The Rockwood Pulley Company of Indianapolis, Indiana: Manufacturer of Paper Pulleys
As published in the March/April 1997 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
They are everywhere at threshing shows, just as they used to be everywhere on farms: on threshing machines, corn shredders, hammer mills, ensilage cutters, and tractors. Seldom are they really noticed, but they make everything work smoothly. They are, as the advertisements used to say, the “pulleys that grip while others slip.” (See the 1938 Rockwood advertisement on page 113 of Threshers, by Robert Pripps and Andrew Moreland [Motorbooks International Publishers: Osceola, Wis. 1992]). They are Rockwood paper pulleys.
They were commonly called “paper pulleys” because of the heavy fibrous material that was wrapped around the metal core of the pulley. This fibrous material was made by a process identical to that of manufacturing paper, except that the raw material being used was straw. Because of their ability to grip, paper pulleys were a technological leap over the wooden and steel pulleys that were first used in flat belt applications like threshing machines.
Although over the years (since the first appearance of paper pulleys on the North American farm scene) other companies would enter the field of manufacturing paper pulleys, it was nonetheless Rockwood Manufacturing Company that developed the first paper pulley. Rockwood so dominated the paper pulley market, that the terms “Rockwood pulley” and “paper pulley” were often used interchangeably.
Like so many companies, the Rockwood Manufacturing Company began as the dream of a single person. William O. Rockwood was born to Rev. Elisha and Susannah Rockwood of Westboro (Westborough), Massachusetts. Elisha was a doctorate of divinity graduate of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Upon graduation, he became the minister for the parish of Westborough, a post he would hold for 27 years. His wife, Susannah Brigham (Parkman) Rockwood, was the daughter of Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, who had been the first minister of the same Westborough parish. Together, they saw to it that their young son, William O. Rockwood, obtained a good education, enrolling him in Leicester and Amherst Academies, and then entering him at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. William O., however, rebelled against the ministry, the path laid out for him by his parents. He had a love of the sea. Accordingly, after two years at Yale, he signed on to a sailing vessel bound for Savannah, Georgia, at which port the ship would be loaded with cotton and would sail for Liverpool, England. Upon his return to Massachusetts, he stayed for a while with his parents. On June 4, 1836, William’s mother died. This was a shock to the young man and set him on a different course in life.
Having had his fill of adventures on the high seas, William O. packed up his bags and moved to the midwest–about as far from the high seas as one could get. He settled in Warsaw, Illinois, to try his hand at business. Warsaw was a port town on the Mississippi River, visited by the steam boat traffic that plied the river in the days before the Civil War. Soon, however, William, still restless, moved south to the larger port town of Quincy, Illinois. Still dissatisfied, he moved further south, to St. Louis, Missouri, where he became a partner in a wholesale grocery business serving the growing city which was known as “the gateway to the west.” During those days, thousands of settlers moved through St.Louis to start the long trek over the Oregon Trail to the west. St. Louis was the jumping off point for nearly all of the westward migration of the entire nation. (The City of St.Louis during this period of time is portrayed in the first part of the television miniseries Centennial based on the book of the same name by James A. Michener.)
St. Louis may have seemed exciting to visitors, but as a resident, William O. Rockwood was bothered by some aspects of the seedier side of life in that city. As he matured, some of the foundations of his New England family’s beliefs began to reappear. William O. Rockwood was revolted by the open market for slave trade and liquor trafficking that was tolerated in St.Louis. For a time, he looked the other way and avoided the issue, but soon it came to a head. William O.’s partner in the grocery business realized the money that could be made if the partnership expanded into both liquor sales and the slave trade. So rather than becoming a part of these trades which were so repugnant to him, William O. and his partner dissolved their partnership and William O. moved north to the town of Madison, Indiana, where he found work at Polleys and Butler.
While at Madison, William married and began a family. First, a daughter Helen Mar was born, followed by a son William E. in 1847, and then another son Charles P. would finish out the family. The family eventually moved to Shelbyville, Indiana, where William O. became involved in milling enterprises and served as superintendent of the new Shelbyville Lateral Branch Railroad. Ultimately, William O. and his family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he would serve as treasurer for the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad. William O. Rockwood was also prominent in the inception of many iron manufacturing businesses, including the Indianapolis Rolling-Mill Company which made iron rails for the railroads
The coming of the Civil War was devastating to the country, but much business activity was spurred by the war effort. Business was especially good for the railroads and those companies that were dependent on the railroad industry–like the Indianapolis Rolling-Mill Company .
In April of 1861 following the fall of Fort Sumter, William O.’s oldest son, William E. Rockwood, was traveling in Franklin, Louisiana, when Lincoln issued a proclamation calling out the militia. William E., feeling as strong a commitment to the Union as his father, wanted to apply for military service even though he was only 14 years of age. William O. was opposed to his son joining the military at such a young age. Still, William E. proved to be as head-strong and rebellious as his father had been as a youth, and in July of 1862, William E. obtained a position as servant to Captain A. Dyer of Company F of the 71st Indiana Regiment. One month later, the 71st Regiment came under fire in Lexington, Kentucky. During the engagement at Lexington, William E. received a wound in his left foot. While attempting to make his way back to his unit with his wounded foot, William E. was taken prisoner near Richmond, Kentucky, on August 30, 1862 by Confederate forces under General Kirby Smith. However, the Confederate Army was unable to care for the wounded prisoners, so they paroled William E., Captain Dyer, and the remainder of Company F, leaving them to make their own way back to Indianapolis. William E. spent days languishing in Cynthiana, Kentucky, with his untreated foot wound, waiting for a relief train. Meanwhile, back in Indianapolis, William O., notified of his son’s condition, boarded the relief train and traveled down the Baltimore and Ohio tracks from Indianapolis to Cynthiana, Kentucky, to bring his son and the other wounded soldiers home to Indianapolis.
William E. stayed at home and obtained medical care for his foot–which did not heal properly–until May of 1863 when he returned to Camp Nelson in Kentucky to complete his tour of duty. Still too young for the infantry, William E. was employed as an assistant to the forage master, Butch Cogel, on a supply train. This service train served General Burnside, who until January 23, 1863, had been in command of the Grand Army of the Potomac, but was now in charge of armies conducting a campaign in eastern Tennessee, eventually liberating Knoxville, Tennessee. The capture of Knoxville led directly to the seizure of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November of 1863. Young William E. Rockwood was discharged from service on the supply train in November of 1863, but not before becoming familiar with the industrial potential of eastern Tennessee. After another tour on the staff of General J.T. Wilder, commander of the 17th Indiana Regiment, from March 15 until November 1864, William E. Rockwood returned to Indianapolis to work for his father in the iron companies, but he never forgot what he had seen of eastern Tennessee during the war. In 1870, he joined his old regimental commander, J.T. Wilder, and another former Union officer, Col. S.B. Lowe, to establish the Roane Iron Company. (Robert E. Corlew, Tennessee: A Short History [University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, 1981], pp. 365-366.) From new facilities at Rockwood, Tennessee and Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Roane Company produced rails for the flurry of railroads that were being built during this time. William E.’s father had financially backed the newly founded Roane Company, and so William E. was installed on the directorate of the company to protect the Rockwood family interests. William E. served in that capacity from 1870 until 1876. From 1876 until 1880, William E. was put in charge of the improvements which were being made to the Cumberland River by the Rivers and Harbors Commission.
Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, William O. Rockwood continued his prosperous business activities, re-investing earnings into other Indianapolis companies. Soon he had active responsibilities in many different companies, serving as treasurer of the Indianapolis Rolling Mill Company, and also serving as a director on the boards of the First National Bank, the Bank of Commerce of Indianapolis, the Franklin Fire Insurance Company, and the Bedford Railroad. Additionally, he served as president of the Industrial Life Association and as treasurer of the Indianapolis Telephone Company and the Hecla Mining Company. As his business responsibilities grew, he was forced to give up the position of treasurer of the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad in 1868. He had simply become too busy with his own holdings to continue in the position he had held ever since he first came to Indianapolis.
On November 13, 1879, William O. Rockwood died, leaving William E. as the new head of the family’s business concerns. In 1880, William E. wrapped up his work with the Rivers and Harbors Commission in Tennessee and returned to Indianapolis to take up the reins of his father’s diverse business ventures. The crown jewel of the Rockwood family business holdings was the Indianapolis Rolling Mill Company.
Although the Rockwood companies had suffered a blow in the Panic of 1873, economic recovery following the Panic had been brisk, and the building of new railroads began again with renewed vigor, creating a huge demand for steel rails. To answer this demand, the Indianapolis Rolling Mill Company expanded into a new facility in 1881. The new 200′ by 300′ factory was one of the finest in the United States at the time. By 1884, they were employing 350 people and turning out $3,000,000 worth of steel rails per year.
Meanwhile, one of the employees of Indianapolis Rolling Mill, E.B. Martindale, developed a process for making pulleys out of layers of pulp pressed together with tremendous force. The pulp for the pulleys was made from straw–a cheaper alternative than the wood pulp used in regular news print. Busy as he was, William E. Rockwood was careful not to miss the significance of this invention, and thus a patent for this process was issued to E.B. Martindale on October 31, 1882. In December of 1882, William E. Rockwood and H.C. Newcomb formed the American Paper Pulley Company and employed Martindale and others to mass produce the patented paper pulley in the building located on 114-116 South Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis.
The market for the new paper pulleys for use on agricultural machines was immediate, as North America headed into a period of rapid mechanization of agriculture. The new company was forced to adapt to the growing agricultural market. In 1886, the company was incorporated as Rockwood, Newcomb & Co.. Later, in 1891, William E. Rockwood bought out the other owners of the company, and a year later, in 1892, the company moved to a bigger plant at 176-190 South Pennsylvania Street. After eight years at this location, the company moved to 1801 English Avenue in Indianapolis, land which had been owned by William E.’s father William O. This site was well-suited for the growing manufacturing company in that it was adjacent to the old Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad tracks which later would be operated by the Big Four railroad. On their new site, which covered an area of three square blocks, the Rockwood Company built four buildings; i.e., a 125′ x 175′ main plant building, a 75′ x 150′ machine shop and office building, a 50′ x 75′ foundry, and a 25′ x 40′ blacksmith shop.
The process of manufacturing a Rockwood paper pulley began with the acquisition of the raw material–strawboard. The major supplier of strawboard to Rockwood was the LaFayette Boxboard Company of Lafayette, Indiana. LaFayette made the strawboard by whipping ordinary straw and other chemicals into a liquid pulp mixture. The pulp mixture was then dried and compressed into finished strawboard sheets 1/16″ thick. These sheets arrived by railroad at the Rockwood facilities in sizes ranging from 24″ x 24″ up to 72″ x 80″ in order to allow any size of pulley to be made. The Rockwood Company would then glue several strawboard sheets together and press them under 3,000,000 pounds with a huge press. The result was a pressed board about 1/2″ thick. Stamping machines were then employed to cut disks of various sizes from the pressed board. These disks could vary in size from less than 1″ in diameter to 7′ in diameter, depending on the size of pulley being made. In the same operation, a large hole in the center and other smaller holes around the outside would be stamped into the disks to allow for the installation of a hub at a later step in the operation. The disks, or rings, were then placed on an assembly line where they slowly moved through a hot air-drying tunnel/oven. The disks moved so slowly through the tunnel/oven that it took 24 hours before they emerged, fully cured, from the opposite end of the tunnel/oven. Several thicknesses of the half-inch disks or rings of the same size would then be glued and pressed together with the hub. Then molten metal was forced down into the cracks where the hub met the fiber at a pressure of 350 pounds per square inch. With the hub installed, a metal ring was then nailed onto the outside edge of the completed pulley. The final step in the processing was to place the pulley in a rapidly turning lathe to smooth the fiber face of the pulley.
The Rockwood factory site was very self-sufficient. All metal parts used on the Rockwood pulley were forged in the foundry located on the property. The machine shop, also located on the factory site, manufactured the hub of each pulley. The hole in each hub was drilled to tolerances of within .002 of an inch to meet the specifications of the various axles on which these pulleys were expected to be mounted. To attract customers, the pulleys were also painted before being shipped by railroad to their destination. Rockwood arranged ahead of time with its regular corporate customers to have all the appropriate colors of paints on hand so that the pulleys could be painted the proper color at the Rockwood plant site and would not have to be repainted by the corporate customer upon their arrival.
Long before recycling became popular, the construction of Rockwood pulleys was completed with a minimum of wasted strawboard. Furthermore, the small pieces of strawboard material not used by the Rockwood workforce were gathered together and baled up for shipment back to the LaFayette Boxboard Company to be reprocessed into new strawboard sheets.
William E. Rockwood had a family of two sons, George O. (born on August 7, 1872) and William M. (born on March 14, 1874), and two daughters. William E. brought his two sons into the family business early on, starting both out in the factory. The boys eventually worked up through the ranks into executive positions. George graduated from Purdue University. He married Marie Rich Sayles in 1907 and had one daughter–Diana. (Diana would later marry and become Princess Diana Rockwood Eristavi-Tchitcherine.) George O. served as treasurer of the Rockwood Company and later as treasurer of the General Fiber Company before eventually becoming president of both companies. George O., like his grandfather, was also active in business and civic affairs in Indianapolis, serving as a member of the University Club and a member of the Indianapolis Country Club. William M. joined the family company in 1893, right after graduation from Shortridge High School. He married Virginia Shaw in 1906 and eventually had a family of two sons, William M., Jr., and John A., and a daughter Josephine. He served most of his life as vice president and treasurer of the Rockwood Company.
In about 1906, William E. Rockwood began to suffer from ill health that required him to take a less active role in the family’s business. As he gradually retired, William E. Rockwood’s two sons began to take up the reins. Eventually, William E.’s ill health caused him to move to Auburn, California, where he died on December 28, 1908.
The Rockwood sons took over the company at a critical juncture: the market for Rockwood pulleys was changing. While Rockwood was still largely a producer of paper pulleys for the agricultural machine market, a new market arose for Rockwood, as industrial machine manufacturers were also quick to note the advantages of the paper fiber “face” of the Rockwood pulley. Tests results revealed that the paper pulley experienced about 20% less slippage than comparable cast iron or wooden pulleys. Furthermore, the paper pulley took much less time to manufacture and could be operated safer at higher speeds than could cast iron pulleys. Consequently, paper pulleys represented a better product at a cheaper price. Rockwood pulleys were now beginning to be used in industrial applications as well as for agricultural use. General Electric and Westinghouse bought a majority of their pulleys from Rockwood. With these two markets to supply, the Rockwood Company was conducting $300,000 worth of business by 1912. Meanwhile, throughout this same period of time the agricultural market was continuing to grow, as both International Harvester and Ford started buying Rockwood pulleys for use on their farm equipment. Nichols & Shepherd advertised their Red River Special threshers as employing Rockwood pulleys just as other advertisements of farm machinery emphasized Timken roller bearings. By 1933, the Massey-Harris Company of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, began offering the Rockwood paper pulley on its Model 25 standard tractors. With the introduction of the stream-lined Farmall M and H, and the International W-9, W-6 and W-4 model tractors, the International Harvester Company began to order even larger numbers of paper pulleys from Rockwood, fitting these new models with paper pulleys as standard equipment with cast iron pulleys now taking a back seat as optional equipment.
Besides serving as a wholesaler to other firms, Rockwood attempted to engage in direct marketing. Through Rockwood Paper Pulley Stores, Inc., the company attempted to sell pulleys directly, both to the farm market, by encouraging farmers to replace their cast iron pulleys with the appropriately sized Rockwood paper pulley, and to the growing industrial market. By 1927, the Rockwood Company was required to have an inventory of some 2,500 pulleys of various sizes warehoused at the Indianapolis factory site in order to supply the fifty-some stores that made up its own chain of Rockwood Company retail stores.
The Rockwood sons oversaw many improvements in the manufacture of paper pulleys during their tenure with the company. In 1922, the company began weatherproofing their paper pulleys by soaking each completed pulley in a large tank of boiling oil heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes. This was the famous process of weatherproofing that Rockwood later used to advertise its pulley. In 1927, Rockwood began electrically plating the hub, rim, and nails with cadmium prior to installation of these metal parts into the pulley.
Covering three city blocks, the Rockwood Company site was one of the largest factory sites in Indianapolis. By 1927, the complex had a weekly payroll of about $10,000 and employed about 400 workers. In a time when women were rarely employed in a machine factory or heavy industrial setting, a large portion of the workers operating the large punch presses at the Rockwood plant were women.
Thanks to the dual market for paper pulleys (industrial as well as agricultural), the Rockwood Company was insulated from the full impact of the agricultural depression which began in 1921. The Rockwood Company continued to grow from $500,000 in business transactions in 1916 to $900,000 in 1926. Still, the industrial market could not carry the company alone. Rockwood remained largely tied to the fortunes of United States agriculture. The depression finally caught up with the Rockwood Company in 1927 when there was a dip in sales ($548,973 in transacted business). Consequently, Rockwood merged with a major regional competitor–the Ohio Valley Pulley Works–on August 12, 1927. The new entity was called the General Fiber Products Company. The Rockwood Company, however, continued to manufacture and sell paper pulleys as a service company for General Fiber, and in 1930, Rockwood transacted $1,069,174 worth of business. Eventually, though, the overall business depression of 1929 began to take its toll on Rockwood. The company deteriorated, conducting only $691,466 worth of business in 1931, $480,837 in 1932, and $349,043 in 1934. On October 31, 1934, the Rockwood Manufacturing Company was dissolved in West Virginia. Two days later, on November 2, 1934, the holding company, General Fiber Products, changed its name back to Rockwood Manufacturing Company. The separate subsidiary company handling the retail products, Rockwood Paper Pulley Stores, was dissolved on February 6, 1936.
George O. Rockwood died unexpectedly at the age of 62 on July 2, 1935. William M. Rockwood continued to serve as vice-president of the Rockwood Company until his death on June 23, 1945.
On August 4, 1947, the company was re-incorporated in the State of Indiana under the same name, Rockwood Manufacturing Company, Inc., with a board of directors which included Homer K. York, Olyn G. Price, and Samuel Simpson. The address of the company remained as 1801 English Avenue, Indianapolis, Indiana.
In 1949, the workforce at Rockwood was organized into a local union which belonged to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In 1951, there was a strike by the employees at the Rockwood plant. In the face of the strike, the assets of the Rockwood Manufacturing Company were sold to the Browning Manufacturing Company of Maysville, Kentucky. In a bitter letter dated October 25, 1954, Homer K. York, last president of the Rockwood Manufacturing Company, blamed the union for the demise of the company. However, the real reason may have been the absolute collapse of the agricultural market for pulleys. New farm equipment was now designed to be powered by a power-take-off (PTO) shaft rather than by a belt pulley, and production of Rockwood pulleys fell from 4,400 per day in 1949 to only 1,800 per day in 1951.
The Browning Manufacturing Company continued to supply the dwindling industrial market for paper pulleys made at the Rockwood facilities. In 1979, Browning, whose main business was making mechanical transmissions, sold the pulley-making concern to a small enterprize–Paper Pulleys, Inc. Paper Pulleys, Inc., which was founded in 1979, set up their paper-pulley making operations in Columbia, Tennessee.
Although collectors and restorers of antique farm machinery usually face the problem of finding replacement or repair parts for their machines, this has not been a problem with repairing or replacing Rockwood pulleys. Paper Pulleys, Inc., (810 Woodland St., P.O. Box 519, Columbia, Tennessee, 38402-3325, Telephone:  388-9099, FAX:  380-1669) has advertised widely in antique tractor magazines for a number of years. The company was one of the first businesses to recognize the antique farm machinery hobby as a potential market for their products. As the hobby has grown, so too has the market for restored pulleys. Although Paper Pulleys, Inc., continues to derive most of its business from selling paper pulleys to the industrial market (the largest market for paper pulleys today is for cable-operated well-drilling equipment), 10-15 % of their paper pulley business is for the antique farm machinery market. The fact that Paper Pulleys, Inc., has been able to flourish, based in part on the growing need for paper pulleys for restoration of antique farm machinery, is a sign of just how vast the hobby of collecting and restoring antique farm machinery has become in only a very short period of time.
Paper Pulleys, Inc., continues to carry on where the Rockwood Company left off in their concern for the maintenance of paper pulleys. In a time when restored threshing machines are usually never exposed to the elements, Paper Pulleys, Inc., reminds antique farm machinery collectors that paper pulleys usually need no maintenance. Restorers should not paint the fiber face of the paper pulley and certainly not apply belt dressing. If any treatment is needed at all, a light amount of ordinary fuel oil may be brushed onto the fiber face of the pulley.
Although there were other companies which manufactured paper pulleys, in the public’s mind the name Rockwood became synonymous with all paper pulleys. Rockwood also become synonymous with a time in our history, prior to power-take-off-driven machinery, when a steam engine or tractor could be seen leaning back into the end of a long flat drive belt connected to a threshing machine at the start of a long day of threshing on the farm. It is this time that is captured at the various antique threshing shows held each summer around the country. Every time a quietly humming threshing machine at one of these shows continues to run efficiently despite being loaded up to capacity with bundles, it should be noted that it is the grip strength of the Rockwood pulleys which is being put to the tasks.
It must also be borne in mind that there are inherent dangers which should not be overlooked when operating old machinery and belts in close proximity with a curious and inexperienced public. Belts and pulleys do not come with shields or written warning labels which are a part of more modern power-take-off equipment. Yet the risks of injury are just as high or higher as with modern machinery. The risks can, however, be reduced to nil through close observation of the running machines and careful supervision of a threshing site at the threshing show. A safe show with carefully restored machinery and well-lubricated bearings will be a perfect tribute to the men and women who invented, manufactured, sold, and used Rockwood paper pulleys.