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Made in Niort, workers' memories

Chamois leather and the glove factories

An adventure which lasted seven centuries.

In the XIIIth century people tanned skins at home, sheep skins and not chamois leather ! Chamois is the result of soaking the skins in fish oil. When Canada was discovered in 1534, elk skins and fish oil were imported from the New World in exchange for the wines of Saintonge and the materials of the Gâtine. But, this commerce stopped with the loss of the colony in 1763. In the XVIIIth century Niort had 13.000 inhabitants, more than half of whom were chamois leather workers, regrouped in different factories. In 1765, Thomas-Jean Main, the son of the chamois leather worker, set off to spy on the hard competition from the English and brought back their manufacturing secret : the rubbing down of the skins which made them as soft as silk. This (re)discovery gave the activity a second wind. In 1838, the first mutual insurance company of Niort was created by the chamois works and the glove factories. In the XXth century, the town dealt with 1.5 million skins a year and produced 2.5 million pairs of gloves. It was a truly one sided industry until the second world war. After 1945 the industry of soldiers’ and women’s gloves declined.

Grain Sorters

France, the colonies and foreign countries are customers of the great Niort grain sorting factories.

The Marot Grain Sorters (1840-1978)

The Marotgrain sorters sorted and selected cereals, beans and cocoa beans … and also leads for hunting….. several machines were delivered for agriculture, to breweries, to grain stores, to tinned food factoried … in France and abroad ! In 1978, the company went bankrupt but production continued in Senlis (Oise) for the needs of Europe and of North Africa. The collection of about twenty buildings was bought by the town in 1995. Situated in the perimeter of protection of the sources of water of the Vivier, it was impossible to reconvert them for a different use ! However an 800 metre long building, a wall and the entrance gates have been preserved as a witness to this flourishing industrial past !

The Clert (then, Biscara) Establishments.

Founded in 1860, Clert Grain Sorters were taken over in 1910, by Georges Biscara. 130 machines were exported to Italy and about twenty to Egypt in 1898. A mutual health insurance was founded in 1897 to cover a number of illnesses. The Biscara factories were situated at Vieux Ponts. Today, a car park has their name.

The Industrials of the automobile and transport

The area is one of the centres of expansion of the French automobile industry in the 1920s.

Barré Automobiles (1899-1930) : A Pioneer of the automobile

At the end of the XIXth century, Gaston Barré, a former arms manufacturer, made cycles in Niort and later tricycles and quadricycles with a motor. In 1899, he built a series of motor cars of Dion Bouton with one cylinder and transmission by belts. In 1902, he made 5 models, shwon the following year at the Paris Car Show. The company, which was at first called Cycles and Automobiles Barré, became les Automobiles Barré in 1906. The specialty of the house was the transformable Barré torpedo 4 seater . The back seats for example could be replaced by the rear part of a van to transport merchandise. The factories were first at 39 rue Ricard (where the Grand Café was built in 1908), then at 11 avenue de la République (today the Société Générale) in 1905. The factory was then transferred to rues Tartifume, Langlois and Bastard-Pradel. The HQ and the sales room were in Paris. In 1912 and 1913 Automobiles Barré participated in the Tour de France automobile and came out at the top of the classifications. At the beginning of the 1920s, 300 vehicules (almost all unique models) were produced according to the customer’s tastes. The customes could go from Niort to Paris with a 10 horsepower engine in 7 and a half hours, picnic stop included. Later, over 1000 cars were created each year by a hundred workers. In 1930 unable to stand up to the competition from Paris, the establishments closed after having produced 15.000 vehicules. At the same time, Louis Renault was making cars in the garden of the family home in Billancourt. Paul Menneteau is one of the last five people from Niort to have a Barré car.

The daring of Landry Brivin (1921-1978)

In 1921, Landry Brivin, the son of a Luçon solicitor, settld in Niort at 23 rue de Romagné then, in 1924, avenue de Paris on the old army terrain. After the first World War, he bought trucks sold by the armies (especially the Americans) to create buses in order to supplement the railway lines which did not serve all the communes. His first buses were built on the chassis of lorries lit by acetylene (an inflammable gas). His green buses assured transport from Niort to Angers, Nantes, Limoges and la Roche-sur-Yon. In 1930, he was responsible for the rural automobile postal service for the whole of the Deux-Sèvres. Thanks to the modernisation of the vehicules and the creation of a messaging service right across France in 1950, the company developed/ In 1960, with 650 employees, 70 green and white bises and several trucks, Brivin became one of the most important companies of Niort. Then he got involved in international transport. The founder died in 1967. The company was taken over in 1978 by the company Mory-Team (national freight - 209, rue Jean Jaurès). The buses were bought by the town two years later.

Baillon Transports (1945-1978) : an ingenious self-taught business man.

Until 1977, Roger Baillon built, in Niort, trucks that he rented to companies. From 1945, he got hold of trucks from the German army or that he bought from the Americans. He even drove around in a sports car looking for wrecks in order to transform them into HGVs. He made a name for himself at the Car Show in 1947 by showing a prestige car made by his own hands. Three years after that he showed a revolutionary truck called the Micheline, the first advanced cabin of the transport industry. In the 1960s, Baillon rue Paul Bert to set up his workshop in avenue de Paris where up to 200 mechanics, turners, boiler makers and body-workers were employed.. The workshop, a cathedral of glass was designed and built by the workers. From 1965, his trucks went right down to Portugal at a time when it took 12 hours to get from Niort to Paris. The company closed in 1978 when it lost the contract through which it assured the transport of solvants made in Melle in its tankers.

Wood

In the Deux-Sèvres, wood comes from the numerous hedges of the Bocage, the poplars of the Marais Poitevin, the numerous small forests hidden all over the area : the forest of Chizé, of l’'Hermitain, of Oiron, of Secondigny... The Sèvre Valley of saint-Maixent to thee edges of the marshes through La Crèche, Niort and Le Vanneau is the « wood valley ». The wood industry developped above all during the period between the two wars at a time when the dairy industry was taking and when the area needed cheese boxes and butter baskets. Soon the range was widened to all wood packaging. Some companies disappeared, killed by the war or by competition from cardboard and plastics. Others survived by turning to other products

The Norman Alexandre Rougier founded his company in Magné in 1923 for sawing wood and the fabrication of cheese boxes for the dairy industry. In 1928, its mother company was created in rue St-Symphorien, at St-Florent, in Niort. From 1930, the company changed to the production of hardboard and imported exotic woods through the harbour of La Pallice (Okoumé from Gabon) because the Marais Poitevin was no longer able to supply enough wood. On the eve of the war, Rougier employed 400 people. As well as continuing to produce hardboard, the company turned in about 1945 to the production of agglomerates. It settled in Gabon in 1953 and became the largest employer of Niort with 700 salaried workers (100 more three years later). In 1959, the company entered the stock exchange and took on an international dimension with 5 production units in Niort (between avenue de La Rochelle and rue St-Symphorien) ; 5 subsidiaries in France and 5 abroad of which 4 were in Africa. The company opened in the Cameroun in 1963. Seven years later, Rougier was the European leader of makers of exotic hardboard and agglomerates. In the 1970s the company employed 1500 workers (nearly 5.000 in 1980 including 1.500 in Niort). In 1982 the company sold to St-Gobain who created ROL. The industrial units stopped producing in 1993. Since 1995, the company, whose HQ is still in Niort has been committed to a policy of sustainable management, (taking one tree per hectare every 25 or 30 years). In 2008, there were 3.000 employees of whom 1.500 in Gabon, exploit a surface area of tropical forests of a size equivalent to Brittany and sell 70 exotic woods in 50 countries.

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