Today the idea seems almost too strange to believe. Even back in the early 1900s people passing through Central New York thought something odd was happening on farms that dotted the landscape.
What was odd was the crop being grown, if, indeed, the word "crop" was appropriate. Wrote Henry W. McLaughlin in "This History of the McLaughlin Family":
"Years ago strangers remarked about the lazy farmers around Skaneateles allowing their field to be overgrown with thistles."
But those thistles – called teasels (though some had unkinder names for the prickly plant) – were in demand throughout the world at mills that specialized in the production of wool.
It turned out that soil and climate conditions in the Skaneateles area were ideal for teasels. So for many years this "weed" was the town's most famous – and unusual – cash crop.
And the man often called "The Teasel King" was James McLaughlin Jr., though – truth be told – other gentlemen laid claim to the title. An article by Charlotte Coffman in the Textiles and Apparel Newsletter (April 2000) said the first Skaneateles teasel grower was William Nipper. Another article said Skaneateles businessman Walter Hamilton Kellogg (1860-1934), called himself "America's Teasel King."
However, we'll stick with James McLaughlin Jr. He was family, of sorts. And after all, it was one of his sons who was the last teasel grower standing.
LET'S START at the beginning ... with James McLaughlin Sr. (1821-1911), one of ten children born to William and Mary Quigley McLaughlin in County Donegal, Ireland. Unfortunately, what awaited James McLaughlin and his siblings was a tragic period in Irish history, The Great Famine (1845-48) caused by the total failure of the potato crop.
James McLaughlin took a wife, Ann McKinney, in 1844. He was a blacksmith at the time, working in Londonderry and across the North Channel in villages along the southwest coast of Scotland. He and Ann had three children, but all would die of starvation by mid-1848, the year James McLaughlin decided to move his family to the United States.
He went on ahead to America by himself and built a log cabin outside the small village of Skaneateles, New York. He acquired a nickname, "40 Acres," for the amount of land on the west side of the lake he had purchased for $100 an acre, in gold.
When Ann McLaughlin rejoined her husband, she was surprised to learn he had decided to devote much of his land to growing teasels, a plant introduced to Skaneateles in the 1830s by the enterprising Dr. John Snook (1777-1857), a native of Somerset, England, who made his living as a chemist and pharmacist. Dr. Snook's claim to fame, such as it was, came from a cure-all tonic and pills he had marketed. He arrived in Skaneateles in 1826. He and his son, John Jr., both apothecary stores, but his main contribution to his new hometown would be made in 1833 when he purchased teasel seeds in England for the purpose of planting them in Skaneateles.
Dr. Snook had settled in Skaneateles because he felt it had the ideal soil for teasels, which are used to raise an smooth the surface of the cloth in the manufacture of wool. The stronger the teasel, the better, obviously. Dr. Snook found an abundance of limestone in Central New York, and limestone soil produces the strongest teasels.
[Like many other plants and animals imported in the 19th century, teasels multiplied and spread unchecked throughout much of the country. Growing up in the 1940s in Solvay, a village about 20 miles east of Skaneateles, I noticed an abundance of these thistles on a hill behind our street. We regarded them as weeds, though teasels are used in ornamental bouquets.]
Before Dr. Snook introduced the plant to Skaneateles, most industrial teasels were grown in England and France. And while he was successful in growing teasels, Dr. Snook and his son, Thomas, failed to convince woolen mills to abandon the proven English and French teasels in favor of the Skaneateles-grown product. Other Skaneateles teasel merchants would fare much better in this regard. (After Dr. Snook's death, his son sold their teasel company to James McLaughlin Jr.)
Much of what follows comes from a small book, the aforementioned "This History of the McLaughlin Family," written in 1979 by the late Edward F. McLaughlin, a great-grandson of James "40 Acres" McLaughlin.
Edward F. McLaughlin, a former New York State Supreme Court justice, relied heavily on two letters written by his cousin, Henry W. McLaughlin. Henry wrote those letters in 1978 when he was 77 and a year from his death. He obviously had many ideas racing around in his head, but they often collided in sentences that are the longest, most difficult to read since, as a college student, I was introduced to novelist William Faulkner. I have translated and clarified as best I could those parts of his letters that appear in this article.
As for James McLaughlin, he chose Skaneateles because it was where his brother-in-law had settled a few years earlier. Some of James McLaughlin's siblings would follow, though a few eventually chose to live elsewhere.
WITH A PARTNER, "40 Acres" McLaughlin started a business called McLaughlin and Fitzgerald, Teasel Merchants. At first, they sold teasels to several woolen mills in the Syracuse area. Soon they found customers in mills throughout New England.
He kept his 40 acres, but soon after the birth of his son, James McLaughlin Jr., he moved the family to a house in the village of Skaneateles where he opened a facility that employed 300 people to trim, sort and pack teasels in huge wooden cases for delivery to woolen mills. A few years later he bought out his partner and changed the name of his company to James McLaughlin & Sons.
James McLaughlin Jr. was his eldest son, his first American-born child. James Jr. would expand the family business to include Glenside Woolen Mills in Skaneateles Falls. James had seven siblings; most of them would be involved in the teasel business or the woolen mill. One brother, John McLaughlin (1854-1934), also became mayor of Skaneateles in 1903.
"Across the Skaneateles Creek in Skaneateles Falls was (a section called) Stump City," wrote Henry W. McLaughlin. "Most of the people there were Irish and some spoke Gaelic because my grandfather went over to Buncrana, County Donegal, and arranged with a great many of the Irish girls to come to America and work in the woolen mill as weavers. The local priest there told him he was taking all the heart of Irish womanhood out of Ireland."
Another brother, Dennis McLaughlin (1851-1925), was an engineer who spent several years at the Glenside Woolen Mills. While John McLaughlin was mayor, he and Dennis and James ran an electric cable from the village to the mill. In the process they established the Skaneateles Municipal Power Company that provided electricity for the village and nearby area. Henry W. McLaughlin said this gave Skaneateles the reputation of being "the town that did not pay taxes” because revenue raised by the power company paid for all town expenses.
The McLaughlins had their ups and downs with Glenside Woolen Mills and soon sold it, concentrating on teasels. They continued to grow them, but bought most of their teasels from other farmers because their main business was in the processing of the plant for sale to woolen mills not only in the United States, but in several European countries. A story originally printed in the Skaneateles Free Press (January 1, 1876) explains the operation:
Skaneateles Teasel Trade
A few statistics—visit the teasel shop
of J. McLaughlin and Sons.
The teasel business has grown to be an important feature in the industries of this town. The teasel is grown very extensively in this section, but in most parts of the country it is comparatively unknown. The towns of Skaneateles and Marcellus produce all the teasels grown in the United States. (We can except a few grown in the adjoining towns of Sennett and Spafford. They are marketed either in this place or in Marcellus.)
The teasel, which is used to give a finish to woolen cloths, has long been grown in France and England. It is said they were first introduced into this section by Dr. Snook, an Englishman who came to this town some forty or fifty years ago.
But still most of the teasels used in this country were imported from Europe, and only about fifteen years have elapsed since the growing of teasels received much encouragement here. Since that time the business has grown wonderfully. There are now some eight or ten dealers in this place, besides a few firms in Marcellus. It is estimated that the value of merchantable teasels shipped from the town of Skaneateles during 1875, aggregated nearly $200,000, which is a neat little sum for the pockets of our people.
Having a curiosity to see how teasels are made ready for market, we visited the shop of J. McLaughlin & Sons, on Wednesday last, and were politely received and shown about the premises by James McLaughlin, jr.
The shops of Messrs. McLaughlin consist of one main building, 55x24 and a wing 32x22, both being two stories in height, besides having a basement under the whole, ten feet between floors.
The buildings, are admirably adapted to the business, being built expressly for that purpose, and the firm claims it as being the most convenient and best appointed shop in town. That the firm is close, careful and economical in its management, is evinced by the precautions visible on every hand against fire. Fifty pails filled, with water, are always hanging to the ceiling, ready for use at a moment's notice in case of a visit from fire.
The shops are heated by six stoves, which are cased about with iron and tin, and there seems no possibility of a fire making much headway, where there are so many ways of fighting it.
On entering, the visitor is taken to the third story, where the teasels are stored "in the rough," that is, just as they are received from the producers. By means of a gangway and tackle the boxes are hoisted to this floor and emptied of their contents.
The teasels are then pitched into racks, which project down into the second story, in which are the "clippers," whose work it is to clip off the beard which grows about the base of the teasel head. There are two clipping rooms, the east one employing about twenty-five persons, and the south one twenty. Descending to the basement we find a busy crowd of sorters and packers.
This firm make as many as eighteen different sizes of teasels, which are all hand-packed in layers in boxes ready for shipping. In this department there are about thirty hands employed.
About 800 feet of basswood lumber is used daily for boxing, and a half a ton of nails per month. With their present facilities the firm is enabled to prepare for market eight cases of teasels per day, or about a quarter of a million.
Teasels are reckoned by the thousand—ten pounds being the weight taken for it. The firm employs about eighty-five hands—seventy-five in the shops, and ten in miscellaneous work. The pay roll aggregates about $1,500 monthly; and the firm pay their hands on Wednesday of each week.
In April of last year, Messrs. James Jr., and John, made a trip to Europe, visiting England, Scotland, France and Germany, to see about establishing business with those countries.
They returned in July, and during the fall months, the firm purchased about forty million teasels, paying therefor one dollar per thousand, or $40,000.
To find storage for this immense quantity they leased the old carriage shop building, near the mill, which they completely filled, besides filling the Willow Glen dry house.
All these teasels were bought, so we were informed, to simply fill orders already secured. The members are all practical teasel hands, having served from three to six years each with F.W. Weeks, Esq.
The firm has been in business about five years, and in that time, it has built up a very fine trade. The active working members of the firm are, Mr. James McLaughlin, Jr., who is the financial manager and salesman; Mr. D. McLaughlin, who has the general superintendance of the shop and shipping; Mr. Wm. McLaughlin, who is in charge of the clipping departments, and Mr. John McLaughlin who is in charge of the sorting and packing departments. Miss Alice E. Woolworth, of Turin, Lewis county, N.Y., is the bookkeeper, and has occupied that position for more than two years, to the perfect satisfaction of the firm.
We are pleased to chronicle such success as that which has attended the efforts of J. McLaughlin and Sons. Their trade now extends from San Francisco, Cal., on the West, to St. Petersburg, Russia, on the East. Would that Skaneateles had many more such enterprising firms. Our teasel shops run most briskly in the winter, when outdoor labor is scarce, and many men find employment in them who would otherwise have to remain idle during the long and cold winter months.
McLaughlin & Sons last fall built at the southwestern part of their lot, near the creek, a fine barn, 30x50 feet, two stories, besides the basement. This is used as a stock bar, and also as a place to store teasels. The firm have their private shipping storehouse at the west end of the depot, from which they can fill cars.
There's a popular figure of speech in Rhode Island where I lived for more than 30 years. "Putting the mouth" on something often is a jinx. The above article, for example, put the mouth on safety precautions that had been taken at the McLaughlin teasel plant. In 1880, despite those precautions, the teasel shop was destroyed by fire. The shop was rebuilt and soon business was better than ever.
The McLaughlins prospered in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, but World War I, for all practical purposes, would signal the beginning of the end for the Skaneateles teasel industry.
First to feel the impact were teasel farmers, who during the war became increasingly upset by the low price placed on their crops. Henry W. McLaughlin writes that "in 1922 a Skaneateles Teasel Farmer's Co-operative was formed, but only lasted five years because of the way it was manipulated; hundreds of teasel farms lost money – and also lost interest in continuing to grow teasels."
McLaughlin says owners of several American woolen mills reverted to wire nappers, even though they did not produce the desired nap on the woolen cloth."
An interesting tidbit about a teasel farmer is this short newspaper item:
Skaneateles Free Press, October 1902
Neil Doherty, the veteran teasel grower of the west shore, has been hauling teasels daily during the past three weeks and has still a week’s hauling to do. He will have over 4,000,000 teasels. The selling price is 82-1/2 cents per thousand. The present year’s crop is being bought for 80 to 90 cents, according to quality,
At 82-1/2 cents per thousand, Doherty would have realized $3,300 on a crop of 4,000,000 teasels.
WHATEVER THE STATUS of the farmers, business for McLaughlin Brothers, Teasel Merchants in 1896 was never better. Charles J. McLaughlin (1872-1938), son of James McLaughlin Jr., joined the company and helped it expand after it had gained a foothold in Europe.
In the late 1890s Charles was sent to Leeds, then considered the center of the woolen industry in England. James McLaughlin Jr. had made the trip himself a few times; this would be his son's opportunity to prove himself. It was in Leeds that Charles met and married Sarah Ann (Sally) Meegan (1874-1959).
The couple briefly settled in Skaneateles, New York, where their son Charles J. McLaughlin Jr. was born in Skaneateles in 1900. Their second son, Henry W., was born in Skaneateles a year later.
However, in 1903 the family moved to England when James McLaughlin Jr. decided he needed a permanent presence in Leeds. Within months Charles was visiting woolen mills throughout Europe, trying to convince their owners that Skaneateles teasels were superior to those from England and France.
In the meantime, his family was getting larger. Seven daughters and one son were born in Leeds between 1903 and 1916.
James McLaughlin Jr. died in 1914 and I believe his brother Cornelius took over as head of McLaughlin Brothers. I am making this assumption because of a 1917 Skaneateles business directory that lists Cornelius McLaughlin as the person to contact if you're in the market for teasels.
By then the company opened branches in Copenhagen, Denmark; Aix-la-Chapelle, France (a town that was Aachen, Germany during the Franco-Prussian War), and Lodz, a Polish city then under Russian rule. According to Henry W. McLaughlin, one of the McLaughlin Brothers’ biggest customers was Thornton Woolen Mills, an English-owned company in St. Petersburg, Russia. This company employed 10,000 people and made cloth for use in the uniforms of the Russian army and its 6,000,000 soldiers.
HERE IS WHAT Henry W. McLaughlin said about his father’s experience in Russia:
“He stayed at the Hotel Anglaterre in St. Petersburg where he met an American selling Oldsmobile cars and one day they heard bugles blowing which means everybody get off the streets so they both went out of sight behind a door of a building and looking out down a wide road they saw thousands of civilians chained together dragging themselves down the road where on each side of the column of civilians were Cossack-mounted cavalry with swords and sidearms and whips. They lashed the straggling column of chained men who were on their way to the Siberian salt mines.
“My father also experienced riots or ‘Pogroms’ as they were called which were massacres of the Jews in which thousands of Jews were slain and their places of business were wrecked and the occupants slain. The Russians said it was to teach the Jews a lesson not to take advantage of the Russian people.
“A further experience my father had was in 1908. While visiting the Thornton Woolen Mills five miles down the River Neva from St. Petersburg he met with the superintendent of the finishing room where woolen uniform cloth was finished with teasels on the 100-teasel cylinder gigs. The finishing room was under the supervision of four overseers who each had supervision of 25 of the teasel cylinder gigs. My father met individually with each of the overseers and one of them was Yosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili who later became Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator.”
Henry W. McLaughlin also wrote that about 200 miles from St. Petersburg his father attended the Neva Novgored Fair, which he says was very famous at the time. Goods were exchanged, no cash was involved, everything was bartered. He says one of the most popular items at the fair were Persian rugs from Iran, formerly Persia. Teasels were used in the making of some of these rugs, and Charles J. McLaughlin wanted to barter teasels for Persian rugs, but his father vetoed the idea. Henry didn’t elaborate on the idea, but I assume Charles was talking about a large exchange, thinking Persian rugs could be sold for big profits in the United States.
"WORLD WAR I ended, but it had wrecked havoc with the McLaughlin Brothers teasel business in Leeds," wrote Henry W. McLaughlin, starting a most intriguing paragraph that covered a period his father was stuck in the United States, unable to get permission to return to England. "No (McLaughlin) teasels were used for the British Army or Navy cloth and the large orders for teasels from the Swedish woolen mills were lost due to the British War Office advising my mother, who in my father's absence was running the McLaughlin Brothers business in Leeds, that all shipments to Sweden were stopped because the British had discovered that the centers of the cases of teasels headed for Swedish woolen mills were loaded with rubber that was then shipped to Germany which was in dire need of rubber for their war effort."
Sounds to me like the makings of an espionage movie. Unfortunately he doesn't explain who might have been responsible for aiding the enemy.
As for Charles J. McLaughlin Sr., well, he returned to England at war's end, but only to fetch his wife and children and take them back to the United States, this time buying a home in Syracuse. There he established his own teasel business. He purchased as many Skaneateles teasels as he could, and prepared them for sale to woolen mills in the United States, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. (The business started by his father apparently ceased operation about this time.)
After Charles J. McLaughlin Sr. died in 1938, his son Henry W. carried on the business, which, he said, briefly revived as World War II approached. Teasels were used in the manufacture of woolen broadcloth upholstery for most automobiles and for military uniforms and blankets. Henry somehow kept the teasel business going for several years.
Henry W. McLaughlin blamed President Harry S Truman and a Democrat-controlled Congress for driving nails into the coffin of the United States woolen business which finally was buried in 1960. What was needed, he said, was a higher tariff on imports because the British, in particular, were flooding the U.S. market with woolen goods at prices we couldn't match because the English mills were using cheap labor from Pakistan.
Teasels are still used in the manufacture of woolen cloth, but in 1978, when Henry wrote his letters, he claimed there was only one woolen mill left in the United States, in Dublin, Georgia. I believe there are others, including one in Faribault, Minnesota; in any case United States woolen mills are few and far between.
In 1870, when James McLaughlin Jr. turned 21, he had every reason to believe there was a future in teasels. That year, according to one estimate, there were 2,400 local woolen mills in the United States.
Ninety years later, the last of the Skaneateles teasel merchants, Henry W. McLaughlin, retired and moved to Orlando, Florida, where he died in 1979.
PS: By 1939 teasels no longer were important to the Skaneateles economy, but they did play a part in boosting the village, thanks to an idea hatched by Charles T. Major, father of Charlie Major, who has contributed much to this website:
Fair Haven (NY) Register, Thursday, August 31, 1939
In Unique Manner
More than 1,000 teasels were distributed to visitors passing through Skaneateles last weekend as the Chamber of Commerce pursued this unique plan to publicize the village by means of the strange-looking plant which was handed out by members of the Boy Scouts.
The teasels were given as souvenirs to motorists from other sections of this state and to all out-of-state tourists. Attached to the souvenir was a card describing the plant and its significance with relation to Skaneateles. Visitors appeared to be delighted with the souvenirs and expressed keen interest in the plant which formed the basis of one of the village’s greatest industries.
Devised by Charles T. Major, president of the Chamber of Commerce, the teasel-souvenir plan is expected to effectively publicize Skaneateles as an ideal vacation site. It is hoped the plan may be the means of bringing additional tourists next year. In any event, chamber members believe visitors will retain the souvenirs as something unique, and that in preserving them they will be continually reminded of Skaneateles.