Keystone Saw Works - H. Disston & Sons, Inc. - Phila., PA


Building a Business - Employees


Fred Smith Rounded Out His 58th Year - Reminiscences of Service with Henry Disston & Sons, Disston Crucible, Vol. VIII, April 1919.

I was bound apprentice with Pruyn & Lansing, Boiler, Machine and Saw Works, Albany, NY.

The talk of civil war coming on, things were getting very slack; we had not much work to do, so they closed down their saw business and asked me if I would like my freedom papers.

They were made out and the next day I started for Philadelphia, carpet bag in hand, as we were called carpet-baggers who came from one State to another.

I arrived in Philadelphia Monday Morning, March 10, 1861, at the old Kensington R. R. Depot.  Being a stranger in a strange land, I asked the way to Disstonís, and was directed by the colored porter to take a straight course down Front Street till I got there. It being early in the morning, I wondered around until the shop opened.

The first man I met was, I learned later, David Bickley.  I asked him if he could direct me to the office of Henry Disstonís Saw Works. He asked me what I wanted.  I said I would like a job of work. I told him what I could do and he hired me right away.  Having no place to go, tired and hungry, putting hat and coat on, we started out to find one. Went to work at noon time.

Mr. Disston received me when he saw me, and called me runaway apprentice, but I satisfied him and I was all right with him then.

Mr. Bickley had the contract for making all the Long Saws.  It did not take many of us, about eight. The output was about twenty-five (25) dozen a week.  There was not much machinery for making saws, one Toothing Press, and one Horizontal Grinding Machine. We did not have any Dies or Flattening Presses at that time.

Our saws were hardened and tempered on Furnace Bottom, all hand work.  Later on the factory consisted of two dwelling houses made into one.  Grinding Hand Saws in cellar; Blacksmith Shop, first floor; second floor, Hand Saws and other kinds of saws; Long Saw machine out in yard facing Laurel Street.

At that time we did not have more than seventy-five men working for us. On April 15 the war started.  Quite a number of our men enlisted, so that left us with very few, but we got along very well.

When we were not making saws we had plenty of Government work to do.  Things commenced to look brighter. We were getting new machinery right along, machines for grinding hand saws and long saws, extending the building till we got to Richmond Street.  Then Mr. Disston got the old flour mill and started in to make his own steel. Built new rolling mill on Laurel Street.

After going along nicely, on July 2, 1865, our factory burned down, losing most of everything. But in a short time Mr. Disston put up a fine building, all new machinery, plenty of room.  During the building of the new mill we had a very large shop on the other side of Haydock Street, then across Canal to Richmond Street. 

There we had our Hardening Shop. Everyone who had a contract did his own hardening and tempering.  It was no easy job to smith saws in those days, for if we did twenty-five dozen in a week we were doing well, while now, with the Disston improvements in appliances and machinery, many times this quantity is being turned out of better quality and workmanship and with greater ease by the men.

In 1874 our factory burned down again the second time, but it was soon rebuilt on a larger scale than before, the business steadily increasing.  The enormous production of these works today is wonderful. 

If Mr. Disston, the founder, could have lived to see the fruits of his industry and that of his sons, the immensity of the establishment would be a source of great satisfaction and pride.  They are fine people. I have found it to be so in my fifty-eight years with them.

Our work was mostly done by contract system until Mr. Hamilton Disston came into the firm. Then the system was altered entirely, going back to day work under foremanship, everyone working directly for the firm.

I often stop to think what changes there have been in my time - from a little place to such a tremendously large one, the big army of men employed, the great improvements and many new inventions of machinery, and the enormous output compared with that of the time I first went with them.

I have every reason to be loyal, and take this opportunity to thank the members of the firm for their kindness to me in all the years I have been with them.



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