Drive up Route 106 through Springfield’s winding downtown and you’ll come to one of the great monuments to Vermont’s industrial age: the Fellows Gear Shaper plant. The facade of the sprawling red brick edifice is emblazoned with a giant gear, the Black River lies like a reflecting pool before it and an iron footbridge crosses the river. The whole place looks every inch the Industrial Revolution. But the building is an incubator space now in need of tenants. The manufacturing facility has long since moved to North Springfield.
As recently as the early 1980s, 4,000 workers turned out precision machine tools in Springfield. A long-declining industry was hammered again in February with the bankruptcy of the company that owns Fellows and its sister company, Bryant Grinder. Their shared facility is now shuttered. These great companies and others once created and then drove an entire segment of the American machine tool industry. Over the now empty Jones & Lamson plant on the other side of downtown Springfield, a sign reads: "Out these doors go the best machine tools in the world."
That machine tool industry began in Windsor in 1846, and the whole region eventually became known as the Precision Valley. Hyperbole comes easy when talking about native sons. But the innovations made in the Precision Valley can’t be underestimated. Innovations include the flat-turret lathe and the world’s first truly interchangeable firearms, made for the Crimean War. Inventors in Vermont changed manufacturing methods around the world.
Looking at these now empty or recycled industrial sites, it would be easy to conclude that the precision tool industry is completely gone from Springfield, but that would be a mistaken impression. Though much smaller and more diversified, it still exists and will continue to be an important part of the economic mix. Even Bryant and Fellows could re-emerge as early as next fall under new ownership.
And while it’s true that no single industry is going to drive into town and park itself in the 1.2 million square feet of available manufacturing space ¿ some of it with nagging issues over environmental remediation ¿ community and business leaders are banking on a large new complex situated on a hill overlooking the old factories in the valley below.
The new Howard Dean Education Center offers the most substantial hope of invigorating the local economy. Bringing together educational opportunities from the technical to high tech, including the resources of the University of Vermont, the center will help refocus an economy in need of a change. But it’s not the only hope. Other innovative companies like the engineering firm Dufresne-Henry and Ivek, which makes liquid metering systems, are industry leaders. Even the bankruptcy will make available for new business’ manufacturing space that has simply been standing idle as contracts have dwindled. And, yes, even the new prison being built in Springfield will bring good jobs to the region.
It’s impossible not to catch the significance of recent events. In January, the Dean Center celebrated its official opening. In February came the closing of Fellows and Bryant. Literally, one door opened just as another one closed. If you’ve ever had to earn a college degree while at the same time working and raising a family, you know that the journey is arduous. But there’s a tangible reward at the end. That kind of determination is exactly what Springfield is facing.
This is Timothy McQuiston
Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.