The W.W. Cross Company was founded in Brockton, Mass in 1869. It flourished there well past the turn of the century, playing a vital roll in the burgeoning shoe industry which was so central to the New England economy through those years. It is the story of two W.W.s and two towns, Brockton, Mass and Jaffrey, NH.
Brockton must have been an exciting place to live one hundred and fifty years ago, when William W. Cross was founding the company which bore his name throughout it's history.
Brockton was a small New England town on the move. North Bridgewater, as it was called then, was very soon to become the fastest growing city in Massachusetts and the shoe capital of the world.
And 36 year old William W. Cross was one of the adventurous businessmen who was its driving force.
The tack factory was but one of his endeavors. He became vice president of the Brockton National Bank. He was a founder, the first president and the largest individual stockholder of the Brockton Street Railway Company. He went from business and banking into real estate, developing his own land to create housing for the fast growing city. And he was general manager of the Brockton City Theater.
A native of Brockton, born in 1833, he moved to Palmer, Massachusetts, as a young man and ran a dry goods business there for 14 years before going home to put his roots down once again in Brockton.
He bought a going business in 1869. That was the year the transcontinental railroad was connected by driving a golden spike at Promontory, Utah, to mark the junction of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. It was one year after President Andrew Johnson was acquitted in, at that time, the nation's one and only impeachment trial. It was two years before Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern and started the fire that destroyed the heart of Chicago.
The going business which W.W. Cross bought in 1869 already had a history, and an early account of Brockton recounts it as follows. " About the year 1790," the history recounts, "Benjamin Silvester built a mill on the Salisbury River, near the residence of Galen Packard, for a fulling mill. He sold his interest to his brother, Seth Silvester, who was succeeded by John Wales, who established a carding mill.
" Mr. Ephraim Cole bought the privilege of Mr. Wales and continued until 1825, when he sold out to Galen Packard, who soon commenced manufacturing ship spikes, nails, and all kinds of ship work, using a trip hammer."
Brockton had yet to take its place as the shoe capital, you see, so tacks go back even farther in the W.W. Cross background than does the shoe industry.
Packard's nails went into the ships which sailed from New England all over the world.
"Mr. Packard sold out to Jefferson Bisbee," the old history continues, "who came from Canton, Mass., and began to manufacture hay and manure forks. Benjamin F. Wheeler afterward purchased the works and manufactured small nails, tacks, shoe nails, and carpet tacks. Benjamin Franklin Kingman succeeded Mr. Wheeler, since which time William W. Cross has enlarged the works and is doing a successful business."
W.W. Cross, at the age of 36, with fourteen years experience in dry goods, obviously had vision. He must have seen what shoes were going to do for Brockton. and Benjamin Wheeler's modest beginning obviously made it clear that a city couldn't make shoes without tacks.
The Brockton Souvenir, a promotional piece published around 1900, touches briefly on what William Cross did with Benjamin Wheeler's fledging enterprise. " When Cross became proprietor of the business, in 1869, the factory building was only 60 feet in length and but 13 machines were operated. since that time two 30 foot extensions have been added to the building, making it 120 feet long, and other machines have been added until now there are 52 machines in operation, and the factory is run to its fullest capacity every working day of the year. the latest improved machinery is used, and twenty-five hands are employed."
It was about this time that steam power came to Brockton, as it came to New England and to the world. The first Cross factory was built on a natural site, where water power was available, but water power had its limitations.
The official City History of Brockton, a thick book, recalls that an early sawmill on the site was driven by water. " We should judge this mill was of small power," the official history qualifies, "As it was related of a man who was passing the works on his way from Bridgewater to Boston ( a journey of two or three days) as he passed, the saw was going up and when he returned , it was just coming down. " the steam engine speeded things up considerably.
In 1878, Mr. Cross took his son, Mr. W.B. Cross, into the firm," according to the Brockton Souvenir. " The younger Mr. Cross now devotes his entire time to the business of the concern, the elder Mr. Cross being thus enabled to give his attention to his other large financial and business interests."
The company had broadened its line substantially by 1900. "The product of the factory consists of extra-quality shoe, carriage, carpet, card, brush, lace and gimp tacks; Swedes, charcoal and American iron shoe nails, cigar-box and Hungarian and /channel nails; also improved patent brads.
"The firm has perfected machinery for making patent insulating saddle staples, for electrical wiring. These staples are patented in America and Europe, and have just been placed on the market. "
W.W. Cross's ingenuity made it possible to succeed, Brockton's success made it possible to flourish.
The city multiplied in a manner that has seldom been matched since. In 1865, the now prosperous city of Brockton was a quiet, country village, known as North Bridgewater, with a population of a little over 6000 people. Five years latter, in 1870, it had increased to 8007; in 1875 to 10,578; in 1880, to 13,608; in 1885, to 20,783 and in 1890, to 27,294. By this showing, it can be seen that the population increased 100 percent between the years 1880 and 1890. the city was valued at $6,876,427 in 1881. It had exploded to $17,495,602 in 1890 and again, to $31,895,728 in 1904.
It was only one of three cities in Massachusetts producing more then $5,000,000 a year in manufactured goods in 1904. The other two were Haverhill and Lynn, both shoe cities.
The high water mark in the shoe industry came in 1901, when 629,413 cases of shoes were made and shipped.
With all these powerful forces acting to shape the destiny of W.W. Cross, it was a simpler one, a commoner one, that ultimately, made itself felt.
The official City History of Brockton devotes an entire chapter to fire, that elemental force. Fires in Brockton are listed by dates. And three simple entries in that chapter are of significance to the Cross Company.
- "1866, October 10. the shoe tool manufactory belonging to Wilbur Webster of Salisbury Heights destroyed by fire."
- "1973, April 23. Fire at the tack factory of William B. Cross, Esq. on Pleasant Street. Loss small. "
- "1893, July 17. Fire in the tack factory owned and occupied by Williams W. Cross of Pleasant Street. Loss $16,767.76."
Wilbur Webster, whose "manufactory" was destroyed by fire three years before W.W. Cross founded his firm, pulled up stakes in Brockton not many years later and moved to Jaffrey, NH.
Cross's firm, which later suffered such a heavy loss in 1893, was eventually to follow.
The firm absorbed, over the years, tack factories in Braintree, Dighton, Kingston, Raynham, Rockland, South Hanover and Worcester, Massachusetts; in St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois.
Now it is time to turn to the other tackmaking W.W. whose lifeline intertwines with William W. Cross'
Wilbur Webster was born in Appleton, Maine, on September 19, 1839. He had ancestors in common with the great Daniel Webster, and he was of New Hampshire stock, but he was the first of his line to live in Jaffrey.
He went from Maine to Cuba, where he was an engineer in charge of production at a sugar mill. He was still a young man when he returned to his homeland and, coincidently, to Brockton, then North Bridgewater, Mass.
He, too, founded a manufacturing firm in Brockton in the 1860's, but it had nothing to do with tacks.
The history books do not say, so far as we've been able to determine, whether the two WW's knew each other in the vibrant town of North Bridgewater where they were both young men. It was a small town, though, and both men were ambitious, so they must have been acquainted.
W.W. Cross was six years the older. He was born in Brockton. But, he may have been living in Palmer, Mass., when Wilbur Webster returned from Cuba to settle down for a few years in Brockton. Cross ran a dry goods business in Palmer until he sold it and bought a going tack factory in 1869, at which time Webster had already set himself up in business.
Wilbur Webster's first company made cutlery for the shoe industry, and his first factory was destroyed by fire on October 10, 1866, when Cross was still in Palmer. He rebuilt, apparently, because he kept at the cutlery trade. And in 1873 he moved his company to Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
It was not until the year 1897 that tacks were first made in Jaffrey. Webster sold his cutlery works to the C.J. Kimball Company of Bennington in 1894, and together with a skilled mechanic named Chester M. Jackson went to work on the fine points of the product to which W.W. Cross had turned 25 years before.
He founded the Granite State Tack Company in his former cutlery mill on an early industrial site. More recently, we have known the site as the Charles LeTourneau woodworking plant, but it had been the old Foster Fulling Mill and latter became the sawmill of August St. Pierre. And thus, another "coincidence". W.W. Cross's original factory in Brockton also stood on what had once been the site of an early fulling mill.
Wilbur Webster's older brother, William T. Webster, who had come here with him in 1873 and had been associated in the cutlery works, died on April 7, 1895, as the result of injuries received apparently during the plants transition from cutlery to tacks. He was known, too, as an expert mechanic and a fine workman, and his hobby was making violins.
The Granite State Tack Company prospered and eventually its leading customer became the United Shoe Machinery Corporation of Boston, Mass, which played such a significant role in the growth of Brockton, and which eventually acquired the firm which had been founded by W.W. Cross.
The original Jaffrey tack factory, at the corner of Cross Street and Old Peterborough Road was destroyed by fire on July 20, 1915, and that was the turning point.
Granite State had been successful. Jaffrey people had built up a substantial know how in the making of tacks. Obviously the company should be continued. United Shoe Machinery considered acquiring it and moving it down to the shoe region around Brockton, but, the roots were deep in Jaffrey.
It was at this point that Jaffrey people first counted their blessings and saw fully what the tack industry meant to the town. They pooled their resources, built a plant of concrete with 21,000 square feet of manufacturing space, a capacity for 80 machines, and offered a ten year tax incentive.
It was enough to turn the tide. The company stayed. The plant was ready to produce tacks again in 1916, with the latest electrically driven machines. The new tack factory was immediately successful, the local investment being returned in three years.
United Shoe Machinery Corporation bought the Granite State Tack Company in 1920, and in 1932 brought the W.W. Cross Company, in its entirety, to Jaffrey from Brockton.
Wilbur Webster's career as a tackmaker was short lived. He died in July of 1905, ten years after his older brother and eight years after Granite State began producing tacks.
His widow, the former Elizabeth Hamilton, a native of Brockton, lived here until the new factory was built and operational. she died in Jaffrey in April of 1916, a month before her granddaughter was born.
When Wilbur Webster retired in 1903 his son, Wilbur E. Webster took the helm.
It was their son, Wilbur E. (born in Jaffrey four years after his parents, his mother then 23, moved to Jaffrey) who nurtured the firm, guided it through the formative years to maturity.
In 1957 USM Corporation was being dismantled by the United States Justice Department for having a monopoly.
This turned out to be the undoing of the American Shoe Industry and the many allied industries that supported it. Without the vast research investment of United Shoe Machinery Corporation it wasn't long before the North American shoe industry fell behind other countries.
As part of the court mandated solution, USM sold the W.W. Cross Co., J.C. Rhodes Co and a shoemaking supply business to the Plymouth Cordage Company of Plymouth, MA. The companies were operated as a division of the Plymouth Cordage Co. known as Plymouth Cordage Industries or more commonly, PCI.
From a series of articles written by Richard Noyes for the The Monadnock Ledger on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the W.W. Cross Company, a Division of Plymouth Cordage Industries.
Historical information from John Morton, former Plant Manager of W.W. Cross Co. and Charles Williams, Vice President Sales and Marketing - Footwear Products, PCI
Edited by Charles Williams