The Wickwire Brothers
Shortly after the Civil War, Raymond Wickwire helped his son, Chester, 22, start a grocery store on Main Street in Cortland. After Raymond’s death, Chester switched to selling hardware. At this point, Chester had $8 – 9,000 in addition to his store, inheriting $5 – 6,000 from his father and receiving $2,000 from his wife’s dowry.
As with most country storekeepers, Chester accepted payment in goods from his credit customers. One such payment would make his fortune. In 1873, Chester acquired a carpet loom, 2 dozen dog muzzles, 3 dozen egg beaters, and 2 rat traps from customer Rowland Hall. Chester set the loom, tinkered with it, and began manufacturing wire cloth products which he then sold. Shortly thereafter, Theodore, Chester’s brother, joined him in the business, and they changed the company name to the Wickwire Brothers. By 1874, Chester had bought more looms and set up shop behind his store. Two years later, Chester went solely into wire-weaving. The brothers expanded operations until they had doubled their manufacturing capacity, and in 1881, they moved to a large site on South Main Street. They expanded their factory to meet the increasing demand for their products. Between 1879 and 1915, the company built at least 11 additions to the Wire Works. Maps of the factory clearly show the layout of the S. Main Street factory. By 1915, the factory’s size had almost doubled.
The business made millionaires of the brothers. By his death in 1910, Chester was worth $1, 677,498.12. This included his personal real estate, half-ownership in three companies (the Wire Works, the Buffalo Steel Plant, and the Rolling Mill), half-ownership of company assets, and other sundry interests. The year before his death, the company made $450,000 profit even after paying seven salary-drawing stockholders.
The company stockholders were all family members. In 1892, they sold 3,000 shares of stock at $100 each. The division was as follows: Chester F. Wickwire – 1400 shares, Theodore H. Wickwire – 1380 shares, Arthur F. Stilson – 100 shares (the brothers’ nephew), Edward Stilson – 100 shares (another nephew), and E. V. Wickwire – 20 shares (the brothers’ mother). There were no other stockholders. Throughout the next 76 years the Wickwire Brothers company stock remained in family hands until the Keystone Steel and Wire Co. of Peoria, IL acquired all the stock in 1968.
Family members also held the management positions. Until his death, Chester presided over the company with Theodore as Vice President. In 1910, an ad in the Cortland Standard lists C. F. Wickwire as President, Theodore H. Wickwire as Treasurer, Edward Stilson as Secretary, and Arthur Stilson as Superintendent. Chester’s son, Charles, took over the company several years after his father died and managed it during its peak production period in the 1920s and during the Great Depression. In 1942, Theodore’s family left the business and Chester’s grandsons took over. After Chester’s younger son, Frederic, died in 1929, his wife’s second husband, C.L. O’Connor, filled in vacancies on the company board. After Charles’s death in 1956, Frederic’s children took over the management positions.
One factor in the company’s success was the usefulness of its products. Having run a hardware store, Chester knew what people needed. The Wire Works made a variety of goods marketed to farmers. The factory made barbed wire, chicken wire, hay bailing wire, wire screening, window screens, coal sieves, corn poppers, dish covers, strainers, and horse muzzles. At this time 50% of the American wire consumption took the form of wire fence, nails, or barbed wire. These products remained in demand throughout the company’s existence even though the national farming market declined. The Wire Works even supplied wire for the building of the Panama Canal. A Western Union telegram discusses the widespread use of the Wickwires’ products.
Another factor in the company’s success was their control over their patents. They made their own machines and owned the machine patents allowing the brothers to undersell all other firms in the country. Chester’s patents included one for a positive shuttle motion for looms, one for a loom shuttle, and one for a wire-weaving loom. The patents show improvements on existing looms and shuttles to accommodate the weaving of wire. The problem with wire is that a consistent tension must be maintained in the wrap to insure a consistent weave. Chester’s loom used a gravitating frame under the front portion of the loom to control this tension.
Undoubtedly the Wire Works were a visible presence in Cortland. As early as 1880, it was the most profitable business in Cortland. Throughout the 1880s and 90s it contributed significantly to Cortland’s industrial and economic growth. By 1910, it was the largest employer in town. Due to the many jobs the company provided, it influenced the ethnic make-up of Cortland’s present population. As with other American industries, the ethnic diversity of the Wire Works changed over time from German to Irish to Italian to Slav. Many early Cortlandites came from neighboring areas and tended to be German or British. In 1887, they held seniority and left the less skilled jobs to the Irish immigrants. By 1910, the mid-level positions at Wickwire Bros. were held by the Irish, and the Italians took the low-level factory
Cortland’s population grew from 6,000 to 9,000 between 1882 and 1886 due to its industrial growth. By 1928, the population reached 10,000—one tenth of which worked for Wickwire Brothers. In 1890, the Wire Works employed 205 people: 170 males and 35 females (the largest employer of women next to the McGraw Corset Co.). It was the third largest employer in Cortland, where 1561 people worked in factories (1451 men and 110 women). The company paid employees $10 per week which was slightly better than average at the time.
The 1912 diary of a wireworker reports being paid $10.20 on January 6, $11.80 on January 13, and $16.40 on December 16. The pay varies based on the number of hours worked. A sample of this worker’s expenses include trolley fare, a loaf of bread, coffee, newspapers, a haircut, cash on barn rent, Masonic dues, mittens, soap, and water. Much of a worker’s income was spent on housing however. Some workers owned homes, but rented housing was more common. Workers lived near the factory on the north and east sides of town.
The factory resembled any late 19th century industrial plant with brick walls, plain board floors, exposed leather belts and gears overhead, constant motion from the looms and steam engines, and much noise. The picture of wireworker, Thomas Irving Butler, illustrates what the factory looked like during the early years. Jobs in the factory were performed production-line style, with employees doing similar tasks repeatedly. Wire Drawers pulled metal rods through a tapered hole in a die. Successive drawings through smaller dies created wire of finer diameters. Weavers tended to looms. Annealers treated finished wire with protective coatings by dipping it in large vats. Other employees transported materials to workers and carried bolts of woven wire to loading docks. Foremen and managers kept the process going. Despite the nature of the work, there was camaraderie among the wireworkers.
A Thriving Business
Throughout the 1880s and 90s, the Wire Works provided regular, dependable employment for a significant portion of Cortland’s population. But as in any economy, the regularity of work varied. Some slack periods in 1889 and 1893, were due to an increase in employees, but a major slack period in 1885 was caused by a national economic trend. Across the nation, companies went bankrupt. In Cortland, the Cortland Wagon Co., Hitchcock Manufacturing, and Brockway all had to cut wages before putting their employees on piecework (paying workers by the piece rather than by wage).
During prosperous times, the factory workers enjoyed leisure and holidays. They participated in company excursions and supported the company baseball team. In 1895, the wireworkers began organizing their own excursions. In August 1895, 700 Wickwire Brothers employees and their families vacationed at Pleasant Beach on Onondaga Lake. The second annual excursion went to Long Branch. These gatherings proved so popular that mid-winter parties began in 1896. Throughout the summers, baseball games abounded between fire companies, local industries’ employees, and friends. The papers faithfully reported scores. The Wickwire Brothers team was one of the best. In 1886, their team played the Hitchcock Manufacturing Co. team, winning 16 to 14. They also played Collins and Daehler’s, the Cortland “Normals”, the E., C. and N. Railroad employees, and the “Car Shop Nine” and won every game. In 1890, the wireworkers started playing each other for more challenging competition.
Chester was an effective and efficient businessman. He knew his business from top to bottom. He could operate and fix all of the machines in his factory. His employees respected him and admired his ingenuity. The Wickwires and their employees mutually respected each other. The factory grew and peaked in the 1920s producing one quarter of the world’s wire cloth. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the American steel industry declined and the Wickwire Brothers, Co. came to its end in 1968. The business was bought by Keystone Steel and Wire Company of Peoria, IL. The plant closed forever in 1971. The building was demolished after a fire in 1972. A century of wire-weaving in Cortland had come to an end.
Chester Wickwire embodies the American Dream. His innovation and determination led him to create a thriving industry that dominated Cortland County for almost 100 years. The 1890 House was built by Chester and served as the family’s residence. This American Dream exhibition celebrates the Wickwire Brothers’ ingenuity and hard-work as they created their industry from the ground up despite their modest background.