The Last Factory

My town of Arlington Massachusetts was first settled in 1635.  Its first factory was a water-powered grist mill built just two years later by a Captain George Cooke.  Its last factory, an ice cream plant, is just being torn down now:

The Arlington Brigham's HQ and Ice Cream Factory. The refrigerators were on the back of the second floor.

Brigham’s was a local ice cream chain and manufacturer.  It was founded by Edward Brigham in 1914, and went bankrupt in July 2008.  It sold its recipes to a large local dairy company, H. P. Hood, and its 28 stores to a private equity firm.   The ice cream is still made under its name, but now it’s made by Friendly’s, another local chain, in its plant near Springfield MA.  Brigham’s vanilla is still a favorite among my family, and in fact has been the most popular flavor in the Boston area.  In its peak year Brigham’s made 1.3 million cases of ice cream and had 120 stores.

The building itself was a hundred years old.  It’s only two blocks from where Captain Cooke’s original mill was.  It’s due to be replaced by a five-story 116-unit apartment complex.  The factory had 40 people when it closed, and they were all laid off.  Those 40 were the last factory workers in Arlington, a town of 40,000.

Clinton and Louis Schwamb at their Arlington Mill in 1905

After almost 400 years of manufacturing, the only factory left is a museum, the Old Schwamb Mill.   The Schwamb brothers imported a unique German wood-working jig in 1864 that allowed them to carve oval picture frames.  They sold 100,000 of them in 1866.  The pieces of the frame were assembled as a board, and then an oval molding was cut by a huge belt-driven, water-powered lathe. Their family ran the Mill until 1969, when a trust took it over.  The 150-year-old equipment still works, and it gets used for classes and special projects.   It was used to make a set of 75 oval frames out of the wood of the Washington Elm, which was supposedly the tree that Washington stood under when he took command of the Continental Army on the Cambridge Common in 1775.

Arlington is now an inner suburb of the Boston metropolitan area.    It’s completely filled in with houses and apartment buildings, and doesn’t even have a mall or office park.   Even if you wanted to build a factory here, there’s no place to put it.  There’s no mystery as to why manufacturing left – both land and labor are expensive here, and the neighbors complain if you run a lot of trucks in and out.  Light industries like ice cream and picture frames aren’t even competitive with other parts of Massachusetts.  That’s why I think this Brigham’s plant will be the last factory here, at least until the survivors of some apocalypse settle here to rebuild civilization.

So this isn’t a moral drama, like the outsourcing tragedies of the Rust Belt.  The usual stories don’t apply, the ones about  about oligarchic greed (from the left), or slackers allergic to real work (from the right), or foreign tyrants using slave labor to steal jobs (from both sides).   It’s just a natural evolution of a community.  Arlington used to be mainly farms, then it was mainly factories, and now it’s mainly houses.   Someday it’ll probably all be park, when we all tele-commute from low-environmental-impact arcologies.   Actually, that’s pretty much what the new apartment complex on the property will be.

We keep the old economies around out of nostalgia.  That’s what the Old Schwamb Mill is.  There’s also a vegetable farm, Busa Farm, on the Arlington / Lexington town line, that’s being converted to community supported agriculture out of nostalgia for farming.  Maybe someday there will be museums of suburban houses, where people will marvel at the space wasted on cars and the way people had to shovel snow and mow grass by hand instead of letting the robots do it.

I may be the only one nostalgic about plants like ice cream factories.   People who were actually there probably didn’t like it, since it was probably cold work with a lot of lifting.   Still, it was work that added tangible value to things, value you could actually taste in this case, and that’s no longer common.   We’ll miss that too when the AIs take over all the current post-industrial jobs.

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2 Responses to The Last Factory

  1. busaopen says:

    “There’s also a vegetable farm, Busa Farm, on the Arlington / Lexington town line, that’s being converted to community supported agriculture out of nostalgia for farming. ” — The farm is not converted yet, the battle is still ongoing. Here is a link to an online petition. Please sign it if you care

  2. Pingback: Tech Tourism Around Boston « A Niche in the Library of Babel

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