Around 1890, local businessman, Joseph Fowler, left a partnership to open his own factoring manufacturing shirts with detachable collars and cuffs. The Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company was located at 146, 148, 150 Glen Street.
While Joseph Fowler employed hundreds, this would provide invaluable experience for two young men who joined the company in 1891 as clerks. Prior to joining the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company, Jame Robert “J.R.” McMullen, a Glens Falls Academy graduate, had clerked at the Glens Falls Post Office the previous three years. Walter Leaven a recent graduate from the Glens Falls Academy was beginning his first job. Despite these somewhat humble beginnings, both advanced quickly at the company.
By 1897 both men had risen from their clerk positions to be listed on the board of directors, along with the owner, Joseph Fowler, his brother Charles Fowler and John Davies. One year later, at the time of Joseph Fowler’s death, the board of directors for this prosperous business 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. While others did not realize it at the time, this fire drastically changed the future of the Joseph Fowler Shirt and Collar Company. Perhaps the only one who appreciated the changes to come was JR McMullen, who had been representing the company at NYC at the time of the fire.
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. With all of this news, JR began thinking of a new building, to house a new business.
Before leaving New York City, JR sent Walter a telegram confidently declaring that the two would soon be in business.
Shortly after the fire, they met with Charles Fowler. Displaying a keen understanding of the industries future, they arranged to take the shirt manufacturing business with their portion of the insurance money, leaving Charles with the detachable collars and cuffs. J.R. and Walter incorporated their new business, McMullen Leavens Shirt Company, 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, which was located across the street, and allowed them to have their own railroad spur, fabrics and other materials were delivered right to their door.
According to local legend J.R. and Walter had looked at several locations around the area. They were walking around the lot at Lawrence Street, just as they reached an agreement on the location, they found a shamrock growing among the grass. Viewing this as a fortuitous omen, predicting their future fortune, they incorporated the shamrock into their logo.
The shamrock brought them plenty of luck, they began shipping orders from a temporary set up while their factory was built. 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. JR and Walter were on many local boards and were well known in the community. JR was well known for his elaborate gardens, which included landscaping the courtyard of the factory. Each year, he created an intricate holiday display on the front lawn of his home, going to view it was an highly anticipated outing for many each year.