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October 29, 2013 > History Column: Saga of a one-legged stove

History Column: Saga of a one-legged stove

By Phil Holmes

A foundry is a shop or factory that casts metal. In this case, workers are casting metal for stoves or parts.

James Graham came from Canada to the United States and eventually became an employee of the Tay Foundry at Alvarado. He also worked making stove parts for the South Pacific Coast Railroad Company established in Newark. With some encouragement from the railroad managers, he started the James Graham Manufacturing Company at Newark in 1882. At first he had only two employees and faced large competitors such as the Tay Foundry. His company depended on the casting business of the local railroads at first, but he was very innovative and developed new products. Recalling his experience casting stove parts, Graham began making wood-burning stoves; many were used to heat cars of the local railroads.

The business grew and by 1904, the company employed 87 men turning out 45 stoves a day. James Graham died in 1898 and his eldest son, Georg, took over management of the James Graham Manufacturing Company. For a while, the company made fittings, couplings and manhole covers.

After the 1906 earthquake, the company was swamped with orders for wood-burning stoves burned-out families needed to cook their meals and heat their rebuilt houses. Company engineers produced a stove that was more efficient than those made previously. It delivered more heat per armful of firewood.

Graham simplified the assembly line and imported 15 expert molders to provide quality control. He was assisted by Harry Jackson, son-in-law of James, in marketing and management. A policy was instituted whereby all Graham-built stoves were sold by retailers at full list price. Important retailers included: Bullocks, Capwells and the Emporium.

One of the molders bragged that the English translation of his name was ÒWedgewood.Ó He repeated the name at a local bar where some of the German workers often stopped after work. Jackson heard about the discussion and decided that it would be a good name for the Graham line of cast-metal wood stoves. The name ÒWedgewoodÓ was advertised in newspapers, on billboards and farmersÕ barns.

By 1920, some 400 Wedgewood stoves were manufactured every working day. By 1925, over 100 men and women were employed on the assembly line. By 1940, over 40,000 ranges were produced per year. Many of the stoves were sent out of the country. It was noted in 1898 that local foundries were making a stove particularly adapted to the needs of the Klondike Country.

Completion of natural gas lines from the oilfields to the Bay Area and marketing pressures resulted in a boom in the gas cooking business. Sixty-seven percent of the stove business done by the James Graham Company in 1927 was in sales of gas-fueled ranges. Introduction of bottled and butane gas practically ended the manufacture of wood and coal stoves at the Graham plant. The need for heaters and wood-burning stove by the Civilian Conservation Corp in Depression days revived the business for awhile.

Irvington also had a stove manufacturing plant. Reid Bros, Inc. erected a large building at Irvington in 1921 Ð 1922 to manufacture hospital supplies. The building was sold to Steiger and Kerr Stove and Foundry Company in 1938. New equipment was installed and they began making their occidental stoves and heaters in June 1939. During World War II, the United States Navy used the facility as a supply depot. Manufacture of Occidental stoves resumed in the spring of 1947; about 50 factory workers produced an average of 35 stoves per day. Production ended in 1949 and the plant became a distribution center for stoves made in Los Angeles.

Then there is the tale of the one-legged stoveÉ

The one-legged stove that has graced the Niles Justice Court for the past several years succumbed to progress this week and was replaced by two modern gas heaters salvaged from the old court house at Oakland. Judge J. A. Silva who owns the stove, is really up against it figuring out how he is going to use two hands to turn on the gas heat. Being ambidextrous, he likes to do something with each hand at the same time. For instance, he always poked the fire with his left hand while he dumped coal into the old stove with the right.

The judge inherited the stove when he bought a barber shop in Niles. It later became the property of the Boy Scouts who were on the point of throwing it away when the judge bought it back from them for $2. He says he is going to gold-plate the thing and put it in his living room; a nice background for couples who come to get the nuptial knot tiedÑreminding some folks of the old adages of getting out of the frying pan into the fire, being in hot water, and other expressions connected with weddings. Not long ago, an irate customer came to the judge and wanted his money back. ÒYou told me I was at the end of my troubles when you married me to my wife,Ó he said. ÒWell, I didnÕt say which endÓ, the judge replied.

And that was that.

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