Monday, May 4, 2015

Wheel Man, Part I: Keating IS COMING!!!

 119 years ago this May, the City of Middletown and the Keating Wheel Company, then of Holyoke, Massachusetts, signed an agreement to relocate the company to Middletown and build a new factory to produce Keating Wheels.  Over the years to follow Keating would also manufacture some of the earliest motorcycles and automobiles, in a factory run totally by electricity – the first “modern” manufacturing facility in the country.  Following is an excerpt from the new book Wheel Man: Robert M. Keating, Pioneer of Bicycles, Motorcycles and Automobiles, written by R.K. Keating. 

Further excerpts will be posted in future months.

PART 1.  Keating IS COMING!

By 1896 Robert M. Keating and his “light-weight, high-grade” Keating Bicycle had become a worldwide phenomenon.  So much so that sales were seriously outpacing production at the Keating Wheel Company factory in Holyoke, Massachusetts; expansion was critical for the company’s survival.   Keating sent out enquiries to neighboring states that January as to who might be interested in having a new manufacturing entity in its town. There were a fair number of attractive suitors, each with their own set of “competitive inducements” that had to be considered and perhaps played off one another; keeping the decision close to the vest was a prudent strategy.

Some negotiating took place early in March with the Board of Trade of Pittsfield, Massachusetts but it came to nothing. The North Adams Board of Trade formed a committee to negotiate with representatives from the Keating Company but that did not come to anything either.  In the first few months of 1896, cities and towns from all over Connecticut also showed an interest in having the company relocate in their area, among them Waterbury, New Britain, Danbury, Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and New London.  A twenty-five year tax abatement plan was on the table from Danbury along with an existing building but Keating was not interested. He had had enough of adapting to existing buildings.  The secretary of the Meriden Board of Trade just gave a half-hearted indication that he intended “to write to the Keating Company.” One Connecticut newspaper had it all figured out; “New Haven is seen as having the edge because of its location between NY and Boston.”

By the first week of January, however, the City of Middletown became a prime target for relocation rumors when the local press discovered that a Keating Company officer was in town.  His reported purpose for being there was to meet with a “committee of fifteen” that had been authorized by the Middletown Board of Trade to lure the Keating Wheel Company to town.  The paper was confident that “nothing will be left undone in the way of inducements” to bring the deal home.  In lauding the city’s recruitment efforts and the significant assets the Keating Wheel Company would bring with them, like employing “400 hands,” the Penny Press of Middletown also added the following bit of information:

The company is fitted with the latest style machinery, and one of the papers devoted to the interest of wheeling announced a short time ago that they intend to manufacture the horseless vehicle as well as bicycles.

By the end of March, even the Holyoke newspaper surrendered to the idea that the company was leaving Holyoke, offering up the excuse that Middletown offered, “superior advantages to a manufacturing concern, as it is on direct lines of railroad and steamers to New York.  Thus it is easy to ship in large amounts from there.”

In fact, Middletown had been pulling out all the stops in its attempt to lure the Keating Wheel Company since the beginning of the year.   The Middletown Board of Trade appointed the “committee of fifteen” and selected William J. Vermilye as the chair, charging them with the task of bringing the Keating Wheel Company to Middletown.  Word was circulating that forty-five prominent businessmen in the Meriden-Middletown area were being asked to invest $2,000 apiece to raise $90,000 to build a new factory for the Keating Wheel Company on land in Middletown to be offered up by the Middletown Board of Trade. The Middletown Tribune cheered on the local business community to aggressively go after this golden opportunity; “every city in this state was hustling to get the Keating company (sic).” By March the basic components of a deal were in place, and they would no longer need forty-five investors to capitalize the construction of the new factory.

Word was sent out from Middletown yesterday that a fund of $100,000 would be raised for the company, and with it a building 900 feet long would be put up.  The amount is to be secured by bonds on the building.

The Middletown Board of trade had enlisted the support of the city’s banking community and raised $100,000 for bonds redeemable at a rate of six percent per year to put towards the construction of a new factory.  To sweeten the pot, they include an additional 10% “or whatever sum might be necessary” two provide a new nine hundred by fifty foot building, two stories high, and fully equipped. The Keating Company would be required to buy its own lot and oversee that actual construction of the buildings.  On April 1, representatives from the Keating Company notified the Middletown Board of Trade that they “might announce” publicly that the offer to move to Middletown had been accepted. The next day the Middletown Tribune posted an article with an almost mystical title; “Keating IS COMING.”

On the morning of May 6, “President R. M. Keating” arrived in Middletown on the 9:42 train along with his attorney to go over “papers of agreement” for the move to Middletown. Keating had been reviewing the terms of the move for the past two weeks and there was some apparent confusion over the method of tax exemption – an issue that could come back to haunt the company if nailed down.  After consultation and discussion, however, the parties agreed to terms.  A new factory would be built on property identified and purchased by the company (the company had the right of refusal on two sites).  In support of the Keating Company’s move, the Board of Trade, as approved by the City of Middletown, would provide a generous ten-year break on municipal property taxes along with a loan of $100,000 from a number of Middletown banks for new machinery. The timeframe for constructing the factory was also extended from twelve to eighteen months, targeting the completion no later than January of 1898.   While most of the equipment for the new factory was to be brand new, Keating made plans to move select pieces from the Holyoke plant one section at a time, sequenced by the various production processes involved in turning out a new bicycle, so that the ’97 model wheels could be built with minimal interruption.  Keating would have to bring the proposed deal to his board for their approval.

On May 19, Vermilye, received from Keating the “plans and specifications” for several new buildings that together would comprise the new Keating Wheel Company plant. Vermilye sent them to Elmer G. Derby, secretary of the committee of fifteen, who immediately incorporated them into a request for proposed bids that was sent out with an incredibly quick six-day turnaround for the receipt of proposals from prospective builders.  Keating’s plans were made available for public review at Derby’s office in the Masonic building in downtown Middletown.  Word around town was that Keating preferred to have a builder from the Middletown area, if possible.

Meanwhile, after examining several parcels of land in town, it was decided that “the old race course near the Berlin branch road” (as in railroad) was the most suitable building site, but important improvements were required. The formal groundbreaking would occur once an acceptable bidder was selected.  Having been reviewed and unanimously approved by the Keating Wheel Company board of directors, the official agreement to relocate to Middletown was signed on the evening of May 23. On the same day, Keating submitted an application for his eighteenth patent – it was simply and poetically filed under the title,  “Wheel.”

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