by Erin Doane, Curator
When you think about bicycle manufacturers in Chemung County, the first company that usually pops into people’s minds is Eclipse. Not many people think of the Clipper Chilled Plow Company. A plow company made bicycles here? Yes! In 1897, its factory at the corner of William and Clinton Streets in Elmira was running day and night, with 150 employees cranking out 65 bicycles every 24 hours. The company also made plows and farm equipment and had a surprisingly turbulent history.
|The Clipper Chilled Plow Company trade card, early 1880s|
William G. Strait of Elmira and H.G. Mix and J.G. Green of Williamsport, Pennsylvania organized the Clipper Chilled Plow Company in the early 1880s. By 1890, it employed 21 people manufacturing agricultural implements, including plows and harrows, at its Elmira factory. Just two years later, the company was embroiled in the first of many lawsuits related to its products, its employees, and its non-payment of bills. That first lawsuit was against the National Harrow Company. National Harrow claimed that the Clipper Chilled Plow Company infringed on its patents and went after both the company and dealers of the spring tooth harrows in question. It seems that most, if not all of the cases, were found in favor of Clipper Chilled Plow and the dealers.
With that issue behind it, in 1896 the company started investigating how to diversify its operations into bicycles. It began negotiations with the Butler Wheel Manufacturing Company of Ohio in September and by May 1897, the “Elmira Special” high grade, full nickel bicycle was on display in the window of Hyland & Brown department store in downtown Elmira.
The factory was kept so busy manufacturing
bicycles and farm equipment around the clock that security began to slip. Pieces
of bicycles and tools began to go missing. At least four employees, including
an 18-year-old machinist and a 43-year-old foreman, were arrested for theft. It
was around that same time that the company began neglecting to pay its
employees on time. At least 20 workers filed suit against the company to get
paid back wages in 1897. Oddly enough, that same summer, someone doused a rear
room of the factory with oil and lit it on fire. The night watchman discovered
the fire just after it had started and was able to extinguish it.
Model D bicycle made by the Clipper Chilled Plow Company in the late 1890s
Along with the legal actions against the Clipper Chilled Plow Company for back pay, there was another lawsuit against the company. The plaintiff, Leroy Sunderlin, had been injured on the job. On April 27, 1896, Sunderlin, a 25-year-old shipping clerk, was lowering harrows in a hand-operated freight elevator from the second floor to the first floor. The rope attached to the brake became untied and the elevator dropped down the shaft. Sunderlin was struck by the elevator. His head was badly cut, his right forearm fractured, right leg fractured in the thigh, and left hand crushed. He survived but three fingers on his left hand were amputated, he lost use of his right arm, his set leg ended up being shorter than the other, and his head injuries led to epilepsy.
Sunderlin claimed negligence by the company and filed suit for compensation. Dr. T. A. Dundas, who had responded to the accident and treated Sunderlin on site, also sued the company to get paid for his services that day as had been promised by the company. The doctor won his case and was awarded the $364 due to him plus interest. The jury in Sunderlin’s case, on the other hand, could not reach a decision after a full night of deliberations so he received nothing.
Sunderlin’s accident had ended his employment with the Clipper Chilled Plow Company and his new disabilities prevented him from getting regular work. His wife took on sewing jobs to help support their family with two young sons. He did manage to earn some money by delivering bills and notices for firms within the city. Rumor has it, though, that one of the business owners was not fond of Sunderlin and turned him in to the United States Post Office Inspector for running an illegal mail route. A deputy U.S. marshal arrested Sunderlin on January 4, 1900. After agreeing to no longer make deliveries, Sunderlin was released and not prosecuted. Eventually he found work at American LaFrance.
Clipper Chilled Plow Company factory, c. 1890s
Back at the Clipper Chilled Plow Company, there were more business and legal troubles. In June 1900, 31 employees walked off the job and filed lawsuits because they had not been paid on time. Shortly after they went back to work, a constable arrived at the factory and removed a number of plows and bicycles to cover debts owed by Clipper Chilled Plow Company to other businesses. On August 25, 1900, the Chemung Canal Bank, the company’s largest creditor, took possession of the factory and shut it down. The factory reopened in mid-October but it was destroyed by a massive fire on November 1.
The Clipper Chilled Plow plant was insured by 13 different companies but none of them were willing to cover their portion of the estimated $40,000 in damages. The factory was equipped with a sprinkler system but the factory’s watchman signed an affidavit that on the night of the fire the faucet had been turned off. When Chemung Canal Bank took the insurance companies to court, the watchman went back on the affidavit and testified that he had turned the faucet off earlier but had turned it back on again just a couple hours before the fire broke out. The court found in favor of the Chemung Canal Bank and the insurance companies had to pay up.
After the fire, the Clipper Chilled Plow Company moved to Elmira Heights and operated until 1907 when it shut down for good.