The Last Word
The Boston Wool GuyKyle Partain
Sheep Industry News Editor
In a half-empty warehouse next to the Draper Knitting mill in Canton, Mass., Phil Lindsay is making plans. Boston will never again be the American wool capital – like it was when Phil’s grandfather started R.H. Lindsay Company 80 years ago – but there’s still opportunity here in the Northeast.
“I never really quit the wool business,” says Phil, who works 30 hours a week setting the price for heating oil and spends his free time in the family business of buying and selling wool. “There was a time when I considered pulling the plug on it, but the internet came along. The internet saved our business, and it can be a huge benefit for the wool business back east.”
First, let’s go back to the beginning. Ralph Haliburton Lindsay had few prospects in life after serving in the Navy during World War I. He heard good things about the wool industry, which was thriving in New England at the time. A handful of rejections later, he holed up in the men’s bathroom at Crimmons and Pierce and waited for someone with authority to make an appearance. Hired on the spot – most likely by someone with little time to spare – he went to work in the warehouse. As many before him had done, he worked his way up to sales and then went out on his own to form R.H. Lindsay Company in 1936.
John “Toppy” Lindsay followed in his father’s footsteps. When the wool industry took a downturn, Toppy began making annual trips out west, often leaving on April 1 and not returning until his wedding anniversary on July 6.
“He was really good at evaluating grease wool, so that’s how he made a living with the business.”
After Toppy’s oldest son, John Jr., graduated college and decided to focus on real estate, Phil was next in line to keep the tradition alive. The industry wasn’t exactly thriving, but Phil had an ulterior motive for saying yes.
“My dad said, ‘I’ll send you to Australia for a year.’ And that sealed the deal.”
Phil spent time in England, Australia and New Zealand learning the ins and outs of wool before returning to the states. A friendship with Mike Hastie in New Zealand helped Phil to realize that there was a living to be made catering to those who use handcraft specialty wools. For many years, the company operated out of two locations – Phil’s Victorian-era home and a rundown warehouse building his brother found in Philadelphia. Rent for the building started at $50 a month and shifted to two cases a beer before the owner eventually died. John Jr. bought the building from the estate and continues to warehouse and ship wool from the location.
More recently, Phil stumbled across his new office/warehouse space in Canton while attending a wool pull at the Draper facility. He rented 1,000 square feet to start, but hopes to be bursting at the seams in the years to come.
“I’ve been cutting back gradually on my other job and spending more time here,” he says. “It’s just a matter of having the guts to quit everything else and focus on the wool business. Sometimes, I think I’m just too dumb to do anything else.”
Spend five minutes with Phil and you’ll understand that there’s nothing dumb about the New England native. In fact, he’s made a handful of savvy decisions through the years to keep the business afloat. You’ll notice the pride he takes in celebrating 80 years of the family business.
The company’s website, RHLindsayWool.com, has helped expand the business in recent years. “What people are doing with wool out there is just unbelievable,” he says. “They are developing new products and finding new uses for it all the time.”
Phil is honest in sharing that there were times he didn’t think the company would survive. But when hard times came, he worked harder and refused to give up – just like when his grandfather refused to take no for an answer.
Congratulations to R.H. Lindsay on 80 years of buying and selling wool in Boston.