The owner of Rubin’s Newsstand, which closed last year, is donating the original sign from The Grand Theater to the Clemens Center.
Jeff Murray / Staff video
“Don’t decide too quickly; that car has two cylinders and so many may not work satisfactorily.”
This was advice given by John N. Willys, owner of the Elmira Arms Co., to Fay C. Parsons, of Cortland, at the New York Automobile Show in 1906.
Parsons did purchase the “high-powered machine,” a “two lunger,” and had it shipped to Elmira. Against more advice, he drove it from Elmira to his home in Cortland. The trip took six hours.
In a Feb. 13, 1927, article, the Sunday Telegram reported that despite his misgivings at that Auto Show, Willys “was sufficiently impressed by the display of budding automobile manufacturers that he closed a deal to represent one of them in Elmira, and thus entered upon a career that was destined to bring him fame and fortune.”
He was 33 at the time; by the age of 47, he was worth “forty seven million dollars.”
John North Willys was born in Canandaigua on Oct. 25, 1873. While still in his teens in the days before automobiles, he noticed that the reigns were continually slipping down over horses’ flanks. Demonstrating his “business acumen,” he found a metal clip that corrected the problem and did a “flourishing business among drivers and owners of horses and wagons.”
At age 16, he and a friend purchased a faltering laundry business and turned it around in a year. Using his profits, he bought a bicycle and eventually convinced the manufacturer to allow him to become the “sole agency” for distribution of the bicycle in Canandaigua. In a few years, he had a successful business.
He came to Elmira in 1891, where he was involved with the sale of sporting goods. Eventually, he and a group of associates purchased the Elmira Arms Co. in 1898.
In 1899, Willys first encountered an automobile, owned by Dr. William H. Fisher, of Elmira. Willys was smitten. He met with George Norman Pierce, of the Pierce Arrow Co. They made bicycles, for which the Elmira Arms Co. was a distributor, but they also made the “Motorette.” The motor was 2¾ horsepower. According to Samuel Potter Burrell, of the Buffalo Courier Express, it was so low-geared that it had to take hills at two or three miles an hour. It had two speeds and no reverse.
Pierce promised Willys the first car turned out from the Buffalo factory, which came in 1901. It sold for $900. Willys sold two cars the first year, four the second year and 30 in the third year. Eventually, supply would not keep up with demand. Willys formed the American Motors Car Sales Co. in 1906, which handled several makes of cars, including the product of the Overland Co., of Indianapolis. Willys contracted to sell the company’s entire output of 47 cars in 1906. By 1907, he had orders for 500 Overland cars. The factory wanted him to stop taking orders, as they were facing bankruptcy. Willys borrowed $7,500 from business partners in Elmira and met the Overland payroll.
Willys, using his “sales talent,” convinced a group of bankers he had never met to back him in purchasing a plant in Toledo for $285,000. He took charge of the Overland Co. (making it the Willys-Overland Co.) in 1907, and within two years made a profit of $1 million. By 1909, the company manufactured 13,000 cars, and 50,000 by 1914. It was during this period that Willys teamed up with his “old friend” Alexander P. Morrow.
Bicycles brought A.P. Morrow to Elmira in 1895 when the Eclipse Bicycle Co. moved here from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Morrow was superintendent of the plant and inventor of the Morrow coaster brake. He left Eclipse in 1905 to establish his own business. In 1907, the Morrow Manufacturing Co. was organized in Elmira and capitalized at $25,000. His son, J. Edwin Morrow, was a partner, and they manufactured parts and supplies for automobiles and bicycles. Originally on LaFrance Street in 1909, the company moved to South Main Street and built a new plant in 1910 manufacturing machine parts, including orders from Glenn Curtiss, who was building airplanes in Hammondsport.
Morrow and Willys became friends while Morrow was at Eclipse and Willys was the distributing agent for their bicycles. Willys may have had his first ride in an automobile through his contact with Morrow during an “experimental” trip to Bath with both as passengers. As Willys’ business grew, he turned to Morrow to make auto parts. Starting in 1908, the first Willys Overland parts were made in Elmira.
The Morrow Manufacturing Co. had started with one stenographer and 28 mechanics. In 1916, the assets of the company were turned over to the Willys-Morrow Co. By 1919, approximately 6,300 were employed, with an office staff of 275 and a payroll of $6.8 million. County Historian Tom Byrne wrote that the Morrow plant was “destined to become Elmira’s largest industry of the World War I and post-war period.” It was reported in 1929 that the plant (located where Elmira High School is) occupied 74 acres with 992,000 square feet of floor space. Eight freight cars per day carried the daily output, with products valued at $10 million yearly.
According to the newspaper, “at 6 o’clock every morning the long blast of the Willys-Morrow plant whistle informs the 1,600 employees of its day shift that it’s time to get up, and housewives all over the city set their clocks at crescendo. An hour later a lesser blast closes the gates on the stragglers. Bouncing from the hills of Chemung Valley, these and other performances of the big siren serve both to subdivide the day for owners of unreliable clocks and to remind them that Elmira has become a power in the motor republic.”
A.P. Morrow was a deacon in the First Baptist Church. He stated that he “could not remain true to my ordination vows and continue to be an executive.” He resigned as president and general manager of the company in 1922. John North Willys sold his common stock in the Willys-Overland Co. in 1929. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed Willys as the first U.S. ambassador to Poland. Morrow and Willys would die in 1935.
Because of economic difficulties with the Overland Co., the Willys-Morrow Plant would close in 1934. The property was purchased by Elmira Industries Inc. for $300,000 in 1935. It would eventually become the home of Remington Rand in Elmira.
Jim Hare is a former history teacher and mayor of the City of Elmira. His column appears monthly in the Star-Gazette.
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