Story Titles: Barbed Wire in Allentown | The titles of the story
In the 1980s, the First World War was quickly fading from living memory. But several old boys, then living at Phoebe’s house in Allentown, were always ready to share their experiences of the war that was to make the world safe for democracy, a war that would end all wars. Unfortunately, neither. One of their ranks had a particularly dramatic story to tell. He remembers crawling under the coils of barbed wire surrounding the German trenches and suddenly looking up to see a small tag. As he remembered it was stamped with the words – in English – “Barb Wire Works Allentown Pa.” As a native of Allentown, he remembered feeling a mixture of anger and resentment back then, but many years later he questioned the irony of it all.
This did not mean that the company was trading with the enemy. Allentown Barb Wire, then a subsidiary of US Steel known as the American Steel and Wire Company, had been in existence since the 1880s and had sold extensively barbed wire to both parties during World War I before the United States did not enter into conflict in 1917. But this testifies to the importance of the international impact of the factory which was known locally as “the spinning mill”.
At its peak from 1900 to 1920, the 13-acre facility employed 1,200 men working 12-hour shifts and had its own police and fire departments as well as a small hospital. Telegraph keys clicked around the clock for staff to take control, and steam locomotives came in and out in a constant stream. A small community concentrated on Wire Street, many of them immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who made up part of the factory’s workforce. The people of Allentown kept time with his whistle.
According to some sources, the spinning mill arrived in Allentown following a buggy ride. First known as the Iowa Barb Wire Company, it was founded in 1879 in Johnstown, Cambria County. It was a subsidiary of the Iowa Barb Wire Fence Company of Marshalltown, Iowa. In 1881, she became her own business. The president was Charles Douglass. His brother George was secretary-treasurer. Apparently wanting to get closer to the East Coast market, the Douglass brothers moved the business to Easton in 1884. But after two years, they realized they had made a mistake. Although it was a beautiful place, it was confined by hills and the Delaware River. They needed space to lie down. Easton just didn’t come up with that.
In 1886, George Douglass was looking for something nearby. That summer he took a trip to Allentown. Some sources suggest it was just an afternoon getaway. But if so, it was the one who led him to the office of Edward H. Reninger, secretary of the Allentown Board of Trade, ancestor of the Allentown Chamber of Commerce. Allentown was recovering from the panic of 1873 that knocked out the town’s iron industry. The arrival of a silk mill in 1881 from Paterson, NJ had begun a process of development that prevented the town from relying on a single major industry.
Hearing Douglass describe his misfortunes, Reninger began to emphatically emphasize the virtues of Allentown. Some sources claim that Reninger took Douglass on a buggy ride to Little Lehigh to show him some prime 13-acre land. Others claim that he simply persuaded him to see the earth for himself. Either way, it worked.
The barbed wire industry did not begin to organize until the early 1880s. It was made up of a large number of small producers. As the creation of barbed wire was relatively straightforward, competition was common. It brought down the price. Several plans were tried by early wire-bridges Joseph Glidden and Isaac L. Ellwood through patents and pooling operations to raise the price. It took some of the competition out of the business, but it wasn’t the full monopoly that the bigger producers wanted. It was with the arrival on the scene of the colorful figure of John Warne Gates, better known to the press and the public as “Bet-a-Million Gates”, that the mega barbed wire company whose Allentown Barb Wire was finally part, was accomplished. .
The few people who knew Gates in his early years thought he would one day mean a lot. A farm boy who hated farming, he started several failed businesses. What interested him the most was playing poker at the train station with his friends. It wasn’t until Gates became a salesman for the Washburn-Moen barbed wire company that he seemed to have found his niche. Assigned to Texas sales territory, he was tasked with convincing stubborn local ranchers that barbed wire was the best way to keep their cattle from wandering away. Taking control of the military plaza of San Antonio, he had a large herd of cattle loaded with the wire fence. When they saw how he stopped the cattle stampede, the ranchers were sold. Soon Gates was so successful that he decided to start his own business.
Beginning in 1890, Gates, through a series of mergers and takeovers, created a monopoly that other barbed wire manufacturers had found impossible. His instinct as a player, as he understood it, was a way to see the weakness of the opponents. It was in 1892 that Gates acquired Allentown Barb Wire. In 1899, it was part of a huge barbed wire company, eventually called the American Steel and Wire Company. Asked by Congress about his purpose, Gates replied, “We wanted to be the yarn makers of the world.” A detailed account of Gates’ business activities appears in the 1978 issue of “Business History Review” magazine in an article by historian Joseph McFadden.
But also during those ten years of establishing his monopoly, Gates grabbed the headlines for things other than his business interests. It was on a horse racing bet that he got his colorful nickname. In 1900, Gates won $ 600,000 on a bet of $ 70,000 on a race in England. The papers inflated it to a million dollars and the name stuck. Gates has claimed to dislike the nickname, but he never tried to stop using it. His tumultuous poker games at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel were legendary and not much of a legend. Elevator staff were warned not to argue with Gates when he knocked on doors after a night of drinking and playing cards. He was denied admission to the Claridge Hotel in London after a disastrous visit.
It was only natural that Gates would end up clashing with his total opponent, mega investment banker JP Morgan. Morgan’s idea of a “wild” card game was the solitaire. He liked to discuss theology with episcopal bishops. He loved nothing better than strolling through the library of his New York mansion, perusing his collection of illuminated medieval manuscripts chaired by his expert librarian, Belle da Costa Greene. According to Morgan biographer Jean Strouse, although she claimed that Greene’s Portuguese / Dutch ancestry was African American, Belle Marion Greener, whose father was the first black man to graduate from Harvard. “If Morgan knew of Belle’s background, he left no clue,” Strouse writes. “Once she had become indispensable in his library, he might not care.”
Morgan’s passion for business resembled Gates in a way: he believed in the consolidation he controlled. Morgan eventually, in 1901, acquired American Steel and Wire from Gates and made it part of the new US Steel Company headed by Charles “Charlie” Schwab, 39. But that wasn’t until he let the enraged Gates know that his presence on his board was unwelcome. The two continued to fight for other business interests until Gates’ death in Paris in 1911. Port Arthur, Texas is remembered today for his many contributions to that city.
Meanwhile, Allentown workers continued their work. Steel ingots arrived from Pittsburgh where they were melted and rolled into wire which was made into barbed wire, galvanized wire, and nails of all shapes and sizes. It was extremely productive in its day and continued to thrive into the 1920s. The onset of the Great Depression marked the beginning of the long, slow decline of the Allentown Wire Mill. During World War II it won a few defense contracts, but in the summer of 1943 US Steel moved operations to its factories in Ohio. In December, the spinning mill was definitively closed.
Roofless and in ruins, fires were frequent in the 1950s and 1960s. Eventually, the buildings were demolished and a park-like space was created. In 1995, 109 years after the famous buggy ride, the city with the help of the Allentown Garden Club dedicated the site to the Wire Mill Meadow, an arboretum.