The Chicago Handle Bar Company got its start in Chicago, Illinois in March 1896. Three men – George W. Webster, Thomas W. Prindiville and Edward Walsh -capitalized the venture with $25,000. The first factory was a portion of the 7-story Lind Building on Market and Randolf Streets, but a fire in December damaged the building and stalled the venture.
In 1898, Webster traded four houses for a six-story building with a basement on Fifth Avenue in Chicago. The trade was worth $50,000.
The factory hit hard times when in February 1901, 18 metal polishers went out on strike against a reduction in wages, and the abolishment of piecework system. Two years later George Webster died of pneumonia in Los Angeles while visiting a friend. He was 44. His interest in the building was acquired by the Hibernian Banking Association for $5.
Frederick L Watters took over as president and began to look for new location for the factory, citing continued labor trouble although he no longer had a building for a factory. Shelby Tube superintendent A.C. Morse found out they wanted to relocate and encouraged them to visit Shelby. The company was days from signing paperwork to relocate to another town.
The handle bar company was already using Shelby tubing, so it made sense to move closer to the source of steel. The town also had skilled workers from the recently closed Ideal bicycle plant. They were an established business and could relocate anywhere and still maintain customers.
Watters looked at properties in town, including the second floor of the former bicycle factory on Smiley, then occupied by Brightman Manufacturing, who decided all the space would be needed within a few years.
Area businessmen agreed at a meeting April 28, 1904 to form a stock company to build a factory building which would be rented to the Chicago Handle Bar Company. The Chicago company didn’t want stockholders; they just asked for a factory to be built and to pay the expenses of moving equipment to Shelby.
About $10,000 would need to be raised, and if the rent was sufficient, stockholders would receive dividends of about 5 percent a year. Joe Seltzer, who knew the company and had sold their handle bars and other metal novelties, and others went door to door to businesses to raise the money; they had raised all but $500 in 5 days. On May 11, the parties signed the paperwork to bring the company to Shelby. The company would lease the factory for 10 years with an option to buy at any time.
The Shelby Land Improvement Company was formed to build a brick factory 50 x 175 feet. The handle bar company didn’t need a fancy showroom to entertain customers. A site was chosen on South Street, across the railroad tracks from the Tuby. John Hafer, a contractor in Shelby, received the contract to build the building. It was completed in less than three months in early August. Eleven train car loads of machinery arrived from Chicago and the company was operating by the beginning of September 1904.
They initially employed 75 men but quickly increased the workforce to 100 men. They began shipping products to Australia, Japan, Denmark, Europe and South Africa as well as the U.S. The company produced about 300,000 handle bars and stems a year, as well as seat posts, wire ice cream parlor furniture, tables, chairs, and stools. Wallpaper racks were made in the summer months when work was slow for bicycle parts.
Men were paid by the piece, just as in Chicago. Pieces hung on racks with known number of hooks where a foreman could easily count the finished product, rather than counting the pieces by hand. The rack wasn’t delivered until all the hooks were full.
Oddly, the seamless tubing was shipped from Ellwood City, Pa. rather than from the adjacent factory. The tubes were bent in a machine operated by two men. Tubes were filled with sand and plugged at the ends so they wouldn’t collapse. 80 % were bent while cold. Racing handlebars were bent after heating because of the sharp bends.
The first floor was used for polishing and nickel plating, packaging, and shipping. The second floor contained 28 drill presses. Each performed a different task on the handlebar. It was not uncommon for men to lose fingers, or even an arm in the machinery. One man lost his arm after it was caught in shafting. A boy only worked 15 minutes and had a finger taken off. Men worked 55 hours a week, usually nine hours a day Monday through Friday, and a half day Saturday. But there were occasions for fun. The factory closed on the opening day of rabbit season so men to go hunting. Annual train excursions to Cedar Point were also planned with other area factories each year.
An addition was built in 1905 on the south side and used for storage. It could hold several train cars full of materials. In 1906, the factory added a 50-horsepower gas engine to replace its coal energy source. A second addition was built in 1910. Fearful that the company would leave town, the Shelby Land Improvement Company sold the building to the Chicago Handle Bar Company in 1913 so they could expand again. An engine room was added, with a new engine and sprinkler system.
In 1913, Watters sold a partial interest to Bryant S. Keefer of Torrington, Conn. They were partners until Watters died in July 1922. Watters’ nephew Charles Stanley Watters assumed presidency of the company.
An 18-month depression in 1920-1921 hit Shelby hard. About 58 percent of the men were unemployed. The Ohio Seamless Tube and Chicago Handlebar were hit particularly hard. If those companies weren’t counted, unemployment was still 23 percent. The Chicago Handle Bar Company was closed for a time, and opened again September 1921.
By 1924, Chicago handlebars and posts were distributed in every state and in Canada, as well as Europe. At its peak, about 110 were employed and never less than 75.
Bryant Keefer died December 3, 1925 and according to the will, son-in-law Walter Thompson was authorized to purchase his shares. C.S. Watters, as president, and M. K. Thompson as secretary, dissolved the company June 9, 1927. Torrington Company in Connecticut purchased and moved the machinery to Torrington. Walter Thompson was named vice president and manager. He moved back to Torrington to supervise the work.
After numerous attempts to sell the Shelby factory building, it was demolished in 1937. The land was the site for numerous neighborhood baseball games until 1969 when the South Street Park was renamed Easterling Park in memory of Steve Easterling, who was killed in a bicycle accident that spring. His fellow classmates raised $700 to place playground equipment in the park.