If you have not done so, take a short trip down Walpole Street to visit the reformation of a piece of Norwood history – the Norwood Commerce Center on Endicott Street. In years gone by, the area was the home of the Winslow and Smith Brothers tannery. Today, it is a revitalized set of mill buildings, a section of which is appropriately devoted to warehouses filled with antique, vintage and repurposed furniture, accessories, tools, “doohickeys,” etc. Another section houses artist lofts. The remaining portions house manufacturing and commercial businesses.
The history of the tannery is rich and includes many of the town’s well-known families for which our buildings, parks and streets are named. As many of the businesses that have come and gone over the years, it tells the story of who the people were, where they came from, how hard working they were and how much they cared about their town.
It begins in 1776 when Abner Guild built the original tannery – described as “small.” That “small” business became one of the longest, continuously operating businesses in the history Norwood (originally part of South Dedham and often-called Tiot).
In 1791, Abner took John Smith, at age seven, as an apprentice in the tanning trade - converting rawhide into leather. After years of mentoring, Smith eventually became Guild’s successor. Smith repeated the process with George Winslow who, after serving his apprenticeship at John Guild’s (a relation of Abner) tannery in Roxbury, came to work under Smith. He subsequently married Smith’s daughter, Olive, and eventually a partnership between John Smith and George Winslow formed the firm Smith & Winslow.
George also became fast friends with his Smith’s son, Lyman who with his wife, Melinda had two sons, John and Charles and a daughter, Anna. George and Olive had five sons and a daughter, Elisha, George, Alfred, John Martin, Francis, and Henrietta. In 1843, John Smith signed over the deed to the tannery to Lyman and George Winslow (some 20 years after he had begun working at the tannery). He deeded half the property on which the tannery sits to each of them with the dividing line through the center of the main building. His hope was that the partnership would withstand the test of time.
At this point, the business had expanded and on top of converting rawhide to leather, it operated finishing shops subsequently cutting out the middleman with the various trades that worked with the finished product. George was considered the “leader” and Lyman the “man’s man who lived to work.” The partnership thrived.
However, in 1852, due to competition between Lyman’s sons and the Winslow brothers (in number an uneven partnership), the union dissolved. The Winslows remained in the original location and renamed their firm George Winslow & Sons. The Smiths built on Railroad Ave (where XX now stands) and called it Lyman Smith & Sons. Although George died in 1877 and Lyman in 1883, both companies continued to grow steadily with each employing more than 100 men. (In fact, the Winslow Brothers tannery employed 150 men in 1890 and 275 men in 1894.) In the late nineties, wool pulling and scouring were added to the other activities performed.
Francis (the youngest of the Winslow children) married Martha and had two daughters, Clara and Edith. In 1893, Edith wed George Willett from Walpole. In 1895, George Willett acquired controlling interest in the tannery. Shortly after the Willett-Winslow wedding, Frank Allen (from Lynn) entered the picture and in 1897, he and Clara wed.
In 1901, George Willett and Edward Mills secured Lyman Smith’s Sons (its new name after Lyman Smith’s death) and consolidated the two companies into Winslow Brothers and Smith Company. Allen, who became a close and trusted advisor to Willett, eventually became president and chairman of the board.
After continued growth (at one time the largest handler of sheepskin in the world) and mergers with other leather companies, in 1928 Frank Allen, as president, merged Winslow & Smith Brothers with Eastern Leather Company.
Around World War II, the firm saw diminishing need for its product as well as increased operational and raw materials costs. With labor conflicts between workers and owners in 1933, 1938 and 1949, first the Railroad Avenue facility closed and in 1952, the original facility ceased operation. The Railroad Avenue buildings were demolished; those on Endicott Street were occupied by several businesses. The property was eventually divided into approximately 13 acres and 23 acres. For many years, Zimble Drum owned the 13-acre lot, which has been unoccupied since approximately 2002. For a period, Atlantic Properties owned the 23-acre lot.
In 1985, the property became the Norwood Commerce Center (a limited partnership) of the 23-acre lot. Manufacturing and commercial entities have occupied the property. Gerry Gillis, one of the partners, came out of retirement to help turn around the property which currently includes 15 buildings and some 300,000 square feet.
In the fall of 2011, Gerry hired Rich Bruno as property manager. Since the property had become a dumping ground, one of his first priorities was cleanup. Rich and his team (including a 30-hour a week groundskeeper) have hauled out twenty-five 30-yard dumpsters of scrap and trash. With the addition of gates, signage and an increase in police presence, according to Rich, the dumping has decreased dramatically.
The various state and federal environmental agencies inspect the property for compliance regularly including a few weeks ago. The “cap” is checked annually to ensure its seal remains intact and there are no leaks.
Inside the buildings, the individual units are cleared, one-by-one, of refuse left behind from previous tenants, teenagers, squatters, etc. The walls are painted, bathrooms and windows repaired, exit signs and fire extinguishers added (all to code). As was the case in its hay day, there is one central source of heat for all of the buildings.
The small pump house abutting the pond is also being spruced up and repurposed with hand painted murals on the exterior and a soon to be installed decorative water wheel. The hope is to use the building as a café to serve tenants and visitors.
During the last year, a vision formed. According to property manager, Rich Bruno, it started out as a “limited warehouse opportunity for people who are storing their goods” on the internet. Original tenants included as ReMARKable Estate Clean Outs (which also has a retail store on Washington Street) owned by Mark Waters, Ramblin Rose Cottage owned by Sheryl Elliot and soon after, Old Bean Antiques owned by Christine Malmquist. It is a “safe place,” a “neutral place,” other than their homes, that buyers can view merchandise prior to purchasing.
Since the first three vendors moved in, the vision has grown to build an “antique village” for, currently, some 11 vendors. This has resulted in a decrease in the vacancy rate from 40% to 25% since late last year. Contrary to rumors spread earlier this year, Rich Bruno says, “There are absolutely no plans to sell the Norwood Commerce Center to any developers.”
In fact, by the time this article is printed, a meeting will have been held to discuss awarding a special retail permit for the property. The intent is that the vendors will open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to provide one-stop antique shopping not currently available in the area – a far cry from the days of squatters, teenage parties, trash disposal and high vacancy rates of years gone by. Limited partner, Gerry Gillis says, “An excellent turnaround since last October.”
The spaces – they are as unique as the vendors. Some of the spaces feature brick walls; some are painted wood. Some of the floors are painted cement, others hardwood. The windows are large; the ceilings are tall. Some of the vendors offer space for smaller vendors. Others sell all their own products. Some offer antiques; others offer repurposed items and still another that offers items ready to be repurposed.
The vendors currently include ReMARKable Closeouts, Ramblin Rose, Old Bean Antiques, Vintage Thymes, Vintage Peacock, Attitudes Boutique, Posh Market, Gallery Two, Blue Bird Studios, W.G. Holding Co., and G.T. Vintage.
The following material was used to write this article: Fanning, Patricia, Norwood: A History, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002, McDermott, Charles H., A History of the Shoe and Leather Industries of the United States Volume 2, Boston: Charles W. Denehy and Company, 1920, Mosher, Bill and Fanning, Patti, Tannery, Norwood, Mass: Copper Mill Press, 1983, Tolles, Jr., Bryant Franklin, Norwood: The Centennial History of a Massachusetts Town, Norwood, Mass: Norwood Printing Company, 1973