Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The enlightened capitalism of Alfred Dolge


 Bust of Alfred Dolge at the Dolgeville Village Hall

Clearly, the socialists and anarchists who led the Little Falls strike in 1912 cannot offer a model for restoring prosperity to our region.  The Russian revolution of 1917 forever branded socialism as a dangerous form of tyranny in the minds of most Americans. And even now, a century later, calling the current president’s health care policy “socialist” is a sure way to discredit it in the minds of many citizens.  Even if a more rational and cooperative organization of the economy could help us, a majority of the people will simply not accept this possibility.  

But unrestrained free market capitalism has spelled economic disaster for Upstate New York, and the current bipartisan enthusiasm for cutting taxes on the wealthy is only a recipe for ever-greater inequity. Perhaps, then, it is time to look to our past for solutions that combine a for-profit system with a reasonable concern for the well-being of working people. And that brings to mind the long forgotten Alfred Dolge.

Dolge was no socialist, but he believed that the health and well-being of his workers was the necessary foundation for his own prosperity. An industrialist and founder of the village that bears his name, he had read both Karl Marx and Adam Smith as a young man in Germany, and combined those two apparently contradictory thinkers in his own unique vision. 

 1890 view of Dolge's mill, courtesy Village website

 The same view, 120 years later

The industrialist came to New York City as a young man, having apprenticed as a piano-maker in Germany. At first specializing in the import of felts and wires for the manufacture of pianos, he decided to create his own industrial village for the production of the piano components he had been importing. After an extensive search though the north east, he settled in 1875 on what was then the tiny hamlet of   Brocketts Bridge because the East Canada Creek offered both water power for his machinery and the water quality needed for washing felt.

He kept his large shop on 13th street in Manhattan and commuted by the night train each week, walking the final six miles from the depot in Little Falls before he built his own railway in 1892. Starting operations in an old tannery, he was soon at work on the beautiful limestone factory that is still the heart of the village, drawing skilled craftsmen and their families, many from Germany. 

As his work force grew into the hundreds, Dolge initiated a profit-sharing system for his employees, providing for disability payments, life insurance and an old age pension in 1876.  Bismarck sought his advice when Germany developed the world’s first social security plan, and the Social Security Administration recognizes Dolge’s role as a forerunner of today’s system.

Intake for recently restored hydroelectric generator 
at the Dolgeville Mill

 He was an admirer of Thomas Edison and put into operation the first electric dynamo run by waterpower in 1879,  which provided electric lighting for his mills, later extending it to the entire village.  Dolge also bought land for a park which he gave to the village, and donated a school and community club house.  

 The Dolge Mansion

Alfred Dolge enjoyed his wealth and built a mansion just across the East Canada Creek from his factories. He was always a workman at heart and spent much of the day on the factory floor, but he was also a great reader and writer. He spoke widely and wrote on subjects ranging from education and physical fitness to socialism and the protective tariff. (He saw the tariff as an absolutely essential way to protect his workers from unfair competition by low wage workers overseas – a position that no modern politician is willing to take.)

 old postcard of the Dolgeville & Little Falls RR



view of the same section of the abandoned railway today

Curious about traces of the utopian society created by Dolge, we followed the wintry roads north from Little Falls to Dolgeville, roughly parallel to the route of the Little Falls & Dolgeville Railroad, which was sold for scrap in 1964.

Arriving in Dolgeville, we located the Founder’s bust in front of the Village Hall and headed for the complex of factories built by Dolge in 1882, and later home to Daniel Green Felt Shoe Company until it shifted production out of town in 1999.  There we found Charlie Soukup, hard at work sanding the floors of the old mill.


Charlie Soukup at work


Charlie came from Florida to buy the 23 mill buildings several years ago.  After experimenting with an antiques center and a furniture store at the site, Charlie is now committed to creating at least 40 very original condominium apartments in the main mill building. I couldn’t help but compare him to that other entrepreneur who came here inspired by his own unique vision 140 years ago.

 40 condos are planned for the main mill

Charlie  interrupted his work to take us on a tour of the structure. He pointed out many examples of the great craftsmanship shown in the construction of the mill as evidence of Dolge’s extreme attention to the details of quality control. He told us that Dolge kept very detailed records of every aspect of the mill’s construction and operation.


  Layout for condo apartments on the mill's third floor

 Model condo unit features original beams, flooring and limestone wall

Charlie Soukup has made major investment in this project, hiring local people to clean out the old mill and ready it for renovation. The model condo which he recently completed is a remarkable example of creative use of vintage materials. The shelving and walk-in closet is constructed from lumber used at the mill. The handcrafted furniture also makes very effective use of old machine parts. And the view of the rushing creek is impressive. Although he plans to offer the one-bedroom unit for about $200,000, it would command well over a million dollars in New York or Boston.

Charlie said that he often wonders about what Dolge saw here so many years ago. Although I was eager to explore the issue, he didn’t want to speculate about whether it was Dolge’s own misjudgment or a conspiracy by his fellow capitalists that finally brought him down.  The risks of any great venture, then or now, are always high.

However, I do think that Dolgeville may well thrive in coming years, and I have high hopes for Mr. Soukups’ ambitious project. In contrast to most of the region, this village has not suffered excessively in the current economic downturn. Much of the local economy centers on the renewable resources of the Adirondack forest, and lumberyards and woodcraft industries remain strong.  The family-owned Rawlings company continues to produce the high quality Adirondack bats favored by so many major league baseball players. And just north of the village, a $200 million wind farm has recently gone into operation generating clean energy.


Adirondack bats are still made in Dolgeville




Dolgeville native Hal Schumacher pitched 
for the New York Giants and was an executive 
for the Rawlings company.

As to the nature of the society created by Alfred Dolge, its lessons for our own time, and the mysterious events surrounding  his downfall in 1898, that  will be the subject of a future posting on this site.

Sources:

Village of Dolgeville website

 Richard Buckley, Unique Place, Diverse People
Eleanor Franz , Dolge
Available from Herkimer County Historical Society


UPDATE June 11, 2013:
My new short biography of Alfred Dolge is now available on Kindle for 99 cents and as an illustrated paperback for $7.95. The Kindle version can  also be read on tablets,smartphones and PCs by downloading the free Kindle app. Amazon Prime members may also borrow the story through the Kindle Owners Lending Library.

10 comments:

  1. Wonderful to read such a good article about my home town. What are the novels this author wrote? Diane Vosburgh Halverson

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  2. I'm looking forward to the next posting of this author. I also wish Charlie Soukup much success in his endeavor. It's a nice area and deserves to be revived. Nancy Young

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  3. I was fortunate enough to grow up in this unique village during the late 40s, 50s and early 60s. Those of you who were around during that time know well what I am talking about. We had a movie theater with Levonski's candy shop adjoining, Thursday night band concerts, the News store, Pierces Ice Cream Shop, Sedor's Sporting Goods, a Library, a Bank, The Dolgeville Republican newspaper, the Royal Market and several other grocery stores, Frieda's Candy store, the post office, more bars and gas stations than you could count and the list goes on from there. Damn sure wouldn't trade that boyhood home and the memories it gave me for anything in the world.

    Gary Jennings

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  4. I realize now that growing up in Dolgeville was an incredible experience! Gary had it right, not to mention the wonderful safety we all were wrapped in in that 'small town ' atmosphere... everyone watched out for each other... and let's not forget the Youth Center where we all spent so many happy hours as teenagers... skating at the ballfield at night, Allstate get togethers for music or sports, the News Stand, Lein's Meat market, Dolge's Supermarket, Zipp's Hardware, Dopp's .... all so much apart of us still... the memories will live forever.... Judi Bachman Dunn

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this engaging article about Dogleville and the man who transformed it. My mother, Judi Bachman Dunn, would tell me wonderful stories, when I was a child, about growing up its idyllic setting. I was so fortunate to spend summers and holidays there as a young child with my grandparents, Clint and Karen Bachman, in their cozy two-story home. It was quite a contrast to my parent's Brooklyn, NY apartment and surrounding cityscape. I will never forget fond memories of Dolgeville.

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  6. Excellent blog post, Mr. Cooney. As a piano technician, my interests were more about Dolge's felt making, and piano parts supply business, but all this background has added much more interest to learn more. My wife and I visited Dolgeville on the way back home from a piano technicians convention in Vermont last july and we met and briefly talked with Jan Shultz who was in one of the factory buildings upstairs. We quickly found out she is an artist and author, and apparently Mr. Soukup's wife, where she mentioned much of what he related to you in your post. Although Mr. Soukup didn't want to speculate about the downfall of Dolge, Jan seemed to have no trouble believing he was indeed swindled by Hardin and Ingham. From what I've read so far, I'm pretty sure she's right.

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  7. Delightful reading! I was up there 20 years ago this Valentines Day back in 1992 (my first visit being 25 years ago in October 1987!). What ever became of the Dolgeville News Agency? Loved that place and their hot chocolate was to die for on a frigid day! I need to return to Dolgeville soon!

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  8. And I recall eating in a cafe nicknamed the "Motormouth"? Is that still open?

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  9. Motor's In is still in business, Dolgeville News is now a pizzaria and resturant. I moved here in 1989 hoping that business and industry would survive and give my children some opportunity to work and stay in the area. Sadly, this has not happened. There has been no effort made to bring any kind of meaningful paying work into Dolgeville. The Mill is still closed, having employed nobody in the past decade. How can you "sell" overpriced apartments in a town where a house can be bought for $50,000? There are buildings on Main Street that remain empty and derelict while the taxpayers got fleeced for interest payments on work never done. The 18 to 60 generations have fled this area because there is nowhere local to work. I see nothing but a ghost town where a pretty little village once stood. There's a "vision" commitee here also, God only knows what their vision is, all I see from my line of sight is ruin.

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  10. I just learned that the Dolge Mansion burned to the ground.

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