Henry L. Pratt

Henry L. Pratt, portrait The president of the Millers Falls Company for thirty-two years, Henry Lee Pratt was born in Shutesbury, Franklin County, Massachusetts, on July 14, 1826. He was the fifth of the eight children of Ephraim Pratt and Huldah Pierce. The elder Pratt, a church deacon, was a farmer of modest means who supplemented his income by teaching country school and taking surveying jobs as they became available. Ephraim Pratt’s sons were promising students. Three of the boys, Hiram Alden, Henry Lee and Lemuel Church, became public school teachers, and a fourth, Ephraim Lorrison, became an inventor.(1)

Dissatisfied with the dismal prospects for financial security that were part and parcel of a nineteenth-century teaching career, Henry L. Pratt opted for a life in business. He left New England, relocating to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became involved in the manufacture of wooden chairs. He returned to his native Franklin County about 1859 and started a lumber business. Several years later, he purchased the poor-farm from the Town of Wendell with the idea of rehabilitating an abandoned mill site on the property.(2) The following announcement appeared in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier on October 10, 1863:

Man Wanted — I will give any man who understands running a sawmill a valuable mill privilege, with dam built, canal dug and timber for the mill frame on the ground, and will also loan money to finish the mill and take my pay in sawing as the usual rates. There is timber enough within one mile of the mill to keep it stocked for many years. Location ten miles from Greenfield and three miles from the railroad. — H. L. Pratt

The ad indicates that Pratt was more interested in selling lumber than in sawing it. He found a taker in a man named Haskell who agreed to his terms, built a sawmill, repaired the dam, and promptly defaulted. In 1864, Henry Pratt sold the site to Amos Morrill and the Haywood brothers. Two years later, he decided to sell his lumber business as well and left Franklin County to become one of the principals in the Detroit Chair Company, a business located in Detroit, Michigan.(3) On April 30, 1866, Pratt advertised a tract of timber along with his lumber business in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier:

Timber Land. — Being about to change my business I offer for sale 100 acres of land, heavily timbered, for twenty dollars an acre. The land is twelve miles east of Greenfield, five miles from Grouts Corner and three miles from North Leverett. To the purchaser I will give all my sleds, wagons, yokes, chains, hooks, saws, &c. with the benefit of a lumber business seven years established. — H. L. Pratt

Millers Falls

Pratt's Elastic Boiler-Tube Scraper In May of 1868, Pratt was back in Greenfield looking for investment opportunities. He soon teamed up with Levi J. Gunn, Charles H. Amidon and James Moore in a project to build a hardware factory and sawmill at the falls of the Millers River at Grouts Corner. The new business was incorporated as the Millers Falls Mfg. Company, and Henry Pratt left the area soon after in order to open a sales office in New York City. Pratt and his wife, the former Frances S. Stoughton, moved to Brooklyn’s upscale First Ward, an area now referred to as Brooklyn Heights. The couple’s location provided all the benefits of suburban living while providing easy access the company offices at 87 Beekman Street (in Manhattan), a short ferry ride across the East River. Pratt was anything but homesick for Massachusetts. Over the next three decades, he would visit the plant just twice a year—combining one of his trips with the annual directors’ meeting.

Henry Pratt became administrator of his brother Ephraim’s estate when the inventor passed way on February 19, 1867. Though his patented designs ranged from an apple parer and gun barrel scrapers to a flour sifter and a tobacco cutter, Ephraim L. Pratt managed to avoid the pitfalls of financial success and died a man of modest means. One of his designs, a boiler tube scraper, was awarded United States Letters Patent no. 66,387 and assigned to Henry Pratt on May 11, 1869fifteen months after Ephraim’s death. More rigid than the standard wire cleaning brush, the scraper was sold by the Millers Falls Manufacturing Company and proved to be effective in removing the toughest deposits from boiler flues. Produced in a variety of diameters, and priced at a dollar an inch, the Millers Falls Company marketed “Pratt’s Elastic Boiler-Tube Scraper” for the next thirty years.

Plymouth church scandal

Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, engraving Soon after settling in Brooklyn, Pratt became a member of fashionable Plymouth Church, a Congregational body whose pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, was considered the foremost preacher in the United States. Beecher, from one of New England’s most prominent families, was brother to the abolitionist novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and the son of noted evangelist Lyman Beecher. When the pastor became caught up in one of the most notorious sex scandals of the nineteenth century, Henry L. Pratt, a prominent member of the church, found himself entangled in the fallout. Though historians still quibble about Beecher’s culpability, the evidence that the good minister involved himself in a series of dalliances with congregants of the fair sex is substantial. In 1865, Theodore Tilton filed criminal charges against Beecher for alienating the affections of his wife. News of the alleged affair and subsequent trial took the country by storm, and the titillating details of the case played themselves out in newspapers from coast to coast.(4)

Tilton’s marriage was destroyed and his court case lost when his wife Elizabeth denied involvement with Beecher. The case had barely been put to rest when Henry C. Bowen, a founder of Plymouth Church and associate of Tilton, testified before a church council that, to his best knowledge, Beecher was “an adulterer, a perjurer and a blasphemer.” Bowen was convinced that Beecher had been involved with his wife as well but steadfastly refused to identify her as the object of the minister’s attentions. When angry church members brought charges against Bowen, Henry L. Pratt served as chair of the committee charged with investigating the matter. The Examining Committee met at Pratt’s house at 77 Hicks Street and eventually recommended that Bowen be excommunicated. At a special church meeting held to take action on the report, Pratt read the committee’s recommendation and in the ensuing discussion had the pleasure of hearing himself referred to as “merely a tool of Mr. Beecher.” The Examining Committee’s recommendation was adopted, and Henry C. Bowen was excommunicated from the church that he had helped to found.

Two years later, Henry Pratt was again drawn into the fray. Elizabeth Tilton, the woman who had denied having an affair with Henry Ward Beecher in 1875, instructed her legal representative to issue a notice to the press that she had misrepresented her relationship with Beecher and had, indeed, been intimate with him. The nation’s newspapers took up the story, and Plymouth church was once again involved in the scandal. When a member of the congregation brought a complaint against Mrs. Tilton, the Examining Committee was called upon to investigate the charges. The committee report—recommending excommunication—was presented at an annual business meeting of the church moderated by Henry Pratt. When the motion to strip Tilton of her membership was made, Pratt asked those in favor to show their hands. Fifteen or twenty members of the two hundred or so present signaled their approval. When the call for the opposed yielded not a single hand, Pratt ruled that the vote for excommunication was unanimous. Although the divisive scandal would eventually result in at least seven of the church’s most prominent members being excommunicated or dropped from its rolls, Henry Ward Beecher remained popular with his congregation.(5)

Inventions

Pratt's four-position hacksaw During his years as president of the Millers Falls Company, Henry Pratt was awarded eight patents—five of them for saws. Although he was involved in the sales side of the business, Pratt is reported to have played a significant role the development of the product line. A highly intelligent man, the understanding of what were, after all, simple tools was not beyond him. The company credited Pratt with the idea for the reciprocating arm that provided the back and forth sawing motion for the company’s highly successful power hacksaw.(6) Although the final design was a collaborative effort, Pratt’s idea provided the spark for the project, and the patent was awarded to him. His other four saw patents were likely his own. All were put into production and sold well. Pratt designed the company’s wooden bracket saw frame and developed the blade fastening mechanism that characterized its better spring steel bracket saws. He also designed a mechanism for holding hacksaw blades with captive bent pin and later on developed a hacksaw frame that allowed for the blade to be positioned in any of four directions.

Two of Pratt’s other patents were extremely successful. One was for the two-jaw chuck used on the company’s hand drills for two decades; the other was for a ratcheting T-auger that allowed a part of the handle to be re-positioned for drilling in tight spaces. A third patent, for a brace with a ring-type ratchet adjuster similar to those used on the company’s tools, does not appear to have been produced. Although he was not a machinist, Henry Pratt appears to have played a substantial role in the thinking that went into these designs.

Final years

Although the Millers Falls Company’s Manhattan office was relocated several times, Henry and Frances Pratt remained steadfast in their commitment to their Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Suburban life agreed with them, and Henry’s commute to the office was no doubt greatly simplified by the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Despite the Beecher scandals, Plymouth Church continued to play a large part in the couple’s life. Henry remained active in the congregation for thirty-two years, served as a deacon for most of that time and taught lessons to several generations of young women in the church’s Sunday School program. The Pratts’ house at 77 Hicks Street was razed as part of a Plymouth Church expansion project, and sometime around 1890, the Pratts moved to 69 Orange Street, around the corner from the Hicks Street location and several doors from the church.

When Henry Pratt began to suffer from health problems in 1898, Edward P. Stoughton took over the active operation of the New York Office. Pratt died of heart failure on December 13, 1900. At the time of his death, his estimated net worth was $350,000—an amount equivalent to ten million United States dollars in 1912.(7)

Patents

Patent Number Date Description
D 8,381 June 8, 1875 design patent scroll saw frame
177,659 May 9, 1876 scroll saw frame
194,109 January 3, 1877 drill-chuck
200,757 February 26, 1878 ratchet bit brace
292,176 January 22, 1884 saw fastening and frame
345,256 July 6, 1886 saw frame
438,860 October 21, 1890 auger handle, assigned to Millers Falls Company
502,996 August 8, 1893 hacksaw machine, assigned to Millers Falls Company

Illustration credits