Bits & Pieces with Rebecca Lavallee: Historic Districts Part 3

April and May’s Bits & Pieces covered different types of Historic Districts, the various impacts on the homeowner, and the history of Historic Districts in Douglas. In this final piece on Historic Districts, we will explore the Douglas Historical Commission’s (DHC) goal of placing Downtown Douglas on the National Historic Register.

In order to move forward with creating a historic district, there are six main questions that the DHC has to answer :

1. Narrative : What story are we telling?

2. Timeline : What years are most influential to our narrative?

3. Area : Where did the bulk of our narrative take place?  And are there any particular locations that are essential to our narrative?

4. Architecture : What are the styles of the buildings and locations in our narrative? What does the architectural landscape say about our district?

5. History : What is the history of our narrative? How is this history significant to our culture, both as a small town and as a nation?

6. Today : What changes have been made to the town since our narrative ended? What impact has our narrative had on the world we live in today?

So first, the narrative :

It would be easy to draw a square around an area and say, “These are the old properties, we want them to be on the Register, because they are old.” However, by doing that, we are not contributing to the primary value of the National Historic Register, which is “…the list of individual buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts deemed important to American history, culture, architecture or archaeology.”  In order to be placed on the Register, the area of consideration must tell a story about why it is important and valuable to our town and nation’s history.

Old Douglas Center is already on the register as “…a well-preserved example of a mid-18th century town center that evolved over a period of 150 years and today retains its rural character…agricultural setting.”  While Old Douglas Center tells the story of a rural, agricultural landscape, Downtown Douglas tells the story of an industrial village that thrived for 150 years. 

Much like many towns, Douglas at the turn of the 19th century had many small shops and mills to service the townspeople.  The Hunt family owned a small blacksmith shop, which grew and by the mid-1830s became the Douglas Axe Manufacturing Company, encompassing much of the downtown area as well as being the town’s major employer. By the end of the 19th century, various factors had led to the sale of the company to the American Axe and Tool Company, moving operations to Pennsylvania.  Just as the axes were leaving town, the wool was coming in. The mill buildings and employee housing were soon occupied by the Hayward Mill Company, the Hayward-Schuster Woolen Mills, and the Schuster Woolen Company. For the better part of the 20th century, the woolen mills kept the town moving forward. 

This is our story to tell. Old Douglas Center was the rural and agricultural heart of the town, while the Downtown District was the industrial juggernaut that propelled the town forward.

Next, is our timeline : 

As previously stated, the Douglas Axe Manufacturing Company became incorporated in 1835. Not long after, houses and mills are either being built or bought throughout the area. In 1892, the Douglas Axe Manufacturing Company was sold and by 1912, all production in Douglas had stopped. The decline of axe manufacturing opened the doors to Hayward Mill in 1880, leading to the Schuster Mill in 1904. Many of the old axe mills and housing was bought out by Hayward and Schuster, turning Douglas from an axe town to a wool town. The height of the Schuster Mills was during World War II with a wool contract with the United States Army and Navy. The woolen mills continued to operate until the early 1980s, but never quite reaching the same prominence as the first half of the twentieth century. 

The DHC decided to center the timeline from the beginning of the 1800s until the end of World War II, as this covers the most relevant period of Douglas’ mill village. 

Both the first and the second questions have been answered by the DHC.  We are now working on questions 3 and four; area and architecture. In order to determine what our district covers, we surveyed the houses and buildings in the downtown area, focusing on when the buildings were built. Having already chosen our timeline of 1800-1945, we limited our district to buildings built prior to 1945, streets that had town buildings, mill housing, or mills. It is important to note that when establishing a historic district, any buildings or structures that are within the district lines must be included, regardless of when it was built. Our final district has approximately 250 properties, with 200 of those properties being built before 1946.

With an established area, the DHC must now complete a more-in-depth inventory of the 250 properties, including architectural information. Once the inventory is completed, the commission will move onto the historical narrative and current day impact of the Downtown Douglas Historical District.

It is my hope that the three pieces on Historic Districts provide a brief overview of what a historic district is and how it impacts the residents who live within the boundaries. The Douglas Historic Commission is doing our best to create a district that will benefit the older buildings  and help preserve the historical significance of the town, without impeding anyone’s personal choices on their property. For now, this section of Bits & Pieces has concluded, but as we move forward, there may be a sequel.