When it wasn't
cars, it was car parts
By LEE SAUER
One word describes early Auburn industry:
If turn-of-the century technology wasn't pushing an entrepreneur
into building his own motorized vehicle, it pulled him into building
a business which supported automakers.
Very few of these companies survived, but they laid the foundation for the area's current industry.
* * *
In his "History of DeKalb County, Ind.," local author/historian
John Martin Smith eloquently points out how several factors converged
in Auburn to jump-start automobile manufacture.
The population of Auburn in 1900 provided skill and ambition.
Many immigrants were highly refined craftsmen from Germany and
England. The times encouraged them to use their individual talents
to pursue the American Dream. Only the year before, author Horatio
Alger had died, but he left behind a prolific output of rags-to-riches
stories for inspiration.
The area's earliest industry provided manufacturing infrastructure
(see box). Before Indiana's virgin forest completely disappeared,
skilled craftsmen turned easily available lumber into horse-drawn
vehicles. By the time lumber had to be shipped in from Michigan,
a large carriage industry employed much of Auburn's labor. Carriage
making, in turn, lent itself to automaking. Early cars, after
all, were simply "horseless carriages."
Trains provided necessary transportation. Major railroads met
in Auburn. Carriage makers used the tracks to bring in needed
parts and materials; once empty, the train cars loaded up with
carriage makers' finished products for delivery to customers.
Only recently has this area once again enjoyed "next day"
service in the manner trains routinely provided 100 years ago.
Trains also provided technology. In nearby Garrett, the large
Baltimore & Ohio Railroad shops attracted and trained craftsmen
with the skills to build steam engines. This supplied a knowledgeable
workforce capable of producing the next generation of power plants,
Finally, Auburn was home to far-sighted (some of their contemporaries
might have claimed fool-hardy) community leaders who believed
in the potential of automobiles. Some area bankers were willing
to put their funds where their faith lay, and provided the capital
for the emerging industry (in one case at least, the banker was
also the manufacturer). The Auburn Commercial Club provided invaluable
service in nurturing companies: for example, it bought the Model
Gas Engine buildings in 1906 and three years later leased them
to Auburn Automobile Co.
The charges had been placed and set.
When a nation-wide recession ended in 1905, Auburn virtually
exploded with automobile activity. The city council considered
action against the high number of test drivers who careened around
city streets. The test drivers, however, couldn't bear to slow
down. Up to 21 different brand names of automobiles were constructed
in the city in the first four decades of the new century!
A closer look at the phenomena provides perspective. The number
of brand names can be made more manageable by deleting companies
that made only one or a handful of vehicles. The models that remain
can be attributed to just four companies. Take away one more brand
name "Model" automobiles and trucks, which
were made by the Model Gas Engine Co. in Auburn for only three
years or less and you're left with the town's own Big
Three automakers: Auburn Automobile, McIntyre, and Zimmerman.
Of the three, Auburn Automobile Co. had the largest impact.
So large, in fact, that it warrants a separate story. The company had a hand
in producing a startling number of "classic" automobiles
(an official designation decided upon by the Classic Car Club
of America for automobiles built from 1925 through 1948). Although
it closed its doors for good in 1937, the company continues to
widely impact Auburn today and could conceivably have an even
larger effect on the town's future.
Just as E.L. Cord provided much of the success at Auburn Automobile
Co., the driving force behind the W. H. McIntyre Co. centered
in one man. The company's namesake ran his endeavor with vision
William H. McIntyre purchased a portion of the W. H. Kiblinger
Co. when its founder died in 1894. The Auburn business made
what else? buggies.
Three years after becoming an owner, McIntyre began tinkering
with automobiles. In early 1907, the company completed a prototype
and orders poured in. McIntyre began marketing automobiles under
the brand name Kiblinger.
In 1908, a patent-infringement lawsuit resulted in DeKalb Circuit
Court renaming the business W.H. McIntyre Co. The name of its
automobiles changed as well.
For the next seven years, McIntyre reigned as Auburn's largest
automaker. The company belched its products out of five separate
plants, including the two original Kiblinger buildings along Jackson
Street and the former Auburn Wagon & Buggy Works building
(see story at lower left).
McIntyre proved to be a business pioneer. He used electricity
in his manufacturing process as early as 1908. From 1912-1915
he cashed in on America's first small-car craze by building the
Imp Cycle Car.
Auburn's largest automaking company of the time would unfortunately
die quickly. McIntyre misread the demand for small cars and put
too much of the company's resources into the cycle car market.
The fad passed, as did McIntyre's fortune. In August of 1915,
lenders forced his company into bankruptcy.
A similar short story explains Zimmerman, the smallest of Auburn's
Franklin T. Zimmerman founded Zimmerman Co. in 1873 (the business
changed its name to Zimmerman Manufacturing Co. in 1886). From
making building materials, the company branched out into the manufacture
of church furniture, windmills and water tanks.
The diversification trend struck significantly twice more.
In 1890, the company began building buggies. This product soon
overwhelmed the others. Then, like its fellow carriage makers,
Zimmerman evolved into automaking. Its first model appeared in
Zimmerman never built much momentum with its automobiles. Although
it would have some success over eight years, the company began
fading soon after its first cars were born. Franklin died in 1910.
His brother, John, built cars under the family name until 1915,
then discontinued the business and joined Auburn Automobile Co.
In only a dozen years or less, Auburn's varied auto industry arrived, thrived and died. Only Auburn Automobile Co. lived beyond 1915. Yet the town's automakers left a legacy of area industry that continues to this day.
* * *
Like individual threads, industries that supported the auto
manufacturers were woven into the fabric of Auburn's economy.
Every car needs four tires. The Double Fabric Tire Co. began
production in a plant at West Ninth Street in 1913. Its first
product appears to have been an accessory called an "Interlock,"
which helped prevent damage to a tire tube. In the days before
steel-belted radials, Interlocks held wide customer appeal. Ads
claimed the product could double the mileage of tire service.
To survive, the company needed to grow and adapt. Early on
it moved to West Eleventh Street and began manufacturing tires.
In the 1920s, the business reorganized under the name Auburn Rubber
Co. With the area automotive industry suffering and the tire industry
consolidating, Auburn Rubber refocused its product line on rubber
parts needed by industry. For example, during World War II, the
company made gaskets for Rieke Metal Products Corp.'s military
gas can closures.
Then a whimsical side line brought the company fairy-tale success.
Around 1935, the company's largest stockholder A.L.
Murray brought a toy soldier he'd bought in England
to the plant. The figure was made of lead, but why, Murray wondered,
couldn't similar toys be made out of rubber?
Workers made the necessary molds. Rubber toy soldiers were
poured. Toy buyers were shown the results and presto! A new, wildly
popular product line was born.
After soldiers, Auburn Rubber made toy sports figures, small-scale
cars, tractors and trucks. The ubiquitous figures were marketed
in "5-and-Dime" stores across the country. And the fascination
continues. Today, collectors pay top dollar for the rubber figures.
Unfortunately, this fairy tale wouldn't include a happily-ever-after.
Plastic toys challenged the rubber toy market. The local owners
of the company wanted out. In 1960, the town of Deming, N.M.,
bought the business and Auburn's own toy story came to an end.
But manufacturing rubber products continues. Mere months after
Auburn Rubber moved, Cooper Tire and Rubber Co. bought the Auburn
plant. That corporation still operates at the site as one of Auburn's
Nor do the reverberations stop there. Auburn Rubber Co.'s toy
business led to the creation of another Auburn industry. Three
company employees David Sellow, Glenn Yoquelet, and
Clarren Boger founded SYB, Inc., in 1940. Their sole
customer at the beginning was Auburn Rubber, for which they made
aluminum molds used to pour rubber toys.
In 1947, plant supervisor Walter H. Ball bought the company.
He initially called the business W.H. Ball Aluminum Castings Inc.,
but after expanding the product line changed the name to Ball
Brass and Aluminum Foundr, Inc.
Originally, the company operated out of the building now used
by Foley Pattern Co., 500 W. Eleventh St. In 1945, it built and
moved into Ball Brass' present location on Hazel Street.The Ball
family sold the company in 1979.
The City of Auburn's oldest family-owned business is another
metal casting company. Auburn Foundry cut its teeth doing work
for the town's automotive industry.
By 1912, a long succession of gray-metal foundries had failed
in Auburn. Three different attempts were made establish a foundry
in the complex of buildings that became home to Auburn Automobile
Co. in 1909 four attempts, if you count Model Gas Engine
Works, which made castings in addition to manufacturing engines
and gas-powered vehicles.
For two years after Model Gas Engine moved to Peru, Auburn
desperately cast about for some businessperson to start a foundry.
In 1908, versatile Frank Borst answered the call.
Borst would provide the capital while an associate, Fred Payne,
would provide the practical foundry know-how. The two men had
done their homework. Before stepping into their new venture, they
visited Auburn industries to gauge the need for castings.
What they found was encouraging. On May 7, 1908, the Auburn
Courier recorded the visits and reported: "The Kiblinger
factory alone has been buying about thirty five tons of castings
a month since the first of the year and the Auburn Automobile
Company, the Eckhart's the Zimmerman's and the McDowell's also
use castings in large quantities. These institutions expressed
their willingness to patronize a home foundry if the quality of
work is as good and the service as prompt as can be obtained elsewhere."
Borst and Payne jumped at the opportunity. They bought land
on the west side of Auburn (Auburn Foundry's current Eleventh
Street site) and contracted for construction of a building.
Despite all the positive signs, Borst and Payne's partnership
failed. By April of 1912, it appears production at the plant stopped.
In December of that year, a company savior appeared. Burr O.
Fink bought the plant. The business immediately started a slow
but steady upward climb. No definitive evidence exists, but Fink
probably picked up where Borst left off in supplying the city's
Big Three auto manufacturers.
Of course, in less than three years two of Auburn's auto plants
would be shuttered.
The foundry didn't need to worry. Fink showed a talent and
willingness to adapt. In 1921, in response to an annual slowdown
in customer orders, he formed the Auburn Stoker Corp. The company
made a line of home and business heating products. Not coincidentally,
those products used lots of Auburn Foundry castings.
Through Fink, another Auburn industry weaves its thread into
this story. In 1923, under the direction of the Auburn Commercial
Club, Fink traveled to Chicago to evaluate a fledgling company
interested in moving to town. Upon his return, Fink told the club
that what Ted Rieke lacked in capital and equipment, he made up
in spunk and determination. Rieke's invention of a closure for
oil barrels could turn into a successful business, said Fink.
On B.O.'s word, the Commercial Club paid for the construction
of Rieke's first building in Auburn on Hazel Street.
Threads weave together. In 1931, Rieke moved its operations
into the former Auburn Wagon & Buggy building, which was also
the former McIntyre Imp Cycle Car building. Although there have
been multiple additions, the building is still part of the Rieke
complex on West Seventh Street.
One more thread can be tied up. Ball Brass eventually bought the original Rieke building. Today it is part of Ball's Hazel Street complex.
* * *
Out of the breakup of Auburn Automobile Co. in 1937, two area
Dallas Winslow bought the company's beautiful administration
building (the current Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum on South Wayne
Street) in 1938. Winslow built an entrepreneurial empire on a
simple premise: he bought what remained of companies that had
gone out of business and kept their brand-name products alive
through repair and replacement services.
For example: Winslow bought the extra parts of the Rototiller
company. Then, when customers broke down, they could ship or bring
their garden machine into the old administration building where
Winslow's workers would affect repairs. Or, if customers wished
to make their own repairs, Winslow's company would mail replacement
With what remained of Auburn Automobile, Winslow formed the
Auburn Cord Duesenberg Co. His repair and replacement part services
contributed to keeping many of E.L. Cord's classic cars alive
and led, ultimately, to the formation of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg
Museum (see story, pg. ??)
Winslow died in 1963 and his estate eventually sold the administration
building. Only a small remnant of his businesses remains on Auburn's
south side. Stanley Liddell Sr., a manager under Winslow, bought
several of his boss's brand names and continued servicing their
products through a company now called Frazer Farm Equipment, Co.,
1921 W. Wayne St.
The administration building was only one small part of the
Auburn Automobile complex of buildings. The vast manufacturing
space was bought by Borg-Warner Corp.
On April 8, 1938, the corporation opened its Warner Automotive
Parts Division in Auburn. The division served as the central hub
in a large distribution system to make parts available to the
corporation's consolidated auto-related industries.
In 1961, the company built a new plant south of town and moved
out of the old Auburn Automobile buildings. These symbols of the
town's automotive glory years didn't last long. The City of Auburn
tore them down in 1962.
Over the years, Warner phased out its replacement parts business and focused on building original equipment. In 1982, George E. Callas of Detroit bought the plant. He changed the name to Auburn Gear, Inc. It still operates out of the plant Warner built at 400 E. Auburn Drive.