This town likes being over a barrel

Fremont can't really be called a company town. Maybe a company village. Or a company hamlet. But not a company town. Main Street, all one block of it, consists of Vining's Country Store (also town gossip center), a Getty gas station (also Fremont Motor Sales), and the Town Hall (also the Baptist church on Sundays). There is no full-time policeman. No legion hall. No more Grange (the farmers' organization went defunct here a few years ago).

But there is the Spaulding & Frost Company, looming at the far end of this southeastern New Hampshire town as it has for more than 100 years. Spaulding & Frost is one of the few remaining cooperages in the country -- part of a shrinking fraternity of obstinate manufacturers of that probably should have gone barrel up years ago but refuses to.

Since it first opened its doors in 1870, the company has rolled out more than a half billion barrels and buckets -- and is still going strong. It reigns as one of the world's last, if not the only, white-pine cooperages.

"People love our products, but everything made out of wood is expensive," says David Forman, company president, summing up the hopes and hazards of the business in one breath.

Certainly the industry has seen more robust days. In the early 1900s almost everything was packed in barrels, from foodstuffs to ammunition. Wood was cheap , strong, and porous enough to allow barreled contents to breathe.

Thousands of cooperages dotted the countryside. And many towns had their own barrelmaker, who could turn out three barrels on a good day using a drawshave and woodcarving techniques not much different from those the Romans first employed in AD 100.

But then along came cardboard boxes, metal containers, aluminum, and plastic. Today probably fewer than three dozen cooperages still remain in the United States. Many of these are owned by large liquor companies and turn out "tight" oak barrels for use in storing whiskey or wine.

A few other companies have managed to survive by making hot tubs or wooden water tanks. Spaulding & Frost has tried its own marketing gimmick: building barrel lamps, stools, doghouses, magazine racks, and other wares in addition to the traditional apple barrels and herring buckets.

The switch to novelty items began in earnest in 1973, after a fire wiped out the company's three main buildings. Up to that time the cooperage had been churning out more than 5,000 buckets a day and as many barrels a week.

"We took a deep breath and eliminated a couple of hundred thousand dollars' worth of business," Forman recalls of the changeover. New machines were brought in and the work roster was cut almost in half, to 45. Today the company ships plant holders to Scotland, cedar boxes to the Dominican Republic, and cheese buckets to Wisconsin. It has also moved into the lumber business.

The setting for such a diehard operation is humble enough: an odd assortment of brick, wood, and aluminum- skinned buildings nestled in a sandy bowl rimmed by a carpet of oak, white pine, and birch.

Most of the wood for the wares -- almost all white pine, but also some oak, birch, ash, and elm -- is hewn from the surrounding hills. It is then fed through a 52-inch buzz saw that cuts them into 8- to 16-foot planks. The wood is stacked outside to dry for several months, then dried in a kiln.

The planks are trundled into the main building, where they are sculpted into staves. This takes three machine- groaning, sawdust-spewing steps. First, the staves are trimmed to length in a ripsaw, then hollowed on the underside in a molder, and finally tapered at the ends by a jointer.

If it sounds like all machine and no muscle, it isn't. Workers have to hand-feed the staves into each machine, and each barrel is hand-hooped. To bind a 30-gallon apple barrel, for instance, a worker must stand the 29-inch staves on end in a metal basket and then wrap a rope around the top of them. The slats are then drawn together by a winch until the metal hoops can be slipped over them. No water, no magic.

And the barrels can be temperamental. The wood must be dried to just the right degree (about 6 percent moisture content, from 60 to 70 percent). If left too wet, the staves can shrink and cause the hoops to slide off like a pair of baggy trousers. If too dry, they can swell to the point of actually bursting the hoops.

"I can hear them snapping sometimes right behind me," says Marie Quinn, a shoemaker-turned-hooper, who sits ensconced in a wall of apple barrels.

Not many of the piney drums that have trundled off Spaulding's assembly line over the past 31 years have escaped the paw print of George McIntosh ("spelled just like the apple," he says). George, a Spaulding employee since he was 16, runs a jointer one minute and a binder the next.

"I grew up with coopering," the pailmaker says, his sawdust-flecked baseball cap pulled snugly over his head. "Back in the old days practically everybody in town worked here." His father was once general manager of the company; his mother worked in the company office for 31 years.

Over in the finishing building, Phillip Soucy is crouched over a lathe, methodically sanding a strawberry bucket. Although a novice at coopering, Soucy is no stranger to wood- working. He used to build boats and knows full well what it's like to trudge home at night with a full load of sawdust in one's pant cuffs.

"Sawdust? It never hurt anyone," he says with a laugh. "Some of our hamburger is made out of it, isn't it?"

Spaulding & Frost was spawned in 1870 almost as an after- thought. In the mid-1800s a wily entrepreneur named Jonas Spaulding ran a sawmill in Townsend, Mass. Much of the wood he used was hauled down from white-pine-rich southern New Hampshire. One day, someone gently suggested that it might be easier to set up a mill in Fremont. Jonas agreed. The Spaulding & Wallace (the Frosts came later) barrel company opened soon after.

Perhaps it was only fitting that Jonas should locate in Fremont -- itself a feisty yet forward-looking Yankee town. In 1764 Fremont split off from nearby Brentwood over a spat on the distance townsfolk had to walk to the town hall. Originally called Poplin, the village later changed its name to Fremont in homage to John C. Fremont, the explorer, who carried New Hampshire in the 1856 presidential race against James Buchanan.

The town was also one of the first in the country to adopt restrictive zoning laws, hardly a top priority, it would seem, for a town of 1,300.

The Wallaces were eventually replaced by the Frosts, and the two families steered a profitable course for many years. At one time they employed more than 100 people and ran warehouses out of far-flung Chicago and Brooklyn. Two of Jonas's sons, Rolland and Huntley, later went on to be popular New Hampshire governors -- a fact attested to by the schools and the turnpike bearing their name today.

From 1945 to 1960, the firm was run by a trust, after which it was bought by a Manchester, N.H., lumber company. In 1972, David Forman, then a management consultant in Boston, decided it was time to push himself out from behind a desk. So he packed up his Yale and Tufts University background and moved back to his native New Hampshire to take over the then-reeling operation.

If old Jonas Spaulding were to walk around his creation today, he might not recognize it. True, the company's original red clapboard structure is still there, now a retail store sitting picturesquely along the lazy Exeter River. So , too, is the old brick boiler room.

But gone is the old wood-fed steam engine (a "technological marvel," Forman says) that powered the main plant by means of a leather belt made of 350 cowhides. It was destroyed in the 1973 fire. Gone, too, is the covey of laborers who used to shuttle in and out of the sweltry kiln, hand-stacking 20, 000 staves a day. Yellow and black forklifts have taken over the job.

But Jonas would at least bump into one distinguishable memento -- the smell, that sweet scent of oak and pine and mahogany coiling around the brittle air of a New Hampshire afternoon.

Forman says: "When the kiln is opened, it smells like baked bread."

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