These article appeared in the Journal Herald on December 28 & 30, 1976
BUSINESS & MANUFACTURING: PLATT IRON WORKS –
HISTORY IN THE WORKS
One day a few weeks ago I went out to visit Herman Dlott. His daughter had called and said that it wasn’t exactly true that the Platt Iron Works had been broken up when efforts on to save it on the part of George B. Smith failed. “You’ll find quite a story there,” she said.
Herman Dlott is a middle aged man who is president of the Platt Manufacturing Co., the part of the Platt Iron Works that remained in Dayton after the company was sold piecemeal. He can spin many a yarn about the old company and what he doesn’t know, Robert Grosvenor, his vice president does.
Back in 1838 James D. Platt was born into a large family at Schroon Lake, N.Y. After his schooling, he taught for five years and worked on his father’s farm in the summers. Then he and three of his brothers moved to Toledo. Along came the Civil War, Platt enlisted, served throughout the entire war and came out a lieutenant colonel.
After the war E. E. Barney asked him to come to Dayton to work for him. He came for six months to try it out and stayed the rest of his life. He started to work in the Barney and Smith Car Works and advanced through all the offices right up to and including the presidency. The fact that he married Mary Louise Barney may have helped his rapid rise and then again, perhaps not. While he was working for Barney, he also acquired the Stillwell Bierce Manufacturing Co. and reorganized it as the Platt Iron Works. The company manufactured Smith Vaile pumps, chiefly, and cotton seed pressers and cookers.
PLATT DECIDED TO retire from both the car works and the Platt company in 1908 and turned the Platt works over to his sons. (He had six children, four of whom lived; Bertha married E. M. Thacker, Edwin married Alice Stoddard, Pauline married Frederick W. Oakie and James D. married Anne Evans. Those names mean much if you’re an old Daytonian.
Now the Platt boys had grown up in wealth and were polo players. About the first thing they did when they took over the company was to build a new office, furnish it lavishly and give all the other members of the polo team jobs as company officers.
A polo team cannot run a factory. Things began to go downhill steadily. Finally the boys secured a loan from the New York City Bank.
Then one day in 1913 (the polo team had been in since 1908) the bank officials who were sending one of their men, Edward C. Wells, to the west coast to investigate some of their properties, asked him to stop off in Dayton and find out what was going on at the Platt Iron Works.
WELLS STOPPED IN Dayton, visited the plant, hopped the next train back to New York and told the bank officials they were going to lose all their money if they didn’t do something fast. “All right,” said the bank officials, “you go out to Dayton and start running the plant.”
The first thing he did was to fire the polo team, including Edwin F. Platt. Wells bought the company in 1920 and became president. He remained in office until 1955. As part of the reorganization the cotton seed pressers and cooker division was sold to the Worthington Co. and the foundry to Dayton Malleable. World War I also helped save the company; Wells secured a contract from the Canadian government for 10,000 shells a day and by the time the war was over, small Sherman tanks were being made by the company and stored in Deeds Park.
During World Was II, the government again asked Platt to produce war materials, but Wells, who was strongly Republican, said that as long as a Democratic government was in office in Washington, he would not make a thing for the government. This meant, of course, since those were the day s of Roosevelt that the Platt company became poorer and poorer while others grew rich off government contracts.
BY 1955 WELLS, who was by then 84, had been blind for five years and was in his last illness, wanted to sell the company. But there were no buyers.
It happened that Herman Dlott, who was in the appliance business with his father, needed a warehouse to store his stock. Looking around, he found the practically empty Platt building and offered to rent it. Wells agreed.
I see I have run out of space and my story is only half over. Well, there’s always Thursday. Come back then, folks, and I’ll tell you, among other things, how the Platt company kept its employees from stealing light bulbs and maybe even who those polo players were.
CATCHING UP WITH TIMES AND PRICES AT PLATT
When Herman Dlott walked into the Platt Manufacturing Co. building in 1955, he found a wooden-floored, dark cavern. Two men were working in the office, six in the old factory. He had come to rent the building to use as a warehouse for his appliance business.
Talking with the men in the plant, he found that of the eight workers, the man with the least seniority had worked 35 years, the man with the most, 51 years. Their pay was sinfully low for 1955. A man who had worked 41 years in the company was making $50 a week; the worker with 51 years of experience received $57.50.
“What do you make here?” Herman asked.
The chief product for years was the Smith Vaile pump and most of the work in 1955 was making replacement parts. As he walked around the plant and saw the antiquated machinery operated by belts hung from the ceiling he thought of buying the machinery for scrap. He noticed that the men worked in dim incandescent lighting. “Hey, this is 220, not 110,” he said. “Why is that?”
“The company always has used 220 so the workers couldn’t steal the light bulbs to use in their own homes.”
“Who are your customers?” asked Dlott.
The bookkeeper showed him a list: Dayton Power and Light Co., DuPont, Sun Oil, Shell Oil, U.S. Steel, among others.
“With such customers, I don’t see how you can be losing money,” said Dlott. “Let me see your price lists.”
The bookkeeper produced the price book for every part they had ever made. At the bottom of the page Dlott noticed the date. “You mean you’re still charging 1914 prices?”
“No,” said the bookkeeper, “we multiply everything by two.”
“But even at that you’re selling below cost. This is 1955. You should have quadrupled the prices by now.”
The company still had 50,000 pumps in service. Dlott decided to buy the machinery for scrap, continue the business for about 10 years when he figured the machines would be worn out. He could then close the doors forever.
And so he went into business. “If I knew then what I know now,” he said the other day, “I never would have done it.”
Right off, he redoubled prices. He had only one complaint. The Annheuser Busch company had bought an impeller in 1954 for $250 and when they ordered another in 1955, the cost was $500. “Hasn’t there been a mistake?” asked the company bookkeeper when Dlott sent the invoice.
“Yes,” answered Dlott. “The mistake was in charging you $250 last year.”
The pumps did not wear out in 10 years. Here it is 22 years later and they are going strong in factories all over the country. The water supply of several cities, including Saranac Lake, depends on Smith Vaile pumps. Not long ago Dlott had an order for a part replacement for a pump from the Bruce Wax manufacturers in Cairo, Ill. When he checked the old leather bound parts books, he found the original pump has been made in 1896. Since the old Smith Vaile pumps are turbine pumps that use water power and not electricity, companies that own them are not about to give them up.
Since he found he could not get out of the business, Dlott expanded. The company now employs 150 and has bought the Davis Foundry in Newcastle, Ind. Chief product of the company now is catapults for aircraft carriers. Recently the Navy awarded the company its largest contract ever, five 88,000 pound, 50-foot long arresting engines, the complete gear for one aircraft carrier.
And so part of the Platt Iron Works is still in business in Dayton.
We have remaining two little mysteries to solve. One is what was the quarrel between John H. Patterson and John Flotron that resulted in the failure of George Smith’s attempt to raise funds to keep the company? “Find out,” said Gordon Price, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, the other day. “We always did wonder why Patterson left us out of his will.” Flotron was chief vestryman at the time. We met Wanda Flotron at a party the other day; she has promised to ask her mother-in-law.
The other is who were the polo players who ran the company into bankruptcy. All we know right now is that in 1906 when Col. James Platt, turned the company over to his son, the officers of the company were Harold E. Talbott, Jr., president, Edwin F. Platt, vice president and treasurer, J. Sprigg McMahon, secretary, and R.S. Fowler, assistant secretary, assistant treasurer and production manager, In 1913 when Edward Wells took over, he became production manager, Waddell Catching of New York was president and other officers were J.F. Hartlieb, R.L. Yates, C.P. Unverferth and L.K. Nevin. Wells became president in 1920.