Local inventors give storied history to Spring Valley
Tuesday, January 21, 2014 2:21 AM
This is a piece I wrote for Historic Bluff Country a few years ago, and as far as I know, it has never been used. Written by "the old codger," let's say very old, who remembered the Henderson era, it is titled "An Old Codger Remembers Charlie Henderson."
On display at the local museum: Charlie Henderson's tool chest, and staplers he invented, designed and produced at the staple factory on Pleasant Avenue.
Talk about an inventor, designer, locksmith, and a craftsman skilled in all kinds of metal working, and we are talking about Charlie Henderson. This creative genius is well remembered by us old folks here in Spring Valley, and many of his inventions can be seen at the Spring Valley Historical Society museum on West Courtland.
Henderson was born in Ohio in 1868 but his family moved to Cherry Grove, Minnesota, area where his father opened a blacksmith shop. As a boy of 12, his folks brought him to Spring Valley to shop and he often looked longingly at a piece of steel in Mr. Lobdill's hardware store. Mr. Lobdill noticed this and asked why he was so interested. Charlie said he couldn't afford it, but if he had it, he'd make a gun for himself. Lobdill replied, if he could make a gun out of it, and allowed Lobdill to display it, he could have the steel. Charlie indeed machined and forged the metal into a gun barrel, acquired native walnut stock, and the gun is on display at the museum today, a remarkable example of his early talent. About 1892, he and his uncle went to Kansas to work for a factory which made straight edged razors. In Kansas he met and married Anna Schaben in 1895, and they returned to Minnesota.
Other local geniuses, Kerry and Fred Conley, began to manufacture box cameras of their own design in the back of Kerry's jewelry store on Broadway. They obtained a patent on an efficient design, and opened the Conley Camera Co. here in 1898 on the main floor of Andersen's opera house on South Section. The factory employed 15 men, among them Charlie Henderson. His inventive genius produced a silent shutter for the camera, a much acclaimed invention. These fellows were all friends of Richard Sears of Sears & Roebuck fame, who grew up in Spring Valley. Sears had established his expansive catalog business in Chicago, and was pumping out 732-page catalogs mailed out across the country in 1896. Sears went into business with countless firms to produce stock for his catalogs, and he decided to market the Conley cameras. If you were to check out a 1908 Sears & Roebuck catalog, you'd find an impressive thirteen pages of Conley cameras as well as Charlie Henderson's silent shutter. Charlie's son, Don, reported his dad no doubt received only a pittance for the invention, although the patent with his signature as inventor is displayed at the county museum in Winona, Minn.
Conley Camera Co. was moved to Rochester by Sears in 1904, later sold to become Waters-Conley. Henderson then went to work at Tom Frankson's neck yoke factory on South Section Avenue. The steel neck yoke was a marvelously efficient piece - light weight, unbreakable, easily manufactured, but unfortunately its production era coincided with the new automobile era, and neck yokes became less in demand. You may see these, too, at the museum.
Charlie and family lived on the west end of High Street and his creative genius continued. His friend, Bun Page, traveled for a grain company, calling on farm elevators. Page noted the elevator employees always struggled mightily to tie up grain sacks with twine, an arduous task, and someone had invented a cumbersome bag tier that weighed five pounds. Charlie was able to develop a wondrous bag tier that weighed only six to seven ounces. It was a spiral with walnut handle, it had two hooks on the end which fitted into wire loops, and when pulled toward the user, swiftly and neatly tied the grain sack. Charlie created all the dies that made the bag tiers and he also made the ties in his little machine shop, a former chicken house. The bag tier and the remarkable machine that made the ties was acquired by J.G. Bates of the Valve Bag Co. of Chicago, and Charlie received little compensation for his mechanical ability.
Bates then asked him to produce staples for tacking labels on boxes and crates. This Charlie could do in an extremely efficient manner which eventually led to designing and producing the staplers themselves. However, although Charlie was employing 15 to 20 men at his shop, the stapler and staple manufacturing production required much more space.
The "city fathers" decided it was worthwhile to invest $5,000 in a suitable building which was constructed along Pleasant Avenue near the Chicago Great Western railroad tracks. A partnership was set up with Bates owning 51 percent of the stock, and again, lacking business acumen, Charlie was duped into turning his stock over for a few hundred dollars. Long story, but the firm finally moved to Chicago, and floundered, as all the "blueprints" were in Charlie's head, and they couldn't run it without him.
Charlie returned to his shop on High Street, and continued to serve countless machining needs in the community. We remember when the First National Bank once accidentally locked their vault and couldn't access their money. Charlie was called and he was able to hear the tumblers fall into place and open it for them.
We old codgers like to visit the Methodist Church museum exhibits which show many Henderson inventions - the gun he made at age 12, two versions of the bag tiers and ties, bullet molds, and many more. The exhibit even shows his four-drawer oak chest of tools, handsomely restored to their original condition. Charlie rarely expressed any bitterness about his financial shortcomings experienced in his lifetime, and it was said if anyone needed a metal piece machined for a certain purpose, Charlie could do it. The staple factory, still on Pleasant Avenue, became headquarters for the Reid Murdock industry for many years. They operated a canning factory in Rochester and leased thousands of acres from local farmers who used Missouri mules in their work of raising peas, corn and beans for the canning factory. But that's another story.