FROM PAGES PAST: 1971: Walkerbilt – 100 Years of Progressiveness
The Yates County History Center’s volunteers have gleaned these entries for your enjoyment from their digitized newspapers. You can access them at the free site www.nyshistoricnewspapers.com. For more information about the YCHC, visit www.yatespast.org.
WALKERBILT HISTORY WEEK
June 24, 1971
Walkerbilt Woodworking Inc. is in its 101st year of existence, and the firm is in a new modern factory, with the latest equipment available to the woodworking industry. This is another chapter in the long history of this company which began as a simple saw mill and lumber yard back in 1870.
Soon after it began operations at the sites, one of which was located on Lake St. at the same location recently vacated by the firm for its new North Ave. plant, a few woodworking machines were added to help the company give milling service to the community. Soon more machines were added and the firm began fabrication used in building homes. Until factories made these items, they were made, as were all other wood products, by craftsmen on the premises as they built the buildings. They had to do it with hand tools so when the factories started to make them with power tools quantity production proved superior.
About 1890, W.M. Patterson acquired the business and then further improved and strengthen it. About 1900, he became acquainted with E.J. Walker, a Philadelphia merchant. Mt. Walker was developing an idea for a special type of bin designed to be self-counterbalancing. In other words, by putting part of the bin overhanging in from of its pivot, it was much easier to open and shut. Mr. Walker had started to build these bins in a factory in Camden, N.J. However, his acquaintance with Patterson developed into an arrangement to combine resources. Mr. Walker and his Walker Patented Pivoted Bin Company. Mr. Patterson had his planing mill. The two were combined and operated in Penn Yan under the name of Walker Bin Company.
The business flourished for twenty-odd years and eventually has installations in thousands of stores all over the county and in several countries. Penn Yan workmen even went as far as England making installations. The reason for their success was simple. Until this convenient bin built into counters and shelving came along, most foods, seeds, grains and feeds had all been stored in barrels or bags. These were not clean and an invitation to vermin and other infestation. The counterbalanced bin protected them and made dispensing easy. It was, in fact, suitable for use for anything that was handled in dry bulk.
Everything went fine with the Company until a period in the 1920s when package merchandise began to become popular. Stores that had used the bin system began changing over to the newer methods because of consumer demand. Unfortunately, this loss of popularity was coupled with the depression of the early 1930s. As a result, new business to replace the dying fixtures was not readily available. Finally, in December 1933, Walker Bin Co. closed.
In March of 1934, four men revived the industry under the name of Walkerbilt because they believed that with care, it could be nursed back to health. The revival was successfully accomplished during the middle 1930s. New products for the mill were developed and sold. Woodwork for new central schools in upstate New York was an important product during this period. About 1940, two of the original four in the new company passed away and the business was carried on by the survivors.
Finally, when World War II arrived, the Company was strong enough to take on production of many wooden products for war use. Its staff and facilities were greatly expanded and at the end of the war, it emerged with much greater strength, capacity and “know how.” These were turned promptly to the problem of the reestablishment of civilian production. This was successfully accomplished, and in general the following progress was reported by the firm over the years.
In general, Walkerbilt began both as a building material dealer and a woodwork manufacturer. As a dealer it bought and sold all of the construction materials used in homes, commercial buildings, farm buildings and other constructed units. These products include lumber, cement, windows, doors, roofing, paint, glass, eavestrough, hardware, etc. The requirements for buildings were so diversified that the stocks carried included between ten and twelve thousand items.
As a manufacturer, Walkerbilt engaged in four different kinds of different activity. There were:
1 – Store fixtures. There still continued to be a demand for the old Walker Bin line of bins for use in seed stores. These fixtures were streamlined but they still used the idea of the self-counterbalancing bin. The units were used in conjunction with other store fixtures that had been designed for modern merchandising. The company also made fixtures for other retail businesses such as drug stores, shoe stores, dress shops, men’s furnishing stores, jewelry stores, etc. In other words, the company designed and manufacture fixtures for almost any type of store.
2 - Industrial wood parts. Other manufactures purchased parts for use in their products from the Walkerbilt firm. One of the largest of these was a table used on a tailor’s pressing machine to keep clothes being pressed from falling on the floor, and from falling into operating parts. These tables were sold to the manufacturer of the machine to be attached to it when the machine was delivered to the tailor.
3 – Radio cabinets. The Stromberg-Carlson firm of Rochester purchased four different models of cabinets for its radios from Walkerbilt. The unassembled wood parts were made in the Lake St. plant and taken across town to the Champlin Ave. assembly and finishing plant. There the cabinets were assembled and finished, stained, filled and lacquered, and then finally oil rubbed. After careful inspection, they were packed and trucked to Rochester.
4 – Custom woodwork. Many different special wood items for individual customers were designed and made by Walkerbilt. These items ranged from a special winday (sic) to a hay press head block and a special mahogany bookcase. These items were termed custom woodwork and were usually undertaken in wither single units or in a very small quantities to meet the needs of the customer.
In order to accomplish the manufacturing program just related, it became necessary to maintain a large physical plant. On Lake St., a large warehouse with display area and officers for the operation of the building material division was in existence. In the warehouse were kept some of the multitude of small items needed.
On Commercial Ave., just across the street from the warehouse site, six large sheds and four acres of land were used for the storage of lumber, shingles, tile, cement, brick and other bulky and heavy items that were not affected by unheated storage, or, in the case of outdoor storage, were not affected by moisture from rain. In fact, the open storage was required for open drying of recently cut lumber. Materials from this storage were delivered to customers of brought to the factory by a fleet of six trucks, a trailer and three wagons.
In addition to the Lake St. warehouse, there were four manufacturing buildings. One of these was a small, one story dry kiln for the final curing of air dried lumber for it is used for manufacture. The other three buildings were large, three story structures containing over 200 different woodworking machines.
Machines were there to do practically any woodworking operation available. The machines included several different kinds of saws, machines for smoothing, planning, moulding, shaping, mortising, and tenoning lumber; turning lathes, both manual and automatic; glue presses, sanding machines, assembly clamps, and equipment for finishing with stain, filler, lacquer, varnish and enamel.
At the Main St. end of the sprawling building were located the offices. General, clerical, administrative and executive officers were on the ground floor and on the second floor were the factory offices containing the drafting room where the drawings to production planning of the many products were made. Also on located on the second floor were the general manager’s and general plant superintendents offices.
Another factory site was on Champlin Ave. – a one story modern factory where woodworking machines to facilitate the construction of radio cabinets, clamping units to hold them while they were being glued and screwed together, plus spray booths and rubbing machines needed to finish the product.
Of great importance were the final inspection lights and the turntables need to permit a thorough and minute inspection of each unit completed.
At this period in its history, Walkerbilt was owned and managed by Welles Griffeth and John T. Andrews. Walkerbilt was this partnership operating the Lake St. and Commercial Avenue operations, while Walkerbilt Cabinets Inc. was at the Champlin Ave. site.
When Walkerbilt was in the building material dealer business, diversified products sold at retail through this division reached into every nook and cranny of the county of Yates. In addition to materials that went to private enterprises in the county, much material wsa furnished to industry and commercial business for the maintenance and expansion of construction. The company also sold in nearby cities where contractors and home owners learned of large stock carried and the service given.
A steady business which has weathered much adversity through the years has now blossomed forth with the opening of the new plant on North Avenue. Certainly, the company has maintained a position that it is strong in foundation, strong in reputation and strong in the “know how” pf its staff.
Walkerbilt Woodworking Inc., a veteran industry in the community, now is operating from a brand new plant, and looks forward to serving the product needs in its field for years to come.