CITYSCAPES


Fort Wayne Knitters


By KEVIN LEININGER
from the archives of The News-Sentinel

For 70 years, Fort Wayne covered the legs of the world.

In the days before hosiery turned into ``nylons'' and was packaged in cute little egg-shaped containers with cute little names, Wayne Knit silk hose had more than its share of the legwear market.

Between 1892 and 1960, Wayne Knitting Mills at West Main Street and Growth Avenue was a busy place, with hundreds of employees - mostly women - scurrying over the cobblestone streets to take their places behind hundreds of humming sewing machines.

The cobblestones are still there, and so are the buildings. So is the memory, but the rhythmic patter of the machines has long since faded.

In 1891, a drug store owner named Theodore F. Thieme decided Americans depended entirely too much on Europe for their supply of hose. So he sold his drug store at Wayne and Calhoun streets and imported several knitting machines - not to mention knitters - from Germany. After spending a year in rented quarters at Main and Clinton, the fledgling Wayne Knitting Mills set up permanent shop at Main and Growth.

Just how good were Wayne Knit hose? Well, in 1904 the brand gained national recognition when it took top honors for hosiery in competition at the St. Louis World's Fair. The publicity didn't hurt; by 1908 the firm had $1 million worth of capital stock.

The company prospered and eventually branched out into stockings for men and ``pony stockings'' for kids. So important was Wayne Knit to the local economy that Growth Avenue was known officially as ``Knitter's Avenue.''

In 1923, however, Wayne Knitting Mills was the focus of one of the city's most celebrated financial episodes. Thieme had decided to sell the plant to Munsingwear, then abruptly changed his mind. Other stockholders, however, led by Wayne president Sam Foster, still wanted to sell and were angered by what they considered to be Thieme's unfairness toward stockholders.

According to historian John Ankenbruck, Foster and others assembled 80 percent of the company's stock anyway and made the sale without Thieme's consent. Several tremendous lawsuits followed.

The Thieme family has remained active in Fort Wayne in succeeding years. Theodore Thieme was the grandfather of Allen Superior Court Judge Philip Thieme.

In time, silk stockings became an anachronism; replaced with synthetics like nylon. Wayne Knit grew less fashionable and the mill closed down in 1960, its operations moving to Humboldt, Tenn.

The old Wayne Knitting Mills buildings today are owned by Wayne Warehouse, which leases them for public and private use.

--Nov. 14, 1982


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