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Historical Markers and Monuments of Rochester, Michigan
Item 1 of 11

Western Knitting Mills, organized in Detroit by Charles Sherwin Chapman, William Clark Chapman, and William C. Yawkey, built this factory in Rochester in 1896. At one time, the factory was deemed to be the second-largest knitting mill in the country, and it was one of Rochester's largest employers for a generation. After the knitting mill closed, it was purchased by McAleer Manufacturing Company of Detroit, which used the facility during World War II to produce photoflash bombs for the war effort. The building was restored and repurposed in 1997-98 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

  • Western Knitting Mills, north and west elevations, 2020
  • Western Knitting Mills, north entrance, 2020
  • Western Knitting Mills, north elevation and corner tower, 2020
  • Western Knitting Mills, Michigan Historical Marker, 2020
  • Western Knitting Mills, north and west elevations, ca. 1912
  • Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Western Knitting Mills complex, 1908
  • Western Knitting Mills, ca. 1897
  • Western Knitting Mills employment ad, 1897

Western Knitting Mills, organized in Detroit by Charles Sherwin Chapman, William Clark Chapman, and William C. Yawkey, built this factory in Rochester in 1896. The Rochester Era reported that ground was broken in June of that year with a work bee of local citizens: "Ground was broken early last Monday morning, and it was not long before one hundred men were at work digging a trench 150x140x5x3 feet. All worked with a will and determination, and by six o'clock the work was nearly completed. It is estimated that over 200 of our citizens handled shovels and threw out dirt during the day. Every business man in town, who was physically able, was on hand, and right nobly did the work go... It was a great day for Rochester, and our citizens will never regret the efforts put forth to bring this gigantic enterprise - the second largest of its kind in the United States - to this village."

As the plans for the new knitting mill were underway, a citizens' petition was placed before the village council asking that the new building include a watch tower. The Rochester Era reported on June 5, 1896:

"A petition was presented to the village board last Monday night asking that the Western Knitting Company place a tower on their new building and maintain a night-watchman there, paying him a sum approximating their village taxes, for a period of fifteen years."

A successful enterprise, the knitting mill was substantially expanded in 1902. The Rochester Era reported on May 23, 1902:

[begin quote]

The Western Knitting Mills have commenced operations on the enlargement and improvement of their plant in Rochester, which will greatly increase their capacity. A new addition, 40x80, two stories, will be built and the foundation is now being laid. Detroit architects are now engaged on the plans, which will embrace an enlarged folding room, forming room, and dye room. The old frame part will be torn away and replaced with a modern brick and stone building containing improved machinery for still further increasing the immense business of the company. A new boiler room 30x50 will also be built and a battery of three boilers installed therein, and a brick smoke-stack some 150 feet high erected. The company have placed an order in Germany for the new knitting machinery to manufacture men's fancy golf gloves, which will be a new branch of the business. It will arrive next month. They are also rewiring the entire plant for electric lights which are furnished by their own dynamo.

The cost of the new improvements will be a good many thousand dollars and will give the employment to a large number of bricklayers, carpenters and other laboring men. It is expected that the work will be all completed by the first of next September.

The Western Knitting Mills are of material benefit to Rochester furnishing labor to hundreds of people in the mill and out thus adding largely to the resources of our city. When completed and the new machinery in, the Western Knitting Mills will rank along the first of American industries in their line, all due to the energy and push of Messrs. C. S. and W. C. Chapman.

[end quote]

The building originally had a fire watch tower on the northwest corner of the building, which was removed in 1905. Western Knitting Mills was a major employer in Rochester in its heyday, and was also a major player in the textile industry in the U.S. at the time. The Rochester Era commented on November 13, 1908:

"The result of returning prosperity is being felt by the Western Knitting Mills, the second-largest concern making yarns and mittens in the U.S. Orders are coming in regularly and the mill will soon work full time and increase its force, which will be good news to all concerned."

In December 1917 the Detroit News reported as follows:

"The Western Knitting Mills have been awarded another government contract for 2,800,000 pairs of army gloves. The mills now furnish their own electricity and are planning to furnish power to other local consumers."

The mill operated until 1927 and then was sold to another knitting company that operated it sporadically with little success through the years of the Great Depression. In 1941, the McAleer Manufacturing Company of Detroit, headed by Carlton M. Higbie, purchased the old mill and relocated its manufacturing operation to Rochester. During World War II, McAleer fulfilled government defense contracts for photoflash bombs and flares and aircraft sub-assemblies from this facility; more than 50,000 MK-46 photoflash bombs were built and shipped from this location during the war.

Following the war, the company returned to the manufacture of automobile industry-related products. In 1950 the company was renamed Higbie Manufacturing Company, and later, ITT Higbie, and produced industrial tubing. Manufacturing ceased at this location in 1994 and the building was restored and renovated for use as the Rochester Mills Beer Company and a suite of offices. Plans for the historic restoration were drawn by architect John Dziurman. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

"It's a Go!: The Western Knitting Co.'s New Factory," Rochester Era, June 5, 1896, p.1.

"A petition was presented to the village board...," Rochester Era, June 5, 1896, p.1.

"Great Day at Rochester: Ground Broken for the New Factory by 100 Enthusiastic Shovelers," Utica Sentinel [reprinted from Rochester Era], June 20, 1896.

"Brick-laying on the new factory building is progressing rapidly...," Rochester Era, August 21, 1896.

"Knitting Factories at Rochester Will Open Up," Detroit Free Press, October 28, 1896, p.3.

"The New Western Knitting Mills," Rochester Era, March 26, 1897, p.1.

"Addition to the Western Knitting Mills," Rochester Era, May 23, 1902, p.8

"Western Knitting Mills Damaged: Storm Causes Much at Rochester," Detroit Free Press, July 4, 1902, p.2.

"Water Turned in Rochester's Reservoir," Detroit Free Press, November 15, 1902, p.2.

"Passing of a Pioneer: William C. Yawkey Called to Eternal Rest," Detroit Free Press, November 24, 1903, p.1

"Rochester's Greatest Enterprise: Western Knitting Mills," Rochester Era, November 27, 1903.

"The tower of the Western Knitting Mills has been in a dangerous condition for some time and it has been taken down to the bell room," Rochester Era, February 24, 1905, p.4.

"The result of returning prosperity is being felt by the Western Knitting Mills...," Rochester Era, November 13, 1908, p.4.

"The Western Knitting Mills is constructing an addition to its factory at Rochester, Mich.," American Machinist 44:15 (1916), p.80.

"Rochester mill lands big army glove order," Detroit News, December 13, 1917, p.2.

"Sale of Textile Mills Completed Here: Carlton Higbie Becomes New Owner of Property," Rochester Clarion, June 12, 1941, p.1.

"Alterations Being Finished," Rochester Clarion, July 24, 1941, p.1.

"ITT and Higbie Modify Terms of Acquisition," Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), November 15, 1971, p.15.

Gagaro, Paul. "Rewolds Buys ITT Parcel, Plans Brew Pub, Offices," Crain's Detroit Business, 13:50 (December 15, 1997), p.7.

"Construction to Begin on Historic Knitting Mill," Rochester Clarion, October 9, 1997, p.1.

"Knitting Mill Has Historic Touch," Rochester Clarion-Eccentric, April 2, 1998, p.1.

"Brew Pub a Showplace in Renovated Historic Mill," Detroit Free Press, April 15, 1998, p.5.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Deborah Larsen

Deborah Larsen

Deborah Larsen

Deborah Larsen

Deborah Larsen

Library of Congress

Rochester: A Sketch of One of the Best Towns on the Map, 1907 [public domain]

Rochester Era, May 14, 1897