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Nary a feather to be found. That's what I discovered last summer while poking around the 5 acres in Brownwood's Camp Bowie Industrial Park that once was home to the largest producer of feather products in the country.
For more than half a century, there were telltale signs all over Camp Bowie that the Brownwood Feather Factory, as it was known locally, was in full production.
Texas Feathers, Inc., was founded by W.C. (Bill) Carpenter and James Mitcham in Brownwood in 1946. With a few eager employees and a ready supply of feathers from nearby turkey processing plants, the Feather Factory (that's what everyone in Brownwood called it) began business by crafting fletchings—feathers for the archery business.
Although there were enough turkey feathers in Texas to go around, Carpenter and Mitcham began to import ostrich feathers from South Africa for a wider variety of plumage. During the 1940s and '50s, they sold feathers for women's hats. And for decades, every time Pontiac dealers across the country showcased the latest General Motors models, they gave away Brownwood-made, multicolored Indian headdresses.
The feather duster, however, was the signature product of Texas Feathers for more than 60 years. And the finest feather dusters were made from those imported ostrich feathers. Carpenter's daughters, Carolyn Carpenter Strange, who lives in Plano, and Currin Ann Carpenter Seely, who lives in Florida, say they could spot their dad's feather dusters in black-and-white television shows in the '50s. Fifty years later, Brownwood native Bill Blagg, who recently served on the True Value Hardware board of directors, said that feather dusters from Texas Feathers were in True Value stores across the country.
Because of their dad's feather business, Seely and Strange saw more of the world than the rest of us who grew up in Brownwood with them. They would accompany their dad to trade shows in Chicago and Atlantic City, walking through huge exhibit halls wearing beautiful feather headdresses made at the Feather Factory. They both worked in their dad's office as teens and remember the assembly line of women who sorted feathers and made dusters. They also recall a time when their dad was having trouble finding enough employees to work at the plant. That's when Carpenter came up with an unusual incentive: He started giving S&H Green Stamps along with paychecks to employees. It didn't take long to fill all the vacant positions.
Currin Ann and Carolyn weren't the only kids in Brownwood who appreciated the Feather Factory. During the '50s and '60s when the plant had become nationally recognized for its feather finery, it had also become locally recognized as a Brownwood treasure. I can barely remember what the Feather Factory looked like inside with the big machines that dyed and dried feathers. I clearly remember, however, the grounds of the 1950s building. Because the back doors were kept open in case a cool breeze might find its way into the hot factory, the huge fans inside blew jillions of feathers around, and many found their way outside. It was feather heaven.
Brownwood native Mona Kay Wilson Merriman says as a young child, she'd go out to the Feather Factory with her dad, Jack Wilson, who was the company's accountant. “There would be feathers of all colors sticking straight up in the grass surrounding the building. For a long time, I thought that feathers grew outside,” recalls Merriman.
There wasn't a kid in my hometown who hadn't been to the Feather Factory at least once—either on a school, scout or church field trip, with his or her parents, or by riding out to Camp Bowie on bicycles. Our rewards were sacks and sacks of plumes.
The kids in my neighborhood made feather headdresses and wore them out to play in the vacant lot behind our house. School projects were enhanced with strategically placed feathers. My mother, a pro at making birthday-party piÃ±atas out of brown paper sacks, would glue feathers to her creations. And we always had a million or so feathers stuffed into paper bags in the backs of our closets. You just never knew when you were going to need some brightly colored feathers or those big white turkey feathers.
When a bottle of ink appeared on our fifth-grade school supply list, we took sharpened turkey feathers to school, stuck the tips in ink and tried to write as we imagined Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin had done. Few of us could master our John Hancock as well as the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
When out-of-town kids came for a visit, they remembered the adventure for years. Austinite Cathey Mayes, who lived in Brownwood only until she was in the third grade, has vivid memories of the thousands of feathers along the fence surrounding the Feather Factory. “Most of them were white turkey feathers,” she recalls. “It was a real prize to find a brightly colored dyed, magic feather among the sea of white ones.”
On my recent trip to Brownwood, there was no sign of the magic that the Feather Factory once held. The empty building doesn't look a thing like the one from my childhood; the For Sale sign signals a new era.
It's unclear how the once-thriving feather-processing plant met its demise in 2007—years after Carpenter and Mitcham (now both deceased) had sold it. A Realtor told me that thousands of feather dusters were still inside the modern building when the company shut down. “They were taken to the landfill,” he added.
Thinking of those thousands of feather dusters buried in my hometown makes me smile. The next time I pay homage to my family members who are also buried in Brownwood, I'll imagine them surrounded by beautiful feathers.
Mary Gordon Spence is an Austin-based essayist, speaker and commentator. She was born in Brownwood and lived there until she went to college.