Introducing a historic mill
In 2010, Pendleton Woolen Mills introduced our Tribute Series, paying homage to four of the American Mills that thrived during the Golden Age of Trade blankets. Today, we will talk about Racine Woolen Mills, known for their intricate patterns.
In 1865, a Racine company began producing textiles under the name Blake & Company under the leadership of Lucien Blake and John Hart. In 1877, the company incorporated under the name of “Racine Woolen Mills—Blake & Company.” Racine Woolen Mills went on to become the premier producer and marketer of Trade blankets destined for commerce with Native Americans.
Racine was well-established by 1893. Records show employees of 150 skilled weavers and gross sales of $300K, which was an robust amount for the day. Racine’s fringed shawls were produced under the “Badger State” label. These earliest shawls are relatively subdued by today’s standards, mostly plain with an in intricately designed border. Photos of these vintage shawls show the superior drape of the fabric. They were extremely popular with Native American women.
Native American women in Racine’s Ribbon-pattern shawls
Each of the companies in our tribute series has its own trademark specialty. Buell is known for faithful reproduction of Native American weaving patterns. Oregon City is famed for fanciful figural patterns and unexpected, riotous color. Racine Woolen Mills blankets are valued for unexpected, intense colors and intricate patterns. Diamonds, crescent moons, five-pointed stars, ribbon bows, compass roses, combs, waterbugs, pipes and feathers are woven with definition and clarity. The sheared finish of a vintage Racine blanket keeps the designs crisp and the hand smooth.
The famed Racine quality was maintained after production was taken over by another fine weaving mill, Shuler & Benninghofen, a mill that produced blankets for Racine until (approximately) 1915. Racine continued to merchandise and market trade blankets procured from different manufacturers until 1940 or so. They seem to have stopped offering wool trade blankets after that, though they kept on as a wholesaler of other styles of woolen blankets and goods until 1951, when Racine Woolen Mills closed doors for good.
Hidatsa Man by Edward Curtis
According to our friend Barry Friedman in his book Chasing Rainbows, “The last ‘genuine’ Racine blankets were made in the 1930s, when John Hart asked Paul Benninghofen to make one of the old patterns. It was a special favor, because by then Shuler & Benninghofen no longer produced trade blankets and Racine hadn’t contracted to have them made there or anywhere else in years.” The Racine blankets beloved by collectors come from the golden years of 1893-1912, and the Pendleton Mill Tribute blankets are re-creations of blankets from that period.
The Tribute blankets for Racine
Racine #7 (available here): Muted colors were rare for Racine. The original blanket was woven for Racine Woolen Mills by Shuler & Benninghofen.
Racine #6 (available here): Tomahawks, Bows and Arrows
Racine #5 (retired): Banded Diamonds
Racine #4 (retired): A dizzying array of color, sawteeth and stars
Racine#3 (retired, with a limited number available here): Crescent Moon and Shining Star
Racine #2 (retired): Pipe and Feather – the other elements are two Navajo weaving combs, and an arrow under the pipe
Racine #1 (retired): Class Y in the Racine catalog, “Yuma” in the Shuler & Benninghofen catalog
Racine Woolen Mills has an interesting intersection with Pendleton’s history. In 1905, Racine Woolen Mills was furiously negotiating to buy a struggling mill in Pendleton, Oregon, with plans to increase trade blanket production by 300 percent. Those negotiations proved fruitless, and the Pendleton mill went silent in 1908. In 1909, Fanny Kay Bishop organized her three sons to take it over and transform it into the company we know today.
If Racine Woolen Mills had purchased the mill, who knows what the Pendleton story would have been?