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Piece of Newport history being demolished 80 percent of Dorr Woolen complex coming down

This aerial picture shows the entire Dorr Woolen Mill on Routes 11 and 103 in the Guild section of Newport. About 80 percent of the building is being demolished. (Courtesy photo). (click for larger version)
October 09, 2009
NEWPORT — The industrial landscape in Newport is undergoing a major change with the demolition of the old Dorr Woolen Mill property in Guild.

When the task is completed, the 300,000 square foot building will be reduced to 55,000 square feet. The remaining space, a building at the rear of the property constructed in 1989, and two adjoining buildings, will be used for warehouse space and shipping operations by Sturm Ruger & Company, the present owner.

Also left standing will be the old office building at the front of the 27-acre site. It will continue to be utilized for export and law enforcement sales by the Newport gun manufacturer, located about a mile away from the old mill building on Routes 11 and 103.

"The building was too big and inefficient to operate," said Randy Wheeler, the Business Unit Director for Sturm Ruger.

Wheeler estimated it cost approximately $750,000 annually for heat and electricity at the building that had several additions over the decades. "That number was staggering," he stated.

Sturm Ruger's shipping operation is presently occupying a section of the mill building facing demolition. "We'll use the space we need," he said of the remaining buildings to be left standing for warehousing and shipping. "We want to make sure that space is ready to run on its own before a move is made," he added.

Demolishing the huge plant, expected to be completed by the first of the year, is being done in stages, Wheeler said.

Fluorescent light tubes were boxed up and shipped away as were the ballasts in those fixtures. Steel is being scrapped. Waste is separated in stages. The bricks and cement from the plant will be crushed on site and used as fill.

According to a permit issued for the job by the Newport Office of Planning and Zoning, the cost for the demolition work was listed at $1.5 million.

The Newport Assessing Office set the 2009 assessment of the property at $985,400. Buildings were assessed at $505,100; features, $46,200 and land, $327,900. Features included such things as the sprinkler system, chain link fence, barn, lean-to, shed, equipment shed, garage and dock leveler.

Tax documents indicate the $505,100 building assessment was figured at 95 percent depreciation. Based on the total assessment of $985,400 and a tax rate of $23.82 per $1,000, the 2009 tax bill would have been $23,472. The cost to replace the building today was listed at $10,101,334 on tax records. A new assessment is expected to be drafted in the spring, once the demolition work is completed.

"It's quite possible when the building is gone, it opens up a lot more opportunities for that land at the highest and best use," said Town Manager Dan O'Neill. "We won't know for sure until that is done."

Pendleton Woolen Mills of Portland, Ore., acquired Dorr Woolen Mill in 1982. The mill ceased operation in July of 2003. Wheeler said during the 1988-89 period, Pendleton employed about 400 to 420 at the mill.

The rich early history of the mill and its operation was documented in a booklet at the time of Newport's Bicentennial Celebration in 1961.

In 1984, George A. Dorr came to Guild to work in a woolen mill as a payroll clerk. As in many communities in New England, there had been a mill beside the river for many years where water power was harnessed.

After working for several successive managements, he formed a partnership in 1910 with George A. Fairbanks and purchased the property. The partnership operated successfully and in 1918, Fairbanks sold his interest and the Dorr Woolen Company was established.

At this time, the mill operated on water power and employed about 155 "hands." When the mill pond ran out of water, the employees used to wait on the banks until the pond filled so they could start their looms.

The principal product was material for woolen shirts worn by draymen and workers in the steel mills. The characteristic of this fabric, especially desirable for the steel workers, was the ability to shed sparks before the open furnace.

Early in the 1920s, with the introduction of the cab truck, worker preference shifted to cotton shirts and the company had to enter another field. The automotive industry began to use woolen materials in the interior of their cars and Dorr fabrics were shipped all over the world inside of Ford, Lincoln and General Motor products.

During the war the mill supplied cloth for bathrobes for Army hospitals and Red Cross installations and large amounts of material went to the refugee areas under Red Cross supervision.

Following the war, Dorr fabrics continued in the automotive industry until 1952, when synthetic fabrics and vinyl upholstery supplanted this material. Once again the mill converted its production, this time to women's wear, sports wear and fancy woolens.

Completely re-equipped and modernized since the war, Dorr Woolen Company was listed as one of the most versatile, modern mills in the industry in 1961.

Its 330 employees represented a payroll of more than $1,250,000 per year and the taxes paid locally approached about 10 percent of the tax burden of the town. When in full production, the mill finished more than 100,000 yards per week.

The founder, George A. Dorr, who saw the mill through the difficult periods, died in 1947.

Gerorge A. Dorr Jr. joined the company in 1939 and ran Dorr Woolen Company, taking over from his father, until he retired in 1982. He was known as an innovator within the textile industry as he constantly adapted new technologies to the manufacture of integrated woolen fabric.

George A. Dorr Jr. died at the age of 89 on June 4, 2006.

Martin Lord and Osman
Salmon Press
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