The history of Burhans & Black, Inc. dates back to 1874 when Henry Nehemiah Burhans’ sash, blind, and door company joined with Jerrold William Black’s hardware business to become Burhans, Black & Co.
Henry Nehemiah Burhans was born in the town of DeWitt on Oct. 12, 1839. He received his education at Fayetteville Union School and at Carey Collegiate Institute in Caseyville, New York. At age 22, Henry was mustered into military service as a first lieutenant of Company F, 149th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the Fourth Onondaga) on Sept. 18, 1862, during the American Civil War. Henry was promoted to the rank of captain in November 1862 and then to major in May 1865, at the close of the war. He was subsequently brevetted to the rank of colonel that June for gallant and meritorious service. Henry commanded the 149th Regiment for a short time in 1864 and served with distinction, participating in several battles and skirmishes. He also was assigned as provost marshal at Savannah, Georgia after General William Tecumseh Sherman captured the city in December 1864.
At the end of the Civil War, Henry Burhans returned to Central New York and associated himself with his father, Daniel, and his father-in-law, Orlow D. Blanchard, in the business, Burhans, Blanchard & Co., lumber manufacturers and dealers in Fayetteville. The company also made and sold window sashes and blinds, shutters, doors, wood flooring, lath, and house siding. By the time Henry joined his father and father-in-law in the business, he had been married to Orlow’s daughter, Sarah Jane, since June 11, 1861. Together, Henry and Sarah had three children: Orlo, Jennie, and Harry.
Henry Burhans purchased the company’s builders’ supply house in Syracuse in 1874 and established a hardware business on James Street. Later that year, a fire on James Street burned out Burhans’ business, so he joined Jerrold Black and formed Burhans, Black & Co. In 1875, Burhans, Black & Co. was located at 51 E. Genesee St., where it sold hardware, builders’ supplies, molding, French and American ornamental glass, tools, showcases, even aquariums.
In the early months of 1877, Burhans, Black & Co. sold blue glass associated with a new medical movement and craze known as the “Great Blue Light Cure.” Augustus Pleasonton claimed in a book — entitled “The Influence Of The Blue Ray Of The Sunlight And Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky and published in 1876 — that natural light passing through blue-glass panes dramatically improved the health and growth of plants and animals. He also claimed that people benefited from the effects of light tinted by blue glass, asserting through various testimonials that it cured baldness, insomnia, and back pain. Pleasonton’s “Great Blue Light Cure” became an overnight medical frenzy in 1877. As a result, blue-glass prices skyrocketed. Burhans, Black & Co. took advantage of the craze by advertising in the Syracuse Journal newspaper in the winter and spring of 1877 that its hardware store sold blue glass befitting the medical movement, sometimes specifically citing genuine French Mazarine blue glass. As part of the sale, store employees also were willing to cut pieces to size and frame them for their customers. Some newspapers around the country earnestly reported on the “cure,” while others derisively dismissed its scientific and medical assertions. In a relatively short time, the medical mania ended, and the store stopped advertising blue glass as part of the medical treatment.
In 1890, the company was incorporated as Burhans & Black, Inc. and was located in a five-story building at 136 North Salina St., where it stayed for many years. This location proved to be quite successful for the hardware company; people having recognized it as the site of a hardware business since 1846. About this time, the store was generating about $150,000 in annual revenue (about $4.6 million today).
By 1896, Burhans & Black operated a wholesale business at 136 North Salina St. and a retail business at 112, 114, & 115 South Clinton St., and employed 25 assistants and specialists. The company purchased other hardware firms, thereby, expanding its inventory. In 1896, the Syracuse Post newspaper reported that, “It is safe to say that from the Atlantic to the shores of the Great Lakes no [hardware business] can show a heavier stock or a finer line of hardware than that of Burhans, Black & Co. They purchase nearly all their goods in carload lots direct from the factories where they are made, and there is probably nothing in the hardware line that cannot be found at these stores, the firm supplying everything for buildings except the masonry.” Indeed, by then the company not only sold traditional hardware items but also offered athletic and sports equipment, including golf clubs and accessories.
Henry Burhans passed away on Dec. 2, 1908. He was mourned by members of the business community, as well as Civil War veterans. A Syracuse newspaper noted, “His death removes one of the best-known veterans that went out from Onondaga county during the Civil War. He was also one of the most successful businessmen in Syracuse and had an unusually large acquaintance.” Colonel L.O. Morgan, one of Burhans’ military compatriots, was quoted as saying, “All the men loved him. He was a brave soldier.” Henry Burhans was predeceased by his wife, Sarah, but all three of his children survived him.
Henry Burhans’ son, Orlo, company VP, became president in 1910. Upon graduating from the Cayuga Lake Military Academy in 1888, Orlo joined his father in Burhans & Black.
When Jerrold W. Black died in 1918, Burhans family members, including Orlo and his brother, Harry, purchased the Black family’s company interest, thus becoming sole owners.
By the 1920s, along with customary hardware supplies, the business also sold automobile tires, automobile paint, and other automobile supplies, washing machines, fire extinguishers, vacuum cleaners, fishing rods, and tackle, roller skates, lawn rollers, refrigerators, garden hoses and reels, lawn mowers, and many other products.
By the end of 1922, Burhans & Black had purchased six other hardware companies, counted 115 employees and 15 traveling salesmen. It was the largest wholesale and retail hardware business between Rochester and New York City. It owed its success to the time-honored slogan, “If it’s hardware, we have it.” By the end of 1924, Burhans & Black was conducting $2 million in business (about $35 million today).
Orlo D. Burhans retired in 1926 and he, along with other company officials, including his brother, Harry, sold the firm to a new corporation that retained the old business name. At the time, the business was capitalized at more than $1 million. The new company officers, Fred L. Hawes, William C. McClaskey, Charles G. Ralph, and Edwin C. Kruger were enthusiastic about the future of the company and vowed to immediately increase sales. One local newspaper reporter, bemoaning the loss of the longstanding hardware business, stated in February 1926, “The old now gives way to the new; and, while we lament the departure of the one, we can welcome and congratulate its worthy and well equipped successor.”
Burhans & Black continued to prosper into the 1930s amid the Great Depression. The company continued to sell a wide array of products, from large appliances, lawn-care equipment and supplies to sports gear. During the 1930s, its advertisements displayed the logo of the National Recovery Administration, a federal agency established in 1933 to reduce unemployment, eliminate unfair trade practices, and establish minimum wages and maximum work hours.
However, in September 1934, Burhans & Black officials announced they were discontinuing the retail side of the business. The company would offer its entire retail inventory first to other hardware dealers and then to the public. Once the company sold its retail inventory, it would concentrate only on its wholesale business. Advertisements then appeared in the Syracuse newspapers declaring that over 40,000 items, valued at over $100,000, were being sold at greatly reduced prices.
In April 1935, Burhans & Black announced that it had more than $1.4 million in liabilities and sought to settle with its creditors and reorganize the company under section 77B of the bankruptcy law. The company’s petition stated that since the Salt Springs Bank had closed in March 1933, Burhans & Black struggled to establish a sufficient line of credit with another Syracuse bank to carry on its business. Once creditors began to file for overdue payment, the company sought corporate protection by the bankruptcy court. Burhans & Black was allowed to reorganize in December 1935. It remained in operation under court supervision until September 1940 when creditors were paid at about 40 percent of each dollar owed and Burhans & Black was allowed to resume normal business practices without court supervision.
Orlo D. Burhans died in 1942 at age 72. Along with managing Burhans & Black for 16 years, Orlo was a member of the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce, a Mason associated with a few Syracuse chapters, and a member of First Baptist Church in Syracuse. He also claimed descent from William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, as well as other Mayflower passengers.
Orlo’s brother, Harry, also active in the Burhans & Black hardware business, passed away in September 1952. Harry attended Syracuse University, but then transferred to Boston Technical Institute, graduating from there in 1905 (Boston Technical Institute later became Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Upon his graduation, Harry joined Burhans & Black. Harry and his wife, Florence, had no children.
Burhans & Black contracted to sell its wholesale business assets, excluding real estate, in February 1953 to Rose, Kimball & Baxter, Inc., a long-established hardware firm in Elmira. This company planned to expand the wholesale building division with its Syracuse location, but since the property was not part of the sale, Rose, Kimball & Baxter also planned to build its own one story, 25,000-square-foot warehouse on Court Street in Syracuse. Rose, Kimball & Baxter only stayed at this location for one year, moving to 735 Spencer St. in 1955. The company closed its building division in Syracuse sometime in 1960.
The former site of Burhans & Black at 136 North Salina St. sustained heavy smoke and water damage caused by a fire on Jan. 31, 1973. First discovered at about 10 p.m. on that Wednesday, the fire destroyed several businesses on the east side of the street, including Markson Furniture Company, as well as Durston’s Drug Store, which occupied number 136 at the time. Two years later, the damaged building was demolished, thus ending any physical connection to the well-known hardware company, Burhans & Black. Today, the site is simply a parking lot.
Thomas Hunter is curator of collections at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.