America's oldest sailmaker going strong with expanded products

- William J. Mills & Co., the oldest sailmaker in America, got its start making sails for whaling boats before steam power even existed.

"Business started in Scotland, moved around Long Island for a number of years," CEO Jamie Mills said. "My father picked a date of 1880 for Greenport because it had a nice ring to it."

They manufactured a sail 100 years ago for the USS Constitution and built a speed pennant for the Steamship United States that still holds the record for the transatlantic crossing.

Brothers Jamie and Bob Mills have been working together for over half a century. Bob Mills, the vice president, said he didn't think this would become his career.

"I started when I was 11 years old," he said. "And the business—kind of learned it through osmosis."

The advent of power diminished the sailing industry. So over the years, the company added awnings and all things canvas to their repertoire. For four decades, William J. Mills was the sole canvas manufacturer for Boston Whaler boats.

"Retractable awnings, our bag business, marine custom canvas, custom canvas for homes—basically we're men of the cloth," Bob said.

"Whether it's on a boat or on the water or on land—commercial, residential—we satisfy people's requirements," Jaime added.

Their most notable work includes the awnings at Shinnecock Hills where the U.S. Open was played this summer. They've also manufactured some of the cushions on benches at places like Foot Locker.

"A week ago I was on the floor cutting hands and knees to answering telephones to pushing a broom," Bob said. "When you're in a small business you do what you have to do to keep it going."

The year-round business employs 25 people and manufactures out of a 15,000-square-foot facility. They complete close to 1,100 orders a month and are on track to make more than $2 million in sales this year.

While the journey hasn't been all smooth sailing, they're committed to and have a lot of pride in manufacturing on Long Island.

"We'll continue to go as long as we can," Jamie said.

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