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When "Davis" Came to Dayton


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, October 9, 1932


When ‘The Davis’ Came to Dayton

By Howard Burba


     There was a day, though it has been a good many years ago, when the manufacture of sewing machines was the second largest industry in Dayton and one that carried the city’s name and fame farther than any other local product.

     There wasn’t a factory in the middle west to compare with it in the matter of turning out a piece of household equipment then classified as a necessity.  But that was in a day before modistes and ready-made garments had made their debut, and when the spinning wheel and not the steering wheel was in vogue.  The sewing machine hasn’t passed on as a part of the equipment of the modern home.  It’s still there.  But the difficulty now that the steering wheel is also here is to find someone who stays at home long enough to run a sewing machine.

     Just how the old Davis sewing machine plant came to be located in Dayton is a fascinating chapter in the city’s industrial history.  There are any number of “old timers” who recall the hectic demonstration that attended its removal from the little city of Waterville, N. Y., and the big boost it gave Dayton as a manufacturing center. They remember, too, when hundreds of workers streamed through its doors each day, and the Davis payroll was second only to that pioneer giant of all Dayton factories—the car works.

     It has been more than 40 years since a group of local capitalists learned that the heads of the Davis company, then turning out one of the most popular products of its kind, could be persuaded to change its location.  Various reasons were given why the company was desirous of leaving Waterville, chief among them being a desire to get farther west, since the trend of population was in that direction.  The bulk of sales were coming in from this side of the Alleghanies.  The company was anxious to secure a location for the plant nearer the center of this new market.

     George Huffman, prominent local capitalist of the ‘80s, and a member of possibly the best-known of all Dayton’s older families, assumed charge of the negotiations which started late in 1888, looking toward the removal of the plant.  He visited Waterville and there conferred with the Davis officials.  He heightened interest in the negotiations when he stated that Dayton was ready to contribute not only a site for the plant, but financial backing as well.  The good old American dollars moved things in those days when the spoken word could not, just the same as it does today.  So when money talked the Davis officials lent an ear.

     Early in 1889 there came to the city, at the request of Mr. Huffman, a gentleman by the name of L. Johnson.  He was an emissary of the Davis company, and empowered to negotiate for the removal of the plant.  We find in the files of a newspaper of that date this reference to his visit, and it apparently was the opening announcement of a movement that found every man and woman in Dayton heartily cooperating.

     “It has just become known that Mr. L. Johnson, secretary of the Davis sewing machine works of Waterville, N. Y., was in Dayton the past week, conferring with the Dayton committee, and an intense desire has sprung up among local citizens to learn the conclusion of their deliberations.

     “A reporter for this paper was among the first to get an audience with Mr. Johnson and he learned that the works will positively be located in this city, on a site between Huffman av., and the Panhandle railroad.

     “Mr. Johnson stated that work would begin immediately on the buildings, and that the machinery would be ready for shipment the moment it was complete and ready for its installation.  He also said he believed the committee had acted most wisely in its judgment as to the location of the works.  He believes, too, that nowhere else is property so desirable for the manufacturing works of the company, nor could he find a better part of the city for residences for employes and others.  He said that it is accessible from all parts of the city, there being two street railways, which is of great consideration in view of the fact that the company would bring them a large number of their employes.  Between three and four hundred men, all skilled workmen, will be brought from Watertown, about two-thirds of whom are men with families, meaning that about two hundred and fifty houses will be needed.

     “The character and dimensions of the proposed buildings are as follows: The main building is to be 500 feet long, 45 feet wide, two stories and a basement.  There will be two wings, one 240 by 45 feet, and another 180 by 60 feet.  Both will be two stories.  The foundry building will be 220 by 70 feet.  A storehouse and annealing ovens will occupy another building 45 by 30 feet, two stories high.  The building will occupy five acres of ground.  About 600 men will be employed at the opening of the plant, and the capacity will be 250 complete sewing machines a day.

     “It is now promised that the buildings will be completed in September.”

     Already the local Board of Trade had interested itself in the coming of the big new enterprise.  Committees named by it, with Mr. Huffman as the general chairman, started out to raise a fund of $50,000, by popular subscriptions.  After several weeks of intensive canvassing it was reported that the subscriptions still lacked $20,000 of totaling the desired sum.  At that point George Huffman subscribed $15,000, and by hard work on the last day set for the campaign of solicitation—the deadline set by the Davis company—pledges for the remaining $5000were secured.  And here is the proposition on which the Board of Trade acted:

                                      Watertown, N. Y.

                                               December 14, 1888

Messrs. G. N. Bierce,

H. R. Groneweg:

     Yesterday I had a meeting of my board of directors and they authorized me to say that if the city of Dayton would give us the sum of fifty thousand dollars ($50,000) we will remove our manufacturing and business to that city: answer to be returned by Jan. 3, next.  They decline to hold the matter open beyond that date.  Hoping you will have no difficulty in obtaining the amount,        

                                                 L. A. JOHNSON,



     The money provided, a telegram was forwarded the company on Jan. 3 announcing that all terms had been complied with. And that night Dayton had a live topic of conversation, for back over the wires came the acceptance and announcement that “Dayton will get the Davis plant.”

     It is difficult to realize what that message meant to the community, for the average Dayton citizen, accustomed to seeing large industrial plants spring up as if by magic, cannot visualize the struggle for a place in the sun manufacturing concerns had to undergo 40 years ago.  Today an industrial plant is located, goes into production and its products are being shipped allover the world before the citizens of another section of the city know anything about it.  There are hundreds in Dayton today, for instance, who are not aware that every stamped envelope manufactured in the United States is made in Dayton, though this has been true for the past 25 years.  And still others have to go away from home to find out that 90 percent of all the sealing wax that the housewife uses in her canning—anywhere in the world—is the product of a Dayton factory.

     Work was rushed at fever heat on the new Davis plant out on Huffman av. and within a few months the contractor was far ahead of his schedule.  Already the new plant had become a showplace and well worthy of first-page mention.  So we turn to the old files of Feb. 27, 1890, and discover this interesting comment:

     “To the lover of the beautiful the title ‘machine made’ usually conveys with it recollections of unartistic ugly work.  Yet after viewing the wonderful exhibition of the work done on the Davis sewing machine at the company’s shops yesterday, all prejudices are indeed swept away.

     “There was an immense crowd at the works yesterday afternoon.  Thousands who had heard that the new plant which means so much to the industrial and commercial life of the city was to be opened for inspection, availed themselves of the opportunity to see it in operation.

     “When the bright and commodious hall was entered they were directed to the exhibition room on the second floor.  One room was full of embroidery of such richness that the fabled tracery of the Persians must give the place of honor to this work of our own times.  The work of many months is completed with the aid of a machine in a few days.

     “Embroidered portieres, throws, curtains and all kinds of fancy work were exhibited.  A pattern of heavy braid was especially noticeable, as a Davis is the only machine capable of sewing through such a thickness.  Not only the heaviest but the daintiest fabrics can be embroidered by the machine.

     “In adjoining rooms the Davis machines were seen at work under the control of skilled operators.  After leaving this portion of the shop, one meets cheery and polite Mr. Johnson, general manager, who leads one among the labyrinths of intricate machinery into the extensive foundry, by the rapidly filling stock rooms, the boilers and the 150 horsepower engine that noiselessly exerts its mighty strength.

     “Much care is exercised in making the machines.  ‘Inspection’ is the watchword of the factory.  Each part of the machine must conform to a certain standard, and as the work progresses inspection after inspection takes place, until each part has been examined at least 20 times.  Finally the finished machines are run at the rate of 1500 stitches per minute, and, if they are perfect, are sent to the stock room, from which they are shipped to every corner of the globe.

     “All these machines carry with them the name and fame of the Gem City and you rejoice in your citizenship as you leave amid the cheery farewells of your kind host; you feel as if you had more than a common interest in the concern.”

     The plant enjoyed a remarkable growth through the “nineties,” its product becoming constantly more in demand throughout the world.  Late in the ’nineties a big Chicago mail order concern added a sewing machine to its catalogued merchandise, and while it did not carry the Davis nameplate, but was marketed under the Chicago concern’s own trade name, it was the Davis machine just the same, and thousands of them were turned out at the local plant and shipped direct from the factory to the purchaser.

     There was a reorganization of the concern shortly after its removal here from Waterville, and George Huffman was made president.  He served in that capacity until his death in 1896.  The following year Col. Frank T. Huffman became the president of the company, and it continued under his able leadership as one of Dayton’s chief industries.

     By 1895 the bicycle craze had reached its height in this country, so the machinery of the Davis plant was partially converted to the manufacture of the famous old “Dayton” bicycle.  Within a short time, so popular had this model become, the company was called upon to supply the wheels to a number of the country’s largest mail-order houses, and at one time, when production was a its height, more than 20 different name plates were used on the wheels turned out by this plant.  All, however, were the same models, merely marketed under the name plate selected by each wholesaler or jobber, or mail order concern, to the trade.

     By 1905 the Davis was producing 600 sewing machines and 600 bicycles every working day, and giving employment to more than 2000 men and women six days a week.  This steady and substantial payroll served for years to add much to the prosperity of the city generally, and stood the community in good stead at a time when the car works were disintegrating and there was a constant dwindling of labor forces there.

     Then along about 1914 the automobile sprang into widespread popularity, and the bicycle was forced to give ground.  Following closely on the heels of this new vehicle’s appearance came the World War, and while no one in Dayton realized it at the time, it really sounded the death knell of this famous old industrial plant.

     At the command of the government, the Davis halted its production of bicycles and sewing machines and converted a large part of its machinery into the manufacture of munitions.  Again the payroll boomed, but it was not the solid, substantial prosperity that had attended its peace-time years.  Munitions were provided to meet the government’s demands.  But each day that the machinery was on that work it was growing farther away from the time when it could again be utilized for producing the things for which it was originally intended.  The regular business of the company suffered.  The electric sewing machine came in and was marketed by several competitors at a time when, through force of circumstances, the Davis was unable to meet and cope with such competition.  The cry was for munitions and more munitions.  The world was being made safe for democracy—but at the cost of the Davis reputation and markets.

     The war over, the period of readjustment set in.  Shrinkage in values after the war, with a still lessened demand for bicycles so seriously affected the business that it became apparent to its officials that it would never again be able to resume its high position in the industrial world.  So in 1923 it was decided to wind up its affairs.  This was done, and the huge plant enlarged many times since the erection of the original buildings in 1889, was closed.  It was like the passing of a valuable friend, and one that had served most happily and faithfully in a city’s time of need.  Scattered throughout the world were to be found—and they can still be found—the serviceable old sewing machines on which the name of Dayton was prominently stamped.  Families in far off places that might not have heard of Dayton learned something of it through the name plate of these machines.  And children playing about them learned to spell out the name of the city from whence came the Davis.  In after years they found an easy connection between the product and the town.

     Thinking back, “old timers” recall many interesting details connected with the location and operation of this old plant in Dayton.  They recall the Barney & Smith car works, the old Stillwell-Bierce plant that stood on the site of McKinley park; the old Globe Iron Works near the south end of Ludlow st., once among the most famous institutions of its kind in the middle west; the old Aughe plow factory they see again in all its glory, and the old Pinneo & Daniels wheel factory, the Dayton Carpet Works and the Brownell Boiler Works.  They could sit down and list a half-hundred once prosperous plants that have passed on and are almost forgotten in the swift march of time.

     But always up near the head of the list of those old industries that put Dayton on the map, and made it easy for the younger industrial plants to keep it there, they would place the name of the old Davis sewing machine factory out on Huffman av.   For there were a good many years when it stood, and deservedly, right up at the head of the list.