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AHS, “Leonard Mariner Hills House/Hills Hat Factory,” Amherst Historic, accessed December 3, 2023, https://amhersthistoric.org/items/show/22.
- The Amherst Woman's Club is now a nonprofit organization., but it was built to be the private, summer home of Leonard Mariner Hills. His son Henry F. Hills lived next door. In 1829 Leonard opened a straw hat manufacturing shop in East Amherst - receipts for that year totaled $5,000. The demand for the palm leaf hats grew and Hills expanded his operations to include "Shaker hoods". Mills were built at Factory Hollow and more people moved to Amherst to work, including immigrants and African Americans. The palm leaf was bleached, split and dyed at the mill. Prepared palm leaf was sent out to women's homes to be braided into hats and woven into webs for the shaker hoods. Hats were returned to the mill, bleached again, pressed, trimmed and packed for sale.
Before the railroad came to town in the 1850s, Henry Jackson, a Black man born in North Amherst in 1818 was an integral part of this industry. He owned his own transportation service, carriage and horse, and trucked goods up and down the valley for farmers and businesses. Jackson would pick up the raw material in Palmer or Springfield at the railroad stations and bring them back to Amherst. He would then take the finished products back to this or other depots for shipment throughout the US.
By 1862, the factory had 200 employees and 250 hats were made daily. In 1863, the Mill buildings in Factory Hollow (North Amherst) washed away by flood and Hills decided to build near the Shaker Hood Factory, across from his home. This section of town became known as The Crossing.
In 1869, the Company imported palm leaf direct from Cuba; supplied many smaller establishments. Made 100-200,000 dozen palm leaf hats per year and 30-40,000 dozen shaker hoods per year.
By 1870, Hills was employing 600 people in his factories and 600 people in their homes.
By 1872 a financial panic and a global depression, along with Leonard Mariner Hills' death caused the operation to fall into bankruptcy. The New York office closed and the business reorganized. Leonard's son-in-law H.D. Fearing bought the Amherst factory west of the railroad tracks. Five years later, the Hills Company was organized with Leonard's son Henry F Hills as President. He build an extensive hat factory complex on the east side of the railroad tracks. The two hat factories were in not-always friendly competition for several years. In 1880, both factory complexes were destroyed by fire and both were rebuilt in brick. Owners changed with sons replacing fathers or new owners buying in, but hat production continued into 1935. Hats produced included harvest hats, farmers hats, woven body hats, brimmed and brimless hats and cloth hats worn under helmets in WWI.
By 1940, both factories had been dismantled and torn down.
- Many Black people found work at the hat factory or in the hat making industry. Hats were and are important to Black culture, Black women wanted to look their best when worshiping and the hats were considered a way to honor God. But wearing them isn’t just about fashion. It’s a deeply rooted African tradition that has both spiritual and cultural significance. The hats are considered a woman’s crown and they symbolize triumph over hardship.
"Hats and headdresses play a significant, often symbolic role, throughout the African Diaspora," wrote Mary Jo Arnoldi and Christine Mullen Kreamer, who co-curated an exhibit for the Smithsonian Institution in the mid-1990s. "Hats became a way for African-American women to express individuality and creativity during slavery and under the Jim Crow laws."
Published on Mar 1, 2022. Last updated on Apr 15, 2022.