In 1878, the Burlington Woolen Company decided that it could increase its profits with a company store.
Not satisfied with the money it was making from the sale of textiles, the firm built a three-story brick store for $8,500 in the middle Winooski.
The mills had been a part of life in Winooski (just outside Burlington) since 1789 when Ira Allen first dammed the Winooski River to power a saw mill. By the 1878, with textiles in high demand, it was the woolen and cotton mills that were flourishing.
Like other mills around the country, Burlington had decided to set up a company store to cash in on both producing wool and retailing necessities to its workers.
When the store opened as Henry W. Mason & Co., it was one of the first department stores in the Burlington area. It sold everything from groceries to hats with a separate department and manager for each.
The businesses of Winooski were apoplectic. The mill had always thrown its weight around in local affairs, but now it appeared to be on the brink of establishing a monopoly over everything in town.
Mill agent F.C. Kennedy was pleased with the new source of income from the store, which he and the mill’s owner would receive. And on top of that, Kennedy had been able to help out his family by installing his nephew, Henry Mason, as the general manager of the enterprise.
He could have made a wiser choice.
Initially, the Mason enterprise seemed a marvelous success. Against the backdrop of the Long Depression that began in 1873, during which 18,000 businesses went bankrupt nationwide, the Henry W. Mason & Co. appeared to be beating the odds. And regardless of the opinions of the other merchants, Mason became quite popular in the community, a side effect of his wealth.
In March of 1881, however, Kennedy’s dreams of making Winooski a company town fell apart. On one Friday afternoon, a bank teller noticed something unusual with some of the endorsements on documents presented to the bank by Mason. Things unraveled quickly after that.
The Orleans County Monitor announced the crime on March 14, 1881.
“Henry W. Mason, managing partner of the extensive mercantile firm of Henry Mason & Co. has fled and is alleged to be a forger and defaulter of a large amount.
“The other members of the firm are F.C. Kennedy of this city and Walter L. Sawyer of Boston. Mason had been forging their names, and at the same time kept a false set of books, for a period it now appears, of a year or two.
“On Saturday morning he fled, being last seen at Bellows Falls on that day. The extent of his wrong-doing cannot now be ascertained, but rumor places it at $40,000. Mason is about 28 years old, and has a wife and two children, whom he left behind in his flight and was one of the most popular, as well as apparently, prosperous young men in this part of the state.
“Stock gambling is given as the cause of his downfall, and it believed that he has only a small amount of money with him.”
The full extent of the losses would soon be known. While it didn’t bankrupt Sawyer, whose father had owned the mill, it destroyed Kennedy.
On April 1, 1881, the St. Johnsbury Caledonian reported:
“F.C. Kennedy, the leading member of the firm of Henry W. Mason & Co. of Winooski, recently ruined by the defalcation of Mason, has failed, with liabilities of $97,452, of which $67,000 is as a member of the insolvent firm. The assets are large. A meeting of the creditors has been called for April 4.”