J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills was the economic backbone of the area for decades, its name synonymous with Tamaqua. The firm also was the innovator and world leader in thermal underwear.

But that proud status belied the humble origins of an anthracite coal-region business that began on a shoestring by an enigmatic Tamaquan.

John E. Morgan was born in Tamaqua, the son of Danus and Lottie Morgan. He was a simple, private gentleman with conservative values and he founded a company in a modest way.

It began in 1945 on Rowe Street, a narrow alley in the heart of town. There, Morgan started a small sewing factory relying on assistance from his wife, Anna Hoban Morgan.

In confined, unassuming quarters, Morgan established a knitwear manufacturing industry that grew into a dynasty.

The key to success was the factory's use of a waffle stitch and circular knitting process for thermal fabrics. The design is said to have been developed by Morgan's wife, who passed away in 1970. Morgan went on to hold several patents for the design.

The firm incorporated in 1954, and, in time, outgrew its small confines, eventually ending up on the outskirts of town.

There, in suburban Hometown, he built a main plant and corporate headquarters, just three miles from where the factory began. Other plants were added in Tower City, Williamstown, Valley View and Gilbertsville, all in Pennsylvania.

Additional Morgan plants sprung up in Ilion, New York; along with New Market and Mount Jackson in Virginia, plus outlet stores in Tower City, Ilion and New Market.

If that weren't enough, Morgan operated a plant in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and sponsored yet another Morgan Factory Outlet store inside the historic Flat Iron building at the Five Points intersection in Tamaqua.

In peak years, the manufacturer employed an estimated 2,000 workers, with 1,000 to 1,500 always busy at work in the 500,000-square-foot manufacturing facility along Route 54, Rush Township.

In fact, after the demise of massive Atlas Powder Company in nearby Reynolds, J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills became Schuylkill County's largest employer, turning out products under the name of Hanes, Duofold and Morgan.

The commitment to constant improvement was apparent. The company utilized high-tech upgrades in its dye house and had five state-of-the-art dye vessels, a chemical dispensing system, computerized control systems, and innovative extractor padding machines.

The products were recognized as the finest thermal underwear made. J.E. Morgan long johns were the cat's meow.

"As America's textile industry finds itself under constant siege from low-wage, foreign competition, J.E. Morgan continues to grow and prosper, proving that not just survival, but growth, is possible right here in Hometown USA," said the company in a corporate statement in 1996. "J.E. Morgan's 'Made in USA' products can give you a warm feeling in more ways than one," they boasted.

The firm grew so large that sales exceeded $45 million and the company maintained offices in the Empire State Building. Morgan Mills became the world's largest manufacturer of thermal undergarments, producing over 42 million thermal knit products a year.

Happy campers

Morgan employees tended to be happy campers. By all accounts, they were treated well with fair compensation and generous employee benefits. Employees could accrue four weeks of vacation depending on length of service.

In August, 2002, for example, Morgan Mills, then part of Sara Lee, was proud to announce that over 600 employees received substantial bonus checks.

"It's called ISP, or the Innovation and Savings Plan," explained Tanya Bombicca of the firm's communications division," and it's all based on employees' recommendations."

The unique initiative operated similar to a traditional suggestion program except it featured greater rewards.

Employees were challenged to achieve a certain threshold, or hurdle. When employees came up with cost-saving ideas and surpassed a hurdle level of $750,000 over the past year, they were rewarded.

This time, employees received a 4% cash bonus in paychecks. To celebrate, the company suspended work for one full day and treated employees to an outdoor chicken barbecue with games, prizes and camaraderie.

Things were going well. Morgan Mills outfitted the U.S. Winter Olympic Team. A total of 2,100 pieces of VariTec Performance Polypropylene thermals and CoolMax Alta zipper turtlenecks were shipped to Salt Lake City to keep athletes warm and dry. The firm also announced it was developing special garments for the U. S. Luge Team.

John Morgan made the most of his success.

A member of Bethany Evangelical Congregational Church and Tamaqua Elks Club, Morgan believed in charitable works.

He was a philanthropist who contributed millions to local hospitals, churches and colleges. Among the recipients of his largesse were Tamaqua St. Jerome's Church, Marian High School, the Tamaqua Salvation Army, the Lehigh Valley Cancer Clinic, Coaldale Miners Memorial Hospital, Tamaqua Borough and its Bungalow Park swimming pool and recreation center, Penn State University, Delaware Valley College, Gnaden Huetten Hospital and the Tamaqua Public Library, to name a few.

Morgan did grand things, yet he disliked publicity and avoided the media and cameras.

There was nothing ostentatious or "showy" about him, except for his hobby. Morgan was a member of the Classic Car Club of America and the Antique Automobile Club. He amassed a wide variety of rare and antique cars and motorcycles, and, in 1985, constructed a building between Tamaqua and Lehighton to house the collection, calling it the JEM Classic Car Museum.

Yet, insiders say it was about that time when signs emerged that the empire was beginning to show cracks.

In 1984, J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills was purchased by an international textile giant, the Scotland firm of Dawson International, PLC, with Morgan remaining on the board of directors. The presence of Morgan on the board was expected to maintain a sense of continuity. But in 1999, the firm was sold again to Sara Lee, reportedly for $95.7 million.

At the same time, Morgan's health was declining. He sold a house he maintained in Florida and spent his final days on his 140-acre farm below Tamaqua with his second wife, Dorothy Schmidt Morgan.

The small-town, All-American businessman who'd built an international dynasty died on the Fourth of July, 2001, at age 89. In death as in life, he avoided notoriety. There were no calling hours. Services were private.

On April 12, 2003, the contents of Morgan's private museum and priceless collection of vintage motorcars were sold by RM Auctioneers, Inc.

Bidders were charged $50 for a glitzy, full-color catalog, a necessary purchase for anyone wanting to gain entrance to the $3-million-dollar sale. It attracted museums and private collectors nationwide. Every state in the country was represented on the bidder list. Morgan's collection of 16 vintage motorcycles alone fetched $250,000.

Liquidation was taking place. Morgan was gone and the reign of J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills was ending. Soon, the doors of the all-important textile plant would close forever.

Next Friday: End of an era: How the closing impacted Tamaqua, and what became of the employees.