Forever Plaid

Johnson Woolen Mills is one of a number of businesses owned by Stacy and Howard Manosh

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Stacy Manosh and her husband, Howard, bought Johnson Woolen Mills from her father in 1998. The fourth generation owner has devoted herself to beefing up sales and expanding foreign markets.

When people think of the typical Vermonter, more than likely they'll come up with an image of a figure walking through knee-high snow, on the way to the sugarhouse or cow barn, and that figure will be wearing a thick woolen jacket in bright red-and-black plaid. The label in that jacket would undoubtedly bear the name of Johnson Woolen Mills. The company's rugged, warm clothes are as Vermont as maple syrup, and the mills are deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the state. Johnson Woolen Mills has been operating on the banks of the Gihon River in the little Lamoille County town of Johnson for 158 years, manufacturing its signature green wool pants for a century, and has been owned by the Barrows family since 1905. "I'm fourth generation," says owner Stacy Manosh, with more than a touch of pride.

Johnson Woolen Mills was founded in 1842. "Back then it was a place where people would bring their raw wool to be combed and carded," Manosh explains. Around the turn of the last century, just before Manosh's great-grandfather bought the company, the mill began making men's pants. "We used to call ourselves 'Makers of the best wearing trousers in America,'" Manosh says. History is never far away at the mills. Manosh can trace the Barrows family back to Miles Standish. In her great-grandfather's office, still in use, are photographs of three generations of Barrowses, and a picture of President Coolidge, inscribed "To D.A. Barrows from Calvin Coolidge."

"We survived the Great Flood of 1927 in my grandfather's day," says Manosh. "All the looms had to be taken down and cleaned.

"I grew up in the business," she continues. "In high school I used to sew during the summer vacation. Later, I was the company's New England sales rep for nine years. That was a super experience," she remembers. "Even today I know the guy who calls up from, say, St. Francis, Maine." There's no job description printed on Manosh's business card. "What's my title?" she considers, laughing. "I do everything from ordering buttons and zippers and mowing the lawn to negotiating letters of credit with Japanese banks."

Manosh owns the business with her husband, Howard Manosh, who also owns the H.A. Manosh Corp. in nearby Morrisville. "They're the largest well-drilling operation in Vermont," says Manosh. "They also build sawmills. In fact, I feel like a sawmill widow at the moment," she jokes. Her husband is building a large, ultra-modern sawmill in Morrisville, and, she says, "I've been playing second fiddle to that mill for some time now." The couple have been together for 10 years, and have been married for five. "He's my partner, my husband, my best friend. How many people can say that?" Manosh says. Howard was instrumental in persuading her father, Del Barrows, to sell the business to her in December 1998. "I couldn't have done it without him," she states. "He made my dream come true." Howard is a silent partner in the company. "He's a silent partner in a lot of businesses," Manosh reveals. "Sometimes he's so silent that people don't realize how involved he is."

Since taking over, Manosh has committed herself to increasing the company's sales. "My father's idea of marketing is waiting for the phone to ring," she smiles. "He's very old-style Vermont. His advertising budget was about $200 a year; now it's between 1 and 2 percent of sales. There were five sales reps when I bought the company. Now we have 22.

Once focused on men's clothing, the mill now produces women's and children's lines, too.

"We sell to big people like L.L. Bean and Cabela's," says Manosh, "and big stores like Sam's in Brattleboro, but we still love mom and pop stores. We sell to all 50 states, including Alaska, and we're going abroad now as well, especially to Japan, where they love the fact that we're not so big we can't make things just for them."

Johnson Woolen Mills has 47 employees. "They're a great bunch of people," Manosh states. "Many of them have been with us over 30 years." It seems that it isn't just the Barrows family that has made deep connections with the company. "We have several mother and daughter teams," Manosh continues, "like Melissa Goetz, our store manager. Her mother, Sandy Heath, is a seamstress here. Everyone's really proud of what they do. When a garment leaves here, it's like it's going to their grandfather."

The mill has had to expand over the years as new lines and styles have been added to the inventory. Nowadays, vests and jackets are assembled in a new building, built in 1985. The big room hums with industry as huge, 50-yard rolls of wool — called "pieces," Manosh explains — are transformed into garments. A bright red-and-green plaid shot through with yellow is being assembled into Johnson's trademark hunting jackets. "This cloth is really popular in Japan," Manosh says. She leads the way over to the old mill, which dates back to the 19th century. Upstairs, in a smaller, high-ceilinged space, pants are being sewn. "There used to be 35 people working in this room," Manosh remembers. "I sewed in here as a kid." The mill's green woolen pants are the company's original product, and are still popular today. "We make pants up to a 66 waist," Manosh laughs, holding up a gargantuan garment, "and we sell 'em by the ton!"

The mill's retail store is downstairs in the old building. "I call it my petri dish," says Manosh. "I can experiment here, try new things." Under her ownership, the store has expanded, and now carries brands such as Carhartt, Columbia, Vera Bradley, even the fleece products of Turtle Fur. "We have to have something for everybody, and some people are allergic to wool, God forbid!" Manosh jokes. "I swear we have every sock that's made," she continues.

Howard Manosh owns half of Vermont Precision Woodworks, and the company's beds are on sale in the Johnson store, displaying classic woolen blankets and intricate quilts made of wool offcuts from the factory. "No two of these are the same," says Manosh, running her hand over a quilt. "They're made by Mrs. Carron, who worked here for years and years. She's in her 90s now," she continues, "but her daughter still works here." Howard Manosh's well-drilling interests are present, too, in the form of very real-looking granite monoliths that turn out to be hollow fiberglass. "They're for covering up your well-head," Manosh explains. "See? We really do have something for everybody!"

Pride of place still belongs to Johnson's traditional jackets, vests, pants and shirts. "Vermonters do love red-and-black plaid," says Manosh, and that familiar color scheme is much in evidence, rubbing shoulders and sleeves with garments made from a rainbow array of plain colors, checks and plaids. "This is a weather-dependent business," she continues. "We keep people warm. This year, what we need is a cold, cold fall, with snow on the ground when hunting season opens. I love to see a man with goose bumps!" she laughs.

Under Stacy Manosh's ownership, the mill's retail store has expanded to carry brands such as Carhartt, Columbia, Vera Bradley and Turtle Fur. Pictured: Melissa Goetz (left) and Rachel Longley.

The mill no longer produces clothes exclusively for men. Manosh's father introduced women's and children's lines, and Manosh has expanded these. She points out recent introductions: the women's version of the company's well-known Jac Shirt, and a child-sized vest in red wool with teddy bear-shaped pewter buttons. So who designs these new garments? "It's kind of a joint effort," explains Manosh. "We all have a hand in it. With the vest, Mary Langlois, our floor lady, helped, and her mother came in as a consultant. The buttons were my idea."

Manosh's brother, Jeff Barrows, is the company's plant manager; he is also in charge of shipping. He and his sister are also the mill's Vermont sales reps. Jeff's involvement with the family business is as longstanding as his sister's. "I started working here in the summer when I was 14," he says. "I started on the cutting tables, and I would work weekends in the store." Today, he's in the downstairs warehouse, where thousands of garments wait on tightly packed shelves to be shipped around the country and overseas. "We have a big order going out to Japan," he says. "Right now it's up to 62 cases." Jeff has a 6-year-old son, Anthony. "If he decides not to be a rocket scientist, we'd like him to be the fifth generation," Manosh beams.

There is a dynastic quality to the Barrows family and their business, but although Johnson Woolen Mills has deep roots in tradition and the past, it is looking to the future as well. "We want to double sales by the end of this year. It's a lofty goal, but we'll do it, I hope," Manosh states. "Japan is a big new market for us," she continues. "We've done business in Germany, and we'd love to sell more there." She is determined to raise the company's profile at home, too. "We'd never had a sales rep in Colorado until last year," she says. "This year we went to the SHOT show in Las Vegas," the outdoor clothing industry's biggest event. "We'd never been there before.

"The Vermont Department of Agriculture chose us to be in the Vermont building at Eastern States, the fair in Springfield, Mass., this fall," she continues. "We're very honored: A jury picked us over heavy competition." Even closer to home, Manosh is making the mill — now open for factory tours — and retail store more of a destination for locals and tourists. "People are always saying to me, 'I've been driving past here for 20 years, and I never knew you carried so much,'" she says. "I tell them, 'If you can't find it here, you don't need it!'"

Manosh also owns Manosh Realty with her husband. "I'm the principal broker, so I get all the problems!" she laughs. The couple activated the company four years ago. "We sell everything," she says, "commercial, residential, land."

For people with such busy lives, it's good to know that the Manoshes find the time to unwind. "Howard and I have Harleys," Manosh reveals. "I have a purple 1995 Fat Boy. When I bought it, I came home to find that our neighbor had put up a big pink sign on our front lawn. It said, in pink, glittery letters, 'Caution, Beware -- Skinny Woman on Fat Boy.'" Manosh also likes to "sneak away to my garden," she says, "and we both like to travel." Two years ago she gave Howard a trip from Montreal to Vancouver on the Silver and Blue train for his birthday.

There's only one problem with owning a company that prides itself on tradition, quality and ruggedness. "Our clothes last too long. People come up to me and say, 'I've had your coat for 30 years,'" says Manosh, laughing. "I want to say, 'Give me your address; I'll send you a hungry moth!'"

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.