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Elmira, NY: Little Giant of Industry


When we think of industrial giants, we're often talking about huge companies with huge plants in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago. Less often, the smaller cities whose smaller but significant industries feed those giants, or in some cases give birth to them.

P1070776P1070775P1070777Musical moments with Elmira-made 19th-century music boxes. The toy piano at right is still in production.

Elmira, New York, on the Southern Tier, just north of Pennsylvania and just south of the Finger Lakes, is a part of that story; though it seems largely quiet and peaceful and focused on its college and tourism, it has a long and continuing history of industry. A visit to the Chemung Valley Historical Society's museum in Elmira makes that clear.

Doors that once opened to shovel coal into the building's boiler; the boiler room is now an exhibit gallery

Housed in a former bank building, the museum offers a window into many aspects of the area's history, including the town's Abolitionist connections, but the lasting impression for me came from an exhibit in the Education Room called Mass Production.

Two you'll likely have seen: American LaFrance and Remington typewriters. LaFrance dominated the firetruck business for years; it was sold to Daimler-Chrysler in 1995 and moved to South Carolina, where it eventually died. Remington came to Elmira in 1937, and had 6,500 workers in 1950. During World War II, it manufactured bombsights.


Once America's biggest grocer, the A&P, or Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company to use its formal name, built a huge processing and packaging plant just outside Elmira in the early 1960s; it covered 105 acres and was the world's largest food processing facility.

It could accommodate 70 trailer trucks at a time in its 72 loading docks and had siding space for 19 railroad cars.

But by the 1980s, A&P, once double the size of its nearest competitor, was in trouble and the plant closed in 1982.P1070779P1070780
Willys-Morrow built auto parts for Willys-Overland cars and aircraft parts for Curtiss Aviation. The plant closed in 1934 during the Depression, and was then sold to Remington.

At first glance, it seems like a story of defeat: Images of factories that are gone, workers no longer needed and companies long gone. But taking a longer view, it shows years of change and connection to a wider world and to many industries, and to the city's continuing industrial base.

Older industries in Elmira included knitting mills and other textile trades, as well as woodworking. Photo shows Kretchmer & Company's furniture factory, founded in 1899. Another victim of the Depression, it closed in 1938.

It also showcases a weakness in the exhibit's viewpoint; it focuses on the companies and products, but not on the lives of workers and their certainly not-always-serene relationships with their employers.

Light industry and heavy: filling bottles of Holmes' Fragrant Frostilla, a pink skin lotion that was eventually sold to the makers of Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie. At American Bridge Company, part of U.S. Steel, bridge parts were fabricated and shipped to sites for assembly. Below that, the Elmira Foundry, owned by GE. It made cast parts for everything from generators to washing machines and more before it was closed in 1980. 

And the big Oooops! J Philip Weyer & Co. ran a major brickyard at a clay pit on the outskirts of the city, making 45 million bricks a year, until diggers in the pit accidentally dug through a wall that kept Newtown Creek out of the clay. The pit was flooded and the company closed.


Elmira's industrial fortunes clearly have had their ups and downs, losing important industries and companies in the Depression, but adding sizable companies then and later. Two more for the list: above, Commercial Screw Products opened in 1950 to make specialized newly-patented screws used in electronics and radar; and below, Bendix-Eclipse, which produced breaks, starters and other parts for cars and bicycles. The plant to Mexico in 1972.


But even with all those companies gone, Elmira is still an industrial town, with important plants and connections. Anchor Glass has a major glass container plant; the old American Bridge factory is occupied by CAF, a Spanish company that makes parts for trains the company builds for U.S. railroads and Elmira Heat Treating, started in 1962, sells heat treatment technologies to Ford, General Signal and others.

Some of Elmira's products are clearly one-offs; this violin took John Wright nine years to make using only a pocket knife and a piece of broken glass. It only took George G one day to correctly identify it as our One-Clue Mystery this week!

And some of Elmira's oldest companies hold on, some with newer products. Hardinge, started in 1890, makes industrial machines, including brand names such as Bridgeport. Hilliard, dating to 1905 makes filters, brakes and clutches. Kennedy Valve, also from 1905, is among the world's largest maker of valves for waterworks and wastewater plants—and especially as maker of the world's most common fire hydrants.


The museum also has other exhibits on life in Chemung County, including a Mark Twain section and a room dedicated to rotating exhibits highlighting each of the county's towns. Definitely worth a visit!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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