Levi J. Gunn and Charles H. Amidon were in their early thirties when they decided to go into business for themselves. Employees of the Greenfield Tool Company, the men were interested in manufacturing and were of a mind to establish an operation for building wringers to squeeze the water from freshly laundered clothes. Since Greenfield Tool was in the business of manufacturing of wooden hand planes, the men were well-versed in the technologies of the day and understood the problems inherent in running a factory—skills readily transferable to the task at hand. Gunn, the son of a blacksmith, had been involved with tool manufacture since his youth; Amidon, a shoemaker’s son, was a born innovator. Their enterprise began modestly. Wringers were assembled in rented rooms at a rundown steam mill near Greenfield’s first railway station. Undercapitalized and unsure of success, Gunn and Amidon chose to remain in their positions with the Greenfield Tool Company and tended to the new business part time. In June, 1861, the fledgling business nearly foundered when the steam mill burned forcing the men to reconsider their options.(1)
The fire turned out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise. Since the operation’s wash wringers were selling well, Gunn was able to find the backing needed to revive the enterprise and to secure funds for building a small factory as well. The situation looked promising enough to convince the men that the risk of leaving good jobs with Greenfield Tool was worth the potential reward.(2) Their subsequent selection of a marginal plant site along Cherry Rum Brook in Greenfield’s North Parish was due as much to the modest capitalization of the enterprise as it was to any poor judgment on their part. Well aware that they were working with a smaller stream, the men planned to power the plant with an overshot water wheel—the type most efficient for getting energy from a modest flow. Designed and built by Amidon, the wheel transmitted power to the factory’s machinery by means of thick rope rather than expensive leather belting.
The road to the plant was laid out in spring of 1862, and construction of the manufactory began soon after. The stone dam was built by Ashley Holland, a Greenfield machinist who was an early investor in the enterprise.(3) In the fall, Charles Amidon’s application for a new patented clothes wringer was approved. Production began prior to the final issue of the patent, and Amidon’s wringer was demonstrated at the New York State Fair that same year. It won a first place award, an event that was followed in 1863 by awards at the Pennsylvania State Fair, the Syracuse Mechanics Fair and the Maryland Institute.(4) Gunn’s barn was pressed into service as the operation’s warehouse. It was a cost effective arrangement but one with unforeseen consequences when the structure burned to the ground taking the uninsured inventory, worth $300, along with it. By August 1863—fifteen months after the road to the plant was first platted—nearly twenty thousand Amidon wringers were in customers’ hands.
The success of the Amidon wringer brought with it an expansion of the plant on Cherry Rum Brook. Gunn brought Charles Amidon in as full partner and had this notice published in the December 7, 1863, Gazette and Courier:
Having just completed a large addition to my factory, which is located about one and one half miles north of Greenfield village, to accommodate the rapid increase of manufacture of AMIDON’S PATENT WRINGER, I have this day associated with CHARLES H. AMIDON, (patentee of the above named wringer,) as partner in business, which will be hereafter conducted under the name of GUNN & AMIDON.
Despite having its dam wash away in May of 1864, Gunn & Amidon prospered and added a new product later that year. John S. Lash of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had patented a wringing and washing machine in 1862. Gunn & Amidon modified the machine, replacing the Lash wringer with Amidon’s, and marketed the result as “The Washing-ton Machine.” Advertised as the “cheapest, simplest and most perfect machine in the world,” much was made of the fact that the unit’s Amidon wringer operated without the use of cog wheels and could be trusted to be gentle on clothing. Press notices advised that a bank bill could be “placed in the machine with a dozen dirty collars and the collars washed clean without doing the least injury to the bill.” Eager to leave no promotional stone unturned, the partners’ ads boldly included the challenge, “We defy anyone to produce a better.”(5)
The men found themselves in a cutthroat business. Although wash wringers had become common in middle class households, they were relatively easy to manufacture, and competitors were legion. The much-advertised Universal Clothes Wringer, marketed by Julius Ives & Company in New York City, outsold the Amidon nearly two-to-one in 1863. The Universal used a cog arrangement to transfer motion from the lower roller to the upper—a feature that was heavily promoted. Amidon & Gunn’s response was to market their product as the “anti-cog wheel clothes wringer” intimating that cog-type devices were unreliable and prone to breakage. While Amidon’s wringer sold well enough, it was soon apparent that enhancements were required to keep abreast of the market. In spring of 1865, Charles H. Amidon patented an improvement to his wringing machine. The new wringer was chain driven allowing for a more reliable roller movement and a consistent pressure on laundry items. Mindful of the need to promote its new product, the firm added an illustration of “Amidon’s New Improved Clothes Wringer” to its stationery and envelopes. On July 31, 1865, Gunn, Amidon & Co. placed an ode to the new ringer in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier. While not exactly a literary masterpiece, an examination of the verses shows that, except for subtlety, there is little new in the psychology of advertising.(6)
The partnerships established by Franklin County businessmen were not particularly long lasting. Often created for the purpose of attracting capital or acquiring goods and services, they were formed and abandoned with relative ease as personal or business circumstances warranted. On March 15, 1865, Elijah R. Saxton became a partner in the firm, and the enterprise was given a new name, Gunn, Amidon & Company. Saxton’s tenure with the firm was not to be a lengthy one as he left just fourteen months later. By contemporary standards, the duration of his tenure was unremarkable; the local paper carried frequent announcements of such couplings and uncouplings. After Elijah Saxton’s departure, the firm went back to its original name, and its former partner moved on to Buffalo, New York, where in 1870, he reported to a census taker that he was working at a steam forge.(7)
The operation’s dependence on Amidon’s improved wringer was soon diminished by a product the partners had begun manufacturing in 1864. On May 24th of that year, William H. Barber, a Greenfield native, was issued a patent for a chuck that was ideally suited for use on bit braces. Barber, a machinist who had been building muskets for the Union Army at the armory in Windsor, Vermont, convinced the partners that his idea could succeed in the marketplace. Although it is unlikely that Gunn and Amidon fully understood the revolutionary significance of his design, they were astute enough to purchase the rights. The decision was a sound one. Barber’s shell-type chuck became the standard by which developments in bit-holding technology were judged. Production began at eighteen braces per day; the braces were marketed aggressively; they sold well. Given the tool’s success, it was almost inevitable that Charles Amidon would begin to toy with brace designs of his own. His first, patented in 1865, consisted of a shell-type chuck with its jaws attached to a floating socket block. His second design, patented in 1867, used an eyebolt and wing nut to hold a bit in place. Few examples of either tool survive.(8)
Sales of the Barber brace, however, continued to exceed all expectation. By 1867, production at Gunn, Amidon & Company had risen to several hundred units per week, and a decision to de-emphasize the wringer business was made. Rather than manufacturing the new four-gear wringer patented by Amidon that spring, the rights were sold to the Bailey Washing and Wringing Machine Company of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Within a year, Gunn and Amidon had ceased the manufacture of wringing machines altogether. The partners kept a hand in the wringer business by maintaining a repair operation until late 1868. In addition to providing parts and service for Amidon wringers, an inventory of repair components for Novelty and Champion wringers was kept on hand. The firm also held the local rights to a patent for replacing the rubber surfaces of wringer rollers and re-surfaced most brands upon request.(9)
Charles Amidon kept experimenting and hit a home run with the chuck he patented on January 14, 1868. A rework of Barber’s design, it was outstanding in its simplicity and function, for in addition to being cheaper to manufacture, its jaws provided a secure grip on a wider variety of shanks. Amidon’s Barber Improved Brace became the operation’s best-selling tool and had as much to do with the company’s prosperity as any single product. The introduction of the improved brace coincided with that of another device that would do quite well for the company—the tool holder. The firm’s tool holder consisted of a hollow handle fitted with a chuck into which various bits, chisels, saw blades and the like could be mounted. When not in use, the attachments stored in the hollow of the handle. Minus its accessories, the tool holder was marketed as a deluxe file handle. A handy item around the house and a popular gift item, the tool holder’s gadgetry proved irresistible, and it soon became the basis for the firm’s Family Tool Chest. Consisting of little more than a small wooden box, a tool holder and a dozen or so attachments, the Family Tool Chest strove mightily to live up to its name.(10)
By 1868, it had become apparent to the principals of Gunn & Amidon that the business was at a crossroads. Although the firm’s patented bit braces were selling well and payroll had grown to twenty workers, the factory was inadequate to meet the demand for its products. Cherry Rum Brook did not supply enough waterpower to support a larger operation so an on-site expansion was not feasible. The partners made do by installing an eight-horsepower steam turbine to provide against the inevitable periods of low flow, but there was simply no substitute for the cheap and efficient power of falling water. It was apparent that a new location would need to be found and another plant would need to be built. Certainly Charles Amidon and Levi Gunn, the founders of the operation, did not anticipate that the site they had selected in 1862 would turn out so poorly.