AFTERMATH OF THE WHITIN MACHINE WORKS

     

    With floor space covering more than 72 acres, the Whitin Machine Works entered the post WWII period with a new perspective. Usually, makers of textile machinery made hardly any product improvements during times when business was good. Research, as well as developments, was kept or delayed to when “times were slow”. Yet during the post-war business surge, lasting until 1951, Whitin ignored tradition and went ahead to make great improvements in its machinery products. For example, the world’s first high speed comber, the Model J, was improved from an announcement in December of 1948. This Model J was famous and used in the combed yarn firms of just about every country outside the “Iron and Bamboo Curtains”. Introduced in 1950 were the Model L Revolving Flat Card (built by Fayscott Corp.) and many improved models of Draw Frames, and also Super-Draft cradles.

     Orders started to decline in 1951 and then product improvement was intensified by Whitin. J. Hugh Bolton thought that steady improvement was necessary to maintain Whitin’s reputation and leadership. Then in April of 1951, the Research Division, one of the world’s biggest and best-equipped textile research labs, was established in the refurbished stone mill, originally built in 1845 by the Whitins and then operated as the Whitinsville Cotton Mill. (Now Cotton Mill Apartments) This Research Division became famous internationally, and was visited from 23 states and 28 foreign countries that represented 163 domestic and 122 foreign customers in 1951. It had employed 70 persons in 4 different sections: Demonstration and Testing, Research Engineering, Machine Shop and Spindle and Ring. It served 3 purposes. First, it made improved quality in mass-produced textiles. Second, it had benefited the textile industry by helping to solve mill problems. Third, it had been a testing place for machine design. From this Research Division came startling developments: Axifed and Axiflo Cleaners, 84” Wool Card, 18”x 42” Card Coilers, Even-Draft Draw Frame, Roto Drafter, Quikset Roving and Spinning Frames, Monarch sliver-to-yarn Spinning Frame, and a top roll weighting arrangement, called Unitrol intended for cotton spinning.

     Especially noteworthy had been the ongoing emphasis by Whitin on the need for good customer relations. Whitin began holding yearly conferences for sales and service personnel in July of 1947. These conferences proved to be the best way to keep their employees abreast as to machinery developments. Through the creation of 2 additional Vice Presidents, this program reached a peak on March 19,1956 when E. Kent Swift, Jr. was appointed to Vice President of Liason, Shop, and Engineering and John H. Bolton, Jr. was appointed to Vice President of Liason, Sales. Whitin continued to exhibit its machinery at all major textile machinery shows in the U.S. and in foreign countries.

     With the purchase of the Linwood Mill from the Whitin brothers, the WMW in 1949 had acquired 100,000 sq. ft. of extra floor space for their manufacturing. This sale had also included many water rights in Carpenter Reservoir and in Lackey Dam.(The 50th Anniversary was observed in 1999--space is still available as of 2007. Some burnt-out Bernat Mill small business owners may relocate there.)

     To provide better repair and replacement parts service for Whitin’s Southern customers, a new plant and office was constructed for their Charlotte Repair Shop. This building was opened November 1, 1947 and had been enlarged 3 times, which included the addition of 36,000 more square feet. In 1950, the WMW slate of officers included: Directors- E.K. Swift, Chair; J. Hugh Bolton, Phillips Ketchum, Ralph E. Lincoln, E.K. Swift, Jr., Sydney R. Mason, Murray W. Keeler, Gordon G. Spence, and Orrin G. Wood. Officers were: E.K. Swift, Chair of Board; J. Hugh Bolton, Pres. and Gen. Mgr.; Robert I. Dalton, V.P.; Ralph E. Lincoln, V.P.; Robert J. McConnell, V.P.; E.K. Swift, Jr., V.P.; Harry Moss, V.P.; Erik O. Pierson, V.P.; John H. Bolton, Jr., V.P.; Gordon G. Spence, Treasurer; Sydney R. Mason, Secretary; and Robert G. McKaig, Asst. Sec. During the aforementioned time period, The Whitin Review, a publication printed by the Advertising Department, became an important way to communicate between Whitin and its customers. This periodical, appearing irregularly since 1933, became a regular bi-monthly magazine starting in 1948.

     Whitin had faced increasing competition. As a result the Spartanburg office was opened in Sept. 1949 and the Greensboro office began in Oct. of 1956. In order to serve its European customers better, Whitin established its Whitin-France office on May 16, 1955. Manufacturing facilities were also increased when Whitin bought Fay and Scott Co. of Dexter, ME on July 16, 1947. This plant was reorganized as its subsidiary, called Fayscott Corp. As many other ‘defense-related plants’ experienced when the post WWII surge declined, Whitin found that it had more personnel and machines than could be kept busy on orders for its customary products only. President J. Hugh Bolton then felt that Whitin should seek ‘non-textile’ work (to diversify) to stabilize its work force. The experience it had in WWII enabled Whitin to handle a great variety of work and to diversify its products. Whitin had a reputation for extremely close tolerances in many metals during their manufacturing of textile machinery (unheard of in the textile industry). So, Whitin secured contracts to produce many items ranging from complete machines to heavy castings. Whitin had been casting, forging, and machining parts for a lot of companies, and it worked on many products too.

      To show the diversity of Whitin, three of its non-textile products are listed in the post WWII period. 1- Pratt & Whitney Airfoil Grinders, designed to get within a tolerance of .0003”; 2- heavy castings for the Atomic Energy Commission as parts for equipment used in making fissionable material; 3- the Army “Loki” Program, in which Whitin produced a “free-flight” missile with a .0005 tolerance in aluminum.

     So, it was no surprise, when in 1955, President Bolton announced that Whitin had acquired the rights to and would make an ‘offset duplicating machine’. This made Whitin’s entry into the business equipment field. Also, during this time, distribution franchises were set up with the Gestetner Duplicator Corp. for selling and servicing their Stencil Duplicators. Then a new company, called the Whitin Business Equipment Corporation, was established on Sept. 12, 1955. This new subsidiary had offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Rochester, NY. All these offices served also as sales offices for the Whitin Masterlith Duplicator. The first public exhibit of the new duplicator was held in the N.E. New Products Exhibition in Boston in March, 1956. Whitin also bought the Uxbridge Inn in 1956 for visitors and salesmen to stay in.

     An abbreviated history of the Management of the WMW follows. There were many ‘turnovers’ during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. After these developments, in retrospect, most would agree that E. Kent Swift managed the WMW best from 1933 through 1946. From then on, things were not the same.

      J. Hugh Bolton (1946-1962) took over the helm next. But he proved to be stubborn and the workers never knew exactly what he thought. In spite of ideas offered, ‘his mind was made up’ and he made decisions to implement changes even after he was advised they were not good for Whitin. He was President of the WMW until Booz, Allen and Hamilton arrived.

     Later, came Norman Garrett (1962-1966), who was Executive Vice President under Bolton. As President later, he formed a group called the Marblehead Corporation, bought an airplane, and tried to misrepresent the Company. He was impersonal to many, did not manage long, and he was not popular among the craft employees.

     Vaughn West, who was Treasurer at the time became President for about 2 years, after White Consolidated Industries took over. According to Tad Wallace, he also was not popular. West came with Booz, Allen and Hamilton. ( Tad had worked with 2 engineers to install an elaborate production system for 2 years that did not work.) Whitin paid dearly for this.

      Richard Bryan, who was the last President of ATF Davidson, was ‘affable and yet gregarious’. He was thought to be devoid of special talents as they pertained to textiles. Tad said “he took care of himself through a private bank account”. But he had a cordial relationship with him in the Freight House while he was in charge of small package shipping at that time.

    After Vaughn West left, Karl Ware from Cleveland, Ohio in the 1970’s managed before John Shulz. Then Bob Parke replaced him for a few years. In the 1980’s many departments and work projects went to the South. Afterwards, Eugene Kennedy became President when the Company was called Whitin-Roberts. A few years later, from 1987-1990, what was left of Whitin was sold to Derek Smith, who owned Abbot machine in New Hampshire. This was the end of the Whitin Textile Machinery production.

     Also, during this time, significant changes within the plant took place regarding Labor Relations. The Pattern makers kept their A.F. of L. Union. The Foundry decertified their union in 1948 and voted to join the C.I.O. United Steelworkers Local in 1949. During the decade management and union leaders learned a lot about handling mutual problems. A few among the Whitin supervisors showed some resentment, while the enthusiasm of some of the newly elected union officials caused them to ‘go overboard’ on proposals. Numerous contract revisions were negotiated during this time. Yet the Steelworkers struck Whitin, for the second time, from Aug.18, 1952 to Oct. 21, 1952. Then with the contract settlement of April 2, 1956 a modified union shop was granted and the number of grievances declined sharply.

     During this period also, the WMW divested itself of certain properties. Castle Hill Farm was sold to the Garelick Family. The WMW also decided that it would cease to be a public utility and would give up its function of supplying water. The moving labor force and the ease with which mortgage loans could be negotiated made Whitin housing an ‘anachronism’. So, President Bolton offered the Company’s housing units for sale, first to the employee-tenants. In 1949, Whitin owned about 1,000 units, prior to selling 700 until 1956. Shop housing had been sold to former WMW employees for 80% of its appraised valuation. The first groups to be sold were in 1950 when houses on Elm St., Fletcher St. and part of the New Village area were bought from private hands. (Now, today, in 2007 one can see a huge renovation project called ‘Meadow Estates’, in which individual units are being sold between $185,000 to $250, 000 per, depending on space desired.

 Then in 1951, remaining units in New Village (except Overlook St. Apts) and other single pieces of property were sold. In 1955, houses on Maple, High, Water, West Water, Oak, West, Main and Lake Streets were sold to tenants.

     History will record that during these years (1947-1956) Whitin enhanced its reputation as a ‘good place in which to work’, primarily because Whitin followed a policy of promoting persons of ability within its own ranks. Almost all appointments to Assistant Foreman or Foreman had been made from its ranks. Six of the Divisional Superintendents were former Whitin Foremen or Assistant Foremen at that time. A personal interest in each worker resulted in the importance of the Personnel Department in promoting employee relations. Every single Whitin worker was affected. He was hired, guided, counseled, admonished, praised and rewarded. His records were kept, and his grievances or complaints were heard. The Personnel Dep’t was the center of the Whitinsville Hospital, Plant Security, of the Whitin Spindle, and also of the Apprentice School. A Whitin worker could bank his money or obtain any loan in its Credit Union.

     There were  a host of ‘fringe benefits’ given by Whitin, at considerable cost to itself. All employees were entitled to these benefits: 1- six paid Holidays, 2- paid vacations (from 1 to 3 weeks, depending on seniority), 3- group life insurance, 4- sickness pay, 5- medical, surgical, and hospitalization benefits and 6- pensions.

     According to Kenneth J. Guertin, the last President of Local 3654, AFL-CIO of the United Steelworkers of America who took over from 1981 through 1989 into bankruptcy proceedings, White Consolidated Industries, led then by Gary Luten from New York, wanted to keep the business going. Ken would make frequent trips to the Union’s District Office in Dorchester, MA with Edward Roukema. (Ref.: Article 14: The Labor Movement, Unionism and The Shop) At that particular time, Kenneth Guertin’s full-time job as the local union President was very demanding and stressful. He had represented a membership of about 500 which had declined to 200 workers.

 

     In 1997, an organization to help disadvantaged and handicapped individuals called Alternatives Unlimited, moved in on Douglas Road within the WMW complex. It is destined to create history, as time will tell.

    As of September 9, 2002 the Whitin Machine Works of Northbridge was inducted into the American Textile Hall of Fame at the American Textile Museum in Lowell, MA. The WMW was honored along with E.I. du pont de Nemours & Co. of Wilmington, Del. Former Mayfair Mills Chair Frederick B. Dent and the late Burlington Mills founder, James Spencer Love.

     Then on Thursday, July 29, 2004, Alternatives Unlimited of Whitinsville announced its plans for a $5.4 million ‘Whitin Mill Redevelopment Project’. A shot in the arm for the entire Blackstone Valley, its impact is yet to be felt. More on this later.

     While in the Town of Northbridge, agriculture and dairying have declined, and while many of The Shop employees now live outside of Town, the Village of Whitinsville has prospered. (Ref.: ARTICLE 25- More Living Legends of The Shop) Whitinsville was the shopping center for the area towns, and its business district had been built up and modernized. (Ref.: Article 23: Church Street, Whitinsville and photos of 2007 ) Also, in the period, 1947 (69,834) library circulation climbed to 94,453 in 1955.

     To sum up, in the early 1950’s, Whitin recognized the need to diversify. They produced office machines. The ‘Gestetner” was a contract for office machinery from England. The Offset Duplicator resulted. Xerox Corporation then gave fierce competition at a time also when Whitin bought American Type Founders (in NJ), a failing organization, to sell duplicators under the Whitin name. In St. Louis, there was a printing outfit named Davidson, then Whitin bought it out, and ATF Davidson later came into being. Booz, Allen and Hamilton, a management consulting firm, was brought in to address all of the changes taking place from the 1960’s through the 1970’s and beyond. A company from Cleveland, Ohio, White Consolidated Industries resulted, and then textile machinery was moved down South. The Roberts firm was bought out in Charlotte by the WMW and this resulted in the Whitin-Roberts Company, which today(2007) still makes parts for some Whitin machines, although it is a very small operation now.

Click here for a link to read about E. Kent Swift, Jr.'s Induction into the American Textile History Museum's American Textile Hall of Fame

FINAL STATEMENT

     There are lots of unanswered questions, and also intrigue, concerning the WMW deal about the acquisition of White Consolidated Industries. Business transactions that went bad from ‘earlier ventures upon which Whitin Management had embarked’ when it became ATF Davidson became apparent that Whitin would fail. It would make quite a tale, but this writer will not delve into ‘cases of gross mismanagement’. Suffice to say that history will record that Whitin had more ‘pluses than minuses’ in the management of its mills throughout its 136-year dynasty. Which other family has done so much within the Textile Industry ?

SOURCES: New Whitin Spindles; c. 1947-1956 “History of The Shop”; film produced by Jerry Bagdasarian and Frank Muscatel; - 4-27-1999 Conversations with John A. Rauth; 7-10-2007 and 8-28-2007 Conversation with Kenneth J.Guertin; 9-6-2007 NEWSLETTER; Vol.1, No.1: United Steelworkers of America, Local AFC-CIO; ed. Joseph “Fred” Rondeau; c. 1981, p. 1
 

Email the author at donyogoss@charter.net