On a winter’s day in 1909, sixteen-year-old Agnes Glode trudged down the snowy hills of Littleton to the large, long building situated along the banks of the Ammonoosuc River. It was almost one o’clock and she was just one of several workers returning from their “nooning.” No one wanted to be late. The doors would be locked promptly at 1 p.m., as they were at 7 a.m. when the work day began. Late-comers had to go to a different door and blow a whistle. Embarrassment and loss of wages were the penalty for being late. She made it just in time.
In an interview conducted in 1985 when she was 92, Miss Agnes Glode recalled her seventy-five years at the world famous Saranac Buck Glove Company. She remembered working ten-hour days, from 7 a.m. to noon, and from 1 to 6 p.m., five and a half days a week. Her first job was tying knots in silken threads on the backs of gloves. She made ninety cents a dozen, and an experienced stitcher would do three dozen pairs of gloves in a day. The long stitching room had a partition down the middle, separating the men from the women. Workers were not allowed to talk during work hours. Asked about strikes during her time at Saranac Glove, Miss Glode explained that they were non-union. When some folks had tried to start a union, the Saranac bosses went through the shop asking each worker if they planned to join the union. If they said “Yes,” they were told to “Go home!”
Miss Glode recalled, “When they put me to work on the machines, I had to pay four cents a day rent for my machine, and if it had to be fixed I had to pay the machinist thirty cents an hour to work on it and I had to lose the time while he was working on it.”
It is said the Saranac Buck Glove and Mitten Company began in a shoe box. When Ira Parker was still a school lad he was tanning skins, yes, using a shoe box, and making gloves to sell for extra money. Ira is described in James Jackson’s ambitious three-volume 1905 History of Littleton as “alert, industrious and progressive.” On Ira’s twentieth birthday in 1866, his father Silas sold him a share in his tanning business. Ira began making gloves with deer and dog skins. A few years later, he bought a patent that allowed him to tan his hides without losing the grain of the leather. This meant the gloves were softer and more pliable, as well as more durable. Hunters who brought in hides were given a free pair of gloves.
A fire broke out on the morning of November 10, 1887, destroying the factory building and a sawmill built in 1839. Builders told the Saranac Company it would be spring before the factory could be replaced. Ira Parker, however, “thought otherwise,” and by December 14 the shop was back in operation. He also built a new bobbin mill and steam plant at that time. The factory, as well as some of the workers’ houses nearby, was powered by the electricity generated at the steam plant.
By 1900 the firm employed 275 people, including 125 women and girls. In addition, 1500 “wives and mothers” were employed to work at home. Saranac Gloves were becoming known world-wide for their quality, and were sold in the best "mens’ furnishings” stores in Boston and elsewhere.
Through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, the wheels at Saranac Glove kept turning. Frank Shephard, another long-time employee of over sixty years, saw methods improve but the basic regard for quality never changed. Shephard is quoted in a September 1941 Littleton Courier article on the 75th anniversary of the Saranac company. He was 83 at the time and still employed. Long hours and no paid vacations seem not to have had any influence on keeping good help.
In 1935, Ira Parker, then 89, sent a letter to the officials at Saranac Glove, along with a shipment of some of his handmade patterns. “Think how I treasured these,” he says. He also wrote regarding the famous “SarAnaC’ trademark and the time when some glove makers in Gloversville, New York, were using it without regard. He says he wrote each of them a letter and hung around in a local hotel while they came, every one of them, and paid him $200 each for the infringement. The trademark was given to Parker’s company for the deer country around Saranac Lake, New York, where Parker found many of his skins. The word means “A river that flows under a rock,” and was naturally fitting for the location in Littleton.
Saranac Gloves traveled to the South and North Poles with Admiral Richard E. Byrd. On one expedition to the Antarctic in the 1930s, one of the men wrote to the company praising the firm’s “Blizzard” mittens, which he used on a 77-day trek to some distant mountains. “I wore a pair soaked with kerosene at the very start and in spite of this moisture the gloves remained soft and my hands were always warm.” High praise, indeed, from the bottom of the world.
In April 1941, Bette Davis, who owned a home in nearby Sugar Hill, was in town for the premier of her movie “The Great Lie.” It was also her birthday, and in honor of the occasion she was presented with a pair of white buckskin gloves. When the news spread to Hollywood, Saranac Glove received orders for several dozen similar pairs. While the war was raging in Europe, the company received a request from a customer in England, who had seen some “hard wearing mitts” advertised in a hunting and fishing magazine. “I cannot pay you just yet but as soon as my war damage claim is paid and currency restrictions allow it, I will send you the money.” Prices ranged from $1.00 for “Children’s buckskin mitten, fleece lined, elastic wrists, sizes 3 to 8,” to $3.75 for “Men’s natural buckskin glove, wool knit lined, strap wrist, full outseam, sizes 7 ½ to 10.” They were sold locally at MacLeod’s Department Store, which offered a small brochure with descriptions and prices.
In later years, Saranac Glove continued to provide the finest quality handwear, and as the skiing industry boomed in the White Mountains and around the world, these locally made gloves and mittens went along for the ride. They were also the product of choice for companies like Central Vermont Public Service, and other electric and telephone companies, hunters, golfers, and indeed anyone who worked or played outdoors in all weather.
Saranac Glove Company continued in operation at Littleton until April 1977. By then the company was owned by Fabry Glove and Mitten Company of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the decision was made to move operation to that location.
The Saranac Glove Company lives on, however, and you can still see the words proudly written across the rear of the present day Tannery Marketplace. The old factory building still sits on the banks of the Ammonoosuc River and is now the home of several businesses. Ira Parker’s magnificent home on Main Street, once the Knights of Columbus Hall and now Parker’s Marketplace, also continues to remind us of the “alert, industrious and progressive” man who put a small northern New Hampshire town on the world map.