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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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