Monday, September 21, 2015

Wheelman Part IV: Pride Of Its Citizens

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 the third excerpt from the new book Wheel Man: Robert M. Keating, Pioneer of Bicycles, Motorcycles and Automobiles, written by R.K. Keating. 

Previous Excerpts

With the arrival of spring it was enthusiastically being reported in the Middletown press that, “Keating Company sales in cold dollars have thus far this season considerable (sic) exceeded its sales in any previous season.” That was good news; especially considering Keating was in the middle of opening a new factory in one state and closing one down in another.  Unfortunately, it is more or less a general rule that physical moves seldom hold to a timetable.  Keating had originally expected to begin moving equipment and material from Holyoke to Middletown in April.  When that date came and went, it was reported that June would be the moving date.  It was then extended to the first week of July with the factory expected to be “in working order” by the first of August. The first “car load” of machinery from the Holyoke factory actually arrived in Middletown on June 12, and shafting and pulleys were ordered; work was set to begin immediately to get the machinery into position.  It was now projected that all the machinery would be in place by the first of September.

The new Keating Wheel Company factory actually became fully operational on October 29.

 Proclaimed “one of the sights of Middletown, the pride of its citizens,” and “one of the largest plants in the country,” a local press announcement went on to confirm that all the credit for the huge undertaking “belongs wholly to Mr. R. M. Keating who guides and directs this great concern.” The New York Tribune agreed.

So practical complete and successful is the result that the Keating factory has attracted much attention on the part of those deeply interested in ideas of modern construction and arrangement of factories and workshops.

But the Tribune was as much energized by the man as the factory he designed.

Ambitious in spirit, with energy that is tireless, persistence that is oblivious of obstacles, force implied by immense nervous steam, he has, in a little more than seven years, advanced from the mechanic’s bench to a place among the leading bicycle makers of America.

The machinery was fully operational and between four and five hundred employees were eventually put to work at the plant.  Because the factory was built in the north end of the city, away from the downtown and other factory areas, a “village of homes” had sprung up near the new factory “which are occupied by the skilled employees of this company.”

The Keating Wheel Company catalogue of 1897 proudly and unabashedly described the innovative new factory.

Photographic art and language fail to illustrate and describe the grandeur and completeness of our new plant, especially designed and builded (sic) for the manufacture of Keating Bicycles; we can simply say that years of experience in cycle making, a ripe knowledge of factory requirements and two years study of the details, as well as a determination to lead in manufacturing facilities, finds every thought, wish and hope satisfied in this complete home for cycle making.

The description went on to reference “a spacious office building, 100 feet long, 50 feet wide, two stories high” and introduced the case of the mythical Keating Company office building.

        The catalogue included a lithograph of the new factory that does show a separate two-story building in the northwestern area of the site.  A second lithograph produced around the same time and appearing on the company’s stationary, also shows a separate two-story building in the same location, albeit with a far fancier fa├žade.  The local newspaper account of the opening of the factory, however, never mentioned an office building, although it went into great detail describing the main factory and the “engine and generating plant.” Early reports of office staff coming to Middletown indicated that they were being located in the main factory building, not in a new and elaborate office building. Further, maps and photographs of the site from 1899 to the present fail to show a separate two-story building anywhere on the site. A magazine article describing the site in 1904 indicated that an office building did not exist at that time and still needed to be constructed. Even today there are no visible signs that a building was ever located where the lithographs depict its location – not a cellar hole or even a depression in the ground.  Apparently, the plans to build a separate office building were shelved.  Given the economic turmoil in the bicycle trade roiling all around him, its construction was undoubtedly eliminated as a cost-cutting measure; a decision made after all of the public relations material, including the lithographs, had gone to print.  Given the economic circumstances at the time, in the bicycle trade and in the company, it would have been the correct decision to make.

        The completion of the new plant was unfortunately marred by further accidents and turmoil.  Given the frequent delays, the weeks and days leading up to the plant’s official opening must have been incredibly hectic with all of the machinery and equipment needing to be set up and put into operation.  Sixteen-year-old Joseph Kelly was one of many new employees busily putting the finishing touches on the plant’s operations, in his case, adjusting one of the many belts and pulleys that connected the various motors to the shafts and machines in the plant.  On October 9 a portion of his clothing got caught between a drive belt and a pulley that he was working on, causing the youngster to be “wound about a shafting and hurled 19 feet against a wall.” Unconscious, with his leg broken in two places and “frightful injuries about the head and body” he was rushed to a doctor. What became of young Joseph Kelly is unknown.

        The Keating Company’s move to Middletown required that Keating also remove himself from his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts.  He located a house on 157 Washington Street in Middletown that he could rent temporarily and settled in by year’s end.  His mother, Catherine, whom he had continued to reside with, remained in Springfield with his sister Katherine until he could establish a more permanent living arrangement.  His secretary, Grace Noyes, followed him to Middletown and found a residence just down the road at 271 Washington Street.  Keating’s brother John and brother-in-law, Joseph P. Quirk were also boarding in Middletown at 117 Grand Street, a residence that would remain a Keating family domicile in Middletown over the next several years, although with different family members living there at any given time.   With them were William H. Keating, a cousin, and his wife Sarah who had been in Middletown for several years previous working and boarding at the Middletown Hospital for the Insane (a George Keating was working there as well).  Also living at 117 Grand was Robert D. Quirk, a relation of Joseph’s.  They were both listed as working at the new Keating Wheel Company factory.

        For the first time, the 1897 Middletown Business Directory officially listed the Keating Wheel Company, giving its address simply as Johnson Street.  The move from Holyoke was now complete.

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