“Glens Falls has attained fame in all parts of the civilized world as a manufacturing town. Not only are her products distributed all over the United States, but they contribute somewhat to the exports of the country. Between 7000 and 8000 persons are employed by the various establishments in town….At the present time Glens Falls is enjoying a period of prosperity which makes it the envy of many other towns with equal natural resources.”
-1897 Glens Falls Area Phonebook
An Age of Prosperity
Around 1890, Joseph Fowler had left a partnership to manufacture his own shirts, collars, and cuffs at 146, 148, 150 Glen Street, this new venture would be called the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company.
In 1891, two “local boys” James Robert “J.R.” McMullen and Walter Leavens became clerks at the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company. J.R. had clerked at the Glens Falls Post Office the previous three years while Walter had recently graduated from the Glens Falls Academy, despite these somewhat humble beginnings, both advanced quickly.
By 1897 they were listed on the board of directors, alongside the owner Joseph Fowler, his brother Charles Fowler and John Davies. One year later Joseph Fowler had passed away, the board of directors for this prosperous business then consisted of Charles Fowler, J.R. McMullen and Walter Leavens.
On April 23, 1902 the third of the great fires in Glens Falls destroyed the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company, as well as damaging several other area businesses along Glen Street, changing the future of this business and these two young men.
Newspapers around the state conservatively estimated the damages at $500,000 (approximately $14,000,000 today), and reported at least 700 were left unemployed at the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company alone. It was predicted that the affected businesses would not be able to reopen until new buildings were built.
A New Beginning
J.R., who had been representing the Company in New York City, responded to the fire with optimism. He contacted Walter, confidently declaring that the two would soon be in business.
They met with Charles Fowler, and displaying a keen understanding of the industries future, they arranged to take the shirt manufacturing business, leaving Charles with the detachable collars and cuffs. Taking their share of the insurance money, J.R. and Walter incorporated their new business and contacted local architect Ephraim Potter to design their new factory. The location at 71 Lawrence Street (then 51 Lawrence Street) was selected for it’s proximity to the railroad depot.
The location gave them the inspiration for their logo. The story goes that when J.R. and Walter decided upon the property at Lawrence Street, they found a shamrock just as they decided to build here. Viewing this as a fortuitous omen, predicting their future fortune, they decided to incorporate the shamrock into their logo.
J.R. and Walter were very successful with their new business, as a large employer The McMullen Leavens Shirt Factory quickly became an important part of the community. Not only did they employ hundreds of local people, but the people working for them proudly came together to represent the company in the community. Newspapers from this bygone era include stories of the McMullen sports teams and even a letter from Father Flanagan, of Boy’s Town, thanking the employees of McMullen for their kindness and generosity.
In 1936 J.R. seized on a new fashion trend and the McMullen-Leavens Company entered into the dressmaking business. Under the direction of their head designer, Dorthy Cox, they used superior fabric, skilled workmanship, and attention to detail in this new line to further their reputation for high quality fashionable garments. It was not long before their dresses graced the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, not to mention the body of some of the times biggest stars. Today one of the McMullen dresses is in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1939 J.R. purchased the “Troy Shirt Makers Guild” label for $1, and began using the label in 1940 to distinguish the shirt manufacturing from the dress manufacturing business. Both continued to operate out of the same location.
On October 5, 1946, J.R. passed away without a will, leaving the company leaderless. It took two years to settle the estate, at which time it was divided between his heirs. One group took over dressmaking, the other shirt making.
A Gradual Decline
For a time after J.R.’s death the dress company continued to prosper, largely due to the skill and reputation of their designer, Dorothy Cox. As Dorthy gained her own following and other companies sought her endorsement of their products, friction between Dorothy and J.R.’s heirs mounted. In 1952 Dorothy left the company. Nine years after J.R.’s death dress sales had fallen to their lowest levels ever.
In 1956 the family was forced to sell the McMullen dress business to Nathan Sheinman, who made significant changes to the business, including moving the company’s New York City offices and shifting the headquarter from Glens Falls to the city. In 1976 the McMullen label was sold again, and dress production in Glens Falls ended as it was sent overseas.
In 1992 the Troy Shirtmakers Guild was sold during bankruptcy proceedings. At that time there were 200 employees in Glens Falls and another 30 in Whitehall. In 1993 the label changed hands again as it was purchased by the Tennessee- based Tom James Co. On January 26, 1996 Tom James announced that they would be closing the Glens Falls factory in the spring, laying off the remaining 110 employees. The outlet store, which had always operated out of the building, had a list of 6,000 customers to contact about the imminent closing.
For almost a hundred years the McMullen Company was an important part of the Glens Falls community, not just because it was a major employer, but because of the sense of pride instilled in people who were part of the factory.
Today the building continues to receive visitors who come expressly to wander the halls, recalling memories of when they or a relative worked here, visited the factory, or shopped here for themselves and others.
Every so often a stray button or pin that works it’s way out of a crack in the floor boards.
It would be almost impossible to separate the property from the community’s memories of the Shirt Manufacturers who created it. Rather than try to do so this history has been embraced and celebrated in displays throughout the building.
We are indebted to the Chapman Historical Museum, not only for the images on this site, but for the historical panels lining the hallway between studios 101 and 106. To read more about the buildings history, as well as view gorgeous images of the building, its founders and McMullen advertisements from fashion magazines, read the book The McMullen Leavens Company: How Hometown Worked by Thomas K. Simpson and published by the Chapman Historical Museum.
The Shirt Factory of today is an on-going evolution. This transformation did not happen over night, it has been a gradual change that many people have contributed to over the years. Thanks to the commitment and vision of the owner, various tenants (especially the early tenants who put much of their heart and soul into this building) and others, this old factory has slowly come to life again and continues to play a role in the local community.
The process began in 1996 when the current owner visited the property for an auction and fell in love. He began preserving the building, which had been abandoned, while working with his lawyer to purchase the property, a process that took 3 years to complete. Once space was advertised, local artisans began contacting the owner, attracted by the natural light and inexpensive rent. The building was divided up piecemeal according the demands of tenants, the resulting maze can be equally frustrating and exciting as you wander the halls, discovering new things as you go. Early tenants requested large open spaces, a few of these large studios remain at the building, but for the most part the recent demand has been for smaller spaces.
Today the building features 77 unique studios, home to more than 100 different individuals. With so many people in one location, the building offers a wide range of opportunities for visitors!
In the News
One woman’s recollections of working at The McMullen-Leaven’s Factory:
Seamstress reflects on 80-year career, where she rubbed elbows with stars, The Post-Star, December 2014
About this old factory’s transformation and it’s role in the community (for articles about individual tenants, check their directory listing):
- Art Group seeks grant for arts district, The Post-Star, January 2015
- Small Business Saturday means big bucks for some, The Post-Star, November 2014
- Life inside The Shirt Factory, The Post-Star, September 2014
- Artist step into the sunlight to help homeless shelter, The Post-Star, August 2014
- A Visit to The Shirt Factory, The Post-Star, January 2014
- Keeping it Local, The Post-Star, November 2013
- Shoppers flock to support local businesses in the region for Small Business Saturday, The Post-Star, November 2013
- Hyde Collection generated $2.3 million for Warren County economy in one year, The Post-Star, November 2013
- Glens Falls Journal: Historic Adirondack Mill Town Brings New Life to Downtown, Travel Writers Magazine, April 2013
- Explore the Shirt Factory in Glens Falls, NY, Albany Kid, December 2013
- Growing creativity: Shirt Factory adds new businesses, The Post-Star, November 2012
- 16 artists awarded at annual Mohawk-Hudson Regional, The Times Union, October 2012
- Glens Falls, N.Y.: ‘Small-Town Feel, Big-Town Style’, NPR: Destination Art, August 2012
- Get Local: LocalFest comes to The Shirt Factory in Glens Falls, The Free George, August 2012
- Shirt Factory adds new welcome area, The Post-Star, January 2013
- The Shirt Factory, Your News Now, March 2011
- Open House showcases Shirt Factory’s growth, The Post-Star, November 2010
- Former factory, arts hotbed, The Chronicle’s Glens Falls Visitors Guide, 2010
- Glens Falls factory finds new life as artisan haven, The Post-Star, July 2010
- A lot happening at Troy Shirt Factory, The Post-Star, July 2010
- Making the engines go, The Post-Star, January 2006
- A Year of Growth, The Post-Star, December 2002
- A Stitch in Time, The Post-Star, October 2002
- Art as a business, The Post-Star, June 2002
- Crew of artists draws hundreds to old factory, The Post-Star, February 2002
- Artists show off factory’s metamorphosis into studios, The Post-Star, December 2001