The Big SaveJan 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Don Knaus
100 years ago, J.P. Ward’s foundry rekindled the coal town of Blossburg.
Ward Foundry, with its various names, was the foundation for the small town of Blossburg. The company’s payroll sustained Blossburg families like Helen Manikowski’s. In her words, “You’d take your paycheck to the bank on Friday, cash it, and pay the mortgage. Then, you’d start up the street. There was O’Donnell’s Pharmacy, Dr. Berzito’s office. (I skipped the bowling alley and bar.) But along the way you paid bills at the electric and gas company offices, stop at Martin’s Meat Market and the grocery store to buy food for the week, and pay your insurance at Demchak’s Nationwide. If you had anything left, you could walk down the other side of Main. There were two restaurants, a barber shop, Morely’s Jewelry, Monk’s News Stand, a department store, an appliance store, and the town library. I’d drop my girls off at Mabel’s Dairy for a milkshake while I rested in the library next door.”
In truth, the foundry saved the declining town, turning Main Street into bustling businesses. And the people of the town saved the foundry. The founders, the Wards and Kusters, all worked there. But their employees were loyal, too. Kevin Lindquist was the third generation who worked his entire career at Ward. His father, Connie Lindquist, started as a laborer, then union president, and was so respected by management that he retired as a foreman. Kevin’s son, Derek, joined the family business when he punched in at the foundry. Howard Johnson and son Percy, Jake O’Conners and son Andy, Bill Wesneski and son Ron all worked over forty years at the place that mass-produced product from molten iron, brass, and stainless steel. The foundry fed many a family from the grocers and butchers on Main Street.
It also helped in some lesser known ways. Children of employees often worked summers to help pay for college tuition. Several former employees mentioned that they spent their first week “in the pit.” The pit was filthy, hard work with dust so thick one could hardly see, let alone breathe. One-time Ward president, Bruce Eilenberger, smiles and says, “That’s where we sent kids who were wondering whether or not they wanted to return to college.”
So, this is a story about a business. But it’s really a story about people, and small towns, and families, and giving back, and progress.
Patrick Ward, patriarch of the Ward clan, worked at Kennedy Valve in Elmira with his sons Joseph Patrick “J.P.” (foundry foreman), William (machine shop foreman), and John (molder). Patrick and his sons worked for Kennedy Valve for ten years when, in 1919, they started their own Chemung Foundry & Supply on Elmira’s Southside.
The new enterprise fed the families, but J.P. and John had differing views as to how the business should be operated. After four years, J.P left to start his own cast iron foundry, also on the Southside. He had the financial backing of Elmira attorneys Jim Lynch and Tom Finnell, former head football coach at Penn State.
J.P.’s Southside operation was barely underway when he was approached by a group of Blossburg businessmen. Blossburg had been the center of operations for bituminous coal production, but, by this time, mining focus had moved to nearby coal towns in Arnot, Antrim, and Morris Run. In addition, the Hoyt Brothers Tannery, employing from 350 to 500 men, had closed. The coal miners, tannery workers, and a steady flow of immigrants were ready for work. So the town fathers of Blossburg promised J.P. two key things: a ready workforce and two 50-foot-by-150-foot fireproof steel buildings for his operation. J.P. accepted the offer and, in 1924, he moved his foundry to Blossburg. In less than a year, John A. Kuster, J.P.’s brother-in-law, brought his Kennedy Valve experience to manage the new foundry operation.
Before we get “into the weeds” with all the products manufactured by Ward, let’s just agree that all the iron and brass types, sizes, tarred, galvanized, flexible, and more modern products could confuse a plumber. So we won’t list them all. And though the operation took on differing names, Ward was always in the title so “Ward” might suffice. Or “The Foundry.”
Off and Running…
In 1927, J.P. purchased a small one-man foundry adjacent to the Ward facility and employed the worker as a molder. By 1928, J.P. Ward Foundry facilities had doubled in size to accommodate a rapidly increasing demand for their products. Oscar Sparling, former supervisor of the tannery, took on general maintenance.
A year later, the Seymour House, the former grand lady of hostelries in the coal region, came up for sale. Ward bought the hotel, tore it down, and used the lumber to build an addition that would run right to the railroad lines. That addition made it possible for the installation of annealing ovens. The annealing process allowed the foundry to produce malleable iron fittings, malleable meaning bendable and not brittle and breakable like ordinary cast iron. These upgrades included equipment to produce malleable iron pipe unions—a plant innovation that quickly placed Ward in a much improved position in their product line. Next, Ward purchased an empty tannery in Troy, and salvaged the power station and boiler room. The boiler gave the plants steam heat, replacing the old hand-fired stoves that were placed around the facilities. Using the power station, they could generate their own electrical power. The electric company quickly cut rates to the plants for size-able savings.
For some time the foundry had coated the cast iron with tar to prevent rust, but they soon had a galvanizing station. The zinc coating was more efficient and cleaner than the tar application. Two houses in Arnot were dismantled and used to build an office and shipping docks. Other improvements gave the foundry room to produce small (from half-inch to one-inch) brass, ells, tees, plugs, and bushings.
Good Times, Bad Times...
In the depths of the Great Depression, 1936, some employees of J.P. Ward Foundry went on strike. More than half of the employees remained on the job. A single incident marred negotiations before J.P. settled the labor dispute. A worker stopped at a local watering hole for a beer on the way home. Asked by the strikers if he intended to continue working, he said, “Yes. I need the work.” Union men grabbed him, carried him outside, and pinned his arms to his side while three men assailed him. Chief Park Bateman promptly arrested the trio. J.P. and the workers settled in ten days.
Charles Dickens had it spot-on—it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was 1938, a year that would measure the mettle of the managers and iron workers. The young sons of the founders, Charlie Ward and John C. “Hap” Kuster, were tasked to lead a new project. The company had purchased the abandoned Hoyt Brothers Tannery on Taber Street. The elders told Charlie and Hap to raze the remains of the tannery and build, from the ground up, the most modern foundry in the world. Charlie, just twenty-five years old, was tapped to head the project along with his equally young cousin—and best friend—Hap. They actually used the wood from the old liquor vats to build. Though it was officially the Ward & Kuster Foundry, the site was simply called W&K Foundry.
Things were looking up. Then, J.P. died suddenly. There were thoughts of closing, but Charlie assumed the presidency and pressed on with Hap’s help. At the time, Charlie was the youngest corporate president in the country.
Just as things began to smooth out and “hum” nicely, as Hap would say, on Taber Street, the Gulick Street main foundry and machine shop burned to the ground, killing one man. While embers smoldered, Charlie began planning a rebuild—a better facility. The erection of the new shops took most of a year and employed many of the out-of-work foundry employees. After that, things began humming again.
In 1955, the company undertook the momentous task of erecting a new, highly-automated plant across from the W&K. This new facility helped support the needs of Ward’s customers as a result of the introduction of some of the fastest automatic molding machines in the world, and product additions including Class 300 fittings, brass-to-brass seated unions, and Ward Lox end fittings.
In the late ’50s, Charlie and Hap flew to Germany to examine several more modern pieces of machinery. With the consulting advice from a German engineer, the two returned with another modernization—the “continuous caster,” which improved metal yield, quality, productivity, and cost efficiency.
From the gravities of the Depression through World War II and beyond, Ward has helped local causes. Charlie, a superior athlete before polio sapped his skills, determined that Blossburg would have the finest baseball diamond around. With foundry seed money and foundry labor, the field at Island Park was landscaped, a new backstop was built, a four-foot wooden fence surrounded the field, dugouts were built, and bleachers were erected. Inspired by the results of the ball field, the foundry started a total restoration of Island Park. Later, when the town decided it needed a swimming pool, Charlie and Hap were the first to be approached for funding. Ward also funded the Little League fields. The foundry was a major donor for the town’s Memorial Library, its band, and its Veterans Memorial Park.
After the flood that devastated the town in 1946, foundry leaders were instrumental in securing aid for flood dikes along Johnson Creek and the Tioga River. During that flood, Hap had risked his life guiding a bulldozer trying to channel flood waters away from the foundry. Hastily erected sandbag walls were failing. Rail tracks leading to W&K had formed a dam. In a desperate attempt to divert the water away, Hap used dynamite to blow the tracks. It worked.
Behind the scenes, Charlie and Hap, wishing to remain anonymous, helped numerous people in need. They worked with the Blossburg bank board to establish the “Bank Scholarship” that saw deserving students go to college.
By 1953, Hap, Charlie, and a number of workers noted an urgent need for better fire protection in the community. In Hap’s words: “We will establish a modern, effective, first-class fire department.” The department had been housed in a dilapidated wooden structure adjacent to the massive stone borough building. It was embarrassing, and they’d had enough. With Ward largesse and the efforts of townspeople—many of them Ward employees—the fire department building, replete with garage to house equipment, came into existence. The foundry donated steel girders for the new facilities and sent a crew of foundry workers and a crane to erect the structure. Needing more land, Ward donated land for the department. The Blossburg Fire Department subsequently named Hap an honorary life member.
When Hap heard that daytime fire protection had been spotty, as volunteer firefighters were working. To alleviate that problem, Ward management told firemen who worked in the foundry that they could leave work to fight fires.
No sooner had the fire department building been completed, when Hap started an ambulance company, and was subsequently listed on the first roster of officers. Many foundry employees over the years took an active role in the department, including Steve Hall, recently recognized for his thirty years as department president, and Kevin Lindquist, also a long-tenured and valuable fire department officer. Steve was also honored for over twenty years of service as ambulance company president.
In 1978, Charlie and Hap had an offer to sell the company. The family had owned and operated the Ward foundries for fifty-five years, but they thought maybe it was time. Retaining ten percent of the stock and a five-year consulting contract for each, they accepted the offer and sold Ward Foundries to the Interpace Corporation.
In April of 1979, the new owners hired Dick Hummel, who had previously served as president of a foundry in Lancaster, to serve as the new president. He was quickly positioned in Blossburg and retained most supervisory staff and management, including Jeff Harman and others. A year later, Interpace sent Bruce Eilenberger, assigning him to shadow Hap. His initial title was assistant foundry manager. The plan was for Bruce to replace Hap when Hap retired. Bruce says of his mentor, “John Kuster was an amazing, extremely smart man. I learned a lot from him.” They also sent a chief financial officer. They made no changes in the operation.
Four years after the Interpace purchase, Clevepak bought Ward. They honored the consulting contract with Charlie and Hap, who retired within a year. Clevepak made no operational changes and retained Dick, Bruce, and the Interpace CFO.
Two years later, the managers got word that Ward Clevepak was ready to sell. Bruce and Jeff organized a management group, secured financing, and bought the business. As Bruce notes, “After purchase, we added a ductile iron capability and that opened the door to becoming a major supplier to Ford and Chrysler, supplying car wheel hubs. And when we bought the foundry, we put Jeff Harman back in his role as CFO. Jeff was an amazing, dedicated man.” Bruce was elected president. Joining the group was Mark Meyer, who covered sales. Mark created markets as far away as Mexico. They controlled the flange industry nationally.
“We changed the name to Ward Manufacturing,” Bruce adds.
Ward Manufacturing’s entry into the automotive market attracted the attention of the Japanese firm Hitachi. The company is part owner and the major supplier to Nissan, as well as the largest producer of pipe fittings in the world. Hitachi bought Ward Manufacturing in 1989. At that time, Ward had been producing more than 3,000 tons of pipe fittings and auto castings per month. Hitachi sent Doyne Chartrau to be president of Ward Hitachi Metals Automotive Components—HMAC. As Bruce says, “Chartrau was very fortunate to have the finest group of employees on the planet.”
After the Ward acquisition, Hitachi decided to expand its ductile iron automotive production with construction of a $100 million auto parts plant in Lawrenceville. The new plant would employ 500 workers with a payroll exceeding $10 million. The Lawrenceville plant would use state-of-the-art computer technology. Training for employees was a key to the intended success. The groundbreaking was early 1996. When the complex was built, it was hailed as the most modern plant in the U.S. The new facilities would include the Automotive Cast Parts (ACP) Division. The plants make WardFlex, corrugated stainless steel tubing (introduced in 2000), and various fittings. HMAC brought technology from Annville, Pennsylvania, purchased a Wisconsin venture, Waupaca, in 2006, bought the empty Liberty Lingerie factory for warehouse space, and used the idle Wellsboro Dresser plant.
It’s All About Community
In 1996, Hap was partway through a thirteen-year tenure as mayor of Blossburg, this following twenty-four years as borough councilman. Other Ward employees had also served years on the borough council. The various owners following the initial sale by the Ward and Kuster families have continued with community service, expanding aid and assistance to a wider area. HMAC created the Community Action Committee to help local causes. They have contracted with the Mansfield-based Partners in Progress for twenty-eight years—their workers have assembled millions of parts. Ward received the Susquehanna Health Lifetime Achievement Award when they donated $3 million toward the new emergency room at Soldiers + Sailors Memorial Hospital in Wellsboro. Their gifting and service includes: $400,000 toward the all-weather football field at Wellsboro’s high school; $365,000 to Mill Cove Environmental Education Center in Mansfield; annual Platinum Sponsor to the Endless Mountains Music Festival; $75,000 toward the Workforce Development Program in county high schools; scoreboard for North Penn-Mansfield football; annual sponsor and funding for Blossburg Coal Fest; erection of monuments on Island Park; donated land for Lawrenceville health clinic; cooperation with Blossburg Fire and Rescue; 700 pounds of pet food and cash to Second Chance Animal Sanctuaries—and so on.
And so, for 100 years, the Ward foundry operation has been a steady employer and a boon to local nonprofits. The current president, Pete Guidi, rattles off a number of employees who had logged forty and fifty years of service. It’s a testament to the loyalty displayed by management and, of course, to the labor force that makes it all work. For the majority of its existence, Ward’s direction was steered by the Ward and Kuster families. Since then, the venture has seen changes in ownership, manufacturing upgrades, additional sites, and new leadership. For now, Ward seems to be in steady hands.
Pete muses, “I love this place. You know, Charlie Ward was president for forty-one years. I’d like to match his record. But I doubt I can.”
The goal all along wasn’t to just keep up. The management and labor force aimed to keep ahead of the now worldwide competition. The team effort has done just that. The enterprise now has a worldwide market, and Ward, with its home base still in Blossburg, is a recognized and respected product name.