Millers Falls Company: 1930-1948

Goodell-Pratt merger

Millers Falls catalog cover 1935 The onset of the Great Depression brought hardship to many of the small manufacturers in western Massachusetts. As conditions declined, workers were let go, products were discontinued and some factories were shuttered. At times, weaker firms merged with stronger competitors in the hope of fighting off stagnation, or even worse, bankruptcy. It was in this environment, on March 29, 1931, that the principals of the Millers Falls Company and the struggling Goodell-Pratt Company elected to merge the firms. The companies were engaged in head-to-head competition in their marketing of similar lines of braces, breast drills, hand drills, push drills, automatic screwdrivers and hacksaws. With their main factories a short twenty-five minute drive from one another, numerous redundant operations and duplicate products could be eliminated and costs reduced. The transaction was anything but the case of a large, well-heeled company swallowing a small competitor. Goodell-Pratt, located in Greenfield, employed a workforce of 400 employees and maintained a physical plant roughly the same size as that of Millers Falls. As part of the deal, William M. Pratt, the Goodell-Pratt president, became a member of the Millers Falls Company’s board of directors, a position he would hold until his death in 1946. The merger brought Goodell-Pratt’s precision tool business to the Millers Falls Company and added 150,000 square feet of well-maintained plant with a headquarters in a larger, more prosperous town. The main office of the Millers Falls Company was soon moved to the Greenfield plant.

When Millers Falls merged with Goodell-Pratt, it did so during the worst climate for business expansion in the twentieth century. The acquisition of a firm so nearly its own size compounded the problems. Prior to the merger, Goodell-Pratt had boasted it manufactured a line of “1500 good tools.” Unfortunately, with the exception of its precision tools, most of that line duplicated existing Millers Falls production. The problem was most evident in the lines where products were nearly a model-for-model match. The combined firms carried an inventory that included forty-eight different hacksaw frames, thirty-seven different hand drills and thirty-three breast drills. Roughly half of these tools were duplicative. Further redundancies included miter boxes, tool holders, chucks, electric drills, punches, nail sets, levels, and polishing heads. There were problems, too, in the areas where the companies had specialized. Millers Falls manufactured far too many braces; Goodell-Pratt carried too many rules.

It was clear reductions were in order, and the Millers Falls Company did just that. By the time Catalog No. 41 was published in 1935, eighty-nine braces had become forty-one, and the number of hacksaw frames, hand drills, and breast drills had been halved. The company repositioned itself in the precision tool market, selling a reduced line of the more popular tools rather than taking the comprehensive approach of Goodell-Pratt. Precision rule offerings shrank from Goodell-Pratt’s 109 to thirteen, and the number of micrometers in the line dropped by nearly one third. Eager to make the most of the Goodell-Pratt reputation and to retain its new customer base, Millers Falls added the Goodell-Pratt trademark to the 1935 edition of its consolidated catalog and kept some of the better selling Goodell-Pratt tools in production until 1948.

The company began eliminating its smaller plants. In spring of 1931, the Brattleboro-based automobile jack operation was shut down, and the hack saw shop in West Haven, Connecticut was closed. The West Haven equipment was moved to Greenfield and combined with that of the hacksaw department at Goodell-Pratt. Only three West Haven employees moved to the new location, the others were let go. Goodell-Pratt Company Plant No. 2, the former Pratt Drop-Forge and Tool Company in Shelburne Falls, was closed as well. It eventually became home to Mayhew Steel Products.

New tools

Despite dire economic conditions and massive cuts to the product line, some new tools were developed at this time. The company followed the lead of a number of other tool manufacturers in developing lines of second-label, less expensive hand tools for the causal user. In introducing its line of economy class Mohawk-Shelburne tools in its 1935 catalog, the company referred to them as “...popularly priced, to meet the demand for this type of tool... under the conditions that have existed for the past few years.” Although not a large line, additional Mohawk-Shelburne tools would follow for several years until the total reached, perhaps, thirty. Except for fit and finish, the Mohawk-Shelburne tools generally resembled the company’s other lower priced models. The Mohawk-Shelburne version of the Lion brace was an especially good value for the money; several of the economy hand drills, with pot metal drive gears, were not.

In the mid-1930s, the Millers Falls Company began to experiment with the use of sophisticated plastics in its tools. The firm had been using molded composition handles for hacksaw frames since the introduction of its pistol-grip models in 1914, but it was not until the appearance of the No. 188 Bakelite-handled push drill in the 1935 catalog that the company began to exploit the eye-catching appeal of highly finished plastics in earnest. The push drill was soon followed with a bakelite-handled electric drill and the No. 590 torpedo level. The jet-black No. 590, molded by the Watertown Mfg. Company, was an award winner in the 1939 competition sponsored by Modern Plastics magazine.

In 1940, K.Y. Taylor, sales promotion manager of the Millers Falls Company, announced in an article, “We are specifying plastics for handles and trim wherever we can for increased attractiveness and practicality... Now, plastics allow us to use even more color in our tools and what’s more important, they don’t chip, crack or fade in service.” While Taylor may have exaggerated the amount of plastic being incorporated into the company’s tools, he was dead-on about the operation using it to put more color into its products.(1)

Parsons brace heads In 1937, the company had introduced the first of a series of tools with components manufactured from a transparent red plastic that it referred to as “permaloid.” The line included the No. 209 De Luxe Smooth Plane, the Parsons De Luxe Brace, the No. 84 hacksaw frame and the 800 series of screwdrivers. The permaloid products were billed as top of the line items, and promotional literature extolled the durability of the plastic parts. All metal surfaces were highly polished, and the two tools labeled “De Luxe” sported chromium, rather than traditional nickel plating. The combination of the cold blue sheen of the chrome plate and the deep cherry red of the permaloid lent the De Luxe tools a characteristic appearance not seen elsewhere. (Nickel has a yellowish cast.) By mid-1948, the No. 209 Deluxe Smooth Plane was no longer in production. The company continued to carry the 800 series of screwdrivers, the No. 84 hacksaw frame and the Parsons brace for some time. The tools’ permaloid components, made from Hercules Powder Company cellulose acetate, were manufactured by the Worcester Moulding Plastics Company.

World War II

The onset of the Second World War was a mixed blessing for the company. Its precision and electrical tools were in demand for the war effort, but shortages of raw materials and manpower made production difficult. The War Production Board allocated strategic materials such as brass, copper and tool steel to manufacturers based on a priority ranking, and as a result, supplies could be spotty at best. The situation was such that the Millers Falls Company felt the need to issue a special national emergency version of Catalog No. 42. In a statement on the catalog’s first page, the manufacturer reserved “the right to alter the specifications of any ... tools without notice or recourse.” Tools discontinued for the duration of the emergency were noted with a red star, and the sale of some power tools was restricted to customers in the Western Hemisphere. The company’s manpower shortage was compounded by the fact that it was now working three shifts a day to keep up with demand. Millers Falls solved the problem, as did so many other American manufacturers, by hiring large numbers of woman workers. Although women had been involved in production as early as 1872, the numbers had been relatively small. The new workers came in droves, and many remained on the job when the war ended. By the mid-1950s, women would do most of the fine assembly of electrical components for power tools.

The Millers Falls Company’s employee magazine was named Dyno-Mite. The title makes reference to what was then the company’s proprietary name for its power tools. Many of the wartime issues feature patriotic themes or humor, and news and letters from former employees stationed overseas were staple features. A selection of the magazine’s covers from this era can be viewed at the Dyno-Mite Wartime Gallery. A glimpse through the issues published during the WWII era reveals a work force intensely patriotic, filled with pride in its war efforts, and in the quality of its products. If the contents of the magazine are a reliable guide, relations between the sexes were characterized by an easy-going banter and much good cheer.

Failure to retool

Despite the general economic malaise, the years following World War II were relatively prosperous for the Millers Falls Company. The re-birth of the housing market and the popularity of home handyman projects assured a ready market for the firm’s hand tools. Although sales were good and the future looked rosy, the company passed on a golden opportunity to retool—an omission that would haunt the operation for the next twenty years. The huge industrial build-up that had taken place during the Second World War resulted in large peacetime surpluses of machine tools and metal fabrication equipment. A significant part of that inventory was under the control of United States government, and it was being liquidated for pennies on the dollar. Philip Rogers, the senior management, and the directors of the Millers Falls Company were old-school Republicans vehemently opposed to government interference in business and suspicious of this sort of largesse, which smacked to them of socialism. They passed on the opportunity (as they had on a number of government incentives during the war). The Millers Falls Company’s competitors in the consumer hand tool business had no such qualms and took advantage of the low-cost equipment. As a result, they were able to lower their costs due to increased productivity. As time passed, the disparity became more apparent, and by the mid-1960s, the Millers Falls Company’s aged equipment had become a serious impediment to its profitability.(2)

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