Curtis Sash and Door Factory

First Sash and Door Factory Operated in a Barn on 7th Ave.  The oldest industrial firm in Clinton, now nationally known as Curtis Companies Incorporated, had an extremely modest origin in 1866.

The history of this business is, to a large extent, the saga of the pioneering Curtis family.  John Curtis and his large family migrated, in the winter of 1856, from Oxford, New York, to the little town of Lane (now Rochelle) Illinois.  After several years of trying hardships, the family's situation had improved to the extent that C. F. (Charlie) Curtis, the third son, felt justified in striking out for himself and he moved on west to the fast-growing town of Clinton in June of 1866.  With a school friend, Willis G. Hemingway, he bought the grocery store of Gottlieb Kufus on 6th Ave. between 1st and 2nd streets.  Within a few months, Charles knew that the grocery business was not for him and became interested in a struggling little sash and door mill operated in a barn, at the foot of 7th Ave., by Clausin and Thornburg with a crew of five men.  A trade was finally consummated by which Curtis and Hemingway became the owners of the mill on Dec. 10, 1866.  In the Dec. 1 issue of the Clinton Herald when this transaction was reported, an announcement also appeared of the opening of a new and much larger sash and door factory by Dr. A. L. Ankeny and C. H. Toll, between 11th and 12th Ave. and 1st and 2nd streets.  In spite of this strong and well-entrenched competition and that of Skewes & Co., the Curtis venture survived.  Within a few months, Ankeny and Toll bought out the Skewes & Co. As the business increased young Curtis found that he must have someone capable of handling the office work and selling and he persuaded his older brother, George M. Curtis to come over from Illinois and join him in April of 1867.  In the same year, Mr. Hemingway sold his interest to the Curtis boys and the firm assumed the name of G. M. Curtis & Bro.  The following spring the boys induced their uncle, Judson E. Carpenter to join them and to provide some much needed capital.  In October 1868, Articles of Co-partnership were drawn and a fourth member was added.  He was E. V. Green; a brother-in-law of Carpenter and his investment brought the total capital up to $6,800.  The partners also were able to borrow some additional money from their father, John Curtis at the prevailing 1 per cent interest rate.  This rate of interest was paid for the next 24 years.  At this time all sash were sold without glass and the open sash, glass, putty and priming had to be purchased from different sources and to glazed by the builder.  G. M. conceived the idea of glazing the sash in the mill.  It was then unheard of and a gamble but it sold a lot of windows. This was the beginning of a great many "firsts" in the industry to originate in the Curtis plant.  The firm was now known as Curtis Bros. & Co. and the old barn was becoming too cramped for the crew of about 25 men.  On Jan. 1, 1869, Curtis Bros. & Co. took over Ankeny & Toll and moved to a more modern and newly equipped plant at the present location.  During the next ten years times were extremely hard but all payments on the Toll property were made promptly, even though it called for great frugality on the part of the partners.  Following the post Civil war depression and when the special payment was resumed, the business expanded rapidly under the aggressive selling efforts of G. M. Curtis.  The company was shipping its product as far north as St. Paul, south to St. Louis and west to Denver and much use was made of River transportation.

The plant was almost hidden by the great piles of lumber, up to thirty feet high, produced by W. J. Young's upper and lower mills and C. Lamb & Sons "A" and "B" mills.  Its location was an advantage in that the principle raw material was made at its doorstep.  As the business continued to grow, a younger brother, Cornelius, joined the Curtis brothers, in 1872.  By 1877 the plant required 4 million feet of lumber and produced 50,000 doors, 90,000 windows and 18,750 blinds.  In eight years the crew had increased from 60 men to nearly 150.  Lumber was now coming in from Wisconsin and Michigan.   Judson Carpenter had become a shrewd lumber buyer and his heavy buying at low price, after a fire destroyed their entire lumber stock in early 1879, formed the basis for large profits during the next four years.  It was he, too, who conceived the idea of setting up grades of lumber for shop use.  The same general principles of grading shop lumber are still in use throughout the industry.  In 1881 Articles of Incorporation were filed and in 1882 a plant was established in Wausau, Wis., nearer the source of pine lumber and Cornelius Curtis took over the management.  In 1886 a jobbing house was acquired in Minneapolis and in 1893 it became a branch plant.  Late in the same year, a new plant, Curtis & Van Denberg Co. was established in Lincoln, Nebraska, and in 1897 a plant was purchased in Sioux City and incorporated in 1900 as Curtis Sash & Door Co.  It was in July of 1899 that George Lewis Curtis, son of G. M. and present chairman of the board, joined the company.  Walter E. Curtis, son of Cornelius, joined the company.  Walter E. Curtis, son of Cornelius, entered the Wausau firm in 1901 and in 1911 became general manager and held that position until his death a few years ago.  In 1902, another plant, Curtis & Gartside Co. was started in Oklahoma City.  Early in the 1900's, C. B. Towle, a son-in-law of C. F. Curtis, joined the Lincoln branch and in 1906, it became Curtis, Towle and Paine Co.  Mr. Towle served as a director until his death in 1952.

These branch plants were primarily distributing warehouses which made it possible to service the surrounding areas economically by means of prompt, less than carload shipments and Curtis was serving 14 Midwestern states.  Following his graduation from Yale University in 190?, Eugene Judson Curtis, the younger brother of G. L., joined the Clinton business and took over the purchasing for this plant.  C. A. Armstrong, another son-in-law of C. F. Curtis, entered the Clinton sales organization at about the same time.  He later became a director and vice president and served until his death in 1953.  By this time the business embraced six individual corporations with the control still concentrated in the hands of G. M. and C. F. Curtis and J. E. Carpenter.  By 1911, G. L. Curtis had taken over all of Carpenter's Curtis holdings and had assumed overall management of the entire spreading business.  It became evident to him that reorganization on a more centralized basis was essential to good management.  Acting promptly upon this belief, a holding company was incorporated as the Curtis Lumber & Millwork Co. in 1911 and all the stock of the individual corporation was turned in to the present corporation and its common stock was divided among all stockholders in proportion to their previous holdings.  Under this new organization, the activities of the subsidiary companies were coordinated and integrated into a much more efficient enterprise.

A new subsidiary was added in 1912 when an existing jobbing plant in Chicago was purchased and operated under the name Curtis Door & Sash Co.  A general office was established at Clinton and those functions common to the entire business were centralized in this office.  They included purchasing, traffic management, engineering and plant and equipment maintenance, advertising and general sales policy and planning.  Late in 1912, H. H. Hobart joined the business and after some selling experience, he was asked to set up and manage a general office-advertising department, which was given the name, Curtis Companies Service Bureau.  One of the first steps was the design and registration of the now nationally known trademark.  Advertising on a national scale was started in 1918 and has continued, except for a short interruption during the great depression of the thirties.  One of Mr. Hobart's early assistants was Sam S. Cook, son of Ward M. Cook, of Clinton.  Sam, later, became manager of the Chicago division and is currently director of the company.

To promote the integration of the subsidiaries, R. S. Whitley was employed in 1913.  He set up the mechanics of the general office and became the liaison man between this office and the branches.

Under the centralized control the Curtis product became a full line of residential building woodwork, fully standardized so that it was uniform regardless of which plant produced it.  By 1916 the Clinton plant was again outgrown and a new four-story factory building and a power plant were started.  A few years later another four-story factory and warehouse building was erected.   While some jobber outlets had been obtained in the east, the volume was not great when, during World War I, the company was engaged in producing woodwork for many large war housing projects.  Contacts with a New York architect gave birth to the idea of introducing woodwork, designed by architects of high standing, which would be acceptable to other architects.  These Eastern contracts also brought knowledge of a huge new market, which had hardly been touched.  In the years following the first World War a line of woodwork was designed by a well-known architect, standardization was carried further, national advertising was started and by late 1919 Curtis, under the sales leadership of H. H. Hobart, began selling woodwork in car lots to Eastern dealers.  During this year, also, the corporate name was changed to Curtis Companies Incorporated.  The following year, (E. or D.?)  J. Curtis, after five years as manager of the Clinton operating company moved to the general office.  During the next 10 years a building boom was in progress and the Curtis business grew with it.  Distribution was firmly established throughout the east and southeast.  It was toward the end of this period, in 1928, that G. M Curtis II, son of G. L. joined the business as the first representa- (This line ends here!?)  During the depression of the thirties, when home building fell to an almost unbelievable low ebb, Curtis suffered like thousands of others but planning for the future was stepped up and at the depth of the depression, the Silentite double hung window was introduced.  It was the result of a long period of experiments and tests in the Research department, which had been established in 1925.  This window presented the first major improvement in double hung wood windows in 300 years and because of its immediate and widespread acceptance, it was a big factor in offsetting the effects of the depression so far as Curtis Companies and a great many Curtis dealers were concerned.  As a result of continuous research, new and improved products have been introduced almost yearly since the depression and several architects of high standing have handled the design features.  Curtis was the first firm in the industry to produce factory glazed sash; to advertise nationally; to employ nationally known architects to design its products; to design and construct its own special woodworking equipment on a substantial scale; to use steel templates and gages and standardized details to insure uniformity and interchangeability; to employ a conveyer system in its cutting department; to introduce a factory pre-fitted and weather-stripped window unit; to produce interchangeable frame, window and trim parts; to develop an integral interlocking mitered joint; to develop and use an adequate toxic and water repellent treatment for woodwork; to introduce a complete line of sectional kitchen cabinets; to establish a fully equipped and manned research department and many other "first" in connection with production methods.  The company established an enviable record of service to the government during two world wars and has attained national distribution of its products.  Immediately following service in World War II, Eugene J. Curtis, Jr. entered the engineering department of the business and upon the death of his father in early 1951; he became a vice president and secretary.  Since World War II hollow core and solid core flush doors have gained popularity very rapidly and in order to meet the demand the plants of the American Plywood Corporation, in Wisconsin--the leader in this field--were purchased in late 1951.

In 1913 a pension system was established and a benefit system, to which employees also contributed, provided benefits in case of sickness, accidents or death not covered by compensation insurance.  In 1915 the old brick Lamb "B" lumber mill was purchased by the company founders, remodeled, fully equipped and presented to the employees as a club house.  A bonus system, based on production performance, has been in effect since 1920.  Group life insurance, health and hospitalization insurance, paid vacations and a credit union have been instituted.  An aggressive safety program has brought to Curtis the finest safety record in the industry.


The Clinton Herald Tuesday September 16, 1966 p. 13 Curtis Companies, Inc. today confirmed rumors its Clinton plant will be closed by the end of the year, ending 100 years of operation here. The plant at 114 12th Ave. S., which has manufactured pine doors and windows for a century, will begin phasing out operations next month with complete shutdown scheduled for no later than Dec. 31. Ralph Kross, vice-president of the company and general manager of its millwork division here, said the firm's board of directors decided to close the plant "because of a two-thirds decline in volume and a loss in excess of $2 million over the past seven years." He said the "tight money" situation which has slowed building in recent months also was a contributing factor to the decision to close the company's home plant. According to Kross, who has been associated with Curtis for 40
years, employees have been notified of the closing and notification of customers has begun. In a statement company president J.K. Cosier explained. "We recognize this action may cause some hardships to our customers and we will co-operate in matters of service and shipment to the extent of our ability... As a first step in this direction, we plan to continue production of pine doors at our New London, Wis., door plant after the first of the year." Kross said because of the company's desire to serve customers as long as possible, exact date of the Clinton plant shutdown cannot be determined now. Company officials will meet with the plant's 110 employees to work out a plan concerning pension funds, Kross explained. The vice president said the company has no immediate plans for the 500,000 square foot manufacturing area and the two-story office building comprising 18,000 square feet. "We hope to find a buyer who will have a use for the plant," Kross added. He said some equipment is being transferred to the New London plant. The company, owned by 200 stockholders, will operate only the New London plant after production ceases here. Plants in Wausau, Wis., and Sioux City were closed several years ago. The company was founded in 1866 by the Curtis brothers and began operations near the present plant's location. Employment has gradually declined since 1950 when 500 persons worked in the Clinton plant. Kross said peak production occurred about 1941 when a complete line of woodwork items were manufactured here. The vice president did not comment on the fate of the company's Clinton based executives and employees. A letter being sent to customers requests determination of needs be submitted to the Clinton plant by Oct. 10 "so we can start the final runs through our plant no later than Oct. 14."