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The industrial heritage of the Vipava Valley

Industrial heritage unveils the story of life, progress and values, which had shaped our history and identity through the ages, particularly in the 20th century when traditional agrarian culture morphed into a proletarian culture. It is characterised by a specific architectural style as seen in factory buildings and workers’ dwellings, as well as by the products that are still recognisable by the factories in which they were made and designers who conceived them. Today, the heritage of the proletarian culture can be understood as a set of values that came about in an era marked by the industrial revolution, a capitalist system and various political regimes; values such as solidarity, unionised operations, women-friendly work environment, eight-hour days, the right to work and full-time employment, and the right to breaks and an annual leave. Many of these values are being rapidly eroded.

The technical knowledge surrounding the exploitation of water power to propel flour mills, sawmills, smithies and ironworks ever since the Middle Ages has laid the groundwork for the development of industrialisation in the Vipava Valley.

The main power supply in the upper Vipava Valley were the many streams, most notably the Lokavšček Creek, the Vipava River and the Hubelj River. In the upstream area of the Hubelj River two blast furnaces for melting iron ore were built back in the 16th century; gradually, a large complex evolved around them, comprising a sawmill, a smithy, a foundry, a rolling mill, storage facilities and an administrative building. Later, the production focus switched from iron to copper. The ironworks ceased operation before the First World War. The restored blast furnaces and ruins of former buildings have been furnished with info boards, and are now a fascinating tourist attraction revealing a glimpse into the heritage of ironworks and the life of ironworkers and blacksmiths.

In addition to ironworks, other mills mushroomed in the 19th century along the Hubelj River. Sadly, they are all but gone now. There used to be a sawmill, a bark mill/tanning mill, and a pasta factory, all owned by the Nussbaum family. In Pale, there was Rietter’s brewery and a mechanical mill. In their immediate vicinity there was a short-lived paper mill which employed 25 to 30 people in the mid-18th century. Another large mill was the Jochmann Mill on the Hubelj River, which was one the biggest cylindrical mills in Austria-Hungary at that time. Parts of the building are visible even today. Equally noteworthy is the mill in Pekel near the village of Dornberk, with an 18th century architectural exterior and interior design. Worth mentioning are also the numerous smithies and sawmills along the Lokavšček Creek and the Vipava River, e.g. the smithy in Lokavec and the Kobe and Rizzati sawmill in Ajdovščina from the early 20th century.

The origins of real industrial development and large industrial mills can be traced back to the silk industry in the Goriška region.

The first state-owned factory was built in 1728 in what is today Farra d’Isonzo, Italy. It was a mill for silk-spinning, textile-spinning and weaving. The factory workers lived and worked in the factory according to strict rules from 12 to 14 hours a day. Silk-spinning and silkworm cultivation really took off following an official patent by Maria Theresa from 1764 which provided the right to freely plant mulberry trees to promote silkworm cultivation. Farmers were even given young mulberry plants. Back in the early 19th century, the Vipava Valley also saw the cotton-spinning industry gain momentum. Cotton was imported to Austria-Hungary alongside other colonial goods via the port of Trieste. In 1828, the cotton mill (spinning and weaving) was put into operation in Ajdovščina. It gave work to over 300 workers – men, women and children aged from 9 to 14 years – who worked up to 13.5 hours a day.

The largest industry complex in the region was owned by the Ritter family. Initially, the family started a sugar mill for processing colonial sugar, followed by a hydraulic mill on the Soča River in the hamlet of Stračice on the outskirts of Gorica. Next they set up a cotton-spinning mill and a mill to process silk scraps. On the opposite bank of the Soča River, close to the industrial complex in Stračice, a paper mill (writing and wrapping paper) was established by the Ascolis.

Other crafts that emerged across the Vipava Valley in the 19th and 20th century provided the cornerstone for the region’s subsequent industrial boom. Carpentry gave rise to the wood industry in Solkan, whereas brick making in Bilje and the Goriška region and masonry in Renče gave rise to the brick-making and construction industry. In the post-war era, Ajdovščina and Vipava became industrial centres of the upper Vipava Valley, with factories from a range of industries: metal, food, wood, textile and construction. In keeping with its tradition, Ajdovščina saw the emergence of the textile factory Tekstilna tovarna Ajdovščina. Today's Mlinotest emerged from the grain mill company Mlinsko podjetje Ajdovščina which continued an ancient milling tradition. Rizzati's sawmill was the predecessor of the industrial company Lipa Ajdovščina. Established in 1911, the dairy that operated in Podnanos was liquidated in the 1980s to make way for a new plant for bottling milk and making dairy products. In 1990, this company merged with Agroind Vipava which also operates a wine cellar. There were a number of other companies as well: today’s Fructal evolved from the regional company for the export and processing of fruit; the construction company Primorje Ajdovščina grew from the regional construction company Primorje which was headquartered in Vipava. Other players included the textile factory Industrijska konfekcija IKA, and the metal working company Splošno kovinsko podjetje Ajdovščina etc.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the production result of these companies was poor, but the following decades brought along rapid economic growth, and the companies prospered both in Slovenia and in Yugoslavia. In the 1950s and 1960s industry became the powerhouse of economic activity and was stimulated by changes of the economic system, modernization of industrial plants and social support. The employment rate and the living standard in the valley soared to new heights. In the second half of the 20th century factories became more than just industrial plants. They provided employees with health and social care, education, apartments, they were invested in their cultural life and organised sports activities. In short, they took part in the local life and promoted values centred on a joint identity and affiliation.

The transition to a new capitalist social system and a market economy meant a decline in the production for many companies and plants. Some were put out of business, while others underwent restructuring and continue on their path of success. Many other companies developed as well and they are just as successful. Meanwhile, the values of the old system have fallen by the wayside. What we are left with are fond memories and an architectural heritage bearing witness to the diverse industry of yore.

Inga Miklavčič Brezigar, MA; Ines Beguš, PhD, Regional museum Goriški muzej