Leader Iron Works

By Staff
article image
1 HP Leader engine running root chopper, 1991.

5855 Lisle Road Owego, New York 13827

On March 24, 1910, the Leader Iron Works, a two hundred thousand
dollar company of Decatur, Illinois, selected the village of Owego,
Tioga County, New York to become its eastern distribution center.
The Leader company had been manufacturing water supply systems for
suburban homes, schools, factories, etc. for at least five years,
employing about one hundred and fifty men.

Leader selected Owego for two reasons. The first was for its
exceptional railroad connections. The Erie and the Delaware
Lackawanna both ran east and west through Owego linking Chicago
with New York City and were tied into two smaller railroads that
ran north and south. The Owego location would be responsible for
all of Leader’s business: sales, bookkeeping, inventory, and
shipping of its products east of the Ohio River in all states from
Maine to Florida. Office operations and personnel in Rochester, New
York, and New York City were to be consolidated at Owego, leaving
only the salesmen.

The second reason for selecting the village of Owego was
twofold. The potential for a sizable site along one of the
railroads was outstanding and the attitude of cooperation by the
local Business Men’s Association was exceptional.

While waiting for the negotiations for a permanent building
location, Leader officials leased a lot on the north side, across
the tracks from the Erie Depot. They contracted with the Owego
Bridge Company to erect a traveling crane for lifting six hundred
pound boilers from rail cars and setting them down on a short
tract, allowing them to be rolled onto the storage lot.

Within the first month, six carloads of Leader’s pneumatic
water supply systems, that included the drums, water and air pipes,
fittings, pumps, engines, etc. arrived.

Office personnel were temporarily located on the first floor of
a rental building known as the ‘Ford flat-iron building’ at
the corner of Fox and Depot Streets. By June, it became necessary
to rent the second floor, as business and the need for additional
personnel increased.

The following year, 1911, an eighteen by seventy feet sheet iron
building was erected to protect the pumps, engines and

Leader management and Owego Business Men’s Association were
happy with their alliance. Negotiations began for a permanent site
for the distribution complex with potential for a manufacturing

Leader officials requested a free building site of five acres
next to a railroad, $5,000 for start-up costs (grading, spur track,
water mains, etc.), and another $5,000 toward the cost of the
building. The businessmen agreed, providing that Leader would
establish a manufacturing operation employing at least fifty men
within five years, and that Owego would appear on advertisements
with equal billing as Decatur. The Leader officials agreed and
signed the contracts, including penalty clauses in the event Leader
failed to honor their commitments.

The first site offered was turned down by Leader. It was part of
the David farm, east of the village, above the Hollenback
brickyard, next to the Erie tracks.

The chosen site was land owned by Gurdon Pumpelly. It was
bounded on the north by the Champion Wagon Works and on the east by
the Cayuga rail tracks. A simple switch could be laid that would
connect all railroads going east and west and north and south.

It took all summer to convince Mr. Pumpelly to sell, much to
everyone’s frustration. He would not sell a five acre parcel
from his large acreage. He finally agreed to sell a strip, fourteen
and one tenth acres, that extended west to the raceway used by the
electric power plant for $3,900.

Subscription papers were drawn up for the total funds required,
$13,900. Over seventy five local people, mostly businessmen,
fulfilled their pledges.

The following year, 1912, Leader Iron Works erected a modern
fireproof, all brick, fifty by one hundred foot, one-half with two
stories, and a full drive-in basement warehouse on a five hundred
eighty foot spur or switch track. A gasoline engine powered derrick
was located at one end of a ten foot wide platform on the north
side where the rail tracks were. A large sign with three feet high
letters, ‘Leader Water Supply Systems,’ ran the entire
length of the upper roof, clearly visible to anyone on passing
trains. Fire protection was furnished via two inch pipe to all
parts of the building, getting the necessary pressure from their
own Leader system in the basement.

This Leader facility not only had adequate storage area,
shipping rooms, a repair shop, and offices, it had the showroom of
all showrooms. Their main attractions were the overhead line
shafts, as shown in Wendel’s American Gasoline Engines.
Salesmen could demonstrate by electric or gasoline power the
operations of water pumps, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc.
Customers and local residents were impressed.

The Leader building was the first commercial establishment in
the village of Owego to have its own fire protection, hot and cold
water for toilets, lavatories, and showers on all floors and a
sprinkler system supporting the lawn and shrubbery. It was
considered an honor and privilege to work for the aggressive
management under Decatur direction.

Very little manufacturing took place at Owego during this
distribution phase. Some minor machining and assembly was performed
before customer installation or for necessary repairs. If anything
could be done in their small shop that would make it easier for the
men in the field, it was done.

Parts for the Leader one horse power engine using Stover cast
block style V were sent to Owego for assembly; not on a production
basis, but to keep two men proficient on the assembly, disassembly
and repair. This little engine was nationally known as the
workhorse of shallow well water pumps. Some of these engines have
survived over the years and are recognizable by the Owego, New York
on the nameplate.

Sales of Leader’s products were very good through 1916. But
the costs of raw material and labor were rising and the
availability of iron was unpredictable. World War I was making a
drastic impact on the nation’s economy.

Leader’s management really liked their operation at Owego
and the potential for its growth. They were serious about expanding
their manufacturing capabilities in Owego by erecting another
building on a part of the remaining nine acres. It was their plan
to create a high speed machining and assembly line for the Leader
one-horse power gasoline engine.

The Panama Canal was expected to open in 1916, which would allow
Leader to ship their products to the west coast by rail from Owego
to New York City and then by ship through the canal cheaper than by
rail from Decatur, Illinois to the west coast.

However, Leader was forced to make adecisionbyl917. They were
bound by contract to build a manufacturing facility at Owego or
give up what they already had in Owego plus a $7,000 penalty. The
business climate was disheartening to a company experiencing low
cash reserves. Leader officials elected to pull their distribution
operations from Owego and return it to Decatur, Illinois.

They paid a penalty of $7,000 cash and forfeiture of their
facility to the Owego Business Men’s Association. A serious
decline in sales took place from which Leader never recovered.

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