Cooper’s: How an 1833 start-up company wove itself into the fabric of Knox County | Business

MOUNT VERNON — For years, many buildings on the 47-acre former Siemens campus at 105 S. Sandusky St. have stood vacant.

Since Siemens Energy Systems pulled out in 2018, none of the buildings had life.

This month, a new start-up company, The Ohio Mint, will begin operations as the first tenant in what is now known as Cooper Progress Park. One hundred eighty-eight years ago, another start-up company founded a dynasty that lasted well into the 21st century.

The history

“Those buildings stand empty, they stand as kinda ghosts of the past, but within them, they tell quite a bit of stories.” — Charles “Chuck” Whitney in a 2004 interview for the Mount Vernon 2005 bicentennial.

Born in Mount Vernon in 1811 and 1813, brothers Charles and Elias Cooper returned to Mount Vernon in 1833 to start a foundry, the Mount Vernon Iron Works. Located on Sandusky Road in the northwestern corner of the town, the company soon became known as C&E Cooper.

With a workforce of two, they set to work pouring castings, producing hog troughs, plows, stoves, and maple syrup kettles. In 1836 they replaced their horse with a steam engine and switched from charcoal to coke for fuel.

The Cooper brothers rebounded from the Panic of 1837 and shipped their first steam-powered compressor to Ohio’s hanging rock district via the Sandusky, Mansfield & Newark Railroad. The SM&N later became part of the B&O system; the line still operates today.

Over the next number of years, the company broke ground in new areas:

•1853: built a wood-burning locomotive, “the first manufactured west of the Allegheny Mountains.”

•1869: built its first Corliss reciprocating steam engine

•1875: built the horse-pulled Cooper traction engine, the device we now call a tractor

•1883: built the first self-propelled Cooper traction engine

Cooper: Traction engine

In 1875, the Cooper brothers built what was known as a traction engine, the forerunner of today’s tractor. Initially pulled by two horses, Cooper engineers figured out how to make the engine self-propelled in 1883.

Charles Cooper, whose hilltop home overlooked the foundry from what is now the back side of the former school on North Mulberry Street, withdrew from active company management after it incorporated in 1895. However, he remained interested in the company he co-founded until his death in 1901 at the age of 90.

While the C&G Cooper Co. went into the 20th century dominating production of 1,000-horsepower compression engines for gasoline extraction, it made no inroads with a smaller-horsepower engine.

The Bessemer Gas Engine Company in Grove City, PA, did.

In 1929, Cooper Co. had 33 buildings and 765 employees. The company needed more production facilities.

The Bessemer Gas Engine Company needed financing because it had poured so much money into diesel engine research and development. With Cooper’s president, Beatty B. “BB” Williams, leading the way, the two companies merged on April 4, 1929, and became the Cooper-Bessemer Corporation.

Beatty "B.B." Williams

Beatty B. Williams

Chairman of the Knox Community Foundation 1944-1965

The stock market crash in October 1929 saw the new company’s sales drop more than 90%. Cooper-Bessemer, like many other industries, enacted long layoffs and temporary shutdowns. The Mount Vernon plant was closed completely for several months.

Noble Grimm, who passed away in November 2006, was a 41-year employee of Cooper-Bessemer. In a January 2006 interview honoring the city’s bicentennial, he spoke with the late Nancy Lorey of I-Conn Video Productions about how the Depression affected Mount Vernon operations.

“They closed down almost completely,” he said. “There was some shop work. You could go down and run a machine for maybe $5 an hour or $5 dollars a day. I know a lot of people that were machinists, and if something would break down, you could go in and run a machine.

“They were down for a long time,” he continued. “They still did maintenance on the engines ahead, but they were way down for a long time. Almost to the beginning of the war, the Second World War.”

Cooper’s fared better in the 1930s than many other companies, however. Convinced that diesel was poised to replace steam in locomotives, the company developed a diesel locomotive engine and finally persuaded General Electric to buy one. Ten more orders for other railroads followed.

Cooper assistant chief engineer Ralph Boyer also followed up on a notice that a Dr. Alfred J. Buchi had patented a system of supercharging a diesel engine with its own exhaust, and within a few months Cooper-Bessemer produced the first turbocharge diesel engine in the United States.

The company’s resurgence was short-lived, and the Mount Vernon plant closed for more than a month in the summer of 1938. As Grimm noted, it wasn’t until the company began producing engines for the war in 1941 that Cooper’s really got back on its feet.

Cooper Liberty Ship

Cooper-Bessemer had a contract to produce steam engines for the Navy’s Liberty Ship in World War II. Cooper’s diesel engines also went into the Navy’s LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank).

Switching to military production, Cooper-Bessemer produced diesel engines, castings, and other engine parts for Liberty Ship, battleships, aircraft carriers, and other vessels. Locomotive engine production also increased significantly.

“We made a lot of engines for the navy,” Grimm, who retired from the company in 1983, said. “We had a diesel engine that we put on the LSTs and troop carriers. It was just an 8,000 horsepower diesel engine. Then we made a lot of big compressors for the navy to compress liquid oxygen, nitrogen, all the gases that they needed. We put out 22 engines a month and 75 compressors for the engine. Each engine had five compressors.”

As in many companies during the war, women joined the work force at Cooper-Bessemer.

“A lot of women were in the plant. Machinists, instructors, timekeepers … They worked in receiving, shipping, in inspection,” Grimm said. “We had one woman run the cranes.”

According to David Keller’s “Cooper Industries: 1833-1983,” one news writer noted “It is amazing how quickly they [women] have adapted themselves to an entirely new line of work and how well they are doing the job.”

However, at Cooper’s, at least one woman did not fare as well.

“We had one girl run the locomotive out in the yard for awhile,” Grimm said. “She put a car through a door, and they said ‘maybe we better get a man to do it.’

“Well, she had a fully loaded car with an engine on it, and normally you push a car up around so far and you can stop. She couldn’t stop with that engine on it. It just went through a door. They replaced the door with no problem. It didn’t hurt the engine.”

Grimm also recalled an instance when a man pushed a line of seven loaded cars out the back gate. The cars got away from him and went down through the yard, tearing the gate. No one replaced him.

With the end of the war in 1945, Cooper-Bessemer returned to peacetime production. In October, the company expanded into Venezuela. The Soviet Union soon followed when Russia ordered 24 compressor units for its 500-mile natural gas pipeline from the Ural Mountains to Moscow.

Facing $11.5 million in canceled war contracts, the company took out loans for working capital. It was also plagued by obsolete equipment, high labor and material costs, and supplier work stoppages. In addition, Grove City employees walked off the job in support of the United Steelworkers of America.

Following company president Gordon Lefebvre’s philosophy of “finding new markets for old products and new products for old markets,” Cooper-Bessemer did just that. It opened warehouse facilities and sales units in Canada and its first overseas production facility in Belfast, Ireland. The company’s compressors were in India and Central and South America. It had sales and service centers in New Orleans; Houston, Odessa, and Pampa, Texas; and in Massachusetts.

Cooper aerial 1952

An aerial view of the Mount Vernon plant in 1952

The Mount Vernon and Grove City plants expanded, and 1951 and 1952 were the best years in the company’s history.

In 1953, however, sales began to drop. In 1954, the company faced a strike at the Grove City plant, problems with two of the company’s newer products, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision (The Phillips Petroleum Case) that imposed price controls and led to suspension of interstate pipeline construction.

The 1960s ushered in the era of conglomerates. While Cooper’s leadership vowed not to take over another company in predatory fashion, it did embark on a course that would ultimately prove fatal to the Mount Vernon plant.

From 1958 through the mid-1970s, Cooper’s acquired many hand tools, electrical, and hardware companies. The company also strengthened its position in the gas and oil industry. It created a subsidiary company in Houston, CB/Southern Inc., and acquired Ajax Iron Works and Penn Pump (Pennsylvania Pump and Compressor Company.)

In 1964, Cooper’s moved its International Division headquarters from New York to Mount Vernon. It also started operations at Cooper-Bessemer (U.K.) Ltd in London.

International expansion continued through partnerships with Mexico and Germany and the formation of Hengelo, Overijsel in The Netherlands to manufacture Cooper-Bessemer control systems. Cooper-Bessemer of Canada, Rolls-Royce Ltd., and a British affiliate of Williams Overseas Ltd., working through the jointly owned company Coberrow, Ltd., received a $165 million contract for equipment on the 800-mile natural gas pipeline in Western Siberia. Cooper’s part was valued at $70 million.

Mount Vernon resident Ed Hall was part of that era of acquisition and joint ventures.

Moving from Cooper competitor Ingersoll Rand, Hall joined Cooper-Bessemer in 1965. Initially the plan was to come to Mount Vernon, but company officials asked him to go to the Grove City plant.

“I went to work for them as a manager of tooling, and I had the responsibility for their plant in Stratford, Ontario, the one here in Mount Vernon, and the one in Grove City, PA,” Hall said in a 2004 bicentennial interview. “That job went on for about three or four years.”

When the Grove City factory superintendent was promoted, he asked Hall to replace him as superintendent. Hall agreed and stayed in Pennsylvania for almost nine years.

“The vice president of manufacturing for Cooper-Bessemer had need for an assistant, and I worked indirectly for him through our works manager,” Hall said. “I got a promotion to come over to Mount Vernon as an executive manufacturing engineer. Big title, but basically I did all the errands for him. I ran all the projects for him, a lot of the things he didn’t have the time to do.

“We were working with some competitors at the time,” he continued. “We were considering getting into some joint ventures, and I would help evaluate whether that was a good thing for us to do. We took a look at a couple of companies. We bought some small portions of their business, and I would usually do an evaluation from a manufacturing standpoint, whether it would fit well within what our capabilities were. It was very interesting.”

Hall said that when he joined Cooper-Bessemer, annual sales were around $120 million to $140 million a year.

“One of the problems of the business that they were in was when things were good, things were really good. It was busting at the seams,” he said. “But then when you get into the lulls, the valleys were just as low as the peaks were high. They took a look at that and they said that we need to do something that will smooth out our business and our income lines. They started getting into hand tools. They acquired companies that were suppliers to the mining industry, and they became a large corporation.”

Hall said that annual sales went up.

“During that time frame, the plant here in Mount Vernon, the people who were really overseeing things, had enough foresight to see that the large gas and diesel engine business was starting to fade away,” he said. “They were big. They were heavy. They were expensive, and people were looking for things that were a little more versatile than the large gas and diesel engines were. And fortunately for the plant here in Mount Vernon, they got into centrifugal compressors, and they got into gas turbine work.”

In 1973, Hall became the works manager at the Stratford, Ontario plant. Cooper’s restructured in 1978, organizing the companies around the type of business each plant was in.

“They formed the rotating division which was headquartered here in Mount Vernon, and they had plants in Liverpool, England, one in Stratford, Ontario, and the plant here in Mount Vernon,” Hall recalled. “I was made the director of manufacturing, and I had responsibility for those three plants. I continued to do that for the next 16 years until I got to my early 60s. I don’t know if it was age or if I was tired or if I had done it all and I didn’t want to do any more, but I said, ‘I’m not having as much fun as I always had had,’ and I decided to take retirement.”

Hall retired in 1996.

The move to Houston

In 1963, the Mount Vernon plant employed 2,400. That same year, Cooper-Bessemer’s leadership decided to separate the administrative and operational functions of the company. Administration left the plant on North Sandusky Street and took up offices in the First-Knox National Bank building on Public Square.

Cooper first horse

The fledgling Mount Vernon Iron Works, started by Charles and Elias Cooper in 1833. The company would become better known under a variety of names incorporating the Cooper name.

To reflect the company’s new goal of branching out into production areas that had different business cycles, the company became Cooper Industries, Inc. on Dec. 10, 1965. Employment was 6,000 among the plants in Mount Vernon and Cleveland; Grove City, Corry and Easton, Pennsylvania; Houston; and Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

According to “Cooper Industries 1833-1983,” the company felt an “intensifying pressure to move its corporate headquarters into the geographic mainstream of business.” On Jan. 18, 1967, Cooper Industries president Robert Cizik announced that Houston would be the new headquarters.

The retirement of Charles G. Cooper on Jan. 31, 1968, marked the last of the Cooper family’s 134-year involvement in the company. Charles G. was the grandson of co-founder Elias Cooper and the namesake of Elias’ brother, Charles.

Much as the 1960s ushered in the age of conglomerates, the 1970s gave rise to the age of realignments, and Cooper Industries began a series of consolidations, relocations, and plant closures.

Cooper Industries sold or relocated a number of companies within the hand tools division. It also sold CB/Southern. Cooper-Bessemer (which included Mount Vernon), Ajax, and Penn Pump formally became the Cooper Energy Services (CES) division.

The name change to Cooper Industries occurred shortly after Ed Hall joined the company.

“It was at that point that they started going out, and they were using all the money that came from basically the profits from the old Cooper-Bessemer companies, the Grove City and the Mount Vernon plants,” he explained. “They took the money from those businesses and started branching out and became Cooper Industries.”

According to Hall, the centrifugal manufacturing in Mount Vernon partnered with Rolls-Royce in the mid-1970s to start a marketing association called Cooper Rolls.

“It was about the same time that they took all the plants that were associated with supplying equipment to the gas and oil industry and they called them Cooper Energy Services,” he explained.

Cooper Energy Services at that time included plants in New Jersey, two in Pennsylvania, two in Ohio, and one in Ontario, Canada.

“The gas and diesel engine business continued to decline all through this time frame, so Cooper Industries decided to divest themselves of that business,” Hall recalled. “Those of us who worked in that area for so long sort of felt like, you know, they were pushing us aside. They don’t want us. I personally always was sort of disappointed because I knew the money for all the expansion in all the other areas that Cooper Industries got into basically came from the Cooper-Bessemer engine businesses. But they decided to divest themselves of that and the local plant became part of Cooper Cameron.”

According to Hall, the Mount Vernon plant remained part of Cooper Cameron until the late 1990s.

“Cooper Cameron decided to get out of the gas turbine business, and it was at that time that the joint venture that they had with Rolls-Royce came on board, and Rolls-Royce said, ‘okay, we’ll buy the gas turbine business. We’ll couple that with our jet engines,’” he said.

Changes come to Mount Vernon

The 1970s brought a significant change to the workforce at the Mount Vernon plant: the closing of the foundry in 1972.

Cooper 1902 foundry workers

The foundry started by Charles and Elias Cooper in 1833 remained at the Mount Vernon plant until 1972, when the foundry was transferred to the Grove City plant of Cooper-Bessemer. This is a photo of 1902 foundry workers.

According to Hall, when he was factory superintendent in Grove City, he was asked to come to Mount Vernon and figure out what equipment and tooling needed to be transferred to Grove City in order to make the GMV gas engine. The Mount Vernon plant started building the engine in the mid-1930s.

“I’m walking through the plant looking at how things are done, making some notes, and we transferred what was the GMV engine business from Mount Vernon to Grove City because the Mount Vernon plant was going to concentrate on centrifugal products, the gas turbine business at that time,” Hall explained. “So they no longer needed the foundry. They no longer needed the large machine shop that they had. And the employment here went from, oh, it would have been as high as probably 3,000 people. It went down to less than 1,000 because the business kept changing.”

Things changed again in 1982.

Cooper’s reciprocating engine-compressors were always manufactured in Grove City and the rotating units were manufactured in Mount Vernon. The marketing and engineering for both were located in Mount Vernon.

In 1982, Cooper Industries moved the marketing and engineering departments for reciprocating units to Grove City. Marketing and engineering for rotating products division, as well as the headquarters for Cooper Energy Services, stayed in Mount Vernon.

Cooper Industries acquired Cameron Iron Works in 1989 and became the Cooper Cameron Corp. A decade later, Cooper Cameron sold its rotating compressor, power turbine, and En-tronic controls business to Rolls-Royce.

In addition to the Mount Vernon plant, Rolls-Royce acquired the CES plants in Hengelo in the Netherlands, Liverpool in the United Kingdom, and Cooper Rolls, the joint venture marketing company formed by Cooper Energy Services and Rolls-Royce in the 1970s.

When Rolls-Royce announced the sale of the Mount Vernon plant to Siemens in 2014, the company employed just over 1,000 people. Siemens reduced the workforce by 10% shortly after it announced it was buying the company. 

Rolls-Royce takes down signs, Siemens takes over December 1st

Rolls-Royce workers take down the company sign in preparation for Siemens Energy to take over.

As Knox Pages reported, when the business officially switched over to Siemens on Dec. 1, 2014, the gradual reductions continued. Six weeks after the signs changed from Rolls-Royce to Siemens, Siemens announced it would lay off 25% to 30% of its workforce, or about 50 salaried employees and 200 union workers.

In February 2016, Siemens transferred the package assembly and test activities from Mount Vernon to other Siemens sites, cutting 250 more jobs in the process. Mount Vernon remained a product and market knowledge center for aero-derivative gas turbine packages, and continued with technical sales support, project management, research and development, project engineering, and customer support.

Two years later, in February 2018, Siemens announced a multi-stage workforce reduction of the remaining 400. A few relocated to Siemens’ Orlando and Charlotte locations, but most closed the door on the Cooper chapter in their lives.


Siemens Energy will close its Mount Vernon facility later in 2018. 

The Present

In 2006, 173 years after Charles and Elias financed a start-up company with $50 from the sale of a horse, the Cooper name disappeared from the parent company nameplate when Cooper Cameron changed its name to Cameron International Corp.

When Cooper Cameron sold its rotating compressor business to Rolls-Royce in 1999, the Mount Vernon plant lost its ties to the venerable Cooper name.

Cooper Progress Park logo

In October 2020, the name returned to Mount Vernon. The Knox County Land Bank acquired the Siemens property and renamed the 47-acre complex Cooper Progress Park.

At the signing ceremony, Jeff Gottke, president of the Area Development Foundation and the land bank, said it was “a triumphant day in the history of Knox County manufacturing.”

The company started by Charles and Elias Cooper in 1833 survived economic recessions, wars, global changes, FTC sanctions, an energy crisis, and an attempted hostile takeover. It lasted for so long because it changed and adapted. Yes, there were repercussions, but the company constantly moved — and looked — forward.

Local officials and the community are now called upon to do the same thing.

As Jeffry Harris, former president of the Area Development Foundation, told Knox Pages in 2018 when Siemens announced the final pull-out from the Mount Vernon plant:

“I’m telling everybody that will listen — we will never again see a 1,000-plus-employee company come into town and have that many jobs. What I would hope we would do is we have a large number of different companies using different buildings on that campus each with their own employees. That would be the best case scenario, you know, 10 years out.”

“… you can’t support a country on paper technology or on computer technology. At some point in time you have to make a product, and if you lose the ability to make a product that you can sell to somebody else, then the country is in for bad times.” –Ed Hall in a 2004 interview for the Mount Vernon 2005 bicentennial.

With the launch of operations this month in Cooper Progress Park by The Ohio Mint, that new scenario has begun. May other light manufacturing businesses quickly follow so that those empty buildings have new stories to tell.

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