Beacon’s hatmaking history

Tioronda Bridge by the old hat factory in Beacon (photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Maybe you’ve already heard about Rosendale cement, the violet-growing industry in northern Dutchess County and the heyday of cauliflower in Margaretville. But does your knowledge of the economic history of the Hudson Valley include the fact that the City of Beacon was the hatmaking capital of New York State for more than a century, second only to Danbury, Connecticut as a hub of hat manufacturing nationally?

The neighborhood in which some 50 hat factories sprang up was originally a separate community bordering the Fishkill Creek, known as Matteawan. The Matteawan Manufacturing Company was the first in the area devoted specifically to hat production. Its shop on East Main Street, opened in 1864, employed a workforce of 500 people. Among the other firms seeking to emulate its success were the Aldo Hat Company, Carroll’s Straw Hat Factory, National Felt Works, Tompkins Hat Factory, Genuine Panama Hat Company, Tioronda Hat Shop and Dutchess Hat Works. The latter occupied a large three-story factory that produced 450 dozen felt hats daily during the 1890s and operated its own showroom in Manhattan.

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But by the 1940s, fashions had changed, and lower-priced foreign competition took away much of the business from that shrinking segment of the American populace who still wore hats on a regular basis. Some of the hatteries shifted their production lines to wartime supplies and other wares, while others went out of business altogether. The very last operating remnant of the Beacon industry, the Dorel Hat Company, permanently shut the doors of its warehouse near the Metro North station in 2005. A Hat Parade down Main Street was organized that same year to commemorate this important piece of the city’s industrial history, and was revived annually until 2009.

Some of the former hat factories are still standing, inviting repurposing as the City of Beacon undergoes economic revival as a commuter town and arts hub. One of the oldest of these, the 1879 Tioronda Hat Factory at 555 South Avenue, was ravaged by fire on January 31, 2017, and most of its remaining walls were bulldozed a few days later. Later renamed the Merrimac Hat Company, the structure had remained a hat shop until 1948, when it was sold to the Atlas Fibers Company to be used for textile reprocessing. The building had been abandoned for years by the time the fire destroyed it.

At last report, a developer was eyeing the Tioronda Hat Factory site with the intent of building condominiums. It’s easy to see its appeal: The property follows the bank of the Fishkill Creek, and a boardwalk connecting the eastern and western sections of Scenic Hudson’s Madam Brett Park passes on the creek side of one of the brick factory walls still standing. A half-mile stroll east along the White Trail takes you to the foot of the Tioronda Falls overlook. The boardwalk following westward along the back of the privately owned former factory complex connects with the Red Trail, which leads to a viewing platform overlooking the Fishkill Marsh, which is a great birdwatching site.

This entire stretch of creek frontage has historical significance, since it was the site of the gristmill operated by Catheryna Rombout Brett (1687-1764). She was the daughter and sole surviving heir of Francis Rombouts, a Belgian fur trader who became an early mayor of New York City, and who in 1683, with two partners, purchased from the Wappinger tribe an 85,000-acre tract of land in the area that would one day become Beacon, known as the Rombout Patent. 

After Rombouts’ death in 1691, the parcel was broken up, with Catheryna inheriting 28,000 acres. She and her husband Roger Brett moved there from Manhattan, establishing a homestead and the mill that Catheryna continued to operate long after Brett’s 1718 death in a boat wreck. That mill became a trading post where Madam Brett established friendly relations with the local indigenous people. She is said to have taught English to Daniel Ninham, last sachem of the Wappinger people, in order to prepare him to defend his tribe’s land claims in British courts.

The Madam Brett Homestead, on Van Nydeck Avenue in Beacon, is regarded as the oldest surviving home in Dutchess County, operated as a historic site by the Daughters of the American Revolution. You can easily combine a tour of the house with a stroll along the Fishkill Creek, with stops in both ends of Madam Brett Park and glimpses of hat factory ruins in between. A useful trail map can be found at www.scenichudson.org/sites/default/files/MadamBrett.webmap.png.

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