Clemson Bros., Inc. - Middletown, N. Y.


 

The Clemson Story by G. MacLaren Woodley, 1955

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Note: The following article was originally published by The Historical Society of Middletown and the Wallkill Precinct, Inc. in Third Annual Yearbook, 1955.  The President of the organization, Odell S. Hathaway, included the following note at the end of the article:

"The foregoing article by G. MacLaren Woodley, a member of the society and formerly with the reportorial staff of the Middletown Times Herald, brings to fruition the desire of the society for a history of one of Middletown's oldest industries and foremost families, and the cooperative desire of the late William E. Cross, as planned almost two years before Mr. Cross' death.  There was dissension between modesty and fact, which Mr. Woodley helpfully resolved.

Odell S. Hathaway."

This article is republished here with no editorial changes with one exception - I added number of images to illustrate content of the article. Also, I was lucky to find an engraving portrait of William Clemson and it is published here for the first time.  WK.

The Clemson Story

Production of cutting tools associated with the name of Clemson has provided employment in Middletown, N. Y., for ninety-five years, since 1860.

In that year, William Clemson, whose inventions in Massachusetts promised him fame and fortune, accepted an invitation to add his name and talents to the Middletown firm of Wheeler & Madden, makers of wood-cutting saws.  His decision involved the establishment of a home here for himself and his family.

To relate events that led to that decision and the happenings and achievements that have resulted here therefrom is the purpose of this article.  In the main, it is a happy story of success.

The factories here today of Clemson Bros., Inc., spreading for several city blocks and served by two railroads, bear little resemblance to the facilities with which William began his work here. 

The present firm is the world's pioneer manufacturer of hack saw blades.  It also makes Clemson precision lawn mowers.  Clemson products and the name of Middletown on them are now known throughout the world.

The main aspects of the story may be visualized from a few quotations.

When William Clemson died, January 12, 1890, The Argus, a Middletown daily newspaper, said that his inventions had revolutionized the saw trade in this country.  It added: "So great was their effect that it is said of him with perfect truth in the
volume entitled 'Contemporary Biography' that he is the father of the saw industry in this country."

Most publicized of the inventions of his son, George Nathan Clemson, founder of Clemson Brothers, was the set-tooth hack saw for cutting metal.  When he died, January 30, 1930, the Middletown Times Herald began his biography with this sentence: "George N. Clemson was known to the world of commerce as the father of the metal cutting industry."

The latter's son, Richard Dow Clemson, chairman of the present Clemson board of directors, has brought the lawn mower to a high degree of perfection.  His creative career has included the first use of molybdenum in a tool - the hack saw blade, and development of machinery and processes in line with a Clemson tradition of finding better ways of handling metals and of meeting cutting requirements, whether the latter be for the cutting of wood, metal, or grass.

Richard Clemson was quoted, September 12, 1947, as follows: "There is an old saying that when there are three generations in a family business they go from shirt sleeves to coat and vest and then back to shirt sleeves.  In our case, we never got out of shirt sleeves.  We kept right on working - my grandfather, my father, and myself."

He made that statement while presenting awards to some Clemson employees for fifty or more years of service.  The occasion and others similar to it since are indicative of employer-employee relationships at Clemson Bros., Inc., which is a family owned corporation employing about two hundred fifty persons.

A last broad stroke to this preliminary picture is provided by words taken from a trade magazine, the Hardware World, of March, 1936, as follows: "An individual's most important assets in life are friends...  Such friendships have not grown up through anything but confidence in each other.  Success comes to those who honestly strive for same, and it is well to remember that it always comes through the front door.  There is no back alley stuff in genuine and real success."

Those words were written by the late William Edward Cross when he was a vice-president directing sales for Clemson Brothers.  He served as the corporation's president from 1946 until his death, January 29, 1955.

Because of the long continuance of Clemson business interests here, it is natural that members of the Clemson family and their associates should have become interested in civic matters of the community and thereby appear in the histories of many public enterprises.  For example, the Nurses' Home of the Elizabeth A. Horton Memorial Hospital was a gift from George Clemson whose own home is now, by gift of his and his wife's heirs, the original part of the present Middletown Y.M.C.A. building.

William Clemson was born May 27, 1821, in Warwickshire, England, to William and Jane Clemson.  His father was the superintendent of a wire manufacturing plant.  The family's predominant business knowledge was in the manufacture, heat treating, and working of metals. 

The Clemsons traced their history back to a certain Clem, or at least to the Sons of Clem who, in the fifteenth century, were engaged in smithing and making armor for knights of Germany.  In the sixteenth century some of the descendant sons moved from Germany to England and established the family name as Clemson.  They continued to work with metals.

At the age of fourteen, William, Jr., was apprenticed to his father.  In those days wire actually was drawn by hand.  At such work the youth developed extraordinarily powerful arms and shoulders while absorbing the family lore of metals.  When he had completed seven years of apprenticeship he was a master of his work, mentally and physically. 

He then, in 1842, at the age of twenty-one, turned his eyes toward America, the land of promise, and the land to which a Birmingham, England, girl, Amelia Wright, five years his junior, had gone in 1841 with her parents.

Young William, the wire drawer, with no promise of a job in America, arrived at Boston, Mass., a few months after the Wright family.  He attired himself in clothes, including a silk-embroidered waistcoat, which were the height of English fashion, and duly presented himself in the Boston area to those persons whom his family had known in Warwickshire. 

These included the Wrights.  Sixteen-year-old Amelia informed him that marriage was out of the question unless he removed those silly clothes, dressed like an American, and found a job.


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