The Undoing of J.H. Horne and Sons Co.
While I wasn’t watching, my little brother transformed from a kid into a machinist. Unfortunately I’m realizing it too late. In eight years he went from being an apprentice to running his own jobs start to finish, working raw materials into usable parts according to blueprint specifications. Now he’s 28 and out of work. His company’s been sold to a British competitor, and I never got the chance to see him run his machines.
He learned his trade at J. H. Horne and Sons Company, maker of paper mill equipment, from pulp beaters to formers to the end-stage dryer stack units where wet paper serpentines through a series of heated rollers. Founded in 1863, Horne is thought to be the oldest continuously operating business in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The closure of yet another brick factory is commonplace here. But there’s a particular poignancy when a union shop closes because of high labor costs in an old mill-town, famous for its role in promoting worker rights nationwide.
It was raining the day Jim Beauchesne went dumpster-diving for shop ledgers. The pages of the leather-bound books had already begun to curl, smooth vellum sheets rippling with the damp, and his chances for preserving the 19th-century records were fading by the hour.
The death of a factory is nothing new for the supervisor of the Lawrence Heritage State Park. After all, his park consists of the roofless remnants of the first textile mill built in Lawrence, in 1846. The park tells a story of the industrial revolution, of owners’ wealth, of workers’ pride, and of change.
The historian in Jim knew the details penned in meticulous slanted script could be pay-dirt for somebody in the future trying to figure out what happened in Lawrence at the beginning of the 21st century. He boxed as many volumes as he could. He recognized the closure of J. H. Horne and Sons Company as a landmark event.
Chiefs and indians
The pitching of the leather ledgers was merely another housekeeping detail to attend to for Byron Cleveland III, son of company president Byron Cleveland, Jr. Byron III was Horne’s last sales manager. The buildings needed to be cleared out for the new buyer.
Both attic and basement were filled with the company’s history, nearly 150 years’ worth. But Byron III was not without empathy for the books he was throwing out. He thumbed through them, commenting with familial pride on the elegance of the mechanical design drawings. “They were all printed on paper made on Horne machines,” he said.
The pictures revealed detailed specs used to construct all manner of paper mill machinery. In 1863, Byron III’s great-great-great-grandfather, John Henry Horne, started the company with three employees. Now shrinking profits had finally led Byron III to urge his father, now in his 70s, to accept a competitor’s purchase offer.
The devastating decision had been made. The transition was underway to ownership by U.K.-based Black Clawson. A new business model would emerge, with the equipment being manufactured through subcontractors working in smaller shops – no longer with the close integration of engineering, fabrication, foundry, and machining.
The office staff and engineers, including Byron III, would join the new company, Black Clawson Horne, but the machinists would lose their jobs. As one machinist, my brother Joshua DuLong, put it: “They’re keeping all the chiefs and getting rid of all the Indians.” It remains to be seen whether the work can be done as well – or, in the long run, at all – if skilled workers are considered expendable.
When Josh started at Horne at age 20, he was by far the youngest in the shop. “I still am,” he says. Youth is what got him the job in the first place. “Byron III wanted to train a young kid with mechanical ability,” he recalls. “He saw that all of his skilled workers were older. They were all at least 40 years old and some were over 70.”
Josh walked into the shop cold: “I didn’t even know what an end mill was.” His first month was intense – not only was he learning about machining, he was also trying to find his place among his coworkers. “The shop is very cliquey,” he explains, “and it was more so then because there were more guys in there. People gave you a hard time, like teasing you, and some of the guys they wouldn’t even talk to you. They just gave you dirty looks.”
For years Horne participated in apprenticeship programs with local vocational schools, so Josh wasn’t the first kid the old guard dealt with. “A lot of them were punks, whether they were sneaking up onto the roof and smoking dope or taking a nap in the corner or whatever it was,” he says. That’s why the guys had him pre-judged.
“It was up to me to prove different,” he says. “Those old bastards still can give me a hard time,” he laughs. “It doesn’t matter how old I am, I’m still just a kid to them.” Some of the “old bastards” he now considers best friends. Horne’s closing is breaking up a tight-knit group, leaving the older workers without an employment future, and the younger workers, like my brother, at loose ends.
Instrumental to Josh’s learning was Gordon Barlow, who was paid a bit more to teach. Gordon worked in the Special Parts Department, a room with milling machines, grinders, and a small lathe. “He was my mentor,” Josh says. “He’s the best machinist I’ve ever seen. He was faster than he ever needed to be and had a grasp of every aspect of the trade, from design and engineering to tool-making and setups – from materials and casting and forging processes to heat treating.” Gordon, a proper gentleman from England, was about 70 when Josh started. He’d made jet engines for Rolls Royce and was “from the old school.” “As long as you were respectful and showed a lot of effort, he was a patient and an excellent teacher.”
As Josh sees it, Gordon’s mastery inspired him to learn. “I’ve seen him mill a piece of 3/4-inch stainless plate on all sides and make the thing flat within five thousandths of an inch,” he says reverently. “He did this with an overhead attachment on one of the horizontal millers. He just moved the piece around, adjusting clamps and taking small chips. He knew exactly what the metal was going to do before he did it. And he compensated and made the thing flat and parallel and well within the tolerance.”
My brother worked with Gordon for just over two years before the man retired, leaving Josh in charge of Special Parts. Gordon’s were large shoes to fill, but Josh enjoyed the challenge. “You’d get a print and the material and they’d say, ‘Here you go.’ I’d take raw material and some blueprints and give them the finished product,” he explains. “It got to the point where they didn’t even check my work. I’d just put it in the box and they’d say ‘Alright, you all done?’ and I’d say, ‘Yup, there it is.'”
Josh’s position seemed rich with opportunity. “I had an idea of how old the company was. I didn’t think it was going to be cutting edge or the highest-paying job, but it seemed to me like it was going to be a good, secure company.”
So did the older guys. The company’s phoenix-like history, and its deep roots in the social fabric of Lawrence, obscured the writing on the wall for workers who might otherwise have traced its slow demise and been better prepared for its sudden dissolution. They trusted that a family business that had been in existence since 1863 was sure to stick around.
At age sixteen, country boy John H. Horne left his home in Stratham, New Hampshire, to learn a trade. It was 1845. Horne found his place in Lawrence, among the workers building the Great Stone Dam in what was called the “New City on the Merrimack.” The dam would harness free waterpower from the Merrimack River to run sewing machines and massive looms, setting up Lawrence as one of the great New England mill towns. As a blacksmith’s apprentice, Horne crafted and sharpened the tools and drills used by the workmen.
During the 1890s, some 18,000 immigrants came from more than 30 different nations to work grueling hours for minimal wages. The average mill worker earned a dime an hour and worked up to 13 hours a day under wretched conditions. The lint, dust, and fumes from chemicals and dyes in poorly ventilated spaces led to early deaths for many. Injuries were commonplace. By the turn of the century, the “New City” had established itself as the world’s largest producer of worsted wool cloth.
Tensions rose among the workers, who lived crammed seven to 12 people in a single company-housing apartment. Seeds were planted for labor organizing that would transform workers’ rights nationwide. That tug-of-war between management and workers set the stage both for the opening of Horne’s company in 1863 and for its closure in early 2005.
Horne left Lawrence within a few years after the dam was completed, but returned some years later with a new specialty: the manufacture of papermaking machinery. Early papermaking used the leftovers from cloth manufacturing and water, both abundant in Lawrence, and Horne recognized the city as the perfect place to grow his new business. For decades, Horne’s company provided equipment to hundreds of New England paper mills, eventually branching out internationally with agencies in London, Germany, France, England, and Norway.
When John Horne died in 1904, his sons soldiered on through spells of both good and bad weather. The company was hard-hit during the Depression, even closing for a year before the economy picked up and the machinists could go back to their machines. In the 80s, following the demise of hundreds of New England paper mills, the company added wastewater treatment plants, boiler manufacturers, and other diverse industries to its customer list. Despite many hurdles, the company had always bounced back.
Josh says he didn’t see the end coming. “Ever since I worked there the old guys were saying, ‘This place isn’t gonna last.'” he explains. “But then they’d joke about it and say, ‘When I started here in ’62 they told me, ‘Get out of here. This place isn’t gonna last.’ They’d tell me that story and laugh.”
That talk would go on when things were so slow the crew was sweeping the floor to keep busy, or cleaning the machines – again. And then a big order would come in and before they knew it they’d be working nine hours a day, Saturday mornings, a couple Sundays. “When the big checks start rolling in life’s good. And everybody thinks, ‘How can this end? It’s not gonna end. This is great.’ You’re making money and you’re staying positive, staying busy.”
Even when strangers walked through the shop, eyeballing equipment, the men didn’t see the sale coming. “The story I heard was that this other company was thinking about buying into Horne,” recalls Josh. “They have a whole other line of products. … It will be good for the Clevelands and good for us; there’ll be an even bigger client base and more product to make. More parts, more money.”
Last winter, Josh spent more time snowmobiling than machining. Work had been slow since September, so the guys in the shop took turns getting laid off for a week or two at a time. “It’s good for everybody,” Josh explains. “It doesn’t hurt you to get laid off for a little while. The guys are collecting. You’re not getting rich but it’s a little vacation.” Byron III assured everyone he had promises for new product orders after the first of the year.
But here it was, a Thursday morning in mid-February, and instead of machining deckles, gibs, or clevises for a paper mill former, Josh was packing up his “sled” for a long weekend in Maine. That morning he called the secretary to see if he could pick up his check. She said, You’d better come in at 11:15. Byron III has called a meeting.
When Josh arrived, the men, all in work blues, had gathered in the main shop. Before today, the only all-shop meeting they’d ever had was the annual union meeting.
A dozen machinists and welders waited, standing atop metal plates cemented in the floor, where final machine assembly takes place. On a different day this space might have been occupied with a big dryer frame section, a former, or a save-all tub being erected before shipment. Today there were no parts, just men waiting.
Above them, a massive crane hung on overhead rails. The 25-ton Niles read “SAFETY FIRST” in eight-inch block letters. Its rivets reminded Josh of the Titanic. As Byron III spoke, a meek light shone into the vast, dank space through a row of windows that ringed the top of the 30-foot ceiling.
“I don’t remember exactly what he said,” Josh tells me later. “I remember the message: J.H. Horne as we know it now will not exist. You’re not going to find us here anymore.”
His head began to churn. “When you walk through the building you can see the progressions and the different additions and the different plates and platforms where old machines have stood – all the way back to when there was a giant belt that turned a shaft and all these machines were in a line running off one power source. All that old mechanism is gone but some of the supports and the holes are still there. To think about how long it’s all been there… It’s not only that you’re not going to work here anymore, but it’s not going to be here. It’s like where we used to ride dirt bikes as a kid and now there’s $500,000 homes and green grass. It’s not just that you can’t go there anymore; it isn’t there anymore. Except this is a lot worse.”
He can’t imagine what it must be like for the guys that have been there for 40 years or more.
Long-timers left behind
Doug Keith was 23 when he traded his machinist job in Arbroath, Scotland, for a position at Horne. That choice cemented his future for four decades. Now it’s left him suddenly unemployed. At 66, his children long since grown, Doug is a new father once again. He and his wife adopted a four-year-old boy who’d been in their foster care since infancy. Doug’s not sure what he’ll do now to make ends meet, since retirement wasn’t part of the plan.
On the last day of March he watched as the lathe he’d worked on for 30-some odd years was cut from its cement bedding to be shipped to its new owner. “He babied that thing,” Josh tells me. “That was his machine.” He’d worked on it since it was new.
Doug tries not to be bitter, but says, “It’s hard not to feel jettisoned.” The worst part of the meeting, he says, shaking his head, was when Byron III said he was worried that his father would end up on the street with a tin cup.
Jack Toto started the same year as Doug, in 1962. When he arrived, he says, “the place was booming. Every machine was taken.” His 43 years involved working on more than just paper-mill equipment. The shop handled nose cones for the Hawk missile; made parts for nuclear, hydroelectric, and sewage treatment plants; and even bored out tugboat propellers. “It was like a country club in here,” he says, “It was a close knit bunch of fellas.” For days after the February 17th meeting Jack says he felt like a family member had passed away. “You can’t eat or sleep. It’s like your world crumbled.” He attributes the plant’s closure to poor management. “They should have brought in an outside general manager.”
As Byron III explains it, selling Horne was the only sensible decision. For decades he and his father had been fielding offers from competitors interested in Horne’s segment of the paper machinery business. “We never cared to give it up, because it allowed us to do things our own way and we were making good livings running it our way.” Once the “good livings” faltered, that thinking changed. “Volume is vanity and profit is sanity and there wasn’t much sanity here for the past few years,” Byron III says, explaining that the company hasn’t been profitable for six out of the last 10 years. “My family began pouring their money into the company.”
In today’s market, he says, consolidation was inevitable: “When I began 21 years ago there were 20 American machinery builders. Of the original builders, there are none left. They’ve all been consumed. We’re the last one.”
He cites general administrative costs as the major culprit: Today’s market just won’t support a company with such a large overhead. “The niche market we’re in, they’re not willing to pay what we would really need to sell the equipment to stay profitable,” he says.
And recently the company has been competing not with other full-service companies, but with independents who subcontract the work. “It’s tough to compete with freelancers who’ve got the ‘in’ at a little shop that’s capable of making an intricate widget, especially if you’re in a company that has to support its engineering department, its sales force, its machine shop division, and its fabrication or foundry division,” he explains. Over the past two decades Horne’s hourly shop rate has increased from $35 to $80 an hour. But that increase hasn’t been enough. “Half of what we sold an hour for – 50 percent of our hourly wage – was the cost of wages plus the benefit package.”
Byron III sees Horne’s fate reflected in other U.S. manufacturers. “For us builders that had the full array of the office – with the engineering department with the fabrication division or the foundry division, alongside the machining division – they all went union. It all got expensive. These guys deserved a good quality of life, but to maintain what they deserved breaks the company.”
For more than 140 years the Horne company put its name on machinery built in its own shop, by its own crew. Now the newly formed Black Clawson Horne, Inc. will subcontract production out to small, local, family-owned businesses. These are shops that “don’t necessarily pay their employees with beautiful wages with incredible benefits packages, because that’s what kills companies,” Byron III says.
When I first asked Josh if he was planning to go back into machining, he shrugged off the idea. “It doesn’t seem like there’s much of a future in it,” he said. He planned to use his machining know-how on his own projects, automotive and otherwise, but he didn’t want to do it for a living.
A few weeks later I checked in again. After submitting an application at the town water department and taking a test to get work as a Verizon technician, Josh went back to work for a landscaping company he’d worked for before. After two days of cutting grass, he quit without pay. “It sucks,” he said. “I left there for a reason. It’s a rat-race. I’m done.”
What got to him was both the monotony and the futility. He resented working so hard for “rich people spending 200 bucks for a Friday cut to make their grass look good for their Saturday soiree. They spend more on landscaping than people I know spend on… I don’t even know what to compare it to. You have that much money and you’re going to look and make sure I got every blade? It’s grass. You people need to relax.”
This short landscaping stint has him reconsidering machining. “These last two days, I’m ready to cry thinking about my old job,” he says. “I was making important things. People used those things. Sure, they threw them away when they got broken, but still… I wasn’t getting rich, but I was making a good wage. It was good and I forgot how good it was. I need something real.”