By the early 1960’s, many who grew up in Aurora had finished high school and left for college or to live elsewhere. During those years, a popular Nat King Cole torch song asked ‘Where Did Everyone Go?’ By the time many of us returned to Aurora, there was reason to ask the same question about those great manufacturing firms we knew during our youth. We may have always assumed the companies and jobs would go on indefinitely without realizing the 1950's and 1960's might be the peak of their power and prominence.
Looking Back to Industrial Peak in 1960’s
From the 21st century, we now view upscale housing filling cornfields to the north, west and east that surrounded Aurora of mid 20th century. Downtown, old factories and many neighborhoods that seemed to spiral into decay and disuse after the 1960’s are revived and regenerated, although not like they were. This more prosperous perspective may help get past some of the pain of looking back on the poignant human anguish and burdens of transition from Aurora’s great industrial era. Perhaps Aurora’s industrial evolution at the end of the 20th century is similar to other cities as they all faced the same epochal changes in the world, just as the rise of industrial Aurora mirrored and was consistent with other changes of America during the prior century with the evolution from farm to factory.
Manufacturing Rise in Age of Rail
Transportation and distribution has always been central to Chicago area growth and progresss They help explain both Aurora’s industrial rise at the beginning of the 20th century and evolution in recnet decades. Throughout history waterways have determined where cities and civilizations rose and thrived. Aurora and Chicago both grew along rivers, but these were less important than in the past due to the advent of rail. Even when Chicago changed its river’s flow, it was of less importance for transport than rail. From earliest days, Aurora’s river was used more for power and dumping than transport.
It was the growth of railroads that provided the spark and catalyst for Chicago and Aurora’s rise to industrial power since 1850. All the great Midwest railroads originated in Chicago and grew north, west and south except one, the Aurora Branch Railroad. This was the kernel that became the mighty Burlington Northern Santa Fe of today.
The Burlington grew from Aurora, initially laying track north to join the mainline from Chicago west to Galena. It then branched west toward Mendota, Galesburg, Burlington and Quincy to be come the CB&Q.
Rail as Catalyst for Industrial Aurora
It was nearly a decade after the extensive rail yards and shops began to grow in Aurora in 1856 to serve lines west, that a direct line to Chicago was built. Along this direct Chicago line, grew Chicago’s western suburbs. For the next century, many residents to the east of Aurora commuted to Chicago.
At the same time Aurora drew on the metalworking and heavy equipment skills of the rail shops and yards to build the independent and locally owner factories. This resulted in many fewer Aurorans ever commuting to jobs in Chicago.
The first wave of wave of industry was mostly textile, food, machinery, carriage or fine manufacturing such as watches, pianos and silverplate. These were not dependent on the metal working skills from the rail yards, but the next wave was. By 1900 many of these early firms were surpassed or replaced by new steel fabrication companies, first in construction equipment and later for metal desks, commercial furnishings, shelving and storage.
Steel for Metal Fabrication
Steel was the new material for the 20th century. It had developed further east around Pittsburgh. But in the 1900’s, the Mesabi iron range and Great Lake transport was moving iron ore to the southern tip of Lake Michigan where great new steel plants rose.
Mesabi Iron Ore Hibbing Minnesota
By that time Chicago’s extensive rail network over the endless flat and open prairie lands provided the transport needed, as it had since Civil War times for grain, livestock, forests and other resources from the rich Midwest lands. These were processed and manufactured into products in Chicago and shipped to markets east, just as steel would now be fabricated into products in Aurora and other factories and shipped to markets throughout the country and beyond.
Molten Steel Poured in Gary, Indiana
The railroads, factories and new high rise construction spreading out from Chicago provided the demand for steel. And the rail systems made steel cheap and readily available to Aurora’s newly founded factories. After manufacture, rail lines then carried finished products cost effectively to markets throughout the country. It was the availability of the rail transport, cost effective steel and rail yard metal working expertise that Aurora’s leaders and entrepreneurs drew on and to build the firms profiled in the Success segment. In aggregate, they created an industrial diversity and level of growth that was unique to American cities.
Construction Equipment for Giant Earth Moving Projects
Nearly a century had lapsed since the country’s first great public sector project was completed and the Erie Canal became the pathway for moving goods, and more importantly people, to the Chicago area via the Great Lakes and railroads. Another canal would be the next mega public undertaking, this time in Panama. Rather than bringing life to Aurora after completion as the Erie did, this new canal would be brought to life itself as a great rail based earth-moving project. And Aurora firms, such as the old Western Wheeled Scraper, which was evolving into Austin-Western, and the newer Stephens-Adamson would be major suppliers of the dump cars, conveyor and other earth moving systems that were critical to canal construction.
Panama Canal Culebra Cut
After the Panama Canal, Barber Greene emerged from Stephens-Adamson to add another Aurora firm to share in the next wave of earth moving construction equipment demand to support the heady growth of early 20th century America. The earthmoving conveyor, loading, hauling and other systems were relied on by: the burgeoning coal, iron and copper mines; railways that moved these raw materials to giant mills and construction sites; and for excavation and building of new factories, offices, homes and towns. As motor vehicles grew after 1900 by initially replacing 5,000 years of reliance on the horse, road building, grading and other construction along the new paved highway systems added new markets for Aurora heavy construction equipment plants.
Kennecott Mine Bingham Utah Barber Green Asphalt Paver
Metal Furnishings and Storage Systems to Support Office and Factory
From the time in early 1901 when the Walters Brothers started Lyon Metal in Chicago and then moved to Aurora in 1906, metal office equipment became the inside plant complement to the growth of new rail and road transport systems and factories that the construction equipment firms had fueled. With Lyon employees that formed All Steel in 1912, Aurora increased its prominence in fabricated metal furnishings.
Thomas Dunham’s shift from motorcycle sidecars to metal shelving products and Durabilt’s steel lockers further expanded this metal fabricating industry in Aurora. Lyon’s acquisition of Durand increased Aurora dominance, and the Richards Wilcox acquisition of Aurora Steel added metal office equipment and systems to Richards Wilcox door hanger and hardware lines.
Growth to Aurora’s Industrial Power and Seeds to Sunset
As the 20th century progressed, Aurora’s construction equipment and office furnishing steel fabricators increased power through the growth years until the market crash of 1929. They weathered the long decade of depression 1930’s and recovered to support Allied defense needs in World War II.
At the 1945 War’s end, Aurora metal based firms moved quickly to retool and respond to demand for domestic growth. With industry of Europe and Asia in ashes, there was little competition in these years of ebullient growth across the country. And as Marshall Plan commitments sparked recovery abroad, new market opportunities were opened and filled by Aurora and other US manufacturers.
This sense of dominance and growth lasted for nearly two decades. But even during these great years, during which anything often seemed possible, monumental changes were building. They would shake and eventually supersede the rail network and steel based factories in Aurora and elsewhere that had been dominant for a century. Among these were enormous changes in the 1950’s, which impacted Aurora factories at the height of their prosperity and peak of growth. Each would initially contribute tonew business for Aurora’s metal-based firms, and then each would help explain the coming declines. They were:
Interstate Highway Construction
The railroads, which had moved America since our industrial revolution after the Civil War, had showed the strains of the years by early in the 20th century. Imperatives and urgency of people and freight movement to support World War II sparked some revival and demonstrated that rail still was crucial. However, when auto production resumed after 1945, it became apparent that motor vehicles for both people and freight movement would continue to pressure and threaten rail preeminence.
When automobiles were produced in quantity in the early 1900’s, their growth was curtailed by lack of roads. Railroads had always laid their own tracks, albeit with often munificent government incentives. Railroads also owned and managed their all their own rolling stock. As they built systems across the country, they became America’s first big business, lasting in that dominant role for nearly a century. By contrast, individuals owned cars and trucks and relied on others to provide roads.
Building of roads by local communities, cities and states, along with federal government incentives, always seemed to be behind the needs of an explosively expanding motor vehicle industry. There was no consensus on whether and how increasingly antiquated rail and other mass transit systems could be revived. And there was no confidence that a revival plan, even if identified, would stem the tide of the great and growing preference for trucks and cars over rail and mass transit for people or freight.
The stage was set for the leap into the next great public sector transport project. This was not to be either canal funding or rail incentives. It was the 1956 federal legislation to fund construction of an Interstate highway system. Little did anyone know then of the effects it would have on the balance between intercity and surroundings, let alone stability, vibrancy and demographics of communities across America. All these effects would be felt and change a way of life in Chicago, Aurora and urban areas across the U.S.
Miss Concrete (left) Interstate Highways in Blue (right)
Miss Asphalt (right)
Initially the Interstate Highway commitment created a large new market for construction equipment from Aurora’s Stephens-Adamson, Austin-Western and Barber-Greene. But this was to be the last hurrah for a huge new earthmoving market for our Aurora firms, at least in our country. For many railroads, the interstate highways also became a last hurrah. For a century they had fostered and supported the industrial growth of Aurora and other cities across the nation. It seemed ironic that many saw their last profitable times tied to moving earth and hauling concrete to build the Interstates.
It was 1946 when Chicago purchased the surplus military facility of Orchard Field and 7,000 acres. Having been renamed after air war hero O’Hare, ties to Orchard Field were severed other than through each ORD reservation symbol and luggage tag still seen today. After the War, Chicago quickly became the world’s busiest airport, but that was Midway, hemmed in by Chicago’s rail and industrial southwest side. O’Hare didn’t open until 1955 and as recent as 1959, Midway handled 10 million passengers, more than five times those who passed through O’Hare.
Midway Airport 1940's O'Hare as Douglas Orchard Field 1945
After a spectacular O’Hare expansion, all commercial operations were transferred from Midway by 1962. But it was the infrastructure construction replacing the surrounding cornfields and linked with new interstates and tollways that would both spur on Aurora’s construction equipment factories, while at the same time severing the century long rail dominance. Along those Interstates, O’Hare and infrastructure, new plants and distribution centers would then generate new orders to boost Aurora’s metal furnishing firms.
Unfortunately, there is always a morning after. As the Interstates neared completion, no new mega construction equipment opportunities loomed on the horizon. Office furnishings shifted from metal to newer materials and carrels and cubicles regularly replaced traditional office configurations with metal desks and furnishings. Less manufacturing meant less metal shelving and storage demand.
Once those great US construction projects to shift from rail to road were largely completed, the construction firms increasingly looked to overseas markets for expansion and growth. But this was at the same time when the rest of the world had revived from the devastation of World War II and becoming intensively competitive abroad as well as in US markets. Imports would be an ongoing threat to both metal based and other Aurora industries.
The result was slower growth and profit strains for manufacturers across the country, but particularly for Aurora’s metal based firms. And then there was Caterpillar.
Caterpillar in Aurora
In 1958 Caterpillar opened a large manufacturing facility in Aurora, adding to Aurora’s leadership in the construction equipment industry. Even though Caterpillar was unlike Aurora’s other industrial firms in that they were not locally owned and controlled, they were welcomed for their many new jobs and offshoot economic benefits. Caterpillar was also similar to local firms in their concern for and commitment to the community. Caterpillar entry into Aurora has been likened to Wal-Mart’s initial expansion, which was also welcomed for the jobs and associated benefits they brought.
But as with the view today in many communities on Wal-Mart, there may be a downside to all those new jobs and economic boosts. When industrial Aurora took off in the early 1900’s, it was attractive to Chicago and other large city firms as a safe haven and buffer to aggressive union pressures, as well as a more attractive community for a company’s workers. Even though most Aurora industrial laborers were union represented by the 1950’s, the initial premise of a smoother worker management environment still endured.
Despite Caterpillar’s commitment to being a good citizen in Aurora, their wage and benefit levels were considerably higher than those prevailing in other Aurora factories, in some instances around 50% higher for similar jobs and skill levels. Requiring many of the same skills as other Aurora factories and in large new quantities, pressures for salary and benefit increases escalated, particularly before market growth associated with new construction and plants in the shift from rail to road began to subside.
Unwinding of Aurora Manufacturing Might
Aurora metal-based firms had been successful in penetrating markets, maintaining competitiveness and building leading positions far beyond Aurora. But as with other successful manufacturing firms across America, there had been less need for rapid product changes and technology innovations in the past than were being demanded in the 1960’s and beyond.
With markets largely void of international competition, Aurora and US factories could dominate growth at home and also provide equipment needed for recovery abroad. The necessity of dramatic change and strong competition was thus postponed a couple decades, both for Aurora and other US manufacturers.
As the pressures of slower growth in the late 1960’s combined with higher wage expectations, profit margins were squeezed. Needed financing became more difficult to secure and the productivity and technology breakthroughs often looked to help didn’t materialize fast enough. Instead, ownership changes became prevalent, severing the decades old pattern of local ownership, bank financing and management control that characterized Aurora’s rise to industrial might. It was the era of conglomerates, synergy, mergers, acquisitions and clever financing. And Aurora manufacturing was swept up, just as were other factories across the land.
Construction Equipment and Metal Furnishing
Mergers, acquisitions and business failures were part of corporate America since the rise of the railroads as America’s first large corporations. However, the pace was slow before the restructuring of industrial America began in the 1960’s and accelerated since then. The first of Aurora’s steel-based manufacturers to be subject to this shift was also the oldest.
Austin Western: Western Wheeled Scraper in the 1880’s was the original root of Austin Western. By 1953 ownership passed to Baldwin Lima Hamilton. A few years earlier, the long dominant Baldwin Locomotive had merged with another major locomotive producer Baldwin Hamilton to survive as well as participate in diversification from steam locomotives to construction equipment. In a pattern that would be repeated in other businesses, the steam locomotive leaders had not adapted fast enough. They lost their market when GM’s Electro Motive entered and then dominated the new diesel engines, which antiquated steam.
By 1956 steam locomotive production was discontinued. Efforts continued over the next decade to make construction equipment viable and profitable. By 1969 Baldwin Lima Hamilton was a unit of conglomerate Armour, a firm desperately trying to diversify from their declines in the changing meatpacking business. The construction equipment groups, of which Austin Western was a part, were sold to Clark Equipment in 1973. By 1978 Aurora operations were closed. Production of cranes shifted to Lima Ohio and rough terrain graders to Texas. Both operations were discontinued completely as part of the Clark Equipment dissolution in 1980. Minnpar has provided some parts and other services on existing equipment since then, but without ties to Aurora.
Stephens-Adamson: In 1901 Wiley Stephens and Fred Adamson were typical of young entrepreneurs, both working for Webster Manufacturing in Chicago and eager to start their own company. As with other companies, they looked to locations outside Chicago. They were attracted to Aurora by the Chamber of Commerce economic development group efforts to attract new businesses to Aurora and leaders of the initiative such as Ira Copley of the Gas Company and William George of Old Second Bank. Years later Fred and Wiley looked back on the many reasons they selected Aurora, and summarized why many others also selected and thrived in industrial Aurora.
After decades of prosperity, as well as spawning Barber-Greene, the combination of decline in earth moving projects for mines and construction, along with other factors, led to the 1969 Borg Warner acquisition of S-A. Borg Warner was primarily interested in the newer Sealmaster Bearing unit for their Morse Link division, so the construction equipment segment of S-A was sold to Allis Chalmers in 1974.
Stephens-Adamson Conveyor Systems
Harvey Sterkel, the great Sealmaster softball pitcher joined with Walsh, Mayberry and others to form the Aurora Bearing company in 1971, operating in a Lyon plant on South Lake St. In 1983 the Sealmaster unit was sold with Morse Link to Emerson Electric in preparation for Borg Warner to go private in 1987 and spin off Borg Warner Auto in 1993. Sealmaster continues as part of Emerson Industrial Automation from its Aurora plant along I 94.
Allis Chalmers, like Baldwin Lima with Austin Western, attempted to build a profitable construction equipment business around S-A and other lines. By 1984 Allis Chalmers consolidated most of Aurora S-A production in Allis plants in Clarksdale, Mississippi and Ontario, Canada. As with Austin-Western’s owners, profit and growth pressures were ongoing in the large construction and heavy equipment markets, particularly as competition from foreign producers grew. Allis Chalmers declared bankruptcy in 1987 and sold most of Aurora plant to PDI Industries for packaging manufacture and sublet.
S-A lines were bought by the US and Canadian subsidiaries of Trelleborg AB of Sweden and operated as Boliden Allis until Svedela was formed and headquartered in Milwaukee. S-A Aurora operations finally ended in 1991 when the last conveyor belt line was moved to Appleton Wisconsin and engineered products to Pittsburgh. Any remaining operations that can be traced back to S-A are now part of Metso Minerals, formed in 2001 through merger of Finnish Valmet and Rauma, which had absorbed Trelleborg.
Barber-Greene: Of the three great construction equipment and earth moving firms in Aurora, Barber-Greene was the last founded when Harry Barber and William Greene left Stephens-Adamson in 1916. It grew to the largest and prospered longest. With much of its business tied to road construction or repair, the first oil boycott and price escalation in 1973 hit hard. New road building in Mideast petrodollar countries helped, but the second price escalation in 1979 was made recovery even more difficult.
Barber-Greene Paver, H.A. Barber, Barber-Greene Batch Plant
At the end of 1986, the Board of Directors agreed to sell Barber-Greene to Astec Industries. Remaining Aurora asphalt plant product line was moved to Chattanooga, TN and office staff to DeKalb. The Telsmith group of Barber-Greene continues to operate as an Astec company. The large asphalt paving and other equipment operations were later acquired by Caterpillar.
Thor: Thor Pneumatic Tool is tied to Aurora’s early apparel industry dating back to corsets, shirts, dresses, Cotton Mills and Stolpe’s original wool carding operations in the 1830’s. But this tie is only through Thor having taken over the plant facilities of International Corset on Claim Street. Thor’s early products were bicycles and motorcycles produced from 1903-18, thus providing a link back to Frazier and other early Aurora carriage makers.
After motorcycles, Thor focused on pneumatic tool production. In that business, it could be viewed as a bridge between the Aurora construction equipment and the metal furnishing firms, both of which used pneumatic technologies and tools. A landmark inventory valuation case, which went to the Supreme Court and was decided against Thor had broad accounting ramifications throughout industry. It may also have precipitated Thor’s sale to Warner-Sweasy of speedometer fame in 1967.
By 1981 Thor operations were moved to Johnson City, TN. Two years later Warner Sweasy donated the historic corset plant to Goodwill Industries. After an executive scandal, it was sold and demolished in 1988. By then Warner Sweasy had been acquired by British Tire and Rubber (BTR), which relocated all remaining production to Mexico by 1995, leaving the Johnson City operations as an EPA Superfund site.
Lyon Metal: After all the ownership and production transition in Aurora’s metal based industries, it is somewhat reassuring to see that the original metal furnishing firm, dating from Lyon’s 1901 Chicago founding and 1905 move to Aurora remains. Lyon still produces in Aurora, even though plans are currently under consideration for relocation to more cost-effective locations. Lyon’s growth continued into the 1970’s. In 1970 the decision was made to go public and by 1975 Lyon had over 1300 shareholders. But in 1976 their Los Angeles plant was closed due to less than anticipated West Coast growth combined with the ability to serve those markets more cost effectively from Aurora production. In subsequent years, Lyon shifted from public ownership to a private LLC, and changed names from Lyon Metal Products LLC to Lyon Workspace Products LLC
Lyon Metal Plant and Products
All Steel: As with Barber-Greene, All Steel was founded by entrepreneurs from an older firm in the same industry and as with Barber Greene, they became more prominent in Aurora than the older Lyon Metal, from which they split. Family ownership and executive management continued from All Steel’s founding in 1912 into the 1960’s. A public stock issue was considered to finance growth, broaden ownership and for estate planning, but it was thought that approach would undervalue the firm. Instead the firm was sold to CIT in 1966. CIT’s approach was to rely on All Steel management for production and marketing and add CIT financial management expertise.
In 1967 All-Steel took responsibility for CIT’s Johl office furniture based in Canada. Operations were organized in divisions for Aurora, Canada and South Bend based RACO electrical components. RCA acquired All Steel with CIT in 1980 and then sold it in 1983 to Chartrain, owned by Arthur Parend and KD/P Equities, a private investment firm. As did Thor, All Steel ended up being owned by BTR by 1989. Even though BTR was known for acquiring and moving operations to Mexico, as they did anything that remained of Thor, All Steel faced years of layoffs and downsizing in Aurora. Operations were finally closed in 1993, and remaining production was moved to Jackson, Tennessee and Tupelo, Mississippi. By 1999 BTR itself had disappeared into London based Invensys after merging with Siebe.
Equipto: The Dunham’s privately held Equipto thrived in Aurora from the 1913 when Tom Dunham shifted from production of motorcycle sidecars to steel based shelving, tool room and shop equipment. Expansion continued into the 1960’s with acquisition of All Steel’s main Aurora plant facilities. But the highland facility was sold to Henry Pratt by 1964.
Equipto Shelving, Sidecar, Lockers
Expansion continued outside Aurora with acquisition of a Tatamy, PA plant and then in 1975 a Dallas, TX plant. Tom Dunham had passed executive control of Equipto to his son John in 1944. By 1993, John’s nephew was heading Equipto. He consolidated the remaining Equipto Aurora production to a Dallas plant.
Richards Wilcox: Door hangers take Richards back to the 1870’s in Aurora and carpet sweepers for Wilcox date from 1880. Prindle helped organize Richards, and Wilcox took over Prindle Manufacturing and plant, long before Richards Wilcox was formed in 1910. Production still continues on a much-reduced level from past decades at the same S. Lake production facility dating to 1880.
In 1967 White Consolidated bought R-W. By 1982 one of last two Aurora production plants was closed and ownership passed to Electrolux of Sweden until 1998. R-W then became part of the Norway based RGI private investor group. In 2004 R-W was purchased from the Dexion unit of RGI by Anderer and other private investors.
Stoner: Just as Thor wasn’t construction equipment, Stoner is not metal furnishings, even though much of their vending machines were from same sheet steel raw material used by the metal furnishing fabricators. Growing rapidly from 1931 when Harry Stoner founded it with his father and brother, Stoner shifted to cartridge manufacture during World War II, before returning to vending in post war years.
Stoner Manufacturing Patent and Product
When Stoner’s business partner died in 1964, the firm was sold to Vendo. Stoner continued in management, but when dissatisfied with Vendo decisions, he left. Despite a non-compete clause, he formed a new vending machine firm named Lekro. Long and costly legal proceedings led to a large settlement payment to Vendo and the eventual closing of Lekro operations.
Transition and Survival in Other Aurora Industrial Firms
The background and transition since mid 20th century of these Aurora’s metal-based firms summarized above all illustrate the rapid and dramatic ownership and finance changes that changed Aurora’s industrial landscape over the last half-century. This transition may have more in common with asset shuffling, shell games and the old Abbott and Costello routine of ‘Who’s on First?’ To allude to an underlying force effecting all the years of Aurora industrial might, the age-old question of ‘Is this anyway to run a railroad?’ might apply.
However, these are the stories of recent decades of Aurora’s large metal-based firms. Along with Pines Engineering, which was acquired by Teledyne in the late 1960’s and Henry Pratt, which relocated to Aurora in the 1960’s, they all rose to power in the 20th century and each reached employment levels over 500. Other Aurora industrial firms have similar ownership shifts, and some also provide examples of adaptation that has led to ongoing manufacturing in Aurora.
Pins and Needles and Ties to the Past: R & M Kaufmann was locally owned and a leading women’s dress leader until acquired by Russ Togs in 1969. The Kaufmann family bought the company back from Russ Togs in 1988 and continued Aurora operations into the early 1990’s. The increasing volumes and competitive pressures of imported products made it uneconomic to continue Aurora production as was the experience of most other apparel producers.
Laura Lee Cundiff Paintings - Any Relation to R&M Kaufmass Laura Lee, Tony Todd, Vicky Vaughn Jr. Originals?
Russ Togs was liquidated in 1992 and some of the assets were acquired by Liz Clairborne. There is little indication of any tie between R&M Kaufmann’s 1920 founding and 1926 move to Aurora from Chicago when they bought Aurora Garment Company and Aurora’s earlier large corset operations. At most Kaufmann may have hired some skilled women apparel workers from Aurora corset and other apparel firms.
About the same time Kaufmann moved to Aurora. McKee Door was founded and then moved to Aurora. Like Kaufmann, McKee was indirectly tied to Aurora’s industrial past through their takeover of a spool plant and reliance on woodworking equipment, like Hoyt Brothers years before. After wooden wing struts and fuselage bracing for World War II, McKee returned to successful operations in garage and industrial doors until acquired by Clyde, an Australian firm in 1986. When this group retrenched, Aurora management bought McKee operations and continued until bankruptcy of a couple major customers forced McKee to discontinue operations in the 1990’s.
Wind and Water: Aurora’s threesome of old wind and water companies still exist and operate locally, perhaps because of an ability to shift with the wind or go with the flow. More importantly, each relied on and adapted technologies rather depend on fabricating metal. However, as with many other Aurora metal based companies, all three are intertwined.
As the Images Unwind, in the Windmills of My Mind
American Well Works dates back to 1868 founding in Aurora. In 1965 it merged with Indianapolis based Bowser, but manufacturing remained in Aurora. Keene acquired Bowser in 1967 and American Well was purchased by McNish in 1984, changed name to Amwell and remains Aurora based. In 1920 American Well Works Chief Engineer Louis Bodinson left to join with others and found Aurora Pump. New York Air Brake acquired Aurora Pump in 1951 and set it up as a division in 1954 where operations continue to this day.
In 1991 Knorr Brake of Baltimore acquired New York Brake. Walker Process also grew out of American Well Works when Don Walker left as Chief Engineer with others in 1945. Without children interested in managing the company, Walker was sold to Chicago Bridge & Iron in 1965, but Aurora operation continued. In 1989 Jim McNish purchased Walker, thus reuniting Amwell and Walker again under a common corporate umbrella that doesn’t include Aurora Pump.
One Word, Plastics: Aurora’s industrial transition from metal to newer technologies and materials might best be illustrated by Sauders Tool and Dye. During World War II, an injection press was acquired, which became the basis for plastic molding for toys after the war. Ross Bergman marketed these plastic toys, and in 1948, he left Sauders to establish Processed Plastics. Further growth came from an Anchor Brush acquisition in 1965, and Processed became one of US’s largest plastic toy producers. This would have been about the same time of the famous one word line from the film The Graduate: Plastics.
One Word: Plastics: There's a Great Furue In Plastics
Oil price quadrupling in 1973 and doubling again in 1979 raised raw material prices and dropped margins as it did for other Aurora firms like Kaufmann and Barber-Greene. As in many other industries, the 1980’s brought low cost imports to put further pressure on US production. Processed Plastics struggles to find innovative ways to survive in markets where nearly all other surviving competitors have been forced to shift production to China or other overseas locations.
Hearth as Home: It may be appropriate to conclude this transition review with one of Aurora’s oldest and strongest manufacturing survivors, Aurora Metals. When analyzing the importance of railroads in Aurora industrial history, it was indicated that Chicago’s first railroad west was to the Galena lead mines. One of Aurora’s first heavy metal factories was Chicago & Aurora Mining and Smelting Co., which processed ores from Galena and other western mines. It became part of the great ASARCO trust in 1897. When operations were shut the next year, three employees formed Aurora Metals to reclaim lead from the leftover wastes and manufacture hardware.
Hearth of Long Ago As Home
After struggling, growing and prospering, additional capital was obtained when ownership passed to a private NY investment group of Cyrus Lawerence & Sons in 1967. Ownership was transferred again in 1973 to Youghiogheny and Ohio Coal Co. of Cleveland (Y&O). Panhandle Eastern bought Y&O in 1981. By 1985 a leveraged buyout returned what was now Aurora Industries to local ownership. In 1987 ownership passed to Derlan Industries in Canada and in 1995 ownership passed to Hiler Industries in Indiana. Through all these changes Aurora based operations management continued as they do today and as described in Forever a Foundry. Even though Aurora’s original hearths of the great Burlington yards had flickered through much of the 20th century and were extinguished when the yards closed in 1974, for Aurora Metals the hearth still burns bright, and Aurora still is home.
Conclusions of Aurora Industrial Transition
Before concluding with how Aurora could have lost so much manufacturing and still recover to become the second largest Illinois city with prosperity spreading further in all directions than ever before, it is tempting to ask whether the manufacturing losses could have been avoided. The answer is, probably not. Despite all the human cost and suffering associated with job loss and transition, Aurora was typical of shifts from manufacturing throughout the Midwest and beyond. With a dozen large metal-based companies, and half dozen other significant manufacturers, Aurora may be the quintessential example of these trends and battles against lower cost imports.
Post World War II America thrived in splendid economic isolation. It grew rapidly as the developed countries of Europe and Asia, which would have been competitors, lay in wartime ruins. By the 1960’s, US post war aid had helped revival abroad as well as provided foreign markets for US production. By then foreign products and companies had recovered and were very competitive in markets abroad as well as US markets. This was first evident from Japan and the Rim of Asia import explosion of the 1970’s and China in more recent years.
The stark impact of changes may have been more dramatically apparent in Aurora than elsewhere. Building booms through the 1960’s fed the construction equipment and earthmoving products of Aurora. Subsequent declines when these projects were largely completed were at the same time foreign companies had recovered and were more competitive in markets here and abroad.
US MetalBending Manufacturing to Asian Imports to Rise of China to Jobs and Globalization
When viewing strong companies, it is tempting to assume they will continue to grow and get better. Even when realizing that economic change is rapid, it is easier to believe companies will adapt to the challenge of change. Economic history indicates the exact opposite. Companies typically last a few decades or less. Examples include all early Aurora firms from Stolp to Love to Hoyt and all the carriage, corset, watch, and piano makers.
In 1900, when Aurora’s manufacturing firms, which lasted into the 1960’s and beyond were taking off, nearly all large US corporations were either railroads or manufacturers, mostly metal based. As recently as 1960 the Fortune 500 Industrial leaders included 25 metal producers or fabricators in the top 100. By 2000, other GM, Ford and Chrysler, only one remained in the top 100, with most of the others gone altogether. With one exception, also gone from the Fortune 500 were all the companies that acquired Aurora firms, including Allis Chalmers, Borg Warner, Baldwin Hamilton, CIT, RCA, Stewart Warner, White Consolidated, Clark, Vendo and Teledyne.
From Caterpillar to Butterfly: For Aurora Manufacturing, Too?
And who was the exception? Despite years of struggling with the same labor cost issues they brought to Aurora in the late 1950’s and fighting global competitors for markets here and abroad as did Aurora firms, Caterpillar was still in the Fortune top 100, and still manufacturing heavy construction equipment and around the world, and in Aurora.
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