Three Rivers and its Brawny Shoulders, Part Two

A Sheffield Car Company handcar, made in Three Rivers. (Illustration by Dave Vago|Watershed Voice)

This article continues from a piece covering the backstory on local railroads in Three Rivers, which can be found here.

As much as some basic truths can remain the same over time, the way those truths present themselves can change significantly. In terms of everyday relationships and activities among its people, Three Rivers functions in much the same way that it has for generations. People still work in specific places that everyone knows about, and they still shop in stores and visit businesses where they are as likely as not to see someone they know.  They take part in social and civic activities and groups, some of which have been around for quite a while.

Those are things that haven’t changed much over time. However, the way those activities look and play out, and the landscape of the town, has changed a lot. The contrast between what has changed and what hasn’t is sometimes stark.

I have spent a significant part of my career developing history museum and park programs. The success of my work often draws upon the link between the things that change over time and the things that stay pretty much the same. Quite often, some of the most important things to stay the same over time are actually universal truths or ideas.

An example of a universal truth is that nearly all people depend on family for support. What defines a family can mean different things for different people and can change over time. So can the idea of what “support” precisely means. Some people might depend on blood relatives to keep a farm going, while others might depend on a “family” of close friends to provide them support when they are going through difficult times. Either way, the concept is the same and relatable for most people and means functionally the same thing even if the details are different.

One truth that has been universal for nearly all of the time Three Rivers has existed is that it is a place that is defined by making things on an industrial scale. That truth permeates the look and feel of the town, its economy, its politics, and the way many of its citizens make a living. Nearly everyone here has some connection to industry.

For example, my grandfather grew up within sight of the Eddy Paper Company’s plant on West Broadway and Fifth Streets, part of which still operates today under the ownership of International Paper. A cousin worked for a stretch at American Axle and Manufacturing (AAM), starting when it was still a General Motors plant. An uncle grew up as the childhood friend of another boy whose family owned the Johnson Corporation, even though they came from different class backgrounds.

Over time, some of the industries have downsized, and most have changed hands. Some have closed and been replaced by others. The physical landscape has changed. The buildings are more single-story blue sheet metal and less multi-story brick, and electricity from the grid has long replaced onsite, coal-fired steam boilers and engines as the factories’ power source.

However, the types of relationships that grow around the local economy define and shape local identity in a way that makes it seamless. Even though factories have opened and closed, basic community relationships between the people who work at the factories, the people who own and operate businesses, town leaders, and everyday citizens have hummed right along.

Against the backdrop of manufacturing, these relationships set many of the characteristics of local identity. Even though my grandfather worked as a pharmacist, like many who worked outside the factories, business depended in no small part on the everyday people who worked in manufacturing. He knew the people that worked in those places, and his relationships with them and his understanding of their needs depended, in part, on knowing how they made their living.

Every store and business that built up Main Street once depended on that kind of understanding, and every store and business today, whether on Main Street, west Michigan Avenue, or the U.S. Highway 131 corridor relies on the same thing. Stores, doctor’s offices, real estate agencies, and auto mechanics are all successful because they build similar relationships to the people who move and partake in the local manufacturing economy.

History is defined and determined by such relationships. This is a universal truth that remains the same in essence even if it plays out in vastly different ways over time. A story of one of the most iconic factories in Three Rivers history, the Sheffield Car Company, is one that is very much built around relationships.

At one time, Three Rivers was growing at a rate that made it appear likely that it might one day become a regional population center. That growth was driven by industry, and that industry was driven by connections between people.

When Three Rivers first began growing aggressively in terms of population and economic productivity, its primary production came from foundries and machine shops. Foundries make things by heating metals up past their melting point and pouring the hot liquid into molds. Castings are their primary product. Machine shops use a variety of powered tools to shape metals or other materials. They do so by grinding, shaving, drilling, and filing away little bits at a time until a finished product is left. Machining is particularly useful where precision and smoothness are necessary, as with interlocking or moving parts.

Machine shops and foundries were useful in the agricultural industry. In fact, along with forging, which involves hammering metals into shape, and fabrication, which involves shaping and assembling things from individual pieces, they were the primary means by which farm equipment in the late 19th century was made and repaired. Three Rivers was an agricultural center when its industrial growth began, and these businesses depended on relationships with the surrounding farming community.

That being the case, it was a natural progression for them to begin scaling up as other influences arrived and other relationships began forming. One of those influences was the railroad. A relationship with the railroad, as it turned out, set the tone for manufacturing in Three Rivers, soon overshadowing small machine shops and their relationships with farmers.

George Sheffield lived on his farm near Three Rivers in the late 1870s and worked in one of the city’s machine shops. To get to and from work, Sheffield walked the tracks of the Michigan Central Railroad, a route of which ran east-west through the city on its way between Jackson and Niles.

In order to ease and expedite his seven-mile commute, Sheffield developed a three-wheeled, hand-powered device called a velocipede, which rode atop the rails. Constructed of a wooden frame with steel and iron wheels and hardware, a velocipede sort of resembled a cross between a recumbent bicycle and a rowing machine. Its two main wheels and frame rode on one of the railroad’s rails, while a third wheel on an outrigger traveled the other rail and provided the device with stability and tracking ability.

Although Sheffield was trespassing on the railroad, legend has it that he encountered a broken rail one evening and flagged down a train, averting disaster. Rather than chastise him or take legal action against him, the railroad saw usefulness in his device and awarded Sheffield a contract to manufacture them for maintenance and inspection crews. Sheffield founded his own plant to make the devices. The operation quickly grew, until the Sheffield Car Company became a nationwide leader in the manufacture of small railroad cars.

In addition to velocipedes, early Sheffield products included the kind of two-person, four-wheeled hand pump cars that became iconic in mid-20th century Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons. The company also made small, non-powered railcars and used its manufacturing abilities to occasionally make non-railroad items.

In a conversation I had recently, another person asked me why I thought that growth stopped, and what permitted a city like Kalamazoo to keep growing where Three Rivers’ population held at four digits. I don’t know all the answers to that question, because like any question involving large groups of humans, there usually isn’t a simple explanation. However, knowing how different relationships worked and changed over time can help provide a general answer.

What changed in the broader manufacturing picture was the development of the internal-combustion engine. Sheffield’s velocipedes and handcars were a little smaller than a small automobile, and it was not long before innovators realized automobile engines could be adapted for railcars. A small but successful collection of manufacturers emerged in Kalamazoo, centered on internal combustion technology. Some, like the Checker Motors Corporation, focused on building automobiles.

Others, like the Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company, made gasoline-powered railcars, and other companies in other places did too. Those companies also built relationships with the railroads, and although Sheffield—which by then belonged to the Fairbanks-Morse Corporation—also made its own gasoline engines and internal combustion railcars, its products no longer dominated the market. Fairbanks-Morse, based in Vermont and with a variety of major factories elsewhere, eventually closed the Three Rivers plant and stopped making small railcars, focusing instead on its many other products.

For a while, then, manufacturing in Three Rivers was a little bit slower, but the city never stopped making things altogether. Three plants that exist today carried it through by specializing in very specific products for which there was sustainable demand. All three still do today, but in very different applications.

Armstrong’s historic specialty has been steam traps, which remove liquid water from steam heating systems to keep them efficient and protect them from damage that can come from the different compressibility of steam versus water. Armstrong specializes today in a variety of heating systems and applications, but steam traps are at its root.

Johnson specialized in equipment which regulates temperatures in steam heating systems, and in devices which use steam heat to form part of the high-temperature processes that occur in papermaking. A relationship with the local and regional paper industry provided an opportunity for the company to grow in a specialized way.

As it has done for generations, W.F. Wells makes horizontal bandsaws that cut metal parts. Their saws are essential tools in workshops everywhere. Wells is still local, with a plant a few miles north of the city limit.

Both Armstrong and Johnson have grown into or become part of larger corporations. Armstrong has plants in multiple states and multiple countries. Johnson is part of Boston-based Kadant today. However, all three companies still have plants in Three Rivers whose specialized capabilities and relationships in the industries that buy their products keep them going, and who make sizable contributions to the city’s total employment.

Fairbanks-Morse didn’t leave town without a legacy. Sheffield’s railroad handcars became a fixture of pop culture for a time. The Essex Wire Company bought its plant and operated it for several decades in the mid-to-late 20th century, albeit with a smaller workforce.

The old Sheffield Car Company also exerted its technological influence on the local foundries and machine shops from which it grew. Some of those workshops outlived it, like the old Dock’s Foundry, which is located next to the former Sheffield plant site and is now Metal Technologies. American Metal Fab also continues in a similar tradition.

Some of those foundries and machine shops, like Metal Technologies, led Three Rivers further into the world of internal combustion by becoming suppliers to the automotive industry. Eventually, specialized auto supply chain plants emerged in town, like Peterson Spring and Fiber Converters.

So, even without Sheffield or Fairbanks-Morse in play, the manufacturing economy hummed along, still defining the local economic and employment picture. For a couple of decades, Armstrong and Johnson were the biggest employers. Within their specialties, they remained iconic, but beyond them, no other manufacturing plant took on the role of an iconic, major employer. Instead, the various, smaller plants collectively made Three Rivers what it was.

Then, in the mid-1950s, the Connecticut-based Continental Can Corporation broke ground on a new factory along the railroad tracks on the northwest side of town. For a little over two decades, what eventually became American Axle and Manufacturing’s Three Rivers plant instead made paper food packaging, just as International Paper and several regional employers in Kalamazoo do today. At its peak, Continental’s Three Rivers plant employed 1,300 people.

One of Three Rivers’ major local companies today, Clark Logic, grew through a relationship with Continental Can. Clark, whose Three Rivers facility is located in parts of the old Sheffield and Eddy Paper plant properties, established a contract with Continental, assisting with storing and moving its products. That relationship enabled it to become a regional logistics powerhouse.

In the late 1970s, Continental reorganized itself, and although some of its operations remained local or in the region, the sprawling Three Rivers plant closed. Salvation came when General Motors (GM) bought the plant for its “Hydramatic” line. Back in the 1930s, “Hydramatic” was the name of a pioneering automatic transmissions, one of the first such devices to be successful on a mass-production scale. In mass production, they first went into Oldsmobiles before also becoming available in Cadillacs, and eventually, most GM vehicles.

By the late 1970s, the Hydramatic transmission had gone through several complete technology updates and grew into an entire drive-line product group. It was a big enough product line that it had long outgrown its original base of construction at the Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti. City tax incentives help bring one of its plants to Three Rivers. The former Continental plant became one of the Hydramatic line’s manufacturing facilities, a fact which eventually set it up for the work that AAM does today.

GM Hydramatic employed roughly 1,000 people in Three Rivers. It came to specialize in transmission and drivelines for some of GM’s larger, rear wheel drive automobiles, as well as for boats and other marine applications. However, its presence in town eventually proved tenuous amid the upheaval that came to dominate the American automotive industry in the late 1980s. Overall employment at the plant dropped to 750, and during periodic layoffs, even that number was sometimes reduced by half.

Finally, in 1994, GM sold the Three Rivers plant to AAM in a move designed to increase cost efficiencies. At the time, AAM was to be a dedicated GM supplier of drive line parts. The Three Rivers plant was one of a handful of plants sold to AAM at the same time.

Today, under AAM, the plant employs a similar number of people to what it did during the height of Continental Can operations. It is no longer exclusively a GM supplier. Instead, AAM bids on contracts to supply drive train components and other parts to many of the major names in the global automotive industry.

Whereas Sheffield employees once worked in multi-story brick buildings lit mostly by natural daylight through large windows and skylights, AAM employees work under bright electric light around the clock in a sprawling, single-level plant designed for efficiency of movement. Sheffield employees once operated hand tools and belt driven machinery to make parts according to pages of blueprint drawing specifications. Today, AAM employees work automated machines that form parts from three-dimensional computerized design files.

Sheffield employees worked long shifts adjacent to exposed, fast-turning gears and pulleys, while AAM employees today work amid protective gear and equipment and written safety protocols. A Sheffield employee knew the smell of coal smoke so thoroughly that it likely didn’t register on any given day unless an autumn fog kept it low, whereas many people today wouldn’t recognize the scent at all.

Nevertheless, an AAM employee today gets up, prepares, goes to work, comes home, eats, raises children, shops and conducts business around town, and participates in leisure activities, just as Sheffield employees once did. From one generation to the next, the town’s factory employees have had supervisors, as well as workplace friends and allies. Managers and salespeople have traveled far and wide to build and maintain relationships with the buyers of the factories’ products.

Outside the factory entrances, the same workers have had family and friends outside work to whom they have spoken about their workday. Shopkeepers, medical professionals, and bankers have learned the names of the factory workers and their families who have kept them in business.

A lot of important details have changed. Those changes have brought various forms of upheaval, growth, pain, and celebration, sometimes all at once. Still, many of the underlying, universal features of life around Three Rivers and the workplaces that keep it afloat are much the same as they have been for generations.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.