Historic Harrisville

P.O. Box 79
Harrisville, NH 03450
603-827-3722

Erin Hammerstedt
Executive Director
ehammerstedt@

 


 

Office Hours

Monday-Friday
8:00 AM to 4:00 PM

 

 
Meetings & Events
 
 
 
 

 

Incorporatoors Meeting
Saturday, April 27, 2019
10:00 a.m.

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A Double Celebration: Historic Harrisville and Harrisville Designs Turn Forty

By Pamela White

Chick and Pat Colony

Nearly everyone who lives in or near Harrisville knows the Colony family, owners and operators of Cheshire Mills over several generations until its closing in 1970. In addition to eldest son, John J. (Chick) Colony III, many members of the family still live here and are part of the fabric of the community, although Chick may be the one who is most in the public eye. Tall, with a friendly look-you-in-the-eye gaze, he can be seen most days walking with a relaxed purposeful gait between his home and the Harrisville Designs office or to the General Store for lunch, or around the waterways and mill buildings.

Some people wear a lot of hats. Chick wears at least three, but they each would bear the word “Harrisville” on the metaphorical brim. Like hats, purposes can be multiple: for example, as co-owner of Harrisville Designs with his wife, lifelong Harrisville resident, Patricia Colony, he keeps the textile tradition alive in Harrisville; as a trustee of Historic Harrisville, where I am a fellow trustee, he works to preserve the mill buildings and to lease them out as workspaces and affordable housing; and, as town moderator for Harrisville, he facilitates the annual Town Meeting. Harrisville is also his home where he and Pat have raised their three sons.

Interviewing him this past July, I tried to keep track of which hat he was wearing as he was talking, continually switching his meaning as he used the words “we” and “they,” depending on the subject.

Both Harrisville Designs and Historic Harrisville shared a 40th anniversary in 2011. The occasion gave Chick a story to tell, first, as a founder of Historic Harrisville, Inc., and second, as its longest and still largest tenant. The following brief history is paraphrased from the Harrisville Designs website:

Harrisville Designs has been spinning 100% Virgin Wool Yarn in Harrisville, New Hampshire for 40 years. As one of a handful of woolen mills left in this country, Harrisville’s textile tradition is rich and dates back to 1794 when the first of several mills was built spanning the Nubanusit Brook to harness the water power necessary for carding fleeces. The Harris family built many of the original mill buildings as well as houses for the Harris family members and mill workers. Faulkner and Colony of Keene purchased the granite mill in 1850 and created Cheshire Mills, which quickly expanded. In 1887, the Colonys bought out the Harris holdings.

When Cheshire Mills closed its doors in 1970, a group of citizens and preservationists joined together to form a nonprofit organization calling itself Historic Harrisville, Inc., which immediately purchased several of the buildings to restore and lease out to businesses.

John J. Colony III was instrumental in this endeavor. As the mill buildings were being cleared out and machinery was being destroyed and sold for scrap metal, he quickly realized that textiles would be completely erased from the village. He started Harrisville Designs in 1971 to keep the textile tradition alive and to create jobs in Harrisville for the economic vitality of the town, leasing space from Historic Harrisville to give that organization income to help keep it viable.

Harrisville Designs now has 25 employees, nearly half of whom are from Harrisville or neighboring towns. “Theoretically, I’m the chief executive but I’m not a very good manager,” says Chick. “I like to do my own job and let other people do theirs. So it depends on having really good people that I can trust.”

Harrisville Designs is very complex for a small business, according to Chick. “We’ve got a marketing department, a graphics department, an advertising department and everything else. We not only manufacture things, we also sell them and advertise them and design them and all that stuff, and we print the catalogues and do all our own graphics.”

Harrisville Designs shares not only a birth year with Historic Harrisville, but shares its risky beginnings, too. As Chick says, “They were both a bit shaky – experiments in a way – but thin ice is what it’s all about, right? Pain is progress. At the time, there really was no Historic Harrisville to do anything for Harrisville Designs. They turned the Harris Storehouse over to us. We had to maintain it, and we had to pay the taxes on it. When the General Store opened around 2000 we moved the Harrisville Designs store to the Harris Mill. We kept our offices at the Harris Storehouse until we moved here (Mill No.1) two years ago. This is the best space we’ve had and I’m not going to move out of this office.”

Before Linda Willett was hired as executive director of Historic Harrisville in 1999, Historic Harrisville had so-called net leases, where the tenants were responsible for all the expenses and took care of the buildings themselves. Chick says, “Linda could see clearly that some tenants were better at maintaining their buildings than others. Gradually it seemed to make sense for the management of the buildings to be on the landlord side, which meant that rents could be higher and tenant expenses could be lower. But it depends on the building – where you can identify things specific to the building, you can put it into the lease. Here at the Mill, tenants don’t pay the building expenses, but in the Harris Storehouse, which is available now, the rental part is a smaller amount because the tenant also pays the expenses. It’s better this way, because we have Linda who can look at the buildings and figure it out.”

Harrisville Designs’ relationship with Historic Harrisville is unique. As Chick says, “I am a more informed tenant because I wear both hats, but that’s good and bad. It’s good because I’m comfortable with the landlord – when the roof leaks, I don’t worry too much about it – but, more important, having a close relationship with preservation makes Harrisville Designs a better, more interesting business. The bad part is sometimes I make business decisions that are better for Historic Harrisville than Harrisville Designs, like moving the office around when we were starting out because buildings were vacant. It works both ways, but it’s a good relationship, I think. As a tenant, Harrisville Designs certainly appreciates all the spaces and the opportunities Historic Harrisville has given us.”

At a coffee hour in early December, hosted by Historic Harrisville Trustees for HHI tenants, I met several employees of Harrisville Designs, including Diane (Dee) Miller, who is the bookkeeper. She moved here from Merrimack with her husband and their son James, who recently graduated from Keene High School, and now works in the woodworking shop, doing packaging and making looms. His co-worker, a young woman named Devin, is from Swanzey, and her Mom works in the shipping department. “This is like a family place,” says Dee. When I toured the shop later, I saw Devin and James and other people at work around a table, and Devin commented, “We’re Santa’s little elves,” which was certainly apt.

I also met Sharon Wilder who now manages the woodworking shop and purchasing. Her grandfather had worked here, and she has returned to the area after a brief time away. She had previously worked at Harrisville Designs for 18 years, 10 in the shop as a woodworker, and the rest in marketing and sales during which time she also managed the retail store. She proudly showed me the children’s lap loom, a very popular item, and said, referring to the orders being received, “It’s a crazy time now.” Louisa Walker, Educational Sales Coordinators, does the WoolWorks Curriculum program. She works with Lorna McMaster who, with Chick, created the curriculum. The curriculum teaches math concepts using weaving or knitting, chemistry by natural dyeing, and history and geography through the history of wool and fiber arts. Louisa had just gotten back from the Girl Scouts’ 100th anniversary convention in Texas where, as she excitedly described to me, “At Harrisville Designs’ 10-by-10 booth, there were over 100 girls, clustering around the booth, and weaving!”

There are a lot of other tenants, some familiar to villagers – the residential tenants, studio artists, the busy Harrisville Children’s Center, motorcycle builder Walter Siegl, Yoga instructor Kathleen Vetter, fiber artist Marylou Dipietro – and others tucked away. I met Pearse O’Byrne, actor, short story writer, stringed instrument maker – especially the 16th century viola – who lived for a time in New York, working at the Irish Repertory Theatre, where he did a production of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake adapted by Shelagh Fogarty. In his studio above the Harrisville Children’s Center, which consists of two large bright rooms, he spends time going back and forth between them, writing in one and working on his instruments in the other – “maybe it’s a right brain left brain thing, but I’m not sure.”

Chick feels strongly that tenants need to hear the Historic Harrisville story so that they feel part of the program from the beginning. “If we reduce the relationship to tenant-landlord, to pure real estate, then tenants are going to expect more from Historic Harrisville, and be less sympathetic to Historic Harrisville’s mission. Getting the tenants together so they feel they are a part of the story will solve that. This is a special real estate opportunity and that’s not conveyed in the listings. After they get here, the tenants share the pride.”

“The Harris Storehouse is a showpiece, our loveliest building. I loved being there as a tenant for over 30 years – it was the first building Historic Harrisville did and it was very exciting when we did it. The best kind of use for it would be a studio and showroom, using the upstairs for someone to build furniture, for example, and having a showroom downstairs. A potter would fit in well, too; it’s perfect for a working studio of some kind. Or it could be an office space, too, like an architect’s office.”

By the end of our interview, I realized that Chick’s passion encompasses all of Harrisville – past, present, and future. As I listened to him talk about his business, preservation, and investment in Harrisville’s economic well-being, I noticed that most often he used the word “we.” I sensed that, to him, ultimately, there is no “they.”