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Industrialist's Biography Spotlights Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News
on November 4, 1995

by Roz Young
            All the clothes I wore from infancy through the eighth grade my mother made on her Davis sewing machine. It was in a five-drawer, drop-head oak cabinet, operated by a treadle. I learned to sew on it and kept it until I moved where I live now. I gave it to Melba Hunt for the Kettering-Moraine Museum with the provision that if ever I needed to sew anything, I could use it in the museum.
            The Davis Sewing Machine Co. was brought to Dayton in 1888 from Waterville, N.Y., by George Huffman and a committee of Dayton citizens. Opening in 1890 on a five-acre site on Huffman Avenue, it employed nearly 500 workers and produced 250 sewing machines a day.
            My old sewing machine came to mind when I read An American Biography: An American Industrialist Remembers the Twentieth Century, the biography of Warren Webster by Pat McNees.
            As a young boy, Webster, whose father died at 28, was brought by his mother, Florence, to Dayton, where she and her sister, Aunt Prit, opened a boarding house at 15 Davis Ave. Their customers were men from the nearby sewing machine company and other factories in the East End neighborhood.
            I met tall, blond Pat McNees, author of the book, over the breakfast table at Stouffer's not long ago.
            "How did you ever hear of Warren Webster?" I asked her. I have lived here all my life , and our paths never crossed. Pat, who lives in Bethesda, Md., is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The society has a Dial-A-Writer service, through which people wanting books to be written can engage authors to write them. In 1989, members of Webster's family called the service and hired Pat to write the biography of Webster, then in his late 80s. It turned out to be much more of a story than she anticipated and resulted in a 339-page book, published in 1995 by Farragut Publishing Co., Washington, D.C. She spent four years of research, interviewing and writing. Webster died in 1994, aged 91, but before his death he had gone over every fact in this painstaking biography.
            Since Webster's career covered practically the whole of the 20th century in Dayton, the biography should prove of particular interest to Daytonians.
            He started to work at the age of 16 at the Davis Sewing Machine Co. He attended trade classes at Sinclair College and, with what he learned there and and his own hard work, he soon became an experienced engineer. While he worked at Davis, he married Mary Adams, whom he had met at Bott's Academy of Dancing, and started a family. Then things fell apart at Davis.
            The Huffman family sold the business early in the 1920s to a man in the East for about $1 million, Webster told McNees. The new owner hired a company to redesign the plant, which had grown to about 20 buildings, and issued new stock in the company. Hearsay had it that the stock was inflated eight to one and sold by a brokerage. Then the new owner took bankruptcy. He paid $1 million for the company, issued $8 million in stock, and sold half of it. "That's $3 million in profit," said Webster. `That was how the old railroad barons had made fortunes on the railroads."
            Horace Huffman, sales manager of the bicycle branch of Davis, planned to buy the bicycle business and offered Webster a job, but it took too long and Webster went to work at Joyce-Cridland, a nearby manufacturer of lifts and jacks.
            He spent 48 years at Joyce-Cridland, starting at the bottom and ending as part owner and vice president. The book gives exhaustive details about the business - a fire, labor troubles, problems with government contracts - and why Webster found it necessary to move the factory from Dayton to Portland, Ind.
            The book also gives details of the family life of the Websters and their children: Winifred Eilleen, who married James Dicke; Dorothy Jean, married to Patrick Gilvary; Doris Jane, married to Ben Campbell; and Warren Jr., married to Jean Aukerman.
            They were first active in the Heidelberg Reformed Church and later the Fairmont Presbyterian Church. Webster also launched the Kettering Holiday at Home Parade in 1958 as a promotion to raise funds to build the Kettering YMCA.
            His views on what went wrong with Dayton are worth reading and exceedingly salty - too salty, in fact, for this mild-mannered columnist to quote. Do not overlook the author's notes at the end of the book, where Webster tells why Dayton lost its once-proud position as an industrial town.