By Telly Halkias
Don’t try to convince Matt Harrington that Bennington no longer has what it takes to attract national and global companies.
Not only will he tell you you’re wrong, but he’ll also take it as an invitation to offer up the names of a number of companies, with national and international ties, that make their homes within the community.
As the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, Harrington spends his waking hours cheerleading the region’s economic development potential.
“Bennington has long been an innovation and entrepreneurial community,” he said during a recent interview. “Whether it’s the small Mason jar — often called a lightning jar — created by Henry Putnam or world-renowned pottery, once featured in the White House, from Bennington Potters, Bennington has often punched above its weight in famous innovation, design and production for generations.”
And that continuous diverse economic makeup has allowed Bennington to retain its appeal and reputation as a location that fosters all types of innovation, manufacturing and creativity.
“Now, with aerospace, composites, tactical gear, automotive, and other advanced manufacturing being the primary products and industries shipped from Bennington, this community of hard workers, creators and a new entrepreneurial ecosystem is still worthy of its heritage,” Harrington said.
Not only are these manufacturers the backbone of Bennington’s continued innovation, but they also are some of its best-kept secrets. Here are a few you might not know about …
R. John Wright Dolls
2402 West Road, Bennington, Vt. • rjohnwright.com
Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my!
That’s right, an exclusive line of “The Wizard of Oz” dolls, including Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Wicked Witch of the West and more, was created in Bennington by R. John Wright Dolls. Some of its more notable character dolls and plush lines include Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Raggedy Ann, Paddington Bear, and animals from the Beatrix Potter books.
Company namesake R. John Wright and his wife, Susan, founded the doll company in Brattleboro, Vt., in the early 1970s, after John unexpectedly was laid off from his job at a hardware store.
In 2005, the production workshop moved to the former Hemmings Motor News building on Route 9. Since then, the company, which produces limited numbers of each doll it crafts, has continued to flourish, in some years producing as many as 10,000 dolls.
Kaman Composites – Vermont
25 Performance Drive, Bennington, Vt. • kaman.com
Kaman Composites – Vermont, a leader in the design and manufacture of composite aerostructures and advanced composite medical equipment, has a long history of creating carbon fiber parts for military aircraft, along with other aerospace programs, including helicopter and fixed-winged aircraft. It produces parts for Kaman’s Kmax helicopters and for Rolls-Royce’s line of airplanes.
The company, founded in Bennington as Oak Fothergill in 1979, became Vermont Composites in 1996, after an employee buyout led by General Manager Daniel Maneely. In 2011, Kaman Aerospace Group, a subsidiary of Kaman Corp. in Connecticut, purchased Vermont Composites and since has expanded its footprint in Bennington.
160 Benmont Ave. – Suite 100, Bennington, Vt. • portabrace.com
Since Robert Howe founded Porta-Brace in 1972, armies of broadcast journalists have toted video cameras large and small, lenses and other such related paraphernalia, in cases both soft and hard, proudly bearing the name of the little Vermont town where they are produced.
The array of offerings since those humble beginnings has grown to include protective storage and carrier solutions for cameras, production gear, lenses, audio equipment and monitors. To say that Porta-Brace — it’s coming up on its golden anniversary in 2022 — has become the industry standard is not an exaggeration.
NSK Steering Systems Americas
110 Shields Drive, Bennington, Vt. • nskamericas.com
If you drive a car, truck or SUV, a very significant part of your vehicle might have been made in Bennington.
NSK Steering Systems Americas – Bennington manufactures steering columns and other automotive parts, including roller and ball bearings, direct-drive motors and ball screw support bearings for the global automotive industry, with large contracts currently active for Nissan and Honda.
Past and ongoing customers include big auto industry players Chrysler, Ford, Subaru and Mercedes-Benz. It also produces component parts for the Toyota Rav4 and Highlander.
The Shields Drive facility was opened in 1988 by NSK Ltd., a global automotive parts company headquartered in Japan.
NAHANCO (National Hanger Co.)
276 Water St., North Bennington, Vt. • nahanco.com
Have you ever found yourself in a retail dressing room, wondering where the store gets its hangers from? Probably not. But, there’s a pretty good chance those inauspicious, yet practical and durable, hangers came from the National Hanger Co., also known as NAHANCO.
NAHANCO, headquartered in North Bennington, is the largest producer of retail garment hangers in the United States and has been the prime wholesaler to the retail industry since opening in 1925.
The company also is the largest domestic importer of retail supplies and display fixtures. And because it manufactures its own hangers, it can produce them in a variety of custom colors, sizes and styles.
Telly Halkias is a national award-winning, independent journalist. He lives and writes from his homes in Southern Vermont and coastal Maine.