On Nantucket, Specialty Manufacturing Is Alive And Well
Nantucket might be the last place many people would associate with manufacturing. But the island does have a rich manufacturing past -- a history largely unknown to people who come here on vacation. Specialty manufacturing is alive and well on Nantucket, and two of these homegrown operations welcome seasonal visitors as a way to spread the word about their products.
Cisco Brewers is tucked away in a complex of small buildings near the center of the island. During the last 20 years, the company has grown into a highly successful year-round operation making original craft beers, specialty wines, and various types of liquors.
Owner Randy Hudson stands near a group of large fermenters and oak barrels, as workers label and pack wine bottles for shipment.
“To sum up what we do here is almost impossible in any sort of short amount of time because we seem to just have a curiosity or an interest in anything that is fermented,” Hudson said.
Cisco employs 55 people, including five sales reps who market their products up and down the East Coast. Hudson describes his company as an ‘incubation zone’.
“We try different things,” he said. “If it works, we adopt it and make more of it. If it doesn’t work out, we move on to the next thing that interests us.”
Years ago, Nantucketers gradually turned away from manufacturing as tourism began to take hold. But present-day manufacturers like Cisco Brewers readily embrace the island’s seasonal population, and find ways to use it to their advantage.
“Here, the huge, overwhelming positive is the island itself,” said Hudson.
Cisco capitalizes on the tourist season with wine tastings, tours, live music and a brew pub. Visitors sipping craft beers on the patio are often unaware that just nearby is a full-scale brewing operation.
“I don’t think people understand this as being a manufacturer, really. They look at us and think we’re a bar that makes our own beer,” Hudson noted.
But behind the informal atmosphere is a heavily regulated business. Cisco holds 16 different Federal and State permits, including a farmer/distiller’s permit.
“If you think about it, brewing, vinting and distilling are all agricultural endeavors, because all alcohol comes from a plant base,” Hudson said.
Farming was one of the first ways Nantucketers made a living. Then came whaling – Nantucket’s first real manufacturing effort. Betsy Tyler is Director of the Nantucket Historical Society’s Research Library. She says the main brick building of today’s Whaling Museum was once an oil and candle factory.
“They actually processed the whale oil that came back to the island,” said Tyler. “It was a complicated and lengthy process to get the pure oil that they sold.”
The whaling industry began to collapse around the 1840’s, and other events like the Great Fire, the Gold Rush and the Civil War further depleted Nantucket’s shrinking population. During this time, a number of manufacturers sprang up on the island. One was a silk factory.
“They had steam engines, looms, and they were going to produce silk. It lasted for a few years,” said Tyler.
There also was a straw hat factory which employed about 300 women.
“And it’s now the Dreamland Theater - that was the straw hat factory,” she said.
After the Civil War, Nantucket was discovered as a tourist destination, and the island began catering to its new visitors. The Nantucket of today is a different place from the days of silk and straw hat factories. But in a red brick building near the head of Main Street, Nantucket Looms carries on the tradition of manufacturing by hand. Becky Parener owns the business.
“We do everything from throws to blankets and scarves and apparel things and placemats and napkins,” said Parener.
Peraner vacationed on Nantucket with her family in the 70’s. After studying textile design at the Rhode Island School of Design, she came back and took over Nantucket Looms two years ago.
“Everything we do is a small run and it’s pretty much one of a kind,” she said. “You know, it might be just one particular warp of blue and white striped blankets that you’re never gonna see again, or the combination of the colors of cashmere that we use.”
The company’s looms clatter above the Nantucket Looms retail store, where their creations are sold along with the work of other local artisans and craftspeople. At the back of the store is a sign pointing up the stairs to the second-floor weaving studio.
“People who come into the store, they hear us upstairs and they say, ‘What’s going on? Is there an aerobics class?’ And it’s like, ‘No, it’s just the weavers at work upstairs.’ And then when they come up, they really, really appreciate the craft that much more because they see it being done right here. It’s not done overseas or anything like that,” said Parener.
Brittany Bennett is one of four weavers at the Main Street location. She sets up a pattern on 30-year old loom she operates with foot pedals.
“Each weaver gets to see their project through,” said Bennett. “They start it, they dress the loom, they thread the loom, they weave them all, and they finish them all. And so that usually is about a two-week process for each project that we do.”
Becky Parener starts up a small electric-powered machine called a bobbin winder.
“This is probably the most mechanized thing in our studio. It’s the only thing that’s plugged in,” she said.
Other than the electric bobbin winder, Nantucket Looms is an all-manual operation. It’s labor-intensive, but to Parener and her weavers, it’s ultimately more rewarding.
“Every single inch of what we’re doing is looked at by the human eye and the skilled artist that’s making it. So it’s a nice kinda step back,” Parener said.
Nantucket has long since moved on from its manufacturing past, and is known today as an exclusive vacation spot, attracting some 400,000 visitors annually. But a handful of present-day manufacturers still thrive on this small island, and say they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.