Witch hazel wards off their recession

Town prospers as maker sees double-digit growth

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / October 5, 2009

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EAST HAMPTON, Conn. - Nothing signals the presence of a venerable remedy in this quiet suburb 30 minutes southeast of Hartford. No garish signs, no proud slogans, no roadside stands proclaim the world-famous properties of the humble shrub that flourishes beyond the shores of Lake Pocotopaug.

The only clue is the lone plant growing a dozen feet high in front of a brown stucco building on Connecticut Route 66. This is witch hazel, hamamelis virginiana. It stands outside the business that has made the astringent distilled from the shrub’s ridged bark a household staple for generations.

Native Americans used witch hazel as a cure-all. So did the early European settlers. Your grandmother used it; a bottle of the clear, nut-scented liquid is probably still tucked away in the back of her medicine cabinet. And so, perhaps without your knowing it, have you: Witch hazel from East Hampton is an important ingredient in shampoos, mouthwashes, high-end facial toners, acne treatments, and eyewash, to name just a few items.

Because of that, Dickinson Brands Inc., the world’s largest producer of witch hazel, has quietly prospered here, in what is arguably the witch hazel capital of the world.

Owners and employees say they have avoided the layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts that have benighted so many companies. And in this season of shrinking sales and mounting losses, the privately owned company says it has experienced double-digit growth.

The challenge for Dickinson, which bottles and sells the astringent under the brand name Witch Hazel, is how to make the remedy relevant for today’s generations. “It’s become a part of Americana,’’ said Bryan Jackowitz, the company’s marketing director. “People say: ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I know Witch Hazel. My grandmother used it. What do I use it for?’ ’’

No one at the factory knows for sure the origins of the name of the plant, a shrub that grows in northern forests and is distinguishable by its yellow flowers, which bloom in late autumn, after most trees have shed their leaves. A popular version has it that “witch’’ is derived from an old English word, “wyche,’’ which means pliant or bendable. The word “hazel,’’ it is suggested, may have come from the use of twigs from the shrub as divining rods, the way twigs from the hazel plant once were used in England. Dickinson is hoping to tap into the increased demand for all-natural skin-care products. In recent years, it has phased out the word “astringent’’ from one of its two versions of Witch Hazel, the yellow-label one, which it now markets as “pore perfecting toner.’’ The more powerful blue-label Witch Hazel, for treatment of bites, scrapes, and irritation, is still sold as “100 percent natural astringent.’’

The approach jibes with the public’s renewed interest in historical remedies with a short list of recognizably natural, home-grown ingredients, said Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartman Group, a market research firm based in Bellevue, Wash.

“That fact that grandma used it is probably more of a plus than a minus to some of these folks,’’ she said.

Jackowitz declined to provide specific financial figures for the company. But Jeffrey J. O’Keefe, town manager of East Hampton, said Dickinson has helped buoy the town’s fortunes.

“We’re probably one of the few towns that were able to weather the recession last year,’’ O’Keefe said. “They are a very important part of the fabric of this community.’’

Since 1866, the Dickinson astringent has been composed of the same two natural ingredients, alcohol and witch hazel. More recently, a sister company of Dickinson Brands, American Distilling Inc., has been producing and selling witch hazel - the ingredient - in bulk to hundreds of companies worldwide.

The Dickinson company was founded by the Rev. Thomas Newton Dickinson, who made his fortune selling uniforms to Union forces during the Civil War before switching to witch hazel.

The families of some employees have roots that go back almost as far. Alfred Bowser, a Dickinson employee for about 30 years, is the fifth generation of his family to work here.

“That should tell you how much witch hazel is in my blood,’’ Bowser said on a factory walkway overlooking a pile of witch hazel wood chips, waiting to be loaded into a giant silo, the first step in the process of pressing and distilling them into the astringent liquid. “About 98 percent witch hazel.’’

Curtis Strong, who oversees the harvesting of the shrub, is also a fifth-generation employee. His great-grandfather used to cut the plant and load the branches into horse- and ox-drawn carts for delivery to the factory.

His grandfather taught him how to identify witch hazel, which is tricky because the harvesting is done in winter, when the branches are bare.

Strong still prefers an ax to a chainsaw. But he also personifies the company’s modernization - an electrical engineer, he designed the control panel that runs the automated, zero-waste distilling process.

The Jackowitz family are relative newcomers, but they also think of themselves as part of the lore. “The father of modern Witch Hazel’’ is how Bryan Jackowitz refers to his father, Edward C. Jackowitz, the chief executive who acquired the company in 1973.

Sometimes the product’s rich history as an all-round remedy intrudes upon the company’s attempt to place the Witch Hazel brand as a gentle skin-care product for the modern woman.

“Back in the day, they used to use it a lot on the animals’’ who had cuts and scrapes,’’ Bowser recalled. “As a matter of fact, most of the race horses of today use it. After they work out, they wipe the horses with it. Yep, cools the horses down.’’

Ann Silvio of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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