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HISTORY FROM OHA: Black River Systems Inc. of Utica

By Thomas Hunter

Date:

A history of its approach to “common sense heating and sanitary plumbing”

If you ever lived in a house that was warmed by an “octopus” steam or hot-water heating system, you would be familiar with the subject of this article: The Pierce, Butler & Pierce Manufacturing Company of Syracuse. A number of homes in the Central New York region, and around the U.S., undoubtedly were heated by this company’s systems in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with some lasting almost until the end of the last century. The founder of this successful heating manufacturing company was Sylvester P. Pierce. 

Sylvester Phineas Pierce was born on Sept. 19, 1814 in Sauquoit in Oneida County, the fifth of eight children born to Dr. Spalding Pierce and Abigail Bacon Pierce. Unfortunately, Dr. Pierce died when Sylvester was just 12 years old, so the youngster sought employment at the local general store to help the family meet its financial obligations. Sylvester then worked for the next 13 years as a store clerk and salesman in Rome and Utica.

Pierce came to the village of Syracuse in the spring of 1839 and established a crockery business with Ransom Curtis selling imported earthenware from England. Curtis retired after four years and Pierce bought out his share of the business in 1843. Pierce then broadened the inventory by importing crockery from Germany, France, and Holland, selling his merchandise to wholesale and retail markets throughout New York state.

Pierce married Cornelia Marsh of Geddes in 1841 and they had three sons — Marsh C., Charles H., & William K. — and one daughter — Emma C. Upon graduating from the public schools, the Pierce sons joined their father in the family business. Emma would marry William A. Butler, who would later join the business. 

The crockery company expanded to sell plumbing fixtures and kerosene lamps. Two years after Syracuse was incorporated as a city in 1848, the Syracuse Gas Lighting Company installed the first gas lines to provide coal-gas lighting to domestic and commercial properties. Along with buying their crockery, kerosene lamps, and plumbing fittings from Pierce, his customers also wanted to purchase their gas fittings from him. Not knowing the gas business himself, Pierce partnered with the more knowledgeable George Chase to form a separate company — Pierce and Chase — to sell steam and gas fittings in the 1850s. 

Pierce bought Chase’s business interest in 1876. He then added his son, William, and his son-in-law, William A. Butler, and formed Pierce, Butler & Pierce — selling wholesale gas, water, and steam supplies, as well as providing sanitary engineering services. The business grew by leaps and bounds, and by 1885, Pierce, Butler & Pierce had 150 plumbers and steam and gas fitters working across New York state. That year, Sylvester Pierce decided to take on more of an advisory role while his son, William, became company president, and William Butler was head of the engineering department. Other long-time employees managed bookkeeping, purchasing and selling, and receiving and shipping. The company utilized a horse-drawn, stake-body wagon to deliver the products. As a side business, Pierce, Butler & Pierce bought a lead press to make its own lead pipe. The company was located on Clinton Street in Syracuse next to the crockery store. The main office was located on the first floor, the shop was on the second floor, and the pipe cutting and threading machines were in the basement. The company’s two boilers constituted one of the first central-heating plants, furnishing heat to other buildings on the block. 

During the following year, 1886, Sylvester Pierce retired, and the company reorganized as the Pierce, Butler & Pierce Manufacturing Company with $200,000 in capital. Two years later, in 1888, although retired, Sylvester Pierce advised that the business invest in home-heating boilers. Pierce, Butler & Pierce Manufacturing Company partnered with Alfred Catchpole, a Geneva, New York–based boiler manufacturer to produce a round-cast-iron heating boiler and established the Catchpole Company with $100,000 in capital. In 1890, the Catchpole Company merged with the Pierce, Butler & Pierce Manufacturing Company. The Catchpole heating boilers were then renamed the Florida steam and the Tropic hot water boilers. The company generated more than $1 million in revenue that year. 

These boilers became popular and the production models expanded: 19 sizes for steam and 14 sizes for hot water, all fueled by coal. The business boasted that its boilers were self-feeding, able to run for 10-24 hours without attention. Advertisements in 1890 stated that thousands of boilers were in use, were economical, and most importantly, would not explode! Salesmen sold plumbing supplies, boiler parts, and boilers in almost every U.S. state and the company’s success continued to multiply. Pierce, Butler & Pierce established a jobbing department that was responsible for outsourcing its plumbing and boiler installation and repair to local professionals. These men bought their plumbing and boiler supplies from Pierce, Butler & Pierce and then conducted the installation and repair work in their own locales. The system proved profitable and eventually covered territory from Maine to Ohio. The company also opened branch offices in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. 

Sylvester P. Pierce passed away on Nov. 5, 1893. Pierce’s funeral was held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Montgomery Street in Syracuse. Nine of the city’s notable men were honorary pall bearers, including a judge, a militia colonel, and seven fellow businessmen. Along with operating his lucrative business, Sylvester Pierce also was a long-time member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, served as a supervisor of Ward 6 for two terms, and was a member of the Whig Party, and then the nascent Republican Party. 

During that same year, William Pierce helped form the American Boiler Company, which sold the products of five of the largest American boiler manufacturers. Chicago served as the company’s main office. Three years later, Pierce, Butler & Pierce bought out all the other company stockholders, as well as the company’s manufacturing plant in Eastwood. (Eastwood was incorporated as a village in 1895 and annexed by the city of Syracuse in 1926). The company continued to improve its boiler designs and began to manufacture heating radiators.

William Pierce remained company president until 1914 when Dr. Jesse T. Duryea, a former medical physician of Bronxville, New York, was elected company president when Pierce, Butler & Pierce went into receivership as the result of declaring bankruptcy in January 1914. Dr. Duryea, with his business acumen, had managed hospitals in New York City, and then pursued manufacturing interests, attaining success as president of the Colwell Lead Company, a manufacturer of plumbing and heating supplies. Bankruptcy proceedings caused Pierce, Butler & Pierce Manufacturing Company to be reorganized as the Pierce, Butler & Pierce Manufacturing Corporation. 

William Pierce experienced extreme mental and physical anguish with Pierce, Butler & Pierce’s company bankruptcy, coupled with his own personal bankruptcy. Pierce blamed his company’s demise on the acquisition of the Kellogg-Mackay Company of Chicago, (which became Butler & Pierce’s western sales agency), along with a decline in general business conditions of the time. “The crisis came like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky,” Pierce exclaimed at the bankruptcy hearing in 1914. He testified that the Chicago acquisition would have been a good business decision if economic times had been better. Pierce estimated his own personal worth at $1.2 million (about $32 million today). After losing control of the company he had presided over for almost 30 years, and with his own wealth evaporating, he fell into a deep depression, from which none of his family or friends could extricate him. After months of suffering, Pierce took his own life on April 5, 1915 at age 64 while he and his wife, Eleanor, were visiting a relative in Washington, D.C. Pierce left behind his widow, two sons and a daughter, and three grandchildren. 

Dr. Duryea was optimistic that the company would soon regain its solvency and become even larger. The corporate office moved to New York City in 1915, where it stayed until 1922 before moving back to Syracuse that year. Duryea forged ahead with his expansion plans and, in 1917, bought the Syracuse Faucet and Valve Company and the Azadian Gauge Company, and combined the two companies into Pierce’s valve and gauge department. 

Two years later, Pierce, Butler & Pierce bought the Ames Iron Works in Oswego, which was founded in 1853. This acquisition augmented its product line with Ames uniflow engines and high-pressure boilers. The expansion continued with the acquisition of the Atlantic Radiator Company of Huntington, Pennsylvania in 1920 and the Federal Radiator Company of Zanesville, Ohio in 1923. 

Dr. Duryea’s expansion plans were suddenly interrupted with his death from heart disease in 1927. While making his way to California, possibly to visit his brother in Los Angeles, Duryea was stricken in his hotel room in New Mexico. Besides being president of Pierce, Butler & Pierce, Duryea also was vice president of the Kellogg-Mackay Company and president of the Wolf Manufacturing Company, both of Chicago. After Duryea’s death, his son-in-law, Roger Morton, ascended to the presidency. Morton had been employed by the company for many years with his last position being treasurer. Stanley DeLong, general manager of manufacturing, was elected as president in April 1929. Delong offered strong organizational skills and was adept at directing employees to make quality products that were sold around the U.S. 

Due to its continued bankruptcy circumstances, the company was reorganized again as the Pierce Butler Radiator Corporation in 1935 with a loan of $350,000 negotiated through the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. The loan was used as capital and was to be paid back in four years at 6 percent interest. Along with accepting the stipulations of the loan, the company’s presidency changed again with Blair McFarlane, general manager, stepping into the position. The company’s complex reorganization plan concluded in 1936 when all outstanding debts, as well as attorneys’ and other fees were paid in full — a total of $87,829 (about $1.6 million today). 

By 1941, Pierce Butler Radiator Corporation employed 300 workers at its Syracuse plant. As World War II was unfolding, 60 percent of the company’s business volume was related to defense contracts. Its federal contracts included supplying heating equipment to the federal government for the Maritime Commission’s shipbuilding program for the U.S. Merchant Marine’s merchant ship fleet. That year, the company reported a dramatic uptick in its business and was looking forward to selling additional plumbing supplies and boilers during the autumn season. In 1942, Pierce Butler Radiator produced heating equipment and auxiliary engines in large volume for the U.S. Army and Navy. One of Pierce’s nautical heating units was installed aboard President Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential yacht (the floating White House), the USS Potomac. The military was installing Pierce Butler Radiator heating equipment in barracks, recreation halls, and hospitals serving U.S. military personnel. The company concurrently sold heating products to the federal government for its domestic low-income housing projects. Pierce Butler Radiator declared a net profit of $473,292 for 1942 (about $7.6 million today). 

Pierce Butler Radiator still operated manufacturing plants in Huntington, Pennsylvania; Oswego; and Syracuse. New branch offices opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Glendale, New York; Newark, New Jersey; New London, Connecticut; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Richmond and Roanoke, Virginia, along with existing branch offices in New York City and Philadelphia, and the home office at 282 James St. in Syracuse. Its product line included cast-iron heating boilers fueled by coal, oil, and gas; a variety of heating radiators; as well as valves, traps, and thermometers. The company continued to make the Ames univalve engine and steel boiler first offered in 1919.

For some unexplained reason, from this period forward, information about the Pierce Butler Radiator Company becomes unusually sparse. Only two years after fulfilling federal government military contracts, the Syracuse Herald newspaper reported that in July 1944 the Prosperity Company of Syracuse purchased Pierce Butler Radiator’s 44-acre, 350,000-square-foot complex at 701 Nichols Avenue in Eastwood and renamed it Prosperity’s Plant No. 2. Having manufactured laundry machinery in Syracuse since 1915, the Prosperity Company received government contracts during World War II to manufacture aircraft fuselage, wing, and cabin parts. At Plant No. 2, the Prosperity Company made parts for large cargo airplanes and helicopters ordered by the U.S. Army. When World War II ended in 1945, the Prosperity Laundry Company returned to making laundry machinery for civilian purposes. Prosperity remained in business until its parent company, Ward Industries, closed the Syracuse plant and moved it to Portland, Maine in 1961. Members of the Braun family, who had operated Prosperity Laundry Company since 1915, formed another company named G.A. Braun in 1946, initially to sell Prosperity’s laundry machinery. Ten years later, G.A. Braun began to manufacture and sell its own laundry machinery. Today, G.A. Braun still makes and sells its own laundry machinery in its 255,000-square-foot plant in Syracuse and will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2021. 

But what happened to the Pierce Butler Radiator Company? Did company officials simply sell the company at its possible business peak, not wanting to endure another bankruptcy? The same Syracuse Herald newspaper article states that “New York City men recently acquired control of the Pierce Butler Corporation” and sold its manufacturing equipment. There is no other information about this mysterious acquisition by these “New York City men” and, very little is known about what factors caused the company’s abrupt change toward the end of World War II. 

Under the direction of the unnamed men, Pierce Butler Radiator Corporation continued to operate the Ames Iron Works in Oswego, until the H. Pomeroy Company acquired Ames in 1961. Shortly thereafter, the Fitzgibbons Boiler Company, Inc. of Oswego bought this company. Ames Iron Works closed sometime between July 1963 and June 1964 and was subsequently demolished in early 1965.

So ends the convoluted history of the Pierce, Butler & Pierce Manufacturing Company and Pierce Butler Radiator Corporation and its subsidiary companies. As with so many other American manufacturers of the 19th and 20th centuries, this company took a meandering, tangled path from its glory days of industrial accomplishments and triumphs to its gradual and somewhat enigmatic demise.                                                             

Thomas Hunter is the curator of collections at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.

 

 

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