I have written about various aspects of my connections to Scovill Manufacturing Company a number of times. But I thought it appropriate to pull them all together, as well as give a history of the company.
Scovill began life in 1802 as a button factory that was started by Abel Porter (*1), my 3rd cousin (5 times removed). In 1911, James Scovill and two others bought Abel’s business and began turning it into a brass company (*2). A few years later, James’ brother, William, bought out the other two men and the two brothers renamed it after themselves. James and William are also related to me through another connection as well (*3).
In 1918, my great-grandfather, Louis Russell (*4), began working in Waterbury, building a new power plant for Scovill. Here are the details of that as previous published in (*5).
My great-grandfather, Louis Russell (1871-1946), was born in Kent, but grew up in New Milford. He learned how to be a millwright from his father. He initially worked for the New England Lime and Cement Company, then trained to be an electrician and began working for the Tucker Electrical Construction Company.
During WWI, Connecticut produced nearly ¾ of the brass munitions used by the US. There were a number of large brass mills in Waterbury, CT, one of which was Scovill Manufacturing Company. When Russia entered the war, they wanted to have access to these same sorts of brass munitions. Czar Nicholas II paid Scovill to build a new power plant so they could increase their production and sell this increase to him. The Tucker Electrical Construction Company was selected by Scovill to build this new power plant. My great-grandfather moved his family to Waterbury during the war to help build this new power plant – a move that was funded by the Russians!
When the plant was finished, my great-grandfather was hired by Scovill to help run the plant that he had helped build. So, on August 26, 1918, the Russell family began working for Scovill – a relationship that lasted for over 60 years.
In 1924, when my grandparents separated, my grandfather, Erskine, left his wife and two small children living in Bridgeport and moved to Waterbury to live with his father and step-mother. His father, Louis, got him a job also working in the power plant. My grandfather eventually divorced, then later remarried in 1933, moving out of his father’s house, but continuing to work for Scovill.
In 1937, my father left his mother and step-father in Danbury and also went to live with Louis and his wife. When he graduated from high school in 1939, he also began working for Scovill as a draftsman. During WWI my father was serving in the US Navy in the South Pacific. Louis finally retired (at age 74 and with 27 years of service) when the war ended and died just a few months later. There is a picture of him in the Scovill Bulletin in February 1946 in honor of his years of service. Erskine also left Scovill at that time (with 21 years of service). Thus, when my father returned from his service in April 1946, he found himself the only one still working at Scovill. Nonetheless, he remained at Scovill until 1981 when he retired early (at age 60 and with 42 years of service). He also has a picture in the Scovill Bulletin in April 1964 when he had 25 years of service.
Meanwhile, I had my own encounter with Scovill, but not as an employee. During 1963-1964, the company had a contest for children/grandchildren of employees to write a paper on a current business topic. The top two winners each received a share of company stock (worth about $40 at the time) and the next three top paper writers received $25 and a glass serving dish. In the fall of 1963 I was one of the “honorable mentions” and received one of the $25 prizes, then I entered again that winter and received a share of stock. The topic for that quarter was “The Effect of Proposed Tax Reduction on Our Economy.” An excerpt from my paper appeared in the Scovill Bulletin for February 1964 and read:
“Paying less taxes would enable them (individual taxpayers) to have more money. This money would be spent, invested, or saved. If spent, the increased flow of money into stores and businesses would lead to expansion of these businesses so they could handle the increased volume of business. New jobs would result, both in the businesses and the firms that supply them. Money invested in businesses and industries would enable them to expand. Dividends returned to the investors could be spent, saved, or reinvested, and since money saved is actually invested in a savings institution, the same would apply there.
“What is the effect of a tax reduction on our economy? On the whole we come to see that it brings more jobs, increased business, and new products, which makes for a better and more vigorous economy.”
They ran the contest once more in the spring, then the six winners were invited to the company annual meeting as guests of the company. My picture appeared along with the other five winners alongside of the board chairman as well as the company president in May 1964.
The president at the time was Malcolm Baldridge (*6). He had been recruited by Scovill and joined as president in 1962, at the fairly young age of 40. Shortly after the picture that was taken with me, the previous board chair resigned and Malcolm became chairman and CEO in addition to being the president. He left Scovill in 1980 and joined the cabinet of Ronald Reagan as Secretary of Commerce. The Wikipedia article has many more details on his life.
Following that meeting of the shareholders, I was given a tour of the plant and offices of the company – with my father given the day off from his normal duties to accompany me. This was a rare privilege as the outside world was generally not allowed in – even my mother during my father’s over 40 years with the company was never allowed to see where he worked. We saw the continuous casting of brass, the rolling mills which turned the long ingots into sheets, and even the drafting tables where my father toiled.
I held onto my share of stock in Scovill for many years. The stock price rose to $100, then split so I had two shares. Four times a year my mother received a check (I was a minor so the stock was had on it “UGMA (uniform gifts to minors act)”). During my last undergraduate year of college, I sold those two shares as I was paying for my own college education and that additional $120 or so was needed to help pay that year’s tuition.
After 1981, when my father took early retirement and went to work elsewhere for several years, our family association with Scovill ended. But the plant maintained a large presence in Waterbury. I was by then living in PA and only passed the plant during our periodic visits to CT to visit my parents and other relatives.
Beginning around that same time, the diversification that had taken place under Malcolm Baldridge was being undone. Hamilton Beach (mixers and other appliances) which was a subsidiary of Scovill was sold off (*7). Schrader Air Valves was also sold off (*8). The brass mills which had been spun off as a separate company (Century Brass) in 1975 were shut down in 1985, ending the production of brass in Waterbury after 175 years (*9).
In 1997, Scovill Fasteners, the last remaining portion of a once large diversified company, moved its corporate offices to Clarkesville, GA – a plant that our family had visited back in the early 1960s when my father went there for a weeklong project and the family all traveled with him and took vacation in the town (*10). Meanwhile, the large property occupied by the old mills and offices had been bulldozed and turned into two adjoining malls, the Brass Mill Center and the Brass Mill Commons (*11). These opened in 1997.
The company is now just a small shell of what it had once been. They no longer have any presence in Waterbury. Between my ancestral relationship to its founders, and all my relatives who spent the bulk of their working career there, it makes me sad whenever we have the opportunity to drive past what is now an aging mall.