An industry forged: ‘Tapping into History’ exhibit highlights museum’s seasonal opening

  • Greenfield Tap and Die, February 1986. Staff File Photo

  • Al Targhetta of Turners Falls, a Greenfield Tap and Die machinist for 8½ years making a custom tap on a milling machine, March 18, 1986. File Photo/Greenfield Recorder—

  • Oil is sprayed onto a tap as it threads a hole in the test lab at Greenfield Tap and Die. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • Tools of a ‘set up man’ at Greenfield Tap and Die, January 20, 1983. File Photo/Greenfield Recorder

  • Meguey Baker arranges a display of vintage Greenfield Tap and Die taps and dies at the Historical Society of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Meguey Baker with old advertising for Greenfield Tap and Die at the Historical Society of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Van Wood sets up a display of taps and dies at the Historical Society of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • A vintage Greenfield Tap and Die set of taps and dies at the Historical Society of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Historic tap and die tools on display at the Historical Society of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 5/10/2019 2:33:29 PM

For want of a screw, an entire industry was forged.

Nearly 150 years later, a museum exhibit opening today looks at the tap and die industry that transformed Greenfield from a sleepy town to a name known ‘round the world.

The Historical Society of Greenfield’s “Tapping into History” exhibit highlights the seasonal opening of its Church Street museum beginning today at noon, with a public reception from 3 to 6 p.m.

The exhibit’s own history, though, began unexpectedly in 2016 with the discovery of an overlooked milk crate crammed with metal boxes of 1903 receipts from D.B. Kellogg and Bros. Store in the museum’s basement.

Purveyors of “fine groceries, teas, coffees and spices,” the grocery on the corner of Main and Conway streets served also as a gathering place for people from all walks of life just as Greenfield was gaining steam as an industrial engine.

Even noted industrialist J.P. Morgan bought a bag of raisins at the store on Nov. 9, 1903, according to one receipt, found with help from a 2017 Mass Humanities research inventory grant. The research provides a tiny window into the spending habits and buying power of employers and workers as the machine tools industry was forming in this crossroads town.

The store was the Green Fields Market of its day, says Meguey Baker, the historical society board member and volunteer who helped curate the exhibit with support from the grant and other grants through the Pioneer Valley History Network. The grocery receipts led the way to an exhibit focusing on the community powerhouse that Greenfield Tap and Die Corp. and the machine tool industry would become here.

GTD, which employed about 2,000 workers in 1916 at the height of World War 1, according to Baker, wasn’t founded until 1912. Yet by 1903, Greenfield was already a hub in the manufacture of taps (which cut internal threads in the metal of nuts) and dies (which cut screw threads.)

“Sitting here in 2019,” Baker says, “we take a screw absolutely for granted, and it’s so much a part of everyday life that it’s hard to conceptualize. But the innovation this represented can’t be overstated.” Yet as part of the exhibit shows, it once took a burly blacksmith working with a crude jamb plate — also part of the exhibit — to twist repeatedly in order to jam a thread into what would become a screw.

The need for standardization of machine parts, already apparent to the armament industry that grew up at Springfield Armory, became even more obvious in the armory’s Civil War buildup.

That was just before inventor John Grant came to town in 1872 from Northampton and launched a series of threading tool innovations with the help of Greenfield brothers Frederick E. and Frank O. Wells, the Reece Brothers, and a succession of pioneering industries powered by the Green River, beginning with Wiley & Russell Manufacturing Co.

By 1912, as cutting tools became increasingly important to factories around the nation and world, a consolidated GTD was created by the Wells brothers — whose names also show up on those Kellogg’s store receipts.

The MassHumanities grant also helped inventory the GTD artifacts the historical society already had, including company newsletters, ledgers, photos and posters. Those, Baker says, also helped describe “how the community was involved in the business. It wasn’t just the tools and the machines, it was all these people living in the same town, their kids going to the same schools, the people belonging to same social clubs, the same churches and civic organizations, and sitting on the same boards and part of the same gardening clubs. What we’re looking at here is the social and community involvement of the people who worked at GTD.”

From the earliest days, the memorabilia show, those employees included women and African Americans, like Robert J. Harris, who drove one of GTD’s first enclosed cars among all six GTD buildings all day. Five of his six children went on to also work for the company.

The exhibit, much of which through 1963 was introduced last year, got a boost over the past years

Complementing the museum’s own collection are pieces on loan from the Museum of Our Industrial Heritage — including a late 18th-century blacksmith’s jamb plate — and those from GTD itself, which in 2009 became part of Pittsburgh-based Kennametal’s Widia Products Group. Among these are a wooden pattern — more than a yard in length — of the “little giant” wrench that was manufactured here and used for carriage shops and  other factories. Also on loan from GTD are oversized wooden models of taps and dies, a rag barrel used to collect greasy rags, and more.

The Museum of Our Industrial Heritage, in the former Mead Street factory where the Wells brothers started their manufacturing, offers another, more equipment-oriented, view of industries that thrived here. It opens for the season beginning June 22 on Saturday afternoons or by appointment, according to museum Director Jim Terapane. (Details are at www.industrialhistory.org).

“Since the 1700s, Greenfield was known as a center of manufacturing,” says Terapane, echoing Baker’s description. “If you wanted to manufacture something, this is where you came, because of all the skilled help and the machine shops that were here.”

The array of materials on display at the new Historical Society exhibit illustrate how that fame, which led to GTD’s recruitment of skilled workers from around Europe, affected life in the town, beginning within a few years of the company’s 1912 formation.

“They recruit all over the world and say, ‘We can give you a fantastic quality of life,’ ” explains Baker. “‘Do you have any cousins who are also great machinists? You can bring your whole family.’ The thinking was, ‘Come on over; this is going to take care of your whole life forever.’ What creates a good workforce is making sure everybody has stuff to do outside of work.’ ”

Imagine the impact that international recruitment had on Greenfield’s social makeup, she says, as immigrant laborers began settling in the town, living side-by-side with the existing population as the economy began bubbling.

A 1918 organizational chart of the GTD’s Industrial Relations Department, for example, shows it offering classes “in English for Americanization” for newly immigrant workers, as well as a “School for Women Operators” plus recreational baseball, bowling and basketball, gardening, a commissary serving workers three meals a day ‘at cost,’ and company-owned houses for sale and rent.

The exhibit also includes a GTD Engineering Club songbook from that era, with entries like “Do it for Greenfield”: (“Hail Greenfield, our Greenfield/We are proud of this old town/Always up and never down/Old Greenfield our Greenfield/We will do it, do it, bang, for our — Greenfield”).

Although GTD’s World War I payroll shrunk after the war and then during the Great Depression, it swelled again by January 1943 to 3,558 employees who worked three shifts seven days a week to keep up with the war effort in a factory protected by anti-aircraft gunners. GTD-Widia now employs about 75 workers, according to a Kennametal spokesperson.

“Tapping into History” begins, then, to tell the fuller story of how the manufacturing giants interacted with the town’s history itself, from old Kellogg’s old grocery receipts right up to GTD’s “Grill That Dog” company barbecue aprons, photos of GTD parade floats and trade-show posters.

“Museums are all about telling stories,” says Baker. “What we’ve tried to do is to bring more of the story forward and give it more context.”

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His website is richiedavis.net.




Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906

 

Copyright © 2019 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy