Furnace industry made DowagiacPublished 11:31am Friday, December 7, 2012
“Furnace City” enjoyed five companies until the era ended 50 years ago in 1962.
Rudy’s followed Round Oak in 1915, Premier came along in 1920, Dowagiac Steel Furnace in 1929 and, Dowagiac Manufacturing also entered the field briefly.
Dowagiac was established in 1848, when Michigan Central Railroad came to town.
Philo D. Beckwith, mayor during the 1880s, was born in Eagle, N.Y., in 1825 and lived in Battle Creek and briefly in Niles before arriving with his wife, Catharine, in 1854. He lived modestly on Indiana Avenue.
Another early industrial figure was John Gage, who invented the revolutionary roller grain drill in 1860. The two men partnered to make the farm implement in Beckwith’s foundry.
Beckwith cast a stove to heat his own office. An MCRR representative admired it so much he ordered one for the depot, then 300 for all the train stations between Chicago and Detroit in 1867. His first non-depot sale was to Thomas Jefferson Martin, the barber on Commercial Street who claimed to have cut Abraham Lincoln’s hair.
“It was his first piece of brilliant marketing, of which there would be many,” Museum Director Steve Arseneau said Wednesday night.
By 1871, Beckwith employed eight, including three molders, a fireman, a patternmaker, a monitor, an engineer and a laborer. In 1875, 25 employees turned out 1,000 stoves and 100 grain drills. Round Oak grew from 40 employees in 1879 to 70 in 1880.
“We can attribute Round Oak’s success to Beckwith,” Arseneau said. “He was a philanthropist and an inventor with a lot of patents. He was an entrepreneur who invested regularly in his company in Dowagiac,” resisting attempts to lure it to Kalamazoo (1880) and Buchanan.
“He paid higher than standard wages for the time,” $2.50 a day. “He was very popular,” despite being a Democrat and “freethinker” in a Republican town.
A Cass County Republican newspaper account on April 26, 1877, indicates Beckwith was already relying on his version of an assembly line.
“Key number two was a great product,” Arseneau said. “It was a workingman’s stove affordable to most citizens” at less than $20, or two weeks wages. “It was first with a grate system to hold the fire overnight. Number three, experienced molders and pattern makers brought over from England, Germany and Poland recruited by Max Franklin, who made sure they got through Ellis Island and found their way to Dowagiac.”
“They were revolutionary in advertising, with beautiful lithography and Chief Doe-Wah-Jack icon invented in 1900.”
Ameriwood still occupies its foundry, but another Round Oak vestige is Dowagiac Commercial Press.
Beckwith died in 1889. He had two daughters, Kate Beckwith Lee (married to Fred) and Della, and an adopted son, Arthur. The estate of P.D. Beckwith saw immense growth in the 1890s, with sales more than doubling, from $327,780 to $743,912, with introduction of furnaces and kitchen ranges. A brochure boasted 1 million stoves in use within 25 years — an output of 40,000 annually.
By 1900, Round Oak employed 535. There was labor strife in 1895. Fred Lee was building his mansion on High Street while asking employees to take a pay cut.
The grand Beckwith memorial building, which sat where Beckwith Park is today, was built in 1893. It housed Round Oak offices, with a large stenography pool and tunnels to the foundry to deliver pay securely.
“They continued to expand their product line in the early 1900s, like the Air-Tight model, the Base Burner and the Square Base,” Arseneau said. “By 1908, 800 employees and $1.3 million in sales; by the teens, 1,200, when Dowagiac’s population hovered around 6,000, so one of every two men in Dowagiac worked at Round Oak.”
Everything changed in 1914. O.G. Beach, P.D.’s cousin and the first salesman, died.
Arthur Beckwith also died. He was the original nickel plater and a product innovator.
The stagnant company slogged through the 1920s and Depression. President Fred Lee died in 1937 and the Nugent family took over Round Oak.
“I’ve got this theory that the third generation can lead to bad things,” Arseneau said. “They don’t continue to invest in the company. The Depression really hit Round Oak. Their sales go down to 1908 levels. One thing that saved it was World War II war production. Round Oak makes airplane parts, landing strips for Pacific beaches and Europe, among others. They weathered World War II by making an expensive transition to magnesium for airplane parts. They truly never recovered” and liquidated in 1947.
Kaiser Frazer bought the factory to make auto parts. The Round Oak name was sold to Peerless Furnace Co. in Indianapolis, which continued to make stove replacement parts.
Round Oak attempted a brief comeback under Charles Mosher and Jack Barrow in 1948 with the Hiawatha range and Duplex heater, but disappeared for good with the 1950s due to not changing quickly enough with the times.
Look for more in Monday’s edition of the Dowagiac News.
“This is a special event because it’s the last one at SMC except Studebaker Dec. 12. The museum has closed and is being relocated to Dowagiac, which is bittersweet because they have been the curators of Cass County’s history for a number of years and done an outstanding job. We’re fortunate to be able to partner with the college to transfer the museum to the Behnke building, which the family was very generous in making available to the city. It is in the process of being remodeled. We anticipate opening Dowagiac Area History Museum about Dogwood time (in May). The furnace industry is what Dowagiac a town with a lot of unique history.”
— Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons