The Le Roy Plow Company

Reprint of the Le Roy Historical Society Newsletter

Content Tools

Reprinted from the Le Roy Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 4, Number 1, with permission. Le Roy Historical Society is located at 23 East Main Street, Le Roy, New York 14482.

The Le Roy Plow Company was organized and incorporated in 1899. Several Le Roy businessmen, including Calvin Keeney, Patrick Gleason, Butler Ward, Orator Woodward (later of Jell-O fame), and Thomas Larkin purchased the Miller Manufacturing Company which made farm implements, including the Miller Bean Harvestor.

The first officers of the company were Butler Ward, President; Calvin Keeney, Vice President; Orator Woodward, Chairman of the Executive Committee; Thomas Larkin, Secretary and Treasurer.

The factory was located on the west side of Lake Street, behind the train station, and was serviced by five railroads: the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh, the Erie, the New York Central, the Lehigh Valley, and the Delaware, Lackawanna &. Western. The railroads provided necessary delivery for raw materials and easy delivery service for the manufactured equipment. In 1903, the old factory burned down and was immediately rebuilt. By 1906, according to an article in The Old Magazine published  by A. L. Jinks of Le Roy, the Le Roy Plow Company was third in the state in the production of plows.

The Le Roy plow was designed by Edwin Hall, who owned the Caledonia Plow Company. It was written that Edwin Hall was one of the greatest plow experts alive at that time. Another story about Edwin Hall states that Thomas Larkin convinced Fred Huff, a pattern maker for the Caledonia Plow Company, to bring the Caledonia plow patterns to Le Roy. Hall fought the infringement on his business and was unable to get monetary satisfaction.

In 1916, Thomas Larkin acquired the outstanding interests in the company and became the president and major stock owner. Larkin at this time was also a director and secretary of the Genesee Pure Food Company (which produced Jell-O). Larkin's first wife was Orator Woodward's sister, Clara, who died in 1888. Larkin moved to Le Roy at the age of 16 from Cohocton, New York. He was employed at a clothing and shoe store owned by Samuel Kelsey. In 1884, he purchased the 'Star Shoe Store' on Main Street, which he owned for about 15 years.

During the bicycle craze of the 1890s he also sold bicycles. In 1913, Thomas Larkin purchased the large brick Victorian house on Trigon Park, which later became the Steuber Funeral Home - now The Church of Living Waters.

The Le Roy Plow Works employed 35 to 50 men at any one time. Because the work in the foundry was seasonal, men from the area often did farm work in the summer and worked for the plow works in the winter. Custom work was done in the spring, when the plow business was slack.

In 1929, Wilfred Martin, having just graduated from Le Roy High School, was offered a job by Thomas Larkin as an 'Iron Moulder.' Since jobs were scarce, Martin reported for work. He was paid no hourly rate, but rather, was paid the piece work rate.

The first day he made $1.65. 'When I started my apprenticeship-the old timers told me. . . I was lucky. When they started learning the foundry craft, they, for the first year received only 25% of the going piece work rate; the second year 50% of the rate; the third year 75% and the fourth year 100%. Of course this reduced the labor cost a great deal.'

Gradually, by the following spring, he was earning $4.00 per day-from 6:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. with ? hour for lunch. 'Later, as the depression deepened, Mr. Larkin changed the piece work rate so that with great effort one could make $3.00 per day for three days a week, making it quite difficult for a family man to survive. Of course there were no health benefits at that time or any other benefits that are common today. In fact there were none existent in any American industry.'

'There was a railroad spur on the north side of the company owned by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad. This is where they switched the box cars that the company used for shipping their products. On the south side was another spur where the coke, pig iron, scrap etc. was unloaded for use in the cupola where it was melted for the casting of the end product. That area was also used for the foundry sand used by the moulder. There was a special yellow-like sand that came from the Albany area and was considered the finest in America. After using it for some time and after it was burnt by the molten metal it became a dark brown.'

Wilfred remembers unloading a railroad car of 30 tons of pig iron. He was to be paid 10 cents a ton. When he went into Larkin's office to collect his pay, he was given only $2.00. Larkin, who was not known for his generosity, told him that he made a mistake and over-estimated the weight of the load.

The 1915 Le Roy Plow Catalogue states that the factory had a capacity of 25,000 plows a year. They manufactured walking plows with steel or wooden beams, sulky plows that could be ridden, tractor plows, hillers and shovel plows. They also manufactured land rollers, manure spreaders, buzz saws, harrows, discs, garden cultivators, row markers, pulverizers and packers.

John Parmalee of Fort Hill, Le Roy wrote to the plow company and his letter was published in the catalogue:

'My boy did most of the plowing and came in at night just as fresh as he went out in the morning.

'It is also easy on the horses for I never have to rest them. I figure it saved 455 miles of walking.' Then the next year he wrote: 'Gentlemen, I am 63 years of age and haven't followed a plow for twenty years. This year I plowed both flatland and hillside on the Le Roy Two-Way without any trouble at all and enjoyed it.' The Le Roy Two-Way  was a plow that allowed the farmer to swivel the plow from one side to the other at the end of the row and eliminated what was called a 'dead furrow.' Sulky plows weighed between 550 and 575 pounds-without two or three horses. Le Roy Plow manufactured a lighter weight walking steel-beam reversible hillside or swivel plow.

In 1885, Noah Keeler of Wallace, New York, invented the 'Boss' potato digger. It was manufactured by Rawson and Thacher in Corning for several years. Eventually, the Le Roy Plow Company bought the patent and manufactured the Boss. It was well suited for the smaller potato farmer and could easily be drawn by two horses. The boss lifted the potatoes with a blade and then dropped them on a horizontal-revolving fingered wheel. The potatoes were flung aside like the spinner on a highway sanding truck.

It was a walk-behind machine, which was one of its problems, because it could fling potatoes and stones ten or twelve feet in any direction. This would damage the potatoes, but also the operator. The first thing the farmer did when the new digger arrived, was to build a wooden shield which hung down from the handles and protected his legs from a barrage of potatoes and stones. If a stone became lodged between the blade and the reel 'things happened fast.' Potatoes were not the only thing that were bruised. If the soil was dry, the digger created its own dust storm which enveloped the operator.

Wilfred Martin remembers casting the large universal gear of the Boss potato digger. It had two separate drive gears and a pinion which allowed it to be shifted from one drive to the other. This reversed the direction of the wheel with each back and forth trip across the field. The only known Le Roy-made Boss potato digger is owned by the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport. (Negotiations with the museum indicate that they are interested in moving it to the LeRoy Historical Society.)

During the fifty years of operation, the Plow Company employed many men. Wilfred Martin, who worked in the foundry for five years in the early 1930s, remembers the men he worked with: 'I would like to pay tribute to some of the old employees of that era. I being young at the time, I am the sole survivor living. In my mind's eye I see Willis Scott and Ambrose McBurney, the warehouse men. Irving Miller in charge of the paint department; Clarence Davis and Charlie Blood in the wood room. Art Rogers, the engineer in the power room. He was a tall skinny man, who we called Cornstalk. Only had one eye, but was a real talented man with a steam engine. Henry Wright and Frank Caswell, the pattern makers; Ralph Alexander, who mounted the plows. Continuing on was Al Shepard who polished the plow units for the new plows, mouldboards, points, landslides, etc. Ed Case was the drill press operator and Brownnie was the blacksmith and Sam Turner plus  Skinny Luttrel who cleaned the castings.

'In the foundry was Paul Reinhart, the coremaker; Howard Webber the foundry foreman; Ed Reinhart, Joe Kurtz, Jack Brown, Cooper and James Burrell and myself-all moulders. Plus Jimmy Wallace and Chris Weiland, cupola operators, and lest I forget, Matthew Kelly, the night watchman. The superintendent of all this was Harvey Scott, son-in-law of Mr. Larkin. Scott was a fine man and was loved by all.'

The Plow Company closed shortly after World War II. The buildings were used by various companies, including the most recent occupant, Recticel. Finally in the summer of 1991, the last of the buildings were razed.

Note: The Historical Society is seeking photographs and memorabilia from Le Roy Plow Company. It is also interested in compiling a list of employees and collecting stories of working at the Plow Works.

In 1991 and 1992, Wilfred Martin of Palmyra, donated to the Historical Society , pictures and foundry tools of the Le Roy Plow Company. Also included was a cast iron bulldog which he made while working in the foundry. His letters and a tape of his days at the plow works are a valid link to a former Le Roy industry.