The Garnerville Company Town


Former-worker homes from the Garner mill days still exist
Former-worker homes from the Garner mill days still exist

To find a true, growing and bustling economy in Rockland County, one must look to the 19th century.

Prior to Euclidean zoning rules, which effectively ended real economic growth in the suburbs, entrepreneurs manufactured products, housed workers nearby, and supplied the goods and services that those workers required. These businessmen recirculated their wealth into the community by building schools, churches, firehouses, public libraries and other cultural institutions. Community pride and visions of a positive and growing future roared.

All of Rockland’s downtowns are products of this fervent economic growth. Nyack had its mills and shipyards, Piermont its railroad terminals, Haverstraw its brickyards. The last remaining and intact 19th century company town is Garnerville, known for brothers Thomas and James Garner whose wealth steadily grew from the power of the Minisceongo Creek.

S.W. Johnson S.F.E. Fire Company, firehouse built in 1876
S.W. Johnson S.F.E. Fire Company, firehouse built in 1876

A dam was built on the creek at Bridge Street in Garnerville and progress began. John Glass constructed immense brick mills in a campus of several buildings on the site of an 18th century grist mill. A major calico textile printing plant sprung up. The creek’s hydro energy drove leather drive bands and rope that in turn spun large printing presses and other equipment. When Mr. Glass was killed in a steamboat boiler explosion offshore of Haverstraw, the Garner brothers stepped in to grow the business.

The Minisceongo would run with bright magenta, cerulean blue or mustard yellow on some days, before the advent of environmental protection. The booming business required hundreds of workers at hand to toil at the mills around the clock. A rail terminal at Bridge Street and Railroad Avenue allowed trains to whisk newly dyed and printed products to market.

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Longview of Garner Arts Center
Longview of Garner Arts Center

Surrounding the mill complex was a hollow of worker houses, nearly all of which exist to this day. The homes are modest and all alike. They comprised a densely packed village that began to feed its own economic growth.

The Garners even built their own state-of-the-art firehouse at Bridge Street as an insurance policy against losing their massive mill investments. Railroad Avenue was the commercial corridor where workers and their family ran errands, dined and were entertained. Most of the Railroad Avenue commercial district has been destroyed in Garnerville; however, the commercial district east of Route 9W is still largely intact in West Haverstraw.

Garnerville residents could catch a train for downtown Haverstraw or head in the opposite direction to Spring Valley and on to Hoboken, Jersey City and Manhattan.

Arts Center bustling, making a post-Irene comeback
Arts Center bustling, making a post-Irene comeback

It is probable that local currency or company scrip was in use in Garnerville. Workers could use the currency at company stores or elsewhere within the local economy. Scrip and local currency was in wide circulation during the late 19th century and early 20th century, and it remains legal to this day. Haverstraw Village had several local currencies established at each of the powerful banks, the buildings of which still grace the corner of Broadway and Main Street.

To say Garnerville was bustling is an understatement.

While Garnerville no longer functions as a self-sufficient community, the Garner Arts Center, as the terminal and mills are now known, has become a hive of artists and craftsmen. Set designers, cabinet makers, sculptors, dancers and painters inhabit the nooks, crannies, and hidden passageways that wind through brick and timber caverns.

The Center is now widely known among art circles in Manhattan. The Minisceongo still babbles its way through the complex after pouring over the dam as a picturesque waterfall. The creek has not spared the Garner Arts Center its rage. Flood waters from Hurricane Irene proved too violent for the Center’s main gallery space when a support wall failed and took with it much of the trussed roof and timber floors.

Since that time the rest of the building was shored up, but remains a shell of its former glory. Plans are in place to rebuild, but local government has yet to get behind a vision for moving forward.

GAGA 3.22.13 074 (2)The complex is a new center of economic activity in North Rockland and has all the ingredients in place to sow a vibrant, mixed-use arts district. Visions of artist lofts, breweries and busy cafes have been floated by Arts Center leaders. There is a strong precedent for this kind of successful redevelopment and adaptive reuse of historic buildings at similar mill complexes across the U.S.

Before that can happen, the Village of West Haverstraw must approve zoning and ordinance changes. Once again, regulation stands in the way of a growing and robust local economy. Let’s break that unfortunate trend in Garnerville.

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