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Early History of The Oliver Machinery Company

Modified on 2015/04/13 17:14 by PJPeters Categorized as History
Copyright 2004© by Jeff McVey Reproduced here with the permission of the author.


In recent years, increased interest has been shown in old woodworking machinery. I suppose this activity has been spurred on by the opinion that “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to”. Indeed, they don’t! Much of this interest has been centered on the products of the Oliver Machinery Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, as many believe these were the finest woodworking machines ever built. Accounts of Oliver’s history have been published previously. While much of this information is accurate, newly-discovered evidence of the company’s very early history requires that some revisions be made to the existing record.

I had seen old Oliver catalogs and was amazed by the size, features, and quality of their products. One type of machine that especially intrigued me was the mysterious Universal Trimmer. The larger versions, with their capstan wheel operating mechanism, looked like something you’d find on board a sailing ship. I was presented with the opportunity to purchase one in 1999. The seller told me it was marked “American Machinery Works - New Haven, Conn.”. I was aware that Oliver had initially been known as the American Machinery Company. I also knew they were located in Grand Rapids. The trimmer in question also had differences from what I had seen in the catalogs. No matter, I didn’t hesitate in making the purchase, even though I had no real use for it, and didn’t think it was an Oliver.

When it arrived, I discovered that it was, in fact, marked “Company” rather than “Works”, but the report of the New Haven markings was correct. Although puzzled by this discrepancy, I realized that this machine was a very early Oliver. None of the data I had or could obtain easily explained the New Haven mystery. I decided to do whatever it took to get to the bottom of the story. My research has taken me to libraries in Grand Rapids, New Haven, and Detroit, not to mention several visits to that holy institution on Clancy Street in Grand Rapids, the new (in 1907) Oliver factory. What I’ve discovered follows.

Legend - as well as company logo’s - states that the Oliver Machinery Co. was founded in 1890. I’m not totally convinced. If it was started in 1890, it was certainly quite late in that year. Most Oliver buffs know that Joseph Oliver started the company, originally known as the American Machinery Co., to sell Universal Trimmers.

Prior to setting out on his own, Oliver had worked for W.R. Fox’s Fox Machinery Co. Fox had obtained the first Universal Trimmer patent in 1879, when he lived in Connecticut. Fox moved to Grand Rapids around 1880, and took a job as a draftsman with Perkins & Co., which produced shingle mill machinery. Fox’s initial trimmer design needed improvement, and he worked at a number of different jobs until the trimmer was perfected around 1885. He then applied for additional patents and went into production. Sometime thereafter, Oliver came onboard with Fox as a trimmer salesman. Fox’s new patents were granted in 1888, and Oliver left about this time. My impression is that the parting was not a pleasant one.

In 1889, Oliver threw in with Fox’s old boss, Willis J. Perkins. The two formed a new company, the Grand Rapids Machinery Co. (GRMC). Perkins was the owner, and Oliver served as manager. They applied for a trimmer patent and began production. Shortly thereafter, Fox sued Perkins and Oliver for patent infringement over the GRMC trimmer. Around 1890 it appears that Perkins got cold feet, and backed out of the deal, handing GRMC over to Oliver - lock, stock, and barrel. (This may be the source of the “Since 1890” legend for the Oliver Machinery Co.) In 1891, the GRMC trimmer patent, which was in Perkins’ name, was granted and Fox lost the lawsuit.

With the lawsuit closed and his patent granted, Perkins decided he wanted back into the action. Having given GRMC to Oliver, Perkins started manufacturing an improved version of the GRMC machine under the Perkins & Co. banner. This left Oliver holding the bag with the now outdated GRMC machine.

At this point, I shift focus to Detroit, where another new company had been founded late in 1890. This concern was known as the Leland, Faulconer, and Norton Co. (LF&N). Henry M. Leland, who was the president and driving force behind the company, had come from Brown & Sharpe (B&S) in Providence, RI. He had been in charge of production of the sewing machine that B&S made for Wilcox & Gibbs. While at B&S, Leland was well schooled in the extreme accuracy required for the products they manufactured, including precision measuring equipment. Later, he became a troubleshooter for the company, traveling around the country to solve problems with B&S products. Leland liked Detroit and thought it would be a good place to start a machine shop where he could serve as a consultant and manufacturer for inventors. Leland’s friend, Charles A. Strelinger, had a store in Detroit where he sold machinery, tools, and hardware. Strelinger introduced Leland to Robert C. Faulconer of Alpena, MI. Faulconer, who had made his fortune in the lumber business, financed the new company and became vice-president. Leland brought Charles H. Norton, who would serve as chief designer, along with him from B&S. Strelinger became company secretary.

Meanwhile, back in Grand Rapids, Oliver needed a new trimmer to market. He went to LF&N in Detroit for help. Oliver somehow obtained a partner, Samuel L. Crockett, to start a new business - the American Machinery Co. (AMC). I suspect that the two may have been introduced via Oliver’s LF&N contacts. A new trimmer was designed, and a patent application was filed for Oliver by Leland’s attorneys on May 26, 1891. It’s my guess that the design of this machine, which I refer to as the “no number” trimmer, was mainly an Oliver effort.

Leland’s dedication to precision continued at LF&N. He did all he could to ensure that those with whom he worked followed the same principles. If something wasn’t absolutely perfect, it was scrapped. Perhaps this is the reason the first AMC trimmer design was stillborn. It appears to have never gone into production.

So, it was back to the drawing board, presumably under the direction of Norton this time. A second AMC trimmer, which would be called the No. 2, was designed. A patent application for this one was filed on November 23, 1891. The AMC partners hired their first employee - Wilfred C. Leland, son of Henry M. Leland, for whom it would be his first job. Along with Oliver, the junior Leland was to be a salesman, traveling to sell the new No. 2 trimmer. Henry Leland also thought it would be good for Wilfred to get some training from the veteran salesman Oliver, as it might be beneficial to him later in business. Meanwhile, Crockett would remain behind to run the office.

The next question facing Oliver and Crockett was where to locate their company. Oliver lived in Grand Rapids, and the Lelands were in Detroit. I have yet to pinpoint Crockett’s hometown, but it was decided that he and company would be headquartered in New Haven, CT. It’s my guess that at least part of the reasoning behind this decision was to put some distance between themselves and Fox, who continued to advertise that he’d sue those who infringed on his trimmer patents. So, in 1891 - and 1891 only - AMC and Crockett were located in New Haven.

In early 1892, the first batch of 500 AMC No. 2 Universal Trimmers was set to go into production. It’s known that Leland was dissatisfied with the quality of the work being turned out by Detroit-area foundries. This fact may be the explanation behind the company legend that Oliver’s first machines were made by the Builders’ Iron Foundry (BIF) of Providence, RI. Having spent many years in that city with B&S, Leland would have been well aware of the quality of BIF’s castings. At any rate, it appears that BIF made the castings and shipped them to Detroit, where the machining work was performed at LF&N. Strelinger’s company provided the necessary hardware. Sometime later in the year, AMC and Crockett relocated to Detroit. While Oliver was based in Grand Rapids, he and Wilfred Leland spent much time on the road, selling No. 2 trimmers.

In his memoirs, Wilfred Leland explained how a sales presentation of the No. 2 would be given to patterns shops around the country. After setting up the machine, the procedure was to take two blocks of wood, each about five inches square, and trim one end of each. The blocks would then be stacked, with the freshly-trimmed ends of the blocks against each other. When the top block was picked up, the bottom block would be picked up along with it, attached to the upper block only by the surface tension achieved by the union of the perfectly flat, trimmed ends. This impressive demonstration, along with the machine’s other capabilities and high-quality construction, was adequate to result in brisk sales.

Henry Leland’s dedication to perfection in his machines ran so deep that he would even give his crews pep talks about the value of doing perfect work. This approach was applied to the AMC No. 2 trimmer, and the result was the finest trimmer on the market. As a result, AMC quickly earned respect as a manufacturer of only the highest quality products. The current legacy of the quality of Oliver Machinery is directly based on the reputation that was established by the No. 2 trimmer and the principles invested therein by Henry M. Leland.

Production continued, with a batch of 500 produced each year. The 1892 and 1893 models were marked as being made in New Haven. Leland subsequently found a Detroit foundry whose work could be improved to meet his standards. More No. 2’s were produced there, and the markings on the machine were changed to show Detroit as home after the patent was granted on May 1, 1894. Also in 1894, Norton decided to return to B&S, and LF&N changed its name to the Leland & Faulconer Manufacturing Co. (L&F). Another batch of 500 machines was produced in 1895, bringing total production of the No. 2 by LF&N/L&F to 2000 units.

In 1895-96, a recession hit the USA. Sales of the expensive No. 2 trimmer dropped off sharply. Oliver was stuck with a large inventory of machines he couldn’t sell. So, he didn’t order any more of the machines from L&F. The AMC offices were moved to Grand Rapids. Oliver’s partner, Crockett, left and moved to England. Crockett must have filed a favorable report with Oliver regarding the business conditions there. Oliver decided to go to England himself, taking a number of the No. 2 trimmers with him. He toured the country selling the machines to pattern shops from a fancy horse-drawn wagon.

Back in Grand Rapids, the decision was made to offer another trimmer which would be smaller and less expensive that the No. 2. Another patent application was filed on January 11, 1896, for what would be the AMC No. 1 trimmer. Production of this benchtop trimmer was farmed out to local Grand Rapids firms, such as C.O. Porter. As business conditions improved in the USA, it was thought that yet another, even larger, trimmer should be added to the AMC line. This, AMC’s third production machine, was the 525-pound No. 3. It was basically a larger version of the No. 2, and was covered by the same patent. Unlike the No. 2, which was initially operated via a single hand lever, the No. 3 featured a six-handle capstan wheel to move the blades, and was equipped with spring-loaded, folding blade guards in lieu of the No. 2’s fixed guards. Once again, actual production was contracted out, with Bardons & Oliver (no relation) of Cleveland making the No. 3. Bardons and Oliver later became a leading manufacturer of turret lathes, and continues in business today.

The next few paragraphs may be slightly off-topic, but I thought it would be interesting to tell what the future held for some of the players in the story.

After Oliver’s AMC parted company with L&F, the latter company also prospered. L&F introduced their own Universal Trimmer around 1896. They opened their own foundry, where the elder Leland could easily reject any castings that weren’t up to his exacting standards. They built a special grinding machine that was used to produce the gears for the “chainless” (shaft drive) bicycles that were popular with the ladies in the 1890’s bicycle craze. Their Detroit location paid off nicely around the turn of the century when the horseless carriage began to go into production. L&F’s experience with bicycle gears resulted in their being awarded a contract to produce transmissions for Ransom E. Olds’ “curved dash” Oldsmobile. Later, they made engines for Olds. When Olds turned down Leland’s offer for a much-improved version of the engine, Leland found another market for it.

Asked to appraise the value of the assets of the defunct Henry Ford Company (originally Detroit Automobile Co.) for liquidation by its creditors, Leland instead convinced them to stay in business, and use his engine to power a new car. This new company, whose car was introduced in 1903, would be named Cadillac. (Officials at Cadillac still insist that their company arose from the Detroit Automobile Co., rather than admit that it was based on a company named for Henry Ford!) Early production of the Cadillac took place at L&F, and the two companies soon merged, with Henry and Wilfred Leland running the show. Leland’s stringent demands for perfection - which he had imposed on Oliver’s AMC trimmers - continued in this new endeavor. As a result, Cadillac became “the standard of the world”.

The Lelands continued to run the company, even after they sold out to Billy Durant, who included the company in his General Motors empire. In 1910, the over-extended Durant was on the verge of losing control of GM. The bankers refused to lend any more money and wanted to liquidate the company. GM needed a 15 million dollar loan to stay in business. The Cadillac division was still profitable, and had been carrying the rest of the corporation on its back. Therefore, the bankers decided to consult with the Lelands about keeping Cadillac alive, while the rest of the company would be dissolved via bankruptcy. As Henry was overseas at the time, they met with Wilfred. In an all-night session, Wilfred persuaded the bankers to cough up more than enough money to allow GM to continue in business. At the end of the meeting, one of the bankers took Wilfred aside and said to him “Mr. Leland, I want to congratulate you, and I want to say that you have saved the General Motors Company”. If not for the efforts of this former trimmer salesman, who was trained by Joseph Oliver, General Motors would not exist today.

Henry and Wilfred continued at Cadillac until WWI. By that time, Billy Durant had regained control of GM (only to later lose it again). The patriotic Lelands tried to convince him to open a factory to help with the war effort, but were unsuccessful. Both promptly resigned from Cadillac and obtained financing to start a new company, which manufactured the Liberty aircraft engine. After the war, their company entered the automobile market with a new car - the Lincoln. At Lincoln, Henry was chairman and Wilfred served as president.

So, what happened to the other principals at the old LF&N that made trimmers for Joe Oliver? The Lelands bought out the elderly Faulconer about the time the Cadillac was introduced. Norton, who had returned to B&S after designing the AMC No. 2 trimmer, had a falling out with B&S management over the advanced grinding machines he had designed. He left B&S once again and joined the Norton (abrasive) Company, to which he had no relation. While there, he invented the precision grinding machines which became essential in extremely accurate manufacturing systems. Norton’s grinding inventions allowed the machining of parts to much closer tolerances than those which could be obtained with other machine tools, and paved the way for the advanced industries of the 20th century.

Both Fox and Perkins continued to manufacture trimmers. Fox sold the rights to his trimmers to Fay & Egan around 1916. Perkins sold his trimmer rights to the American Wood Working Machinery Co. (AWWMC) of Rochester, NY, around the same time. AWWMC continued production of the Perkins machines until the time of the Great Depression. Fox trimmers were made by Fay & Egan until that company’s demise in the early 1960’s.

Back to Joe Oliver and his AMC. We left off in 1897, when the company had the No. 1, 2, and 3 trimmers on the market, as produced by various contractors. The decision was made to introduce another large trimmer, with fewer features and a lower price than the deluxe No. 2 and 3 machines. This was the No. 4, which was essentially a very large No. 1. However, it was equipped with a four-handle capstan wheel to move the blades, while the No. 1 had a simple hand lever.

By 1898, Oliver decided it was high time that his company start producing the machines themselves. Facilities were set up in a Grand Rapids basement shop, and work began. At this point, the supply of L&F-built No. 2’s had run out, and an improved version, which utilized the No. 4’s capstan wheel and different blade guards was introduced. This was followed by the No. 5, which was another variant on the No. 2 design that was intermediate to the No. 2 and No. 3 in size.

In 1899, Oliver applied for another trimmer patent. In this design, the knife carriage was completely eliminated, and a double-edged knife acted as the carriage itself. A very small version of this machine was the No. 0, and a larger version was known as the No. 6. This patent, the last for Oliver trimmers, was granted in 1900.

This gave Oliver seven (No. 0 through 6) different trimmer models, but he wasn’t through yet. In a series of one-upmanship battles with Oliver, Fox had introduced his 700+ pound No. 8, with an 8-inch cutting height. Oliver’s No. 3, weighing in at 525 pounds and a 7 ½ -inch cutting height was no small machine, but Fox’s chain-drive monster was slightly bigger. Not to be outdone, Oliver introduced the huge AMC No. 7 and the truly gigantic No. 8. While the No. 7 had a 10-inch cutting height, the No. 8 was much larger still, with a 16-inch height capacity (twice that of the Fox No. 8) and a weight of over 2000 pounds! If the only trimmer you’ve ever seen is a Lion, just imagine one that’s over 80 times as heavy.

I suspect that the battle with Fox, rather than any real sales potential, was the true motivation behind the No. 7 and No. 8. Their production run lasted only a few years and none of either model is known to exist today.

Oliver had continued to service the old GRMC trimmers and also kept that company’s name alive. In 1900, he finally threw in the towel, and GRMC was absorbed by AMC. Around the same time, AMC decided to expand their line of machinery beyond trimmers. Bandsaws, tablesaws, jointers, and lathes were introduced thereafter. As the business expanded, more room was needed. The company moved into an old factory building on Sixth Street N.W., not far from the Grand River.

The trimmer model numbering sequence then became more confusing. Both the No. 4 and the No. 7 were discontinued and two new and completely different models were introduced. However - perhaps to keep the line of model numbers (0 through 8) intact - the new machines were assigned No. 4 and No. 7, even though they bore no resemblance to the previous machines. The “new” No. 4 had a curious drive arrangement wherein the knife carriage was operated via a crank handle that was mounted on top (rather than at the rear) of the machine. The “new” No. 7 was yet another No. 2 clone, but in an even smaller size.

About this time - late in 1903 - it was decided that the name of the company needed to be changed in order to avoid confusion with the larger AWWMC. As many of the company’s existing products already carried the name of its founder (“Oliver’s Trimmer”, “Oliver’s Patent”, etc.) in addition to the AMC name, it was agreed that the company would be known as the Oliver Machinery Co. (OMC).

OMC continued to introduce new types of machinery, but its “bread & butter” - Universal Trimmers - weren’t neglected. While the No. 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 were dropped, the new No. 9 was introduced. This machine was essentially a cross between the No. 1 and No. 6. It used the upper parts (knives, carriage, bridge, posts, guards, and handle) of the No. 1, and the lower parts (table and gauges) of the No. 6.

The final entry in Oliver’s line of trimmers was the big No. 10. This machine, which resembled the earlier (old type) No. 7 and the No. 8, featured a cutting height of 9 inches and weighed over 1000 pounds. Unlike any of its predecessors, the No. 10 employed a “rise and fall” table, which could be adjusted up and down. This feature allowed the height of the table to be changed in relation to the blades, thus keeping the blades from wearing excessively in any one spot. Only 23 of these machines were produced, and none are known to exist today.

In 1907, the company built a new factory on Clancy Street in Grand Rapids. Together with the Sixth Street facility, they continued to manufacture machinery for many years. Eventually, the food/medical processing equipment division was spun off into a separate company, known as the Oliver Products Co. It continues to operate in the “old” factory building on Sixth Street. In 1999, the rights to the “Oliver Machinery Co.” name were sold to a group in Tukwila, WA, which has applied the name to a line of high-quality, imported woodworking machinery. The rights to the pre-1999 machines and all related literature were sold to Rich Fink, who had previously been the Manufacturing Manager in Grand Rapids. Rich now operates as Eagle Machinery & Repair in the “new” factory building on Clancy Street. He shares that facility with Oliver Racing Parts, which manufactures parts - most notably connecting rods - for race car engines. What was once one company is now four, but the legacy of Oliver quality continues today.

On April 12, 2015, The Clancy Street facility was destroyed by an overnight fire. The building had been vacant for approximately one year and had been undergoing renovations to convert it into a mixed-use facility.

Serial Number Information

It would appear that there are a minimum of three “series” of AMC/OMC serial numbers. The first series was applied to the trimmers manufactured for AMC by contractors. The second series was assigned to machines apparently built by AMC/OMC starting in 1898. The third series began in February of 1907, when OMC moved into the Clancy Street facility. Additionally, it appears that in the early 1900’s “model-unique” serial numbers were assigned to some units, most notably, Model B jointers.

PLEASE! If you have an “Oliver” machine that’s marked “American Machinery Co.”, or an early Oliver Machinery Co. machine whose serial number doesn’t cross-reference to the proper machine type in Eagle Machinery & Repair’s master list, please contact us so your machine can be included below.

"FIRST SERIES" Oliver Serial Numbers

American Machinery Co. circa 1892-1898
NOTE: Only wood trimmers, built by contractors, were produced during this period

309No. 21892Jeff McVeyearliest type
553No. 21893Jeff McVeyearliest type
1499No. 21894Jeff McVeyearliest type
2147No. 11896Jeff McVeyno patent info
2234No. 11897Rich Finkpatent date stamped into table
noneNo. 31897-98Jim Saiersserial number ground off
3216No. 31897-98Ambrose Taylor?information unverified
3317No. 31897-98now unknownsold in 2003

“SECOND SERIES” Oliver Serial Numbers

American Machinery Co. circa 1898-1903
Oliver Machinery Co. circa 1903-1907

332No. 2 trimmerFred Hamiltonintermediate type No. 2
550No. 2 trimmerJeff McVeyintermediate type No. 2
3704No. 3 trimmerBill Wrighthas 3” lip on table
4270No. 4 trimmereBay 01/05/04early type No. 4
4297No. 4 trimmerJeff McVeyearly type No. 4
5083No. 5 trimmerJeff McVey
5094No. 5 trimmerJeff McVey
6401No. 6 trimmerFrank Pollarowith triangle gauges
6743No. 6 trimmereBay 11/14/02
6942No. 6 trimmerJeff McVey
10916No. 1 trimmerJohn Green
11011No. 1-B trimmerFred Cliffon pedestal stand
11114No. 1 trimmerJeff McVey
11471No. 1-B trimmerJeff McVeyon pedestal stand
12184No. 2 trimmerFrank Pollarofinal type No. 2
21788No. 2 trimmerDon Petersonsold to ???

“MODEL UNIQUE” Oliver Serial Number Registry

0-121No. 0 trimmereBay 9/18/03No patent info shown
0.204No. 0 trimmerCarl Bilderback1897 patent only, not 1900
85-1616-inch “Model B” jointerDean Zoerhide
135-2424-inch “Model B” jointerBill Thomas“Oliver Machinery Co.”
781-2020-inch “Model B” jointerSteve Weikelhas “Baird Machinery” tag

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