socks. From those humble beginnings, Rich engaged in a trade that dated back thousands of years. His socks, coverlets, yarn, and fabrics were the seeds that would blossom into one of the best-known textile companies in the world.

For nearly one hundred and seventy-five years, Woolrich, Inc., as it is named today, has been synonymous with woolen cloth. As America’s oldest continuously operating woolen null, it has survived economic downturns, as well as foreign competition, that doomed many textile manufacturers throughout the country. It is a dichotomy of the old and the new, of tradition and modern thinking, of keeping the best that has worked over thousands of years of wool production and, yet, being unafraid to explore new ideas, technologies, and fabrics. Woolrich is – and has been – much more than just a corporation devoted exclusively to sales and profits. It’s a way of life for generations of Rich descendants and their workers, residents of the Village of Woolrich in Clinton County.

John Rich II was born October 16, 1786, in Wiltshire, England. He had a limited education, but his father, John Rich Sr. (1759-1847), was a wool carder in Wooley, in northcentral England, which was, at that time, situated in the heart of the largest wool manufacturing region in the world. Wool became an important commodity early in England’s history and in the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I required the nobility to take an oath to the Crown while kneeling on a woolen sack to remind them that Great Britain owed its power and influence to wool.

At the age of twenty-five, John Rich II sailed from Liverpool to Philadelphia and found work in 1811 as a wool carder in Germantown. Several years later, he learned of an opportunity in Mill Hall, near what is present-day Lock Haven in Clinton County. He rented a small woolen mill from Nathan Harvey and operated it until 1830, when he had earned capital sufficient to build his own factory. (Clinton County, incidentally, was named for New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, an outspoken proponent of American-made wool and textiles in the early nineteenth century.)

He settled along Chatham Run, near the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, and married Rachel McClosky, daughter of a local farmer, on November 3, 1825. As the parents of fourteen children, they literally begat an enduring textile dynasty. Four sons and seven daughters survived to adulthood and many of their descendants have lived and died in Chatham Run or Woolrich, assuming prominent roles in the company, the community, or both.

Rich formed a partnership with Daniel McCormick and purchased a farm owned by John Fleming in Dunstable Township in 1830, along Little Plum Run. Making bricks from the red clay found on the land, Rich built a modest three­-story mill building. Everything was done at the factory – washing, carding, spin­ning, weaving, and sewing. Wool was supplied by area farms. Rich continued to make woolen socks, yams, and blankets, in addition to flannels and satinette for an ever-expanding market.

Rich and McCormick built a dam and reservoir to serve the mill, but Little Plum Run proved to be an unreliable water source. Rich hoped to move the mill a half-mile north to a site known as Watering Trough, but encountered unexpected opposition from gristmill owner Andrew Ferguson, who feared that water diverted for a woolen mill would interfere with his needs. Rich and McCormick found an alternative location, a three-hun­dred-acre tract of land they purchased in 1834 in Pine Creek Township, then part of Lycoming County. (Clinton County was formed in 1839 out of parts of Lycoming and Centre Counties.)

Once again the bricks and lumber came from Rich’s land. He first built a sawmill to cut timber for three log houses and a textile mill. His new three­-story factory, consider­ably larger than the building at Little Plum Run, measured fifty-­five by thirty-five feet. In 1845, the new mill was ready for occupancy. Rich had bought out McCormick in 1843 and operated the new mill as sole owner from 1845 until 1852, when he formed a partnership with his eldest child, John Fleming Rich (1826-1888), and John Colwell. Each invested approximately thirty-six hundred dollars, a fairly substantial amount, and Rich forecasted great potential for the mill. By 1834, the Pennsylvania Canal system bad been extended to Lock Haven, just seven miles to the southwest. The canal offered easier transport of goods produced at the mill to large markets, among them Philadelphia, Pitts­burgh, and Buffalo, New York.

The first mill building, with its distinctive red brick walls and layered porches, is still recognizable, although it is no longer owned by the company. After the factory was relocated, the building was converted into apartments and, later, an antiques store. Today, the historic building houses a bed and breakfast.

Rich had even more incentive to suc­ceed after grim news of his father’s plight in England reached him. John Rich Sr., then seventy-nine years old, had written his son, but his letters might not have reached him in the remote region of the Commonwealth. It was in 1838 when Joseph Hillier (1810-1893), son of John Rich II’s sister Mary Rich Hillier (1784-1850), received a letter from the despondent elder Rich. Joseph Hillier then forwarded the news to his Uncle John.

… your grandmother [Margaret Braine Wilson Rich (1780-1838)] was in so weak a state and half famished, that we did not expect she would continue so long as she did. She departed this life the 10th of March, after a lingering illness of fifteen months. She and I in half starved situation having nothing to subsist on but the parish allowance which was five shillings a week for us both … My situation is most deplorable not being able to work . .. Please show this to your uncle [John Rich II] … knowing he would relieve me in my miserable situation. Likewise give my parental love to him, his wife, and children.

The destitute John Rich Sr. had pawned a coat and borrowed money to purchase postage. Rich brought his father to Pennsylvania and was able to provide some comfort for him in his final years. By the time he died on January 7, 1847, he was able to witness the opening of the new factory, an enterprise made possible by the knowledge of wool that he had handed down.

Operating a booming mill required skilled workers. The company erected seventy residences and twelve plant buildings were constructed during the following eighty-five years, giving rise to Factoryville. Not unexpectedly, Facto­ryville was renamed Richville about 1866 and given its present name of Woolrich in 1888. Contrary to what many may assume, the community is not named after the factory – the company, after a full century in business, was named for the settlement. Known by numerous entities – totaling nineteen through the years – such as Rich and McCormick, John Rich and Son, J. F. and C. B. Rich, J. F. Rich and Sons, and finally, John Rich and Brothers, the company did not actually become Woolrich Woolen Mills until January 1, 1930, when it was incorporat­ed as a privately held company. In 1988, Woolrich Woolen Mills changed its name to Woolrich, Inc. Many of the Victorian era and company-built houses owned by Rich descendants are still occupied, although the corporation no longer owns many. A fire in 1898 destroyed the original log house of John Rich II.

Through the years, the company’s outdoor clothing became icons of the American apparel industry. In the 1850s, the company introduced its trademark “Buffalo Shirt,” still recognizable with its classic red and black plaid design. The shirt, so named because its designer raised buffalo, is still in demand, but other colors are available. The “Railroad Vest,” targeted to the burgeoning num­bers of rail workers across the country, also made its debut in the mid-nine­teenth century. By the 1890s, a full line of woolen shirts, breeches, jackets, and caps were part of the company’s offerings. Woolen hose and mackinaw coats her­alded the debut of a women’s line in 1915. Twenty years later, in 1935, Wool­rich was called upon to supply clothing for the Civilian Conservation Corps. During World War II, the company out­fitted civilians working in cold climates for the war effort. With modern demands that clothing be stylish and not purely functional, Woolrich introduced “Mad Mod Vests” and “Hip” fringed plaid vests in the 1970s.

By 1881, the Keystone State led the nation in wool production. In Washing­ton County alone, farmers owned a half­-million sheep and produced nearly two and a half million pounds of wool annu­ally, one fourth of Pennsylvania’s wool and more than any other county in the United States. Declining wool prices and southwestern Pennsylvania’s increasing interest in bituminous coal prompted the decline of sheep herding. Nonetheless, eighty percent of the wool processed in Woolrich still comes from domestic sources, mostly from such states as Texas. When garments require a high level of softness, Woolrich may specify a fine wool that may be available only from countries such as Australia or New Zealand, recognized as the leading producers of wool. A small percentage of Pennsylvania wool, generally graded as medium to fine by industry standards, turns up in wool lots purchased by Woolrich. Occasionally, visitors have been known to ask where Woolrich, Inc., keeps its sheep. The company buys on the domestic and world commodities markets, not directly from sheep farmers.

In 1930, during his seventy-fifth birthday celebration, Milton Bond Rich (1855- 1930), the first president of Woolrich, the corporation, and the grandson of John Rich II, shared many revealing, often humorous, anecdotes a.bout life in Wool­rich. He avidly collected documents, letters, photographs, ephemera, and historical accounts of the family and company, many of which appear in his self-published book, History of the First 100 Years in Woolrich. Rich also spoke of his memories of the Civil War. During the war, John Rich and Son supplied woolen blankets to the Union Army. (The company still supplies authentic blue and gray fabric for makers of uniforms and blankets for Civil War reenactors.)

“I recall an earnest controversy that occurred in the weaving and spinning room of the mill when the boys were dis­cussing the enlisting for the War of the Rebellion,” M. B. Rich recollected. “I also remember going .. . for the mail and the cheering that would be given when I brought news of a victory for our armies. I recall the death-like pall that came over us all when news of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln reached us.”

M. B. Rich was a driving force behind many improvements, including new machinery, expanded buildings, and the reputation of the Woolrich Woolen Mills. He served two terms, from 1915 to 1918, in the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. His generosity and activism were also noted by service organizations. He served as a trustee or board member of Williamsport Dickinson Seminary (now Lycoming College), Lock Haven Normal School (now Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania), and Lock Haven Hospital.

The Rich family, including Jennie Fer­guson Rich (1859-1910), who inherited a company partnership from her husband, John Rich IV (1854-1895), Milton’s brother, had been quite generous to educational and cultural institutions. More often than not, while the Rich women were not highly visible in the operation of the mill, with some exceptions, they played a more traditional role in influencing employee welfare, philanthropic concerns, and the quality of life in the community.

Ironically, on August 8, 1930, the very day that M. B. Rich purchased additional property for the benefit of Lycoming Col­lege, he died. After completing the transaction, he was en route home from a Williamsport printer with a carload of his two hundred and forty-page history. Less than ten miles from home and factory; he suffered a heart attack and died in an automobile accident in Avis. Lycoming College recognized the generosity of the Riches by naming a women’s dormitory, Rich Hall, in their honor.

While the South was competing with cotton cloth on the backs of slave labor, the Rich families established a model community for people to work and live. It’s not to say that factory work was not hard with long hours, but relative to other industries, such as coal mining, logging, or farming, the work was less dangerous, and workers received better treat­ment. Worker dissatisfaction in America is often measured by union organization, but unions found no acceptance among Woolrich workers. Life did seem prosper­ous for local residents in 1923 when the community enjoyed brief distinction as the “automobile capital of the world.” Seventy-one families in Woolrich owned seventy-six automobiles.

By 1930, the year Woolrich Woolen Mills celebrated its centennial, the community of four hundred and seventy-six residents boasted a new brick school house, a church, a general merchandise store, a swimming pool with a bath house, a baseball park and company-sponsored baseball team, a post office, a band that gave regular concerts, a community building, and a twenty-acre park with picnic and recreational facilities, tennis court, and retirement residences. In 1949, a larger community center was built, adding indoor activities such as bowling, basketball, and meetings of various charitable and social groups. With a population of less than one thousand, some residents are second- and third-gener­ation company employees, but the community has a mix of occupations similar to other small communities. Even with modernization, Woolrich retains its old-fashioned, small-town charm, evocative of the images created by illustrator Norman Rock­well (1894-1978).

Woolrich’s clothing has long been part of American history and culture. In addition to keeping hunters warm, Woolrich supplied Admiral Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957) with woolen clothing and parkas for the Antarctic expeditions he made between 1939 and 1941. Television viewers often saw Low­ell Thomas (1892-1981), author and documentary commentator, wearing Woolrich shirts as he narrated his High Adventures series in the 1970s. Others identified with Woolrich clothing include wild food expert Euell Gibbons (1911-1975), who last resided not far from Woolrich in Sny­der County; reptile authority Clyde Peel­ing; mountain climber and inventor Jay White; and, more recently, professional snowboard racer Matt Drinker and filmmaker and adventurer Karin Muller. The company has also provided wardrobe for more than twenty major motion pictures, including Amistad, City Slickers, Dante’s Peak, and Grumpy Old Men.

Perhaps the most notable achieve­ment of Woolrich, Inc., is that it has remained as durable as its woolen goods. While one textile factory after another has succumbed to foreign competition, Woolrich has endured. Of the hundreds of woolen factories that once dotted America, just five companies comparable to Woolrich are still in existence. An important key to the company’s longevity has been – and remains – ­the determination of each generation to uphold its family tradition.

Both business and public acclaim have helped nurture each generation of Riches. Robert Flem­ing Rich (1883-1968), son of M. B. Rich, was elected to Congress before returning to Woolrich to serve as its president, from 1959 to 1964, and chair­man of the board, from 1964 to 1966. Not all descendants have joined the family business, of course, but have made other important contributions. M. B.’s brother, Charles H. Rich (1860-1948), was a tobacco farmer, judge, inventor, and discoverer of three geometry theorems.

There have been occasions when non­-family members led the company. The first occurred when Ellery Channing Tobias was put in charge while Robert F. Rich served in Congress. From 1968 to 1985, Roswell Brayton Sr., with a strong New England background in textiles, served as president. He had married Catherine Rich, daughter of Congress­man Rich, and moved to Woolrich in 1953. Brayton’s son, Roswell Brayton Jr. is currently president and chief executive officer of Woolrich.

Surviving the difficult years of America’s textile industry has, naturally, required difficult choices. According to Brayton Jr., the real turning point for Woolrich occurred in the late sixties and seventies, when his father took the company presidency. Roswell Brayton Sr. is credited with dramatic changes that set a new course for the corporation and set goals for global competition. Woolrich encountered several threatening hardships, not the least of which were competitive pressures and the perception of wool itself as a fabric.

The creation of synthetic fibers allowed competitors to side-step animal and plant production, while giving the consumer new easy-care, relatively inexpensive, and lightweight fabrics able to be laundered and dried with little or no ironing. Wool, on the other hand, required careful handling, hand washing, and air-drying to avoid shrinkage. That is no longer true. Woolrich was one of the first manufacturers to mill machine­-washable and machine-dryable wool, a step that has been perfected within the last half-dozen years. Woolrich also blends fabrics using a vast selection of natural and synthetic fibers to enhance the functions of a particular fabric.

Woolrich’s leaders, committed to keeping their headquarters in Clinton County, had to make changes to compete with foreign companies. The commitment to modern technology was not a problem. Automation at the plant began in the 1930s. Several machines – some with patents designed specifically for the company – installed decades ago are still in use, but new equipment has been added. As wool yarn is twisted to strengthen its tensile strength and is wound onto spools, one machine automatically detects improper thickness in the yam, snips out the defective section, and reattaches the fiber in a way that is not detectable. Computerization began in the 1980s, bringing in new machines, dye­ing techniques, monitoring, quality control, and an array of colors, weaves, and patterns. Workers, however, still inspect woven fabric by hand to repair defects and uneven weaves. “You cannot beat the dexterity of talented workers,” Brayton asserts. With close attention to quality control, says vice president Rick Osborne, “less than one-half of one percent of the wool is wasted from the cutouts of the defective parts of the yarn.”

During the 1970s, under the direction of John Billington, vice president of sales and marketing, Woolrich expanded from milling only wool to processing a variety of natural and synthetic fibers. Today, it offers an ever-increasing catalogue of wool, cotton, synthetic, and lightweight apparel for men, women, and children, as well as furniture, pillows, curtains, bed throws, rugs, and many other products for home and outdoor living. Woolrich partners with an increasing number of other manufacturers, apparel companies, and retailers to market special lines. Today, thousands of outlets throughout the world feature the famous Woolrich label. Among countries where the company has generated the greatest demand are Italy and Japan. Woolrich dealers are be found in forty-nine of the fifty states, the exception being, predictably, Hawaii.

Fabric patterns that distinguish the distinctive “Woolrich look” are still created by skilled designers. The wool can be dyed, or patterns woven by looms into the fabric with the use of a dobby, a cylinder best described as a cross between a player piano roll and an old computer punch card. The dobby instructs the loom on every stitch. The finished fabric is shipped to manufacturers in the United States, and overseas for sewing. At one time, Woolrich owned sewing plants in Nebraska, Colorado, Georgia, and the state of Washington. In June 1999, Wool­rich closed its last out-of-state sewing plant, located in Soperton, Georgia. Only one other plant is in operation, a few miles away in Jersey Shore, in Lycoming County. Some Woolrich products are completed in Jersey Shore, such as blankets, throws, and pillows, but the operation also serves as the company’s major distribution center. Woolrich, Inc., presently employs approximately eight hundred and fifty people in the United States.

Woolrich processes approximately five million pounds of wool each year, operating at about eighteen hours per weekday. Commodity experts are fore­casting that the long decline in international wool production is bottoming out and that demand will increase. Companies increase business by introducing new packaging or new products. Woolrich is undertaking both. New technologies, including recent genetic sheep breeding techniques, could improve the quality and versatility of wool and, therefore, a greater demand for Woolrich wool. These new breeding techniques produce quality wool in almost any spectrum of white, black, gray, silver, brown, beige, red, and blonde. The sheep can also be sheared more frequently.

“We have a dedicated work force,” the current president says. “They are loyal employees. Some have been here for generations. [The company stays here] because of the nature of the countryside. It is symbiotic with the product. This would be more difficult if we were based in downtown New York or Atlanta. Our designers are in touch with the outdoors. Fashion writers who come here have a reverence for tradition, as well as being exposed to our multiple lines.”

Much has changed in the textile industry, but much of founder John Rich II’ s vision and ideals still propels the company. Brayton asserts that Woolrich, Inc., has no intention of ever going public. Combining the best of the past with a vision for the future worked well for John Rich II and still guides the seventh generation. Given its leadership and adaptability, there is every indication that the company, its owners and faithful employees, will enjoy the bicentennial of Woolrich, Inc., in 2030.



John Rich II opens first mill at Little Plum Run
Pennsylvania law limits work hours of minor textile workers
Rich moves mill to present-day Woolrich
Woolrich introduces its famous “Buffalo Shirt”
Woolrich produces blankets for the Union during Civil War
Factoryville renamed Richville
Pennsylvania leads nation in wool productions
Richville renamed Woolrich
Rich Brothers produces shirts, caps, breeches, and jackets
World War I
Wool prices increase 50% while supply declines
Rich Brothers debut line of ladies woolen hose and mackinaw coats
Synthetic fibers begin to compete heavily with wool
Incorporation of Woolrich Woolen Mills, noting its centennial
Woolrich outfits the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
Wool Products Labeling Act benefits woolen goods makers by outlawing mislabeled fabrics
Woolrich outfits Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expedition
World War II
Woolrich outfits civilian defense workers in cold climates
Imports cause 42% drop in U.S. wool production, but textiles still rank as second largest industry
U.S. and Australian/New Zealand wool organizations merge to create Wool Bureau to foster world wool industry
Woolrich clothing becomes popular on college campuses
Woolrich begins to add other fibers to product lines
Woolrich gains visibility as wardrobe of choice for television outdoor series and motion pictures
Woolrich, celebrating 150 years, begins computerization of factory and introduces new fabrics
Woolrich Woolen Mills renamed Woolrich, Inc.
Easy-care wool, expanding consumer lines, and new technologies in use as industry predicts increase in production
Woolrich is one of few surviving woolen mills to have witnessed 36 United States presidents and 40 Pennsylvania governors
Woolrich observes its 175th anniversary


For Further Reading

Jerde, Judith. Encyclopedia of Textiles. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1992.

Leinbach, Paul W. A Rich Family History. Orlando, FL: Paul W. Leinbach, 1996.

Rich, Milton B. History of the First 100 Years in Woolrich. Woolrich, Pa.: Milton B. Rich, 1930.

Von Bergen, Warner, and Herbert R. Mauersberger. American Wool Handbook. New York: Textile Book Publishers, 1948.


Fred J. Lauver is assistant editor of and an occasional contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage.