A few minutes east of Saratoga Springs lies the village of Victory, a quiet, economically depressed place you probably have to reason to be in if you don’t live there. The history of Victory is in part the same as many other rust belt towns; an industrial plant sprung up, a community grew at its feet, then sometime in the mid-20th century the industry left, and with it the economic lifeline for those who lived there.
In the case of Victory, it was the Victory Mill (the town is sometimes called “Victory Mills” to this day), originally built as a cotton mill in 1846. A later, larger expansion is now the mill per se; the original brick building is rapidly crumbling.
The cotton industry moved out of the mill in 1930, but the building sputtered on under various other guises. It was most recently a packaging plant, but that business left in 2000 and none took its place. The impact on the community is evident just by a drive through. Some houses are vacant, the ones that aren’t could use some work. A community garage sale was happening when we visited, and the wares on display were telling; baby clothes and toys, obsolete electronics, lots and lots of pocket knives. We didn’t explore the village much off the main roads, so this may be an unfair assessment, but this did not seem like a place where opportunity knocks.
I’m pessimistic about the industrial sites we visit. I’m conscious that they went up when people saw an opportunity to make money from a confluence of cheap labor, relatively free resources, and little to no regulation. This also means that I realize the opportunities dried up when factors like prohibition on child labor, equal (rather, more competitive) pay for women, workplace safety requirements, and environmental impact costs started affecting profit margins. In moral and ethical terms, these businesses were never sustainable, so it’s no wonder that they have largely moved to countries with less strict standards.
So, I’m pessimistic, because I know that there are few U.S. industries large enough to occupy a building like this, much less all its siblings dotting the landscape of New York and beyond. And yet, sometimes I’m proven wrong, and in this case I’m happy to be. The Victory Mill may be a Cinderella story after all; in 2008, Uri Kaufman, a developer from Long Island, purchased the property for $50,000. Normally, I would still arch one eyebrow, as there are too many factories and warehouses that switch hands from one speculator to another only to further decay in the meantime. But Kaufman is behind the Harmony Mills project in Cohoes, which has so far been extremely successful. This gives me some real hope; we visited Victory in September, and from what I’ve heard progress on the renovation has already been made.
Okay, enough with history and philosophy. What’s this place like? Well, as with a few other large structures we’ve explored, the layout gets repetitive after a few floors and the upper levels are mostly cleared out. Unlike many other sites, and surprisingly for the setting, there’s relatively little graffiti and general vandalism. I don’t remember seeing a single beer can. The ground floor was the most interesting, still storing some fixtures, and of course, there’s a room with toys (below). What is it with huge old buildings and toys? There are some other interesting bits, like the watchclock stations, where guards would punch in on their rounds (also below), and an additional receiving area that still had barrels of industrial oils (not below).
What’s in the tower you can see in the wide shot above? I did manage to climb up there which was probably not smart. Taking up nearly all of the space was a huge wooden barrel or drum; I don’t know what it was for, but the space was so tight I wasn’t able to take any photos.
The old mill was a little more interesting, albeit scarier. There was a basement that we didn’t dare explore, the stairs didn’t look safe enough. Taking the spiral stairs up was even dicey, and not only were the floors questionable but whole sections of walls were just missing, as you saw earlier. This structure is ready to come down at any moment.
I primarily used my typical shooting method here; tripod, aperture priority set around f/7.1 or so, ISO 100 or 200, and long exposures, though I occasionally experimented with firing a handheld flash unit using the test button; see if you can pick those out. I brought three lenses: an inexpensive 19-35mm f/3.5-4.6 which I used on the tripod for wide shots; the 50mm f/1.8 which I didn’t use at all; and the 100mm f/2 which I switched to for about a third of the trip for some handheld shots at higher ISOs.
I had some interesting personal reactions to this site. At the time of shooting, I was not very enthusiastic; I felt that I was going through the motions, nothing strongly standing out or exciting me, and my sense of exploration was muted. This all contrasts sharply with almost every other site we’ve explored, and it was disappointing. I walked away with a sense of anticlimax, and that’s why this entry is almost four months late. I sat on the photos and when I finally revisited them I was much happier with the results than when I’d been there. This was something of a revelation to me, as I’m merciless with the delete button, and now wonder if I may have in the past permanently erased images that today I would find stronger than the ones I kept. I may muse more on that later. But revisiting I think I found some gems, and I hope you think so too.
Oh yeah, one more thing: there was a shoe nailed to a post:
I swear, sometimes it’s like people leave this stuff just for us.
I look forward to good news about the future of the Victory Mill. We have so much history and heritage that’s worth keeping, it pains me to see centuries-old buildings demolished while acres of untouched land are paved for massive vapid retail chains. Hey, are you reading this long after I’ve written it, and happily living in a beautiful Victory Mills loft? I would love to visit and take some photos of that transformation if you’d let me.