This Place in History: Montgomery Mills

Vermont Historical Society

MONTGOMERY CENTER, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History’, we’re in Montgomery Center with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“If you can imagine, behind us, was a huge mill complex that made all sorts of wood products that shipped all over the country. We’re going to go down to the Montgomery Historical Society and meet with Scott Perry. He’s going to explain what I’m talking about,” began Perkins.

According to Perry, Franklin county and dairy are almost synonymous, but it is fair to say there’s a different industry that put Montgomery on the map.

“And that industry would be the butter tub industry. At the turn of the century, Montgomery produced over 1.5 million butter tubs a year,” said Perry.

“A butter tub. Most folks go to the store and you get your butter in sticks, right? You have four sticks in a box. When you’re referring to butter tubs, I’m assuming you mean this thing here? How did that work?” asked Perkins.

“It was used by folks that wanted to ship butter because dairy products would go bad. And that complicated the business of selling it and shipping it around different parts of the country. And so they settled on a butter tub. And hence, Montgomery stepped in to fill the void. We have a lot of water power to run the mills and we have a lot of spruce lumber and that’s what these are made of. What they would do is line the tub with paper, pack it with butter and then ship it on out,” explained Perry.

“You would think with the number produced that today, they’d be pretty easy to find. But, from what we understand and what we’re told, they would absorb some of the butterfat. Because of that, the wood would become rancid eventually and have to be thrown out or burned or something like that,” said Perry.

“These are tokens and this is what a lot of the workers here were paid in. You could take them into the company store and buy what you needed. One of the stories that we’re told by one of the folks that worked in the mills was that at their lunchtime hours they would all gather outside the mill. Some of the local boys would come in and put on boxing matches or exhibitions. The workers could then throw a token into the tin cans they set out to collect things. That way the kids could make a little money or tokens and go to the store and cash them in,” explained Perry.

“One of the things the economy transitioned away from butter tubs to, was Victrolas and other items that needed to be shipped around the country. People here adopted early the idea of plywood. One of the mills associated with the butter tubs eventually converted to three-ply plywood packing cases.”

“What you see here is a packing case that was made about 1920 in Montgomery Center and used to ship a Victrola talking machine to some part of the country. And, the difference between the two is that those were spruce, a softwood, and this was hardwood. You’ll notice that this has got some advertising printed on it. One of the things the company boasted about was that because the crates were used more than once, the advertising persevered and became even that much more valuable. Besides the fact of being stronger and lighter and costing less to ship whatever it was,” explained Perry.

“They put out a catalog in 1920 showing all the different cases they’d made. They could do custom, as well. So, even if you were getting tires or something like that, you might get them in a Nelson and Hall, Montgomery Center made packing case,” added Perry.

“There’s still evidence in town today. So, if folks drive up to Montgomery, they can view some of the evidence of this wood industry,” said Perkins.

“Absolutely. The company store is still in operation, though it’s not a company store anymore. You’ll be able to see the mill houses. And the mills owned about 50-70% of the downtown village buildings and in Montgomery Center. In fact, by 1920, Montgomery was the fifth largest town by population in Franklin county. Now, we’re last, but back then, it was a booming place just because of the mills and the different stuff related to the economy here,” concluded Perry.

At ‘This Place in History’!

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic markers, click here.

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

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