From the Saturday Evening Post, 7/24/1943, pp. 26, 88, 90-91
By PETE MARTIN
After being headed by three successive generations of the same family, The Tredegar, historic firm of the Old Dominion, keeps abreast of progress, yet remains true to its past.
Down in Richmond at the Tredegar Iron Works, when they talk about “The War,” they don’t mean this one. They mean the one historians call the Civil War, but Southerners call the War Between the States. Yet in 1941 The Tredegar won one of the Navy’s first E’s.
Since then it has won the Army-Navy E with two service starts, and many of the projectiles our armed forces use to hone their marksmanship to razor sharpness bear its trade-mark.
The past and present live together intimately at The Tredegar, inseparable as Siamese twins. Tredegar men wear their E insignia with pride, but avoidance of publicity is part of Tredegar tradition. Permission to write this article was granted reluctantly. When the Navy offered to help it unfurl its first E banner and arrange a celebration, The Tredegar thanked the Navy, but “reckoned the officers of the Navy were fully occupied with more important duties” and decided it would just present each workman with a lapel button and a copy of Secretary Knox’s letter of congratulation.
The place is steeped in tradition and history. During the Civil War it made more than 1000 cannon for Lee and Stonewall Jackson and fed those guns a diet of Tredegar shot and shell. The day the Merrimac and the Montior slugged it out was not only a red-letter day in naval warfare, making all previous warships obsolete, it was also a red-letter day for The Tredegar. When the Monitor’s shells pounded against the Merrimac, her slanting sides clanged like an iron gong and the concussions made her crew bleed from the nose and ears.
She had waddled through the water, ugly as a barn roof walking, while 100 Federal guns flung their Sunday punches at her. Then, waddling across Hampton Roads, she came to grips with an amazing little inter bug of a ship – a ship that wasn’t a ship at all, but a turret mounted on a deck.
Powder on the Merrimac was low. The tide was running out and she drew twenty-two feet of water to the Monitor’s ten feet, six inches. Toward evening, she waddled reluctantly home. Workmen crawled over her sides, savoring the fact that not even the heaviest enemy shot had punched a hole in the iron plates that formed her skin. Back in Richmond, The Tredegar savored that fact too. For The Tredegar had rolled more than one and one half million pounds of wrought iron plates to build the Merrimac, and wondered how they would stand the gaff.
It is a startling thought that some of the most desperate battles of the Civil War were fought to protect the few acres in Richmond on which the Tredegar mills and shops nestled dustily beside the James River. But The Tredegar was the Essen, the Manchester, the Pittsburgh of the South, and the arsenal of a government is enormously worth fighting for.
Richmonders call The Tredegar Iron Works simply “The Tredegar”; sometimes simply “The Works.” Actually, in point of time, it was probably not Virginia’s first foundry. But in prestige, flavor and background, it clearly rates the title.
Writing shortly after the Civil War, T. C. DeLeon relates an incident that illustrates the importance of The Tredegar in the minds of the Confederacy. At a time when transportation was scarce, a special train was en route to Petersburg, Virginia. A huge old colored man, blacker than the soot on his face, sat placidly on the platform of the rear car. A Southern officer in charge asked him what he was doing there.
“Rid’n t’ Pete’sburg,” he was told.
“Have you paid you fare?”
“Don’ got nun t’ pay, boss. Rides onner pass, I does.”
“Do you work for the government?”
[p. 80] The colored giant rolled his eyes disdainfully and responded, “No sah! I wuk fur t’ uther consarn.”
DeLeon didn’t bother to explain that “t’ uther consarn” meant The Tredegar. To the Virginians who read his book, that fact was so obvious as to need no elaboration.
In 1836, two men, named Dean and Cunningham, started an iron foundry on the site of the present Tredegar property. The early Tredegar Works consisted of a foundry and puddle-rion furnaces installed and operated by iron workers imported from Tredegar, Wales, where the best puddled iron in the world was made. With a nicety of feeling remarkable even in a time that made a fetish of politeness, Dean and Cunningham wrote the mayor of Tredegar, Wales, asking him if there would be any impropriety in using the name of the town for an American iron works. The mayor, not to be out-Alphonsed by a pair of American Gastons, granted permission.
Early in the 1840’s the company made an arrangement with a West Point graduate, Lieut. Joseph R. Anderson, to act as its agent. In 1843, Anderson leased the company and in 1848 purchased it outright. During the first year of the Civil War, Anderson served as a brigadier general in Hill’s division. In 1862, Robert E. Lee asked him to resume the managership of The Tredegar. At the Tredegar they tell the story of that request like this: General Lee said to General Anderson, “I asked you to come into the army and you’ve done well. Now I’m asking you to go back to The Works. We need you there.”
During the war, The Tredegar ran head on into the same problems that confront industries today. Conscription drained away its manpower. Letters to the Confederate government were written, pleading for the deferment of key men whose conscription would leave irreplaceable gaps in its personnel. The difficulties of retooling and obtaining critical materials were even more puzzling for Tredegar whan they are for the men busy scuttling Hitler right now.
Among the many products produced by The Tredegar before the war were locomotives – the kind with the smokestack flaring out, then closing in again at the vent to keep showers of flaming wood sparks from setting fire to towns and forests. It also made strap rails attached to parallel wooden stringers laid alog the ground, on which these locomotives ran.
When the war was over, The Works was broke but game. It decided to dispatch an emissary to call upon those New England men who had dealt with it in happier days. Tredegar stock was offered to the canny businessmen of Boston, who subscribed to $100,000 worth.
In 1870-71, when Bessemer steel rendered the use of iron for rails obsolete, The Tredegar was not dismayed. It accepted the inevitable, bought up all the iron rails it could find and turned them into spikes, to anchor the new steel rails to the cross ties which had replaced stringers.
When he died, the general was succeeded as Works president by his son, Archer Anderson, and he in turn by his son, Archer Anderson, Jr. For almost 100 years the Andersons were The Tredegar. Three generations of them were its presidents, up until last year, when Archer Anderson, Jr., died. As much as it is possible for the personalities of men to live on in the place where they worked after they are gone, the personalities of the three Andersons live on at The Tredegar. From behind the dim glass of heavily framed oil paintings on the walls their faces look down upon their successors at work.
Most of the payments made to The Tredegar by the Confederate government were made in the form of Confederate scrip and cotton bonds, which were back by bales of cotton deposited against them in warehouses throughout the South. Until the cotton was transformed into gold, those bonds were useless as liquid assets. But The Tredegar managed to get some of its cotton delivered in England on a blockade runner, and a young nephew of Gen. Joseph R. Anderson, Cap’n Ned Archer, made a trip through the cordon of Yankee gunboats to fetch the gold home. The diary he kept on this journey is still in a desk drawer at Tredegar where he placed it on his return in 1865. He started back from London by way of Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the cash. From Halifax he took a boat to Havana, and from Havana e boarded a fast sloop for Florida.
After landing in a Florida coastal swamp on March twenty-third, he painfully worked his way north. On April fifteenth his diary says, with a mixture of despair and defiance:
Left Chester for Charlotte at 1 P. M. Heard of the capture of Lee’s army. Don’t believe it.
Charlotte, North Carolina, was the headquarters of Gen. Joseph E. Johnson’s army, and on the twenty-sixth the the diary records probably the most casual description of the ending of a great war ever written by anyone anywhere:
General Johnston has gone up the road to see Sherman on the subject of peace.
Cap’n Ned stayed on at The Tredegar as plant engineer until his death, in 1918. When the company bought a lot of shells left over from the Civil War as scrap, he pooh-poohed the idea of examining them to see if any vestiges of the powder with which they had been loaded remained. When heavy weights were dropped upon them to smash them, preparatory for smelting, an explosion rent the air, reminiscient of the one which ushered in the Battle of the Crater. Legend has it that Cap’n Ned was far in the forefront of those running for the nearest shelter. Cap’n Ned gave in. There might have been just a “tech” of powder left in those shells, after all, he admitted. The ones still left were dropped quietly into the James.
J. R. J. Anderson, vice-president and treasurer of The Tredegar and the younger brother of the last Anderson president, died in February of this year. He was a member of the Richmond Hunt and passionately fond of riding. At the age of seventy he was the victim of an accident symbolizing the collision between the old and the new. Riding home from a hunt, he was struck by an automobile and thrown violently. At seventy-four, after a period of convalescence, he climbed back in the saddle and rode oce more. The next day he suffered a heart attack and gave up the sport for good.
The Anderson home in Richmond is on Franklin Street. The spirit of the 1800’s dwells in it intact and unreconstructed.
In the dining room is a round table of majestic proportions, turned from a single piece of rosewood. The general effect is one of spaciousness and permanence capable of resisting the nibbling teeth of time. In the evening, William, the Anderson butler, still gathers the family silber into a basket and carries it upstairs to be left overnight in the bedroom of the lady of the house.
The Andersons didn’t believe in mixing a discussion of their business with social conversation. The Tredegar was a member of the Anderson family, and a gentleman doesn’t gossip about a member of his family. Miss Sally Archer Anderson, the general’s granddaughter, eighty, but vibrantly alive both mentally and physically, puts it this way, “I was brought up to believe that if you’ve done something worth while you don’t have to talk about it.” Carried to a point that almost amounts to secrecy, such reticence just about sums up The Tredegar policy.
Mr. Archer Anderson, Jr., the last Anderson president, refused to add to his holdings of Tredegar stock after taking the job or even to advise his closest friends and relatives as to the adviseability of purchasing it. He felt that it would [p. 90] be improper for him to take advantage of an inside knowledge of the company’s affairs to profit thereby or to encourage others to do so.
Twenty years ago, Archer Anderson, Jr., thought that an infusion of outside ideas would be a healthy thing in The Tredegar management. He engaged Paul E. Miller, who had been born and schooled as an engineer in Ohio and who was managing a similar business in Pennsylvania. Miller is now the president of The Works. According to him, Mr. Anerson had few weaknesses as an executive. His genial nature recoiled from the unpleasant task of saying no to people, yet he could and did make tough decisions when the need for them arose.
The twenty years Miller has lived and worked in Richmond is barely an apprecnticeship in The Tredegar scheme of things. Yet in that time he has become rooted in The Works as well as in the exacting occupation of being a Virginian. He has learned to call string beans “snaps,” and the Virginia game bird a “partridge” instead of a “quail.”
Miller, who was elected to the presidency on the death of Mr. Anderson, yields to no one in his reverence for the memory of his first Tredegar employer and believes strongly in the high standards tinged with conservatism which have kept the company operating successfully for more than 100 years. This does not mean that he does not believe in changes, although he admits that he is “a little more conservative” than when he first came to The Tredegar. The standard specifications for almost everything made today by The Tredegar have become increasingly severe, but the company has been able to meet them and maintain its reputation for quality. They started, early in the 1840’s, to manufacture guns, projectiles and anchor chains for the United States Navy, and the only disagreements they have had with Uncle Sam’s armed forces were during the War Between the States.
What the Army thinks of the job Tredegar is doing was emphasized by Colonel D. N. Hauseman, Chief of the Philadelphia Ordnance District under which The Works produces Amy matériel. Colonel Hauseman said:
“Quantity is not enough. Never in the history of war has there been a more exacting life-and-death demand for top quality in ordnance production. The lives of our fighting men may depend on a ten-thousandth of an inch kind of quality, which is almost perfection. Tredegar’s magnificent tradition of craftsmanship over the years is graphically reflected today in its splendid job for Army ordnance. Tredegar has been an inspiration to us all.”
The Tredegar officers who are responsible for production know the workmen as well as the plant. They believe firmly that one of the reasons a small concern can still compete with big companies is that in the smaller organization the people vitally interested can and do pay attention to things that, in a larger company, might seem trivial.
Habit is a powerful force at The Tredegar. Until comparatively recent times – after 1900 – The Tredegar’s vice president and treasurer, W. R. Trainham, now rounding out more than fifty-five years as the keeper of the books, figured the company pay roll in shillings and pence, then translated it into dollars and cents when payments were made.
The only outside phone in the office is in a booth fifty feet from the president’s desk. When there is a call for him, he gets up and walks down the hall to take it. It has always been that way. Miller is used to it and it doesn’t bother him.
Another time-honored Tredegar custom is for the president to open and distribute all mail. “That way you know what’s going on around the place and you don’t have to call a meeting to find out what the other men are doing,” he says.
When, as infrequently happens, a customer feels that a product sold him falls below the high Tredegar standard, The Works investigates, so that it will not happen again, but Mr. E. H. Trigg, secretary and sales manager, trained at The Tredegar, sends no company experts to convince the purchaser that his claim is unfounded. That was the Anderson policy and is still The Tredegar’s. The Tredegar doesn’t believe in throwing things away. During the scrap drive last year it broke up machines that had been used during the Civil War and since put aside.
But while changes come slowly to The Tredegar, it is not because of an ostrich psychology. Tredegar men are keenly aware of what goes on outside.
On December 7, 1941, they were engaged in manufacturing essential supplies for the Army and Navy, and, knowing there would be greatly increased demands for this same product, they overhauled all their idle machinery and remodeled some obsolete equipment. Says Miller, “This place isn’t heading into its second hundred years because it threw its money around. In spite of the fact that we have doubled our production, we haven’t bought a single capital [p. 92] tool since the war started. We haven’t requested a single priority for capital equipment. We’ve merely improved and developed our own machines. When post-war credits are available, they will be used to get ready for the next war, not to pay for equipment used in this one.
The Tredegar is even more hesitant about discarding men than machines. Any number of manufacturing plants have on or two employees who have been on the job for more than fifty years. At The Tredegar such veterans are commonplace. Recently the Virginia Manufacturers Association decided to seek out and suitably recognize that Old Dominion employee who had worked longest ofr one employer. A Tredegar employee named George Miller walked into the front office and told President Miller, “I’ve been reading about this contest in the papers, and I thought maybe I ought to get in on it. I’ve been working here sixty-five years.” Miller got the V. M. A. on the phone. At their next luncheon in Richmond, George Miller sat at the speakers’ table and was given a blackthorn cane with a gold band properly engraved. He had won in a walk, a long, leisurely, pleasant walk through the years. After the presentation, one of the gentlemen at the speakers’ table remarked that any Tredegar officals who were there should be asked to rise, so that the other members of the association could see what kind of people a man could work for for sixty-five years.
Isaiah A. Kinsey, present superintendent of foundries and machine shops, started to work in the shop at the age of fourteen and remembers when a record of the workmen’s hours was kept on slates hung on the shop walls. He was made assistant superintendedt, supervising the production of all ordnance prior to and including World War I. In 1936 he was promoted to the position he now holds.
One day about five years ago, Miller and Kinsey decided to try an experiment. At that time, few large shops would hire a mechanic who was more than forty-five years old. They decided to hire no mechanic who was under fifty. For three years it worked fine. Then the war rush of orders caught up with them and they had to let down the age barrier. But during those three years, Tredegar got many of its best men – meticulous workmen, soaked in pride of craftsmanship. About a year and a half ago, word was sent in that an elderly man named Sherman wanted to see the president about a job. He looked like a Santa Claus without whiskers. “I’m a toolmaker,” he said. “I used to work for The Tredegar. Then I retired, and I haven’t been able to get work for fifteen years. But I’ve got a feeling I could still be usefu.”
“You’ve got a job now,” he was told; “you can start tomorrow.”
The Spirit of Seventy-Six
He asked if he might sit down and pull himself together and get over the shock of finding that someone still wanted him, and tears came to his eyes. He was seventy-six then, and if he is forced to lay off a day, it breaks his heart. The old-timers do not commit absenteeism deliberately. They show up on Monday morning. Men that age don’t go in for big week ends.
Bill Yost, head of the horseshoe factory, spry and pink-cheeked, has served The Tredegar for fifty-five of his seventy-nine years. When he began, his specialty was fabricating shoes for the horses that pulled the horsecars.
Blacksmiths, he claims, were extremely opinionated. :You take the blacksmiths in Minneapolis,” Yost says. “They wanted one kind of shoe, and the smiths across the river in St. Paul wanted another kin. Two smiths in the same village would have altogether different ideas about the best type of shoes to put on their horses, and they felt stronger about it than Methodists and Baptists do about the best way to be baptized.”
Thirty years ago, when the consumption of horseshoes was ten times greater than it is today, The Tredegar made almost 400 different sizes and styles of horse and mule shoes. The was has caused a boom in the horseshoe business. Farmers are shoeing their barefoot plow teams today and hitching them to wagons to carry produce to market on hard-surfaced roads, but they are limited in their selection of shoes to a mere eighty sizes and styles. This is due to The Tredegar’s effort to comply with the War Production Board’s request for simplification.
Even at the Tredegar, where unusual characters are a dime a dozen, Yost is rated a character. He is a vegetarian; in the Tredegar vernacular, a “hay eater.” His simple if earthy rule for longevity is “Watch both ends of your body, and the middle will take care of itself.”
Men of Iron
Not long ago, a British navy officer attached to the purchasing office in New York made a visit to The Tredegar. Shown through the shop, he saw a man of seventy-five operating a boring mill. “That man has been here a long time, hasn’t he?” he asked.
“Only forty years,” he was told.
The captain looked surprised. “Can a man that age do anything?” he wanted to know, and he was told he was the best man the company had for that machine.
When he discovered that the man behind him was seventy-seven and an excellent workman, he declared, “I’m going to write home and tell them they’re missing out on a lot of manpower right under their noses.”
He was much more impressed by the age of the workmen than by the age of the firm. He had been told, among other things, that the company had been in business now more than 100 years, and his reply had been, “I hope you will find that you like the iron business.”
Despite The Tredegar’s emphasis upon age and experience, the company has a sprinkling of promising youngsters who are looking forward, not back.
In the Spanish-American War, The Tredegar furnished shot and shell to Dewey’s fleet. In World War I, it made projectiles for the British government until the United States entered the conflict. After that the entire output of its munitions department went to the United States Army and Navy.
On February third of this year, Adm. C. C. Block, in charge of Navy production awards, wrote to President Miller:
I am glad to advise you that after careful consideration the Navy Board for Production Awards has granted a renewal of the Army-Navy E to The Tredegar Company for an additional period of six months, dating from December 31st, 1942.
I congratulate each and every one of the employees of The Tredegar Company upon their continued splendid achievement in outstanding production. This award is difficult to win, in the firstance, and the requirements for renewal are equally exacting. By winning this additional honor you all have demonstrated a solid determination to supply our fighting forces with the materials they must have to bring this war to a successful conclusion.
Whether or not Admiral Block meant the “you all” in the last sentence to be as appropriately Southern as it sounds is beside the point. The real point is that The Tredegar production is helping win the war. Eighty-five per cent of its effeort is now for the Army and Navy. The Tredegar is wholeheartedly enlisted under the flag Grant hoisted over Richmond. If the sooty colored man of T. C. DeLeon’s Civil War train-ride anecdote were still alive, he would have to answer the question, “Do you work for the Government?” in different fashion. His answer today would be a proud “Yes, sah, boss. Ah sho does.”