“Mill” Work was Destiny
In June, I started reporting to work on the fourth floor of the Waumbec Commercial Center, a 450,000-square-foot building that was once part of the largest textile manufacturing operation in the world
Yankee Publishing, the parent company of New Hampshire Magazine, moved its New Hampshire Group headquarters to the five-story building last fall from another mega-sized Millyard property. I’m the third generation of my family to work here — and the first to enjoy air conditioning in the Waumbec, which was built in 1897 along the east bank of the Merrimack River.
In the late 1950s, Paul Durette took a summer job at Waumbec Mills Inc., one of the last surviving textile makers in the sprawling Manchester complex. Most of the full-time workers took their vacations in the summer so high school kids would fill the gaps.
Durette, then 16, worked as a “draw frame tender,” from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on the fourth floor. His father, Emile, my maternal grandfather, worked a floor above him, but had generated enough seniority to snag the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift.
Both were working at different stages of turning cotton into fabric.
“It came down into these cans on the fourth floor,” Durette said recently from his home in Spring Lake, New Jersey. “It went through a whole series of processes to refine the cotton smaller and smaller until it became a fiber.”
One summer was enough for my Uncle Paul, a UNH graduate whose career in the “tabletop” dinnerware industry included 15 years as vice president and general manager of Lenox.
Factory work held little allure for him.
“It was not a difficult job. But it’s the smell, and it was humid sometimes,” he said. “It was monotonous so I always said to myself, ‘Well this is not what I would like to do the rest of my life.’”
Paul’s older brother, Robert, also worked at Waumbec. My father, Eugene Cote, and his brother, David, worked there for a while, too. None of them made a career out of it.
My grandfather retired from Waumbec after a long tenure. My grandmother, Marie Durette, worked across town at the Mighty Mac coat factory as a pieceworker.
Ten years ago, I toured the Waumbec with a lease agent for Brady Sullivan, the real estate company that owns the building. Partners Shane Brady and Arthur Sullivan bought it for $218,200 in 1996, according to city records. It’s clear they’ve sunk a few bucks for upgrades since then. Last year, the building was assessed at $14.6 million.
PillPack, a mail-order pharmacy that has since been acquired by Amazon, was about to take over the entire first floor. RiverStone Resources already commanded the fifth floor.
They’re my neighbors now, as is Tidewater Catering Group, whose Waterworks Café is tucked on the first floor of the building. My first visit to the café was to interview owner Keri Laman for the New Hampshire Union Leader. Now it’s my lunch destination — a nice perk in a building that for most of its history didn’t offer any except steady employment.
Now Yankee Publishing is providing that for me. I joined the company just in time for Editor Rick Broussard’s retirement party at our Best of NH event at Flag Hill Distillery & Winery in Lee.
Rick reminisced about the early days of the magazine and told friends and family how “easy” the job had been.
We both know he was just playing to the crowd. Telling the stories of New Hampshire every month for three decades took stamina, grit and a lot of creative energy. I’ll need them in spades.
I expect it will be a lot more fun than tending a milling machine on the graveyard shift.