“Dayton is the gem of all our interior towns. It possesses wealth, refinement, enterprise, and a beautiful country, beautifully developed.” – The Cincinnati Daily Chronicle, 1845
The first factory in Dayton, Ohio was a grist mill built in 1796 by William Hamer. The mill was positioned near the banks of the Mad River about three miles from its junction with the Miami. Hamer closed the business after fourteen years and the original structure finally burned in 1820. But this was by no means the end of entrepreneurship in Dayton.
By 1798, business man Daniel C. Cooper settled in the area and built grist and saw mills which he operated by water power on Rubicon Creek, near the current location of NCR’s main building. Cooper, one Dayton’s first settlers, is credited with creating the Mad River Road, the first overland connection between Dayton and Cincinnati.
Other early businesses that settled in Dayton included The Buckeye Iron and Brass Works (1844), the Mead Paper Company (1846), the E.H. Brownell boiler factory (1855), and the Dayton Scale Company (1891), just to name a few. These companies, along with dozens of others, became the foundation upon which Dayton would be built to become one of the leading manufacturing centers in the United States.
As America invented its way through the great industrial revolution and into the 20th Century, Dayton played a key role in the development of everything from the cash register to the first controlled heavier than air flying machine. With innovation came the demand for machine shops, factories, and, most importantly, workers – workers who were willing to learn the technology and skills necessary to produce the parts needed to build Dayton’s future.
During World War II, the region had experienced another growth spurt and many fledgling manufacturing companies became industry leaders. In the years that followed, there was no better place to settle down and find work than Dayton, Ohio. With extensive rail service, abundant natural resources and a new airport, Dayton provided the ideal setting for manufacturers.
Of all the companies that went to work in Dayton, NCR and General Motors were the indisputable anchors of Dayton’s industrial ship. Most of the smaller manufacturers, machine shops and service companies can generally credit these two giants for their prosperity.
The cash register is truly a Gem City innovation. It was invented by James Ritty, a restaurateur from Dayton, in the engine room of an ocean liner on his way to Europe in the summer of 1878. He got the idea from watching the steam gages of the liner as they counted the revolutions of the propellers. Once back in America, Ritty adapted the mechanics he had seen on the ship to the calculation of sales to be recorded and used them in his restaurant.
His plan to build and sell the machines, however, was not very successful. In 1881, he ended up selling his design and the cash register machine business to Jacob Eckert of Cincinnati for a mere $1000. Eckert saw the promise of this new invention and sold the cash register properties to the National Manufacturing Company but retained controlling interest in the product.
When John and Frank Patterson purchased control of the National Manufacturing Company in 1884, they changed the name to the National Cash Register Company, and NCR was born. The original business operated out of a one-floor workshop of 40 feet by 80 feet and employed 13 people.
In 1906 a young inventor named Charles F. Kettering, who had worked with the company for only two years, made a good product even better. As electric service expanded throughout the country, Kettering developed their first electric cash register. He eventually left the company in 1909 to work in the automotive industry. But his electrical contribution, along with the addition of some lower-cost models, secured the company’s longevity in the industry. The Pattersons did not rest on the mechanical laurels of their business however; a good grasp of the art and science of selling helped as well.
The NCR Company was one of the first to provide sales training for employees. Educating salesmen to speak intelligently about their new-fangled adding machines, which by the 1950’s consisted of more than 7,700 parts, was no small task but it proved to be the method by which the company grew internationally.
The business struggled during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, as did most others, but by 1955 the company had three product lines including cash registers, accounting machines and adding machines, and employed more than 12,000 workers.
From sales and business education to offering employment perks including access to the company’s private resort, Old River park, NCR was a great place to work in the 1950’s and 60’s. As NCR grew, so did the opportunity in Dayton for people to find steady work. Many people, sometimes whole families, came from other parts of the state and surrounding regions for just such an opportunity.
Originally from a tiny town called Hanging Rock, situated about halfway between Portsmouth and Ironton in southern Ohio, Gary Deer, Sr. moved to Dayton with his wife, Lois, just after they married. “Everybody was coming to Dayton or going to catching a train to Detroit to find work,” Deer recalled. “I started with the telephone company but finally went to work for NCR.”
Deer started in 1953 and worked at NCR for more than 18 years, running presses and assembling cam shaft lines for mechanical cash registers. His job was in one of the many machine shops of building 14 on the corner of Kay and Brown Streets, across from the University of Dayton.
Several of his in-laws also worked at NCR at the same time. “Four brothers-in-law, Gary Sutton, William Sutton, Lyndal Sutton, and Joe Rowe worked there when I did,” said Deer, “and one sister-in-law, Joe’s wife, Ruth.”
As the demand for electronic equipment grew, Deer had the feeling that the company would eventually need a different kind of factory, one less dependent on machinists and more on electronics experts.
His instinct was correct. After he left NCR to take a teaching job in 1971, the company began closing its mechanical manufacturing plants in south Dayton.
Now 76, Deer is a retired teacher and cattle farmer. He remembers his time at NCR fondly but he is glad he left the company when he did. “The foreman took me into this room one day to show me a big green board with electronic parts on it,” he said. “That’s when I knew things were going to change.”
The company went through massive layoffs in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s eventually closing and demolishing most of its Dayton manufacturing facilities. In the 1990’s, AT&T acquired NCR in a hostile takeover but sold it off again a few years later. NCR has been running independently ever since with only about 1,300 employees in the Dayton facility since its world headquarters was moved to New York.
While both have achieved international status, the presence and contributions of General Motors in Dayton differs significantly from NCR. What people often forget is that a corporation the size of GM is not one company, but hundreds of smaller ones.
Like the properly positioned pieces of a puzzle the subsidiaries of GM have served through the years to create a complete picture – an enormous automotive empire that has employed hundreds of thousands of workers since coming to the Gem City at the turn of the century. Many of these subsidiaries had their origins in the Miami Valley including Delco, Moraine Products, Inland and Frigidaire.
After several years with NCR, Charles Kettering, in conjunction with E.A. Deeds, founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company to develop the first electric self- starter for the automobile. By 1910, they had a working unit and began its manufacture, selling the first of them to GM for the 1912 edition of Cadillac.
The company name was later shorted to Delco and began manufacturing other electrical components as well. In 1916, Delco partnered with United Motors, a small automotive production company which eventually joined the General Motors family. Delco then became a division of GM.
Another company came out of the Delco factory as well. Going through several growth spurts, the General Motors Research Laboratory finally merged with what had become Delco Brake Division in 1942 and opened a factory on Wisconsin St. under the name Moraine Products.
The Moraine division produced powdered metal bearings, porous metal filters, roller-bronze bearings and hydraulic brake systems. Even before the Second World War, Dayton had become a GM town, and the company had other arms around the city as well.
Marion “Bud” Dixon, Sr. remembers the glory days of GM and well he should. Dixon retired from General Motors in 1988 after 40 years in the factory at the Moraine Products Division.
“I started when I was 17,” Dixon recalled. “I originally had an interview with Ohio Bell but I missed it and ended up taking a job at Moraine Products. I was too young and I had to go to the board of education to get a work permit.”
When he started with Moraine Products in 1948, the plant was in Dayton on Wisconsin Street, near the neighborhood of Edgemont. “I worked on the blanking presses, rotary bonders and as a roving job setter,” said Dixon, whose job included producing specialty pieces as well as reworking parts that did not meet the right specifications. “Since I knew all of the jobs, I could do whatever needed done in my area.”
Dixon remembered how the company treated its employees back then too. Similar to the NCR philosophy, people were rewarded with outings and employees were paid for money-saving suggestions. “We used to go to LeSourdesville Lake for a day-long picnic for all of the families of the employees,” Dixon recalled. “The company provided everything and I think that I worked for some really good people.”
One company that was less commonly known as a division of General Motors also made its home in Dayton. Originally known as the Guardian Frigerator Company, Frigidaire began in Detroit and was taken over by the automotive giant in 1919. After a name change, it was relocated to Dayton in 1920 and began working closely with Delco on the manufacture of electric refrigeration equipment.
By 1928, the company had sold more than one million electric refrigerators and began to diversify its product line to include clothes dryers, electric ranges, and other appliances. Frigidaire remained an important part of the Dayton economy until the main factory closed in 1979.
Of all of the Dayton GM divisions, the only one that originally started out as part of the company was Inland Manufacturing Division. Inland made steering wheels and other interior components and was the only division that manufactured rubber parts.
In 1940, GM also opened Aeroproducts Division in Vandalia to make propellers for aircraft. Aquiring the Engineering Projects Company, started by J.J. Blanchard and Charles MacNeil, the factory went into production almost immediately with 12 employees and a fistful of government orders as America entered World War II.
While GM was unmistakably the heavy hitter in town, Chrysler had a presence in the Miami Valley as well. Originally opening the Airtemp Division in Detroit in 1934, Chrysler moved it to Dayton two years later. The company began in New York after Walter P. Chrysler complained that he could not get air conditioning for one of his offices and decided to build his own.
At its peak in the mid-1950s, Chrysler Airtemp housed an 800,000 square-foot manufacturing facility near Leo and Webster streets and employed 2,700 people. Chrysler and Ford both made use of suppliers and machine shops in Dayton, and though their presence was far less invasive in the area than that of General Motors, it was still respectable.
Of course, massive companies like General Motors and NCR could not survive without the hundreds of smaller businesses that supplied them. Machine shops, textile manufacturers, electrical component makers and countless other companies prospered right along with the big guys.
From 1900 through the 1980’s, Dayton has been home to all types of industry suppliers. Some have died off, some have grown and prospered into larger companies and some have been bought up by bigger agents like GM.
When the larger corporations leave town, however, the ripple effect of the loss is felt throughout the economic environment of the region. Over the last twenty years, Dayton has suffered terrible economic challenges as big manufacturing began moving out.
On June 25, Economic Transition in the Miami Valley continues with Part II: Where are we now? – A look at the economic effects of the exodus of manufacturing in Dayton over the last two decades.
Writer’s Note: My thanks to my father Mr. Gary Deer, Sr., and Mr. Marion Dixon, Sr. for their contributions to this series.
About the author: Gery L. Deer is an independent journalist based in Jamestown. Read more at www.gerydeer.com