Mohawk Valley Web Logo
rewriting history (past and present) one database at a time
User Name:

Irish immigrant retired from three jobs

By: Bob Cudmore

Date: 2017-07-15

Irish immigrant retired from three jobs
By Bob Cudmore, Focus on History, Daily Gazette, 07-15-17

A longtime Amsterdam carpet mill executive retired from three jobs. James McKnight Donnelly died just over four months after stepping down from his last position as Amsterdam city administrator.

Born to a Scottish-Irish family in Rathfriland, Northern Ireland, in 1887, Donnelly came to America at age three with his father and mother, Henry and Sarah Donnelly. They settled in Clinton, Massachusetts, home of the Bigelow Carpet Mill, built in 1847.

Donnelly earned an accounting degree from Bryant and Stratton College in Boston and started working at Bigelow in 1908. He married Mildred Manning of Clinton in 1915. They had six children, four boys and two girls.

Donnelly worked his way up to be Bigelow’s plant manager in Clinton. Bigelow merged with the Hartford Carpet Company of Thompsonville, Connecticut, in 1914 to form Bigelow-Hartford. At some point Donnelly moved to Thompsonville to manage the carpet factory there.

Bigelow-Hartford merged with Amsterdam’s Sanford carpet mill in 1929. The merged company was called Bigelow-Sanford.

According to the Enfield, Connecticut, Historical Society the new firm “was hit hard by the depression, but was able to recover and was again issuing dividends by 1935.”

Donnelly and his family moved to Amsterdam in 1938 where he became manager of Bigelow Sanford’s Amsterdam plant.

Within a few years the nation was at war and Bigelow-Sanford and its Amsterdam rival Mohawk Carpet started making blankets and canvas duck for the war effort. Both firms were awarded “E” for excellent commendations from the federal government.

Donnelly was master of ceremonies in April 1944 when Bigelow-Sanford employees received their “E” pins in a large outdoor gathering under what a newspaper reporter called “a flood of sunshine” on Prospect Street.

Donnelly urged employees to wear their pins with pride and attributed the success of the war effort to cooperation between labor and management.

Donnelly said, "We of Bigelow-Sanford placed our resources and our 104 years of experience and ability at the disposal of our government. Our accomplishments in production have been recognized by the Army and Navy.”

Donnelly was chairman of the Amsterdam Rationing Board during the war. His work as president of the British War Relief Society was recognized with the King George Medal for service to humanity.

Also in the 1940s Donnelly was one of the founders and was vice president of Amsterdam’s Community Chest, a charity-funding organization that was the predecessor of the United Way.

Apparently he became acquainted with a public relations company that worked with the local Community Chest on fund raising, Aderton Trostle of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At age 61 Donnelly retired from Bigelow-Sanford in 1948, taking a job at Aderton Trostle.

The carpet industry began to struggle in the 1950s and in 1955, Bigelow-Sanford closed its Amsterdam plant, putting thousands of local people out of work as the company concentrated its operations in Thompsonville, Connecticut.

When Republican Frank Martuscello was elected to a four-year term as Amsterdam mayor in 1959, he appointed Donnelly the city administrator.

Martuscello told the Recorder he hoped Donnelly’s “industrial knowledge and connections” would help the city get new industry and keep old industry.

Donnelly held the post of city administrator through Martuscello’s term and through most of the term of Martuscello’s successor, Republican Marcus Breier.

Donnelly, who lived at 24 Grant Avenue, retired from city government on June 30 1967, shortly after his 80th birthday. He said he thought this would be his last retirement.

He died at Amsterdam Memorial Hospital that November 5th. After funeral services in Amsterdam, his body was taken to Clinton, Massachusetts, for burial at Woodlawn Cemetery. This topic was suggested by reader Christine Oarr Eggleston.