While we were digging around the “Personal Pages” from a 1919 edition of Textile World, our curiosity was piqued by this note on the generosity of William Barnet, perhaps Rensselaer’s leading shoddy manufacturer. (Hoxsie will always find “shoddy manufacturer” funny, but if you don’t know, shoddy was a cheap fabric made of short-fibered reclaimed wool.) The article says that:
William Barnet, president of William Barnet & Sons, shoddy manufacturers of Rensselaer, N.Y., and a prominent resident of Albany, was one of the first to volunteer the use of his automobile to carry the orphans of Albany to and from Maple-Beach Park [successor to Al-Tro Park], where the annual orphans’ field day will be held. Mr. Barnet is a leading member of the Albany Motor Club, which has undertaken to supply transportation for the orphans.
It would appear that trundling orphans off for a day of fun was actually one of Barnet’s lesser good works; his reputation, and that of his company were anything but shoddy. (Sorry.)
According to a Knick News article from 1948, the original factory was founded at Broadway and Westerlo St. in 1898, then moved to Rensselaer in 1905. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1915 and later expanded. “The fumes and smoke which are characteristic of shoddy mills will be entirely absent in the new structure, according to Mr. Barnet, Sr. A device has been installed to draw off all obnoxious odors from the shoddies and carry them through a series of tubes to the outside.” A memorial to William Barnet from the Albany Evening News of Dec. 15, 1932, expressed what appeared to be the common opinion of Barnet:
William Barnet was one of the givers. He gave of money and time and service and sympathy. His long life of four score years was not lived for self but for others. His sense of public responsibility was large. He believed in kind words and good deeds. He had lived in Albany since he was 20 years old and he established the business of William Barnet & Son in Rensselaer. Sometimes it seemed as if business was his avocation and service to the public was his vocation. Under supervision of Herbert Hoover he was chairman of the Belgian Relief campaign. He was a trustee of the fund to build the Salvation Army Home and chairman of the Jewish War Relief campaign. In the war he was supervising chairman of draft boards in this section. He was a leader in several fraternal organizations, a world traveler and one of the foremost philanthropists that Albany has known. His life was an inspiration to all. To know him as a friend was a privilege. His example of active high citizenship will never be forgotten. The city mourns one of its rarest men.
Son Henry, who was president of the company for many years, worked on the Community Chest, on the board of the Jewish Community Center, and on the boards of Albany Hospital and Temple Beth Emeth. In 1940, he led a campaign against syphilis. “It seems that while he is in Albany, his idea of relaxation is going to meetings or trying to raise funds for his favorite projects.” The newspapers are filled with mentions of good works by Henry Barnet. In 1936, Barnet plant employees were among the first to receive hospitalization insurance (the terms will make you cry, so we’ll save that for tomorrow). No surprise, as Henry Barnet was instrumental in forming the Blue Cross Associated Hospital Service in the Capital District. He died in 1951, at age 71, extremely well-regarded. (Incidentally, he lived at 123 S. Lake Ave., certainly a handsome home but no mansion.)
A civic-minded family, Henry’s son William Barnet 2d lived his whole life in Albany, retired as chairman of the family business, and was involved In a number of philanthropic activities, including the foundation that bears his name and his wife’s. William Barnet III, an Albany Academy graduate, was President and CEO of the family business from 1976-2000, and has been on the boards of some little organizations like Duke Energy, Bank of America, and Fleet Boston. He was also mayor of Spartanburg, SC for a number of years.
William Barnet & Son went south in the 1960s, like most textile companies, moving its headquarters to South Carolina, and then branched out worldwide. While they make polymers and yarns, Hoxsie is happy to see that they still make short cut and staple fibers from post-industrial and post-consumer waste materials, so it’s entirely possible they’re still a leading shoddy manufacturer. We’d like to think so.
The Barnet mill still stands on Forbes Avenue in Rensselaer, now known as the Hilton Center and clearly visible from the Corning Preserve Boat Launch on the Albany side of the river.