Born in Haddenham, Cambridgeshire, England, in 1844, Henry Thurlow came to Skaneateles as a young man with his parents. In 1866, Henry married Sarah Tucker. They worshipped at St. James’ Episcopal Church and raised a family, living in homes on Jordan Street and on West Elizabeth.
Henry’s father was a teasel grower and Henry become a teasel merchant, buying teasels from the farmers who raised them and selling them to woolen mills both in the U.S. and abroad. Such was the fame of the Skaneateles teasel that Henry once shipped his goods to a customer in Moscow.
As the president of the American Teasel Works of Skaneateles, Henry was the last independent teasel merchant in the eastern U.S. not in “the combination” or “teasel trust,” a group who sought to fix prices, paying less to farmers and extracting more from woolen mills. Henry refused all of their offers, and they in turn attempted to drive him out of business.
In 1903, Henry gave an extensive interview on teasels and the declining state of the industry:
“Whatever may be said of Skaneateles,” remarked Mr. H. Thurlow of that New York town of strange name, according to the Sun, “it raises teasels, which for many years could not be successfully produced in any other section of this broad land of all sorts of products.”
“It is a plant,” continued Mr. Thurlow, “whose burr is used to produce a pile on cloth, and for certain kinds of fabrics nothing has yet been found to take its place. Forty years or more ago the teasel was in great demand, and as they could not be raised anywhere except in a small area about Skaneateles, the industry was very considerable with a radius of ten miles of my town. Teasel raising began as long ago as eighty years and at one time it represented a business of half a million dollars a year and over 500 people were engaged in it. Today not more than a hundred are in it, and the amount has similarly decreased.
“This is owing rather to the production of smoother cloth than the adoption of a substitute for the teasel, because, as I said, they cannot get a substitute for it. Steel has been tried but the finest points they can make are rough and jagged compared with the fine-hooked points which nature puts on the teasel burr, and which are necessary in producing the proper nap on the cloth.
“The teasel is sown in the spring as the ground is ready, and the plant is left to grow until the frost kills it down. The root remains, and the following season the plant grows from this and bears the burrs, which are cut in August, basketed and wagoned to sheds, where they are housed and trimmed ready for the market.
“An acre of ground will produce from 150,000 to 200,000 teasels, running ten pounds to the thousand and worth now from 75 cents to $1 a thousand, although I have seen them worth as much as $5 a thousand. I remember buying 3,000,000 teasels at 50 cents a thousand from a man who had held them for 21 years, and had at one time refused $2.50 a thousand for them.
Workers with clippers prepare teasels for shipping (while holding very still for the camera)
“They require three or four weeks to dry; then they are trimmed, the stems cut to about six inches, and then are packed in boxes, 40,000 to the box. The burrs vary in length from an inch to six inches, and they are designated by sizes as ‘Buttons,’ ‘Mediums’ and ‘Kings,’ those of from an inch to an inch and a half being choice.
“Some people say the ‘bull thistle’ and the teasel are the same, but if they will examine the two they will find that the prongs of the wild teasel are straight, while those of the real thing are hooked, which is all the difference in the world for the work they have to do. In the woolen mills, a teasel will last about 24 hours, and some of the big mills in New England have used as high as 1,200,000 a day, but they don’t use them that way now. Very comfortable fortunes were once made in teasel raising, too, but that time is past also. Most of the product is used now in the making of blankets, and coarse clothes.
“Skaneateles is out of it, to a large extent, as Oregon has come into the field with an even better teasel than we can produce, and we are turning our ploughshares to other uses. Any visitor to our town may see teasel farms and the teasel clippers at their benches snipping away with their scissors, but the business is no longer what it once was, and it isn’t improving.”
Not one to stake his livelihood solely to an industry in decline, Henry was also a cigar manufacturer and a grocer.
Henry made cigars “over Irish’s flour and feed store” and as a grocer, he made a name for himself with another crop, as this piece from the August 28, 1896 Skaneateles Press notes:
“Henry Thurlow, at his fruit and tobacco store near the bridge, has some of the largest bananas ever seen in this village, four weighing two pounds two ounces, and many weighing half a pound.”
In the community, Henry was the village’s first lamplighter (appointed in 1885 to light the kerosene street lamps that lit the streets before electricity), volunteered as a Skaneateles fireman, and was active in the Elks, Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias. It was said that he never went to town without his top hat. He died in 1928, at the age of 85, survived by his wife and six children.
A Thurlow family photo, with stately, white-haired Henry in the center
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My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society; “An Example” in The New York Times, September 19, 1890; “The Teasel: Peculiar Industry Once a Specialty in Skaneateles, N.Y.” in The Mt. Sterling (Kentucky) Advocate, November 25, 1903; “Obituaries: Henry Thurlow” in The Skaneateles Press, August 9, 1928; Henry Thurlow’s trade card from eBay; my special thanks to Doreen Peterson, great-granddaughter of James Thurlow, Henry’s brother, who provided the family photo and lamplighter information.