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Brings Change to Branford

by Lois C. Flesche



            Branford, essentially an agricultural and shipping community until the mid to late 1800’s, was transformed forever with the coming of the industrial age.

            Malleable Iron Fittings Company (MIF), the Stony creek quarries, the Branford Lock Shop, Atlantic Wire Company, and a little later the Nutmeg Crucible Steel Company, were among the industries founded here in the 1800s, bringing about not only growth in the towns population, but a shift in its ethnic population, that until then had been almost exclusively English.

            Elizur Rogers and Benjamin H. Hoadley founded the Totoket Company (the forerunner of the MIF) on oct.2, 1854 at Page’s Point on the Branford River, the former site of a ship building industry. The founders were descendants of two of the earliest families to be engaged in other than agriculture or commerce. They reportedly produced a fine grade of malleable iron when they sold out.

            Ten years later, in 1864, the Totoket company was purchased by a group of men; James J. Walworth, Joseph Nason, and Emil and Thorvald F. Hammer, all of Boston. The name of the incorporation was changed to Malleable Iron Fittings. The company prospered, becoming in later years one of Branford’s largest taxpayers. Its success is attributed in large part to what has been described as an “outstanding example of successful management and business acumen”.

            From the original Totoket building and one and a half acres of land, MIF grew to include 31 acres of land, 10 acres of floor space in 59 buildings, and 2,700 feet of wharf along the Branford River. The company also had six warehouses across the country and at its height, prior to World War II, had a workforce of 1,200.

            Convenient and inexpensive transportation by ship and rail was made possible by the company’s location between the Branford River on the south and the railroad along Meadow Street side, spur tracks ran from the railroad line directly to the plant. Its location between New York and Boston, with easy access to markets, was another plus factor in the firm’s success.

            Employee loyalty at MIF was almost unprecedented. The company had what had been described as an “astonishing” number of employees who spent the better part of a lifetime in the service of the concern. Two and three generations spent their working lives at MIF and many workers stayed 50 and 60 years with the company. One man, Lester J. Nichols, who was 17 years of age when he started employment with MIF, stayed 80 years. He started as a shipping clerk and rose through the ranks to become secretary and assistant treasurer. His service to the company was the subject of a “Believe It or Not” sketch by Robert Ripley and set a record for singleness of service. He died in 1947 at age 98.

            MIF policy encouraged longevity of service. Many employees’ families were located in their own homes by company policy in the “interest of mutual success.” During the Depression years in the 1930’s, the company did not lay off workers; instead hours were cut back and inventories built up.

            Swedes, Finns, Italians, Irish, and Eastern Europeans were among the immigrants who worked at MIF. Descendants of some of these early workers explain that the new arrivals were often met at the docks in New York by agents of the company who promised work in Branford if they would locate here. Work opportunities and the town’s location on the Long Island shore made Branford attractive to many immigrant families.

            Each of the four MIF founders had his own special talents. Walworth and Nason, who were brother-in-laws, were among the pioneers in the steam heating business in the U.S. they were the first in the country to heat buildings with steam. The Hammers, Emil and Thorvald had keen management skills; Emil was considered an able policy maker and administrator; Thorvald was an inventor whose inventions enabled the production of the entire finished pipe fitting at the plant. Before that it was necessary to send the fitting to Boston to be threaded and finished.

            The company operated its own chemical control and research laboratory, the first of its kind in the country, started in 1875 by Alfred Hammer, son of founder Thorvald.

            Another the Hammer, Forrester L. Hammer, grandson of th founder Thorvald, designed and developed the Branford Oil Burner in the 1930’s. The newly designed burner dispelled the public’s concern about oil burners (there had been numerous mishaps with other oil burners) and it became a standard product of the company. Burners for domestic, commercial and industrial heating were built at MIF.

            Products made by the company, in addition to pipe fittings and oil burners, included pole hardware, marine hardware, sewing machine parts, rails for subways, mortar shells, rocket warheads, ground missiles and numerous other metal parts. They sold to Bath Iron Works in Maine, Bethlehem Steel, and utility companies.

            When the Golden Gate Bridge was built across the San Francisco Bay in 1937, toggles on the vertical supporting cables were steel castings made at the MIF steel foundry.

            For more than a century MIF flourished. But as the company’s second century started so did its decline begin.

            Many factors contributed to the company’s downfall, not least of which was the decline in the use of iron as a piping material (iron fittings represented more than 50 percent of MIF’s business). Then too, the company was unable to compete with the low labor costs in Japan, which had begun in the 1950’s to flood the U.S. markets with its products.

            And so the decline had started when in 1968, the company was sold by the Hammers to the Canaan Corporation, which in turn sold it, in 1969 to Waltham Industries for $4.5 million dollars.

            In 1970 the company announced plans to layoff  375 employees and on Dec.23 that year, pink slips were given to the approximate 160 remaining workers, who were told the company was closing down all operations. The company continued to operate for a short time as a distribution center, but in 1971 it closed completely.

            The MIF property was sold at auction to the Walter E. Heller co. for $550,000 in 1971; and in 1973, BranPark Associates bought it for $1 million.

            Demolition of the company buildings, which had deteriorated substantially, was started in 1993 but was halted shortly after by the State Historical Commission, because it is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and cannot be destroyed without state approval. The owners site safety concerns as a reason for their decision to raze the buildings.

            In October 1993, Branford started foreclosure proceedings because more than $122,000 in back taxes are owed the town.

            The property is currently on the market for $7 million. In days ahead the choice riverfront property that once served as the perfect location for a thriving business, may once again be a Branford asset.


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