If you stroll the roads of Chicopee Village or wander the snaking woodland trails, you’re tracing the same steps that Robert Wood Johnson Jr. walked some 90 years ago as he sought land for the family’s medical supply empire.
The man — who at the time was vice president of Johnson & Johnson — needed a home for production of the company’s cotton fabrics. On that pivotal day, he found a prime spot in Gainesville. Construction began in 1926 to build a mill and 250 homes with indoor plumbing, electricity and hot water – unheard of amenities for many at the time.
Entrepreneur Pap Datta, whose new brewery will be located in Chicopee, thinks often about the community’s origins. He feels Chicopee is “a snapshot into the visionary past of a corporation that built not only a plant, but built lives for the people who worked there.”
Some feel the promise of Datta’s new business as well as a soon-to-open multi-use trail could breathe life into Chicopee, signaling a new day for residents.
A new day
While some see the multi-use trail and brewery as positives that could set the stage for continued growth, others have expressed worry over the change that’s to come.
Jackie Cronic, who has lived there 55 years, said he’s glad to see new businesses opening their doors, but “not so glad about seeing a brewery so close to the churches in the community.”
As to the multi-use trail, Cronic said he’s looking forward to its completion.
Association of Chicopee Residents President Brad Pritchett said the trail has made some wary of the criminal element it could possibly bring, but others (including himself) “definitely see it as progress.”
In the works for nearly a decade, the multi-use path is set to run along Ga. 13/Atlanta Highway between Palmour Drive in Gainesville and Lanier Technical College and the University of Georgia-Gainesville in Oakwood.
“I think it’s an exciting time,” Pritchett said. “On the part of some of the older residents there is some anxiety about it, but I feel like I speak for a majority when I say the trail and brewery could open the door to new opportunities.”
“This could be an interesting time for Chicopee, a dynamic growth period,” he said, adding that, once complete the business will feature aspects of its heritage.
“I’m inspired by what we have the privilege of doing,” Datta said. “We’re restoring the legacy of having a business here that not only does something well, but also creates a sustainable model for its people in a community that was founded on innovation.”
Founded on innovation
The most innovative breakthrough at Chicopee was likely the underground electrical wiring and steam pipes beneath the village homes, according to a pamphlet printed by Johnson & Johnson during Chicopee Mill’s 50th anniversary titled, “Reflections:”
“The electric street lights (were) of the latest and most ornamental type with no unsightly wires overhead. All village wiring (was) underground...in this way they cannot be short circuited or blown down by storms. Their concealment, moreover, improves the appearance of all streets and houses.”
Former mill employee Fleming Weaver said that in addition to the village’s underground infrastructure, a series of tunnels beneath the mill itself also contained power and steam pipes.
Weaver, who worked in human resources at the mill from 1969-1994, said the idea “was a very new concept. New Holland (mill in Gainesville) for instance did not have underground facilities.”
The tunnels are still there. The Times went on a recent guided tour of the passageways, which stretch for thousands of feet.
Jay Stakes of Commerce remembers those tunnels. As a child growing up in Chicopee, he and his friends used to find ways into the dark corridors and “run every inch” of them.
Growing up in the village
Stakes grew up during the ’80s, right around the time Johnson & Johnson donated 2,500 acres of property for a public park, much of which would become the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve.
Stakes remembers his old stomping grounds as a “tight knit” community. “We could run around and do whatever,” Stakes said. “Our parents would let us roam, because it was a safe place.”
Cronic, who grew up in Chicopee decades earlier, said that “back then, you could leave your front door open and not worry about anything getting stolen. It was ideal growing up there.”
Cronic lived in Chicopee Village during several fateful milestones. He was there in the 1970s when Johnson & Johnson cut back mill production and sold the village homes to residents
He was also around in 1994, when the plant was sold to S.I. Corp., a company that produced fabrics for trampolines.
Nowadays, there are several businesses located in and around the mill, one of which repurposes and sells the salvageable parts of old mattresses.
Inside the mill today — where decades ago spindles and looms produced surgical gauze and cheesecloth — employees of the recycling business stack beds ceiling-high.
Next door, contractors are getting the brewery ready for its projected late-summer grand opening.
Weaver said he gets a kick out of that: his former workplace will soon be a brewery. “I could go have a beer in my old office,” he said, laughing.
When the mill closed in 1994 and Weaver — like all other employees — lost his job, he said it felt to him and the community “like losing a limb.”
“Times change,” he said. “That’s how it is. Just look at Gainesville now. Poultry is big business here, but before that textile was king.”
Textile was king
Some 90 years ago, before buying the Gainesville land that would one day become Chicopee Mill and Village, Johnson visited the property with Hall County and chamber of commerce officials.
Upon seeing the tract, the industrial tycoon knew he’d found a home for production of the company’s cotton fabric and a prime spot for a unique kind of village.
“This was the first mill village that really took great care of their employees and made it feel like a community,” said Pritchett, the residents association president. “From the start, Chicopee was a cut above.”
Datta said that’s one of many reasons he hopes to preserve history inside the brewery. He plans to prominently feature the photos and stories of the mill’s original inhabitants, including artifacts from its founding.
“As people learn more about the rich culture of Chicopee, it will bring in more business and stir more interest,” Datta said. “I’m hoping it will spark new life.”