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Fledgling Wool Mill Hopes to Spin Out Jobs : Organizers Aiming for 'Sheep-to-Shawl' Business for Depressed Area

October 26, 1986|TARA BRADLEY-STECK | Associated Press

CROSS CREEK, Pa. — Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, where sheep farming gave way to coal mines and factories, the Cross Creek Valley Wool Mill is a 19th-Century response to a 20th-Century problem:


The fledgling mill, in the heart of what used to be the nation's premier sheep-farming area, is a cottage industry that uses bathtubs and old wringer washing machines to process wool for home spinners and weavers.

It aspires to become a complete "sheep-to-shawl" wool business that will bring new jobs to an area hit hard by industrial decline.

"We're becoming an area of unemployed and retired people, and our young people are leaving," said mill supervisor Mary Jo Brown. "The idea of a wool mill is pretty far out, I know, but it just seemed to be an appropriate thing for our area."

The mill is in a red-brick building that a coal company erected as a community center in the 1930s.

Fleeces Cleaned, Combed

An aging hulk of a machine with dozens of metal rollers stands imposingly in a cavernous room that was once a gymnasium. At the back are rows of shelves loaded with plastic bags full of freshly cleaned and combed fleeces that range in color from creamy white to charcoal gray.

The word at the mill is handmade. Fleeces are processed in the old-fashioned, time-consuming way, which is just fine with the dozens of clients from around the country who send hand-selected fleeces there.

"They are a very fussy breed," Brown said. "They want their wool just a certain way. They'll go out to the farmer directly and have him open 20 or more fleeces before they find one they like. It has to have a certain length, and a certain feel and a certain color."

Fleeces are washed by hand in a bathtub, rinsed in another, and spin-dried in an old wringer washer or one of several washing machines that have been rescued from the junkyard.

After it is dried in the sun, the wool is put through the carding machine, which combs it with thousands of wire teeth attached to dozens of metal rollers.

Wool in Two Forms

The end product is either a thick, wide swatch of wool that can be used in comforters or a long, narrow swatch that can be spun into yarn.

While she works, Rose Cilia throws open the barn-type doors to reveal a picture-postcard backdrop of rolling, tree-fringed pastures where flocks were grazed for more than a century.

From 1850 to 1880, the Upper Ohio River Valley, with its endless hills and narrow, steep-sided valleys, was the top sheep-raising area in the country, and Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania was the center of the activity.

In the late 19th Century, increasing pressures upon sheep raising--including slumping wool prices, the rapid expansion of oil drilling and coal mining and packs of sheep-killing dogs--triggered a long decline for the wool industry.

Farmers' sons were lured to more lucrative jobs in nearby coal mines and to steel mills around Pittsburgh, Weirton, W. Va., and Steubenville, Ohio, while sheep gradually became more a sideline than a way of life.

Now the steel mills are silent and the mines are empty, and the valley, which has no sewers or water lines and is far from any major highway, is struggling to attract new business and keep what is already there.

Future Seen in Past

If the area is to have a future, many local politicians say, it must look to the agrarian tradition of the past.

"We want to maintain our rural atmosphere," said Brown, a Cross Creek Township supervisor. "We don't want any big steel mills. What we'd like to have is some kind of appropriate industry on a small scale that will provide some employment and bring in some tax dollars."

Brown and others felt the area should capitalize on its longstanding love of sheep. Though the flocks have dwindled in size, she said, there are still enough to make Washington and Greene counties the top sheep producers in Pennsylvania.

After five years of planning, the nonprofit mill opened in 1984 with the help of about $50,000 in government grants, according to John Wilson, director of the Washington-Greene Community Action Corp., which initiated the project.

The grant was spent to operate the mill for 1 1/2 years, refurbish the building and buy equipment. For the most part, the mill is now on its own, and operates on a shoestring budget, Brown said.

Proceeds from the mill pay for fleeces bought from local farms and for the rent, utilities and salaries.

No Profit Made Yet

Brown admits that the mill doesn't make enough money to cover costs, but she is optimistic that, once word of the mill spreads, business will pick up.

"We're doing better, and every quarter, we show a little bit more profit," she said. "We have customers all over the United States, but we'd like to have three times as many."

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