BY KATIE BARKER CAPRIO
Of the 10 miles of footpaths that weave through the lands of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve, perhaps the most traveled and best known is the Falls Trail. The trail begins at the Mill House in the hamlet of Rensselaerville and travels 500 feet along the northern banks of Ten-Mile Creek to just below the 150-foot waterfall that the Preserve and the hamlet have become known for. As the Falls come into view, so does a little red footbridge, a platform from which to admire the majesty of the Falls, and a gateway to the rest of the Preserve’s treasures..
Just over the footbridge, to the left of the narrow path, lies an old stone foundation. The building that once stood here a hundred years ago is no more. Moss and lichens have grown over the stones that remain. The small trees, saplings, and the abundant groundcover sprouting from within the foundation, are a living testimony to the ability of nature to reclaim an altered landscape. And, outside the stonework remains, the interested hiker may notice a large rock into which has been drilled a small bronze plaque with an etching of an old building and the words: “100 years serving the paper industry. Site of the original Huyck Felt Mill 1870-1878.”
By the end of the 19th century, felt making had become an integral part of the papermaking process. Paper was made using big machines–wood pulp was mixed into a slurry, delivered to the continuous paper machines, pressed flat on giant conveyor belts, excess moisture removed, and processed into huge sheets of paper. The early American paper mills typically used rags for the drying process, but these rags were expensive (as many were imported from Europe) and were often in short supply. Some paper mills resorted to petitioning the ladies, asking them to save their rags and donate them to the papermaking cause.
As the papermaking process became more mechanized during the mid-19th century, paper mills began to use drying belts that were made of more durable woolen felts to press out the water from the pulp fibers.
At first, American paper mills imported their felts from Europe, but later American entrepreneurs began to see opportunities for making the papermaking felts themselves. Among these were the Henry Waterbury and Francis Conkling Huyck partnership, which established the fourth ever felt-making mill in the country–in Rensselaerville, N.Y., in the year 1870.
The Waterbury-Huyck partnership seemed like a natural one. Mr. Waterbury possessed the know-how to successfully manufacture the felts and Mr. Huyck had an abundance of business savvy. They began operating in the old woolen mill that had been built at the turn of the 19th century, just below the Falls. The mill’s original function was to card wool and finish cloth and return it to local farmers for their domestic needs. These services were still provided even after Mr. Waterbury and Mr. Huyck began running the mill. From 1870-1878, the mill manufactured papermakers’ felts from wool brought from nearby farms and other areas. Each week the felts would be loaded onto wagons and taken to farmers’ wives who would join the felts into endless, seamless blankets. Later the felts were returned to the mill for washing, fulling, and finishing. Although the company produced a high-quality product, its success was limited by transportation problems–since it was far from the railroad, it encountered difficulty selling and transporting the felts–as well as a lack of workers and raw materials.
In 1879, the partnership was dissolved. Mr. Waterbury decided to try his luck in Oriskany, in central New York, while Mr. Huyck rented an old knitting mill at Kenwood, a suburb of Albany. Soon F.C. Huyck and Sons was successfully manufacturing papermaking felts as well as woolen suits and blankets. Mr. Huyck ran the successful business from Kenwood and later, Rensselaer, N.Y., until his death on July 4, 1907. Shortly afterwards, the company was reorganized with Edmund Niles Huyck as president, John Niles Huyck as vice president and secretary, and Francis Conkling Huyck, Jr., as treasurer. Maintaining the tradition of F.C. Huyck Sr.’s policies and high standards, the company continued to be a leading manufacturer of papermakers’ felts in the United States.
Today, that foundation on the trail is all that remains of the Waterbury and Huyck felt mill in Rensselaerville. After the mill closed, all the machinery was removed and the building demolished. Even its accompanying outbuilding is gone, having been removed to the Shufelt farm, just outside the hamlet. Natural succession has since reclaimed this once-bustling business property, and around it has grown the beautiful Preserve that we all treasure and enjoy.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2008 issue of the Huyck Preserve’s newsletter, the Myosotis Messenger.