I generally try to spend an hour or so walking in the morning before work. One of the good things about walking is that it provides the opportunity to notice unfamiliar things in familiar surroundings. On this day, I happened to glance down at the pavement and saw a manhole cover (as kids, we sometimes called them “sewer plates”), and it bore the name of the town where I live, the name and address of its manufacturer and the date of its manufacture/installation. I was surprised to see that it was installed in 1928. My interest heightened, I continued to look at the pavement, and I found several others dated the same year.
How strange it seemed to see something that has been walked on or driven on and exposed to the elements for almost 75 years and yet still looked as if it could easily do another 75. My mother, who has since passed away, could have walked across any of these manhole covers when she was seven years old. I realized that I have become accustomed to a world where things become obsolete and practically useless barely after the warranty has expired.
Each of the manhole covers was manufactured in a foundry in Harrison, N.J., which is a small town sandwiched between the two towns where I lived as a child. I did not recognize the name, and I certainly did not remember ever seeing anything that looked like a foundry in Harrison. How could such a foundry survive, when its products were made so well that they will likely last well in excess of one hundred years? Surely, the demand for manhole covers could not be large enough to sustain such an operation. Therefore, by two miles into the walk, I had concluded that the manufacturer of these things surely could not still be around and likely went out of business during the depression that was to follow closely on the heels of 1928.
I wondered about how things must have been in the foundry in 1928, what with the ubiquitous noise, fire, hellish heat and danger. I pictured men toiling in the midst of it all happy to be working, some of them, veterans of World War I, with fresh memories of the even more frightening noise, fire, hellish heat, and danger they experienced in the trenches of France. Are any of the workers still alive? What stories would they tell?
By mile three of the walk I had decided that I would spend some time learning more about this foundry, possibly to write something about it some day. I assumed that I would end up digging around in the local library and rummaging through old township records.
When I returned from my walk, I went immediately to the computer to jot down some thoughts. I, thought, as long as I happened to be sitting at the computer, I would take a wild stab at plugging the name of the foundry into Google, thinking that it may have been mentioned somewhere by someone, for some unknown reason, perhaps on a genealogy page.
So, I entered the name, “Campbell Foundry” and learned at once that not only did it survive the depression, but it remains a thriving business that has expanded over the years. While this revelation scuttled my plans of learning and writing about a long-lost industrial treasure, it made me feel good knowing that a company can make products that more than stand the test of time and not put itself out of business. I did notice, however, that the company’s web page contains a “Mission Statement,” something that today’s consultants have managed to convince companies (even those thriving for 81 years) that they cannot do without. Somehow I doubt that anyone in 1928 needed to be told what the company’s mission was.