Crowds line up for tours of historic factory

November 17, 2014

ORISKANY — Local businessman James Kernan is spearheading the revival of the former felt mill on River Street, but first Kernan is spearheading a different sort of revival.

On Saturday, dozens of visitors came to former Waterbury Felt Factory to tour the building and get a close-up view of some village history — that previously most had only seen from the outside.

Kernan, who bought the complex for $16,000 earlier this year at a county tax foreclosure auction, is planning on renovating the site and developing a facility suitable to house an apprenticeship program in the skilled trades.

A mill has been at that location for more than two centuries, first as the Oriskany Manufacturing Co., according to records. Later it operated under the Waterbury name for many years.

“We will retain the historic elements that make this a landmark property,” Kernan said in a statement earlier this fall.

“Such as the bell that over a century ago rang every day for the community. At the same time we will modernize the facility so it can house jobs for the 21st century,” Kernan added.

On Saturday, visitors got to tour the mill, and could witness what the felt mill operation looked like. Many of the machines and looms were still threaded, as if the workers had just left what they were doing, when the mill closed up for good, not saying farewell to the structure which has stood for nearly 200 years. At its peak, the Waterbury mill employed more than 300 workers and was a linchpin of the village’s economy, the local businessman said.

Kernan hopes to restore the building to its former glory and to return it to a functioning part of the local economy. His first goal is to open an apprenticeship program, similar to one that he presently operates in the Bronx at SUNY Maritime College. The Oriska Jobs and Careers Center would provide workers a salary while getting on-the-job experience and classroom training in the construction trades.

The local version would serve the residents of Utica, Rome and the surrounding communities.

“It will help bring economic opportunity to the region,” said Kernan, a lawyer, engineer and former CEO of Oriska Insurance Co., headquartered in Oriskany. He sees an opportunity coming with the development of a nanotechnology sector in the local economy.