Tuesday, February 14, 2017

When Grinnell College Built a Foundry...

The 2014 announcement that Donaldson Company was closing its Grinnell plant provoked much unhappiness, and of course led to lost jobs. It also meant that, as the company moved to clear title so that it could sell the property, the Grinnell City Council had to pass several measures to clear up complications governing ownership. Reading the text of council resolutions, I had trouble figuring out exactly what had happened: why did city right-of-ways run through the factory property? And how had the city come to own any part of the big tract south of town? I had always assumed that Donaldson had built the factory and had owned the land from day one. It turns out, however, that the story is more complicated than that, and it began with a most unlikely scenario: it was Grinnell College that built the factory—and not for Donaldson. With financial support from townsfolk, the College purchased the land and built a foundry to lease to Marshalltown's Lennox Furnace Company, thereby making the College an industrial landlord. Only after Lennox gave up its lease in 1951 did Donaldson enter the narrative. The rest, as they say, is history!
Grinnell Herald-Register, August 27, 1945, p. 1
As background to this story, it bears remembering that World War II had deeply impacted the college. Recruitment for the armed forces had seriously diminished student enrollment, obliging the administration of President Samuel Stevens (1900-1966) to seek placement of an Officers Candidate School and an Army Specialized Training Program on campus, bringing lots of young men and government money with them. Moreover, in an era when the country was collecting tin cans to recycle for the war effort, philanthropic giving to the college had plummeted. As the war finally concluded in 1945, therefore, the college looked not only to restore enrollment to pre-war levels, but also to discover means to improve the institution's overall revenue stream. College treasurer Louis V. Phelps (1885-1969), along with President Stevens, played major roles in this effort.
Grinnell College President (1940-1954) Samuel Stevens (1947 Cyclone)
Sometime in the summer of 1945 Lennox Furnace Company approached the college with an idea that had first hatched in the brain of D. W. Norris (1876-1949), owner of the Marshalltown Times-Republican and Lennox Furnace Company (today's Lennox International). In a hand-written letter that survives in the archives, Norris proposed that Lennox donate money to the college; that the college solicit contributions from Grinnell townsfolk; and that the college erect in Grinnell a foundry that it would lease to Lennox on favorable terms. The proposal was unusual. Although over the years the college had owned various commercial and agricultural properties, largely a function of donations and bequests, building and owning a factory was something new. How did this idea get traction?
D. W. Norris (1876-1949)
(photo from undated brochure, Lennox: A History)
As Norris explained in a letter of August 11, 1945 to Phelps, the college should expect cooperation from Grinnell townsfolk who would be glad to see new jobs added to the city's work force because of the proposed foundry. Indeed, Norris pointed out, Lennox had successfully followed this plan elsewhere. "When we built a foundry in Washington Court House, Ohio," Norris wrote, "the citizens raised $20,000, which was to have been paid over to us at the rate of 4% of our annual pay roll [sic]. I think that Grinnell citizens would have done that much to get a pay roll [sic] because a small town of 1800 people at Galeton, Pa. has raised $15,000 to be turned over to us on the same terms as at Washington Court House, Ohio." With a population almost three times the size of the Pennsylvania hamlet's, Grinnell could be expected to raise at least that much, he figured. In Grinnell, however, rather than have Lennox collect the return, the company was willing to have "Grinnell [College] get the bonus from citizens...and I am hoping that the promise of a foundry pay roll [sic] in Grinnell [would assist] the college to add to its endowment funds."
Louis V. Phelps (1885-1969) (1947 Cyclone)
From this point, events moved quickly. In late August the Grinnell Herald-Register published a drawing of the proposed foundry (see above), and announced that the college trustees had approved the plan. A building of some 24,000 square feet (later increased to 36,000 square feet) was imagined, "up to the minute in all details of its construction." More to the point, the new industry was "expected to give employment to upward of 100 men." Grinnell's city fathers were sufficiently encouraged to donate some $30,000 to the effort, thereby justifying Norris's confidence in what the town could afford. An article in early September's Herald-Register confirmed previous speculation about the land chosen for the project—the old county fairgrounds south of the city and adjacent to the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad track. By month's end, the sale of 32 acres—about eight of which were allotted to the new foundry—was complete. Almost immediately the college announced that building design was done, and that the Weitz Company of Des Moines—Rudolph W. Weitz (1901-1974) had joined the college board of trustees in 1944—would erect the factory, commencing construction immediately.
plat of property acquired by Grinnell College for Lennox Foundry
Courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections, RG-DEV, Ser. 5.1, box 6
An interesting sidelight to the plan was the attention that Norris and his officials gave to the layout of the property. Having the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad build a spur to connect to the factory was a perhaps obvious corollary of the plan, the better to assist installation of foundry equipment and shipping of foundry output. For the same reason, the building itself was to be set back from East Street, situated close to the railroad. But what to do with the rest of the property?

Norris and his secretary, Edward C. Booth, had plenty of suggestions, all written into a draft plat, a copy of which survives. The drawing imagined dividing the property into sixteen lots, the largest of which, lot 15—7.87 acres—was reserved for the foundry. Three other roughly equal lots—one north, one south, and one northeast of the foundry—together consumed 7.6 acres. Most surprising was the proposal of dividing the property to the east—between the foundry and East Street—into ten residential building lots, each measuring 100' x 160'. An 80-foot right-of-way for a proposed east-west street was also written into the plan, this street intersecting with another right-of-way for a 60-foot-wide proposed north-south street. Anticipating how to make the proposed residential zone suitably attractive, Booth, in behalf of the Lennox company, proposed a series of restricted covenants.
Proposed set of Restrictive Covenants Governing Property on Which Lennox Foundry Was Erected (1946)
Courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections,  RG-DEV, Ser. 5.1, box 6
Most provoke no surprise: one provision excluded "trailer, basement, tent, shack, garage, barn or other out-building" on the lots; another stipulated that "no dwelling costing less than $5,000" shall be allowed; a third required that each lot could contain only "one detached single family dwelling not to exceed two stories in height and a one or two car garage." Lennox even demanded that houses built on the corner lots of the north row of the subdivision face south, and those built on the corner lots of the south row face north.

College officials offered no amendments to these plans, but another covenant did draw attention. Paragraph D specified that "All lots in the Tract are intended to be used solely by the Caucasian race and no race or nationality other than those for whom the premises are intended shall use or occupy any building on any lot," excepting only "domestic servants of a different race or nationality employed by an owner or tenant." Sadly, covenants establishing racial exclusion were not unique to this time and place; today's news stories keep discovering more places where builders' covenants clearly aimed to guarantee white-only residents. To their credit, college officials declined to endorse this provision, a fact that Booth confirmed in a July 8, 1949 letter to Joe Rosenfield, the college trustee most directly involved in the project. Whether all the other covenants were filed is unclear; certainly no homes were ever built on the land east of the factory. Already in 1949, Booth could affirm that the "Foundry property is a beautiful place and a credit to both the College and the town."
Construction of the factory began hard on the heels of purchasing the property. The October 5, 1945 issue of the Scarlet and Black reported that ground had been broken the previous Monday. Two weeks later the campus newspaper confirmed that the College, as part of its deal with the Weitz Company, had provided the construction supervisor—Martin Erickson—with the "housemother's suite" in Gates Hall where he could reside and stay close to the project he was overseeing.

The following spring marked completion of the building, and Lennox began to move in its own equipment. As town boosters had hoped, the foundry did generate new jobs, and, as Lennox had hoped, its rent was tax deductible. The foundry began to pour iron in September, and was at full production before the year was out.
Des Moines Register, September 1, 1946.
The college remained owner of the land, and leased the building to Lennox. When the first lease expired in 1951, however, Lennox announced its intention of taking up the option to purchase the foundry and the land on which it stood at the price specified in the lease—$60,000. The lease required Lennox to exercise its option by July 31, but, when matters were delayed, Lennox requested—and received—an extension. Then, at the November 3, 1951 meeting of the College trustees, Joe Rosenfield announced that Lennox had sold the lease to the Donaldson Company of St. Paul, and that Donaldson would exercise the lease's purchase option. Accordingly, the trustees voted to authorize the sale.
Grinnell Herald-Register, November 26, 1951, p. 1
A November 26, 1951 article in the Herald-Register reported the news to the community—that the college would sell the property to Donaldson, who manufactured mufflers and air cleaners for trucks and farm equipment. The foundry would have to be re-fitted, but company officials were optimistic that by March, 1952 the plant would be operational, and employ 75-100 persons, no doubt provoking huge sighs of relief from Grinnell businesses. Lennox officials expressed gratitude to Grinnell and the College, and soon John Norris, son of D. W. Norris (who had died in 1949) and successor to his leadership of Lennox Industries (as the firm was renamed in the 1950s), took a seat on the Grinnell Board of Trustees, a tacit acknowledgment of the mutual gain that had resulted from this unusual deal.
Scarlet & Black, September 26, 1952
Meanwhile, the complex of lots platted at the time the College acquired the property gradually followed their own histories. Already in 1946 College trustees had approved the sale of Lots 1, 2, and 16 to W. J. Beeler, and in 1950 the College donated the southernmost section of the property to the Poweshiek County 4-H Fair, officials confirming appreciation in a letter to the College.

Ownership of the rest of the property found resolution in a series of decisions that began with Donaldson's acquisition of the Lennox Company lease. In a letter of November 21, 1951 from Richard Donaldson, Vice President for Engineering and Sales, Donaldson indicated that the company was exercising the option of purchase, and proceeded to include the legal description of what the plat identified as Lot 15. The College trustees, for their part, prepared a resolution, an undated copy of which survives, confirming the transfer: "The Trustees of Iowa College hereby sell and convey Lot 15 of the subdivision...to Richard H. Donaldson for the sum of Sixty Thousand and No/100 Dollars...."
Letter of Richard H. Donaldson to Iowa College Trustees,  November 21, 1951
Grinnell College Special Collections, RG-DEV, Ser. 5.1, Wills and Trusts, Box 7, "Foundry, 1944-51"
Since the whole Board of Trustees had approved the sale in a meeting earlier that month, events moved quickly, and Donaldson soon took possession of the former foundry and the lot on which it stood.

There remained in college hands, however, that part of the original plat intended for residential building—Lots 3-12 and the rights-of-way for the roads imagined to cut through this part of the property. For a few years nothing changed, but in 1958 trustees received word that the City of Grinnell would like to take ownership, intending to use the land for recreational purposes. Noting that the land now had an insignificant book value, trustees decided to donate it to the city. In a deed drafted in October (and again in November), 1958 the College deeded over to the City of Grinnell Lots 3-12, making specific reference to the 80-foot roadway that ran east-west from East Street. For reasons that remain unclear, the city did not formally act on the transfer until March, 1960, when the Grinnell City Council passed a resolution accepting the property. The College specified that the donation required the City to use the land for recreational purposes, although, despite the fact that the City resolution recognized this condition, no recreational use of this property was ever developed. Finally, as Donaldson's requirements expanded, the city transferred ownership of this last section of property to Donaldson, but neglected to vacate all the rights-of-way built into the original plan.
Resolution of Grinnell City Council, March 7, 1960 (2nd page, not reproduced here, provides signature and date)
Grinnell College Special Collections, RG-DEV, Ser. 5.1, box 6
When Donaldson opened its new plant in Grinnell in 1952, it was able to hire fewer than 75 men. Over the years, however, as the company's products prospered and the factory expanded, coming to encompass more than 200,000 square feet, employment soared, reaching a maximum of more than 200 employees in the first years of the twenty-first century.
Donaldson Factory in 1964 Before First Major Addition (Grinnell Herald-Register April 30, 1964, p. 1)
In the last decade of the company's existence in Grinnell, however, jobs at the plant gradually withered. Occasionally city officials visited Donaldson headquarters in St. Paul, seeking confirmation that all was well, that the company would continue to provide for Grinnell workers. But many of the economic forces working against Donaldson were beyond the reach of city officials, as new developments in air quality and automotive machinery bypassed Donaldson's main products. The 2014 announcement about closing the Grinnell factory, therefore, was not a surprise. And soon the St. Paul company was looking for a buyer for its soon-to-be abandoned plant in Grinnell. When a buyer was found—Langhals Enterprises LLC, Delphos, Ohio—attorneys discovered that the city had never fully cleared the rights-of-way from the original plat, and it was this difficulty that obliged the Grinnell City Council to make these amendments in its December 19, 2016 meeting.
Grinnell Herald-Register April 29, 2002 (special supplement)
Donaldson had prospered in Grinnell for more than half a century, and along the way had provided many more jobs than had Lennox in its brief, five-year history at the original foundry. Grinnell College, too, prospered. In a March, 1951 memo, college officials totaled the expenses for building the foundry and counted them off against total returns—gifts, rental income, and final sale price. When all the expenses were taken into account, the college calculated total cash receipts of just over $49,000; if the contributions of Grinnell businessmen were subtracted, the gain seemed much smaller—just over $19,000, which seemed modest in comparison to all the effort and expense involved.

But the worst days were behind the College; the war was now history, enrollment had recovered, and soon a new president would bring to campus a new vision and inspiration. The city of Grinnell was also looking forward. Among those contributing to a new economic vigor was Donaldson Company, whose Grinnell factory promised still greater job opportunities in future. All this success was the result of the surprising 1945 collaboration between Grinnell College, Lennox Furnace Company, and Grinnell businessmen that brought a college-owned foundry to Grinnell.

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