Interview with Thomas Hoopes, 1969 July 23 [audio](part 1)

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  • Introduction and early life; Foreign exports; Paying employees; Woods used for wheels; Processing wood for wheels
    Keywords: air drying; birch; Darlington family; elm; exports; Hagerstown, Maryland; hickory; Hoopes Bro. & Darlington Company; Hoopes family; Jackson Mississippi; kiln drying; oak; payment incentives; supply mills; West Chester, Pennsylvania; white elm; wooden wagon wheels
    Transcript: This is the first interview with Thomas Hoopes at Hoopes Bro. & Darlington in West Chester, Pennsylvania on July 23, 1969. Participating in the interview were John A. Scafidi and Allen Ryff.

    Hoopes: My name is Thomas Hoopes, Jr. and I am 75 years old and I came with this company about 65 years ago as a boy in knee britches and have been with it ever since. It is a family company, mainly Hoopes family although some of the Darlington branch have been in it since its inception and are still interested, and at its maximum it used about 80,000 square feet of floor space and had some 250 employees. This was at the time when the demand for wooden wagon wheels was at its height and this condition lasted until the automobile came in and changed the picture decidedly. The business was started on the family farm where they had a saw mill and cut local hickory and oak, the hickory particularly being of excellent quality in this area and much in demand by the wheel and carriage builders, particularly down last and up New England way.

    Scafidi: Mr. Hoopes, where was the farm?

    Hoopes: The farm was located about a mile northwest of West Chester and the business continued there for a few years with the sawed material being shipped to New England. Then it was seen to be necessary to have a railroad location, and the business was moved to its present location where it has been for almost 100 years.

    Scafidi: At the beginning did the Hoopes Bros. begin by making replacement parts for wheelwright's use?

    Hoopes: First they produced mainly sawed hickory and sawed parts and the further finishing was done by the further developed makers in law England particularly, and also up and down the Atlantic seaboard. They shipped pretty far then. Yes, their main business was always on the seaboard and east of the Alleghenies, and in a short time many wheel establishments sprang up in many different localities, there being a large demand as they were used for horse-drawn vehicles which for short hauls and local work were the main means of transportation. The business was developed and was well handled and the company built up quite an ex- port trade and a large trade with England and smaller with the continent; and some even with South Africa, and that export business continued for many years until the automobile took over.

    Scafidi: Were these complete wheels?

    Hoopes: Complete wheels were made end were the main product. but there always has been and still is in considerable demand on the part of various wheelwright and blacksmith shops for parts such as spokes, hubs and felloes but the complete wheel was the main product at all times.

    Scafidi: You were the makers of the insidious American machine-made wheels that the English wheelwrights complained about?

    Hoopes: Yes, that is probably true although they always went after more of them, more than we could make at most times, so they may have complained about them but they certainly used them. I heard some of the old timers say that some of our sporting people here in need of an Irish jaunting cert would import one from Ireland and it would come back with West Chester wheels on it!

    Scafidi: How could they tell? Did you have a name plate on your wheels?

    Hoopes: They had a little stamp that they stamped on the back of the hub of the wheels with the trademark and the wheels were numbered. Over the years all wheels have been made to specifications. It has never been practical to have a stock wheel although there are certain types that repeat themselves continually. But the wheels were made up on order and and shipped out with a number. Oh! A couple dozen coupons on it, and as each shop man performed his operation he removed a coupon and he was paid the following week on a piece work basis by the number of coupons he had accumulated. That method is still incentive and quite generally used, but this company had it very early, and quite a few of the competitors came around to see how it was handled, and it was widely copied.

    Scafidi: This is pretty up to date then.

    Hoopes: It was well ahead of its time as far as the incentive system was concerned.

    Scafidi: How did the men like it? Did the men have any complaints?

    Hoopes: The men were happy with it and it enabled them to increase their earnings if they increased their effort, which was its purpose and the men were - they liked to have it - if they could better themselves slightly by producing more. They never rebelled or objected to it. In fact they liked it.

    Scafidi: Did the inspectors have any complaints about this?

    Hoopes: The inspectors, there was careful inspection at all points, and the inspectors would fire it back if the work was wrong, and the men would have to repeat it without any additional credit for it so it did not result in careless or slipshod production to any extent.

    Scafidi: What sort of woods were you using?

    Hoopes: We started out using mainly hickory which they still use.

    Scafidi: For spokes?

    Hoopes: They use elm for hubs and hickory for spokes and for light felloes, and in the very heavy work they use considerable white oak. They were local woods in good supply and of a quality in this latitude that is really superior to any quality produced any place else.

    Scafidi: First growth or second growth?

    Hoopes: It would mainly be second growth although the wood was never graded by first or second growth. You can't tell that unless you go out and see the trees growing. The wood was graded for quality by appearance, straightness of grain and weight. The heavier the wood, generally speaking, the stronger it is. The more compact the growth is.

    Ryff: Did the company import wood from other areas?

    Hoopes: The company at times had supply mills, for instance, one time at Hagerstown, Maryland, another time at Jackson, Mississippi, this was after they got into considerable buying, and then they worked on several different locations in Florida. Hickory is the wood they used 90% and it is not found much north of this latitude, but from here down to the Gulf you find it and it can be a very poor quality or it can be strong, heavy growth, depending mainly on the kind of land it grows on, just like anything else. The good bottom land produces good wood, while the sorry mountain sides and rocky fields up higher don't produce nearly as strong hickory.

    Scafidi: You said the company used supply mills in different places. Did the company own these mills or lease than?

    Hoopes: The company owned them. But sometimes leased the land and generally bought logs. In those more frontier sections or undeveloped sections there were always a lot of loggers working and mills working and the mills generally wanted the other wood since hickory is a little too hard to drive nails into and wasn't used for general purpose. And the hickory, in a great many cases they were glad to sell the hickory to somebody who specialized in hickory. Of course, you found numerous handle factories that worked with nothing but hickory - some of the handle factories would produce spokes and sell spokes and the companies would buy carloads of spokes from other producers, mainly the handle mills and some of the other mills that made a specialty of turning spokes and didn't produce anything more finished then that.

    Scafidi: This is rough spoke?

    Hoopes: Rough spoke just as it came from the lathe in one operation, and sometimes it had to be, usually had to be dried further before it could be used. You've got to dry all this wood before you dare assemble it because as it dries it shrinks and if you put it together green it will shrink and give you a loose wheel and it rattles itself to pieces right quick.

    Scafidi: How did you dry wheels?

    Hoopes: Dried by heat, in kilns just like lumber is dried.

    Scafidi: Never spent the inventory doing air drying?

    Hoopes - Well, it would often be air dried - strips to bend the felloes - the felloes are bent before they are dried and they are better to be air dried than to be bent green because if bent green they tend to squeeze up a little bit. If they are air dried they bend better, but if they are kiln dried before they are bent they tend to break and they become brittle with the kiln dry, so that the whole structure has to be dried before it is assembled or you are headed for trouble. They follow that method and have followed it pretty carefully over the years to get your assembly parts dry. Bone of the hubs which are - used to be entirely elm. but now we use some birch - Dutch Elm disease in making the elm hard to come by. We use some birch in those hubs, cut out of a sapling generally, and they are cut in sections across the sapling and then a hole bored through to dry them. Those hubs, the small ones, will be dried for four months or more, and the big ones, some of them dried a year before they are-— in a fairly high temperature--before they lose their moisture to e point where they are safe to use. Sometimes the big hubs, they press the bands on them, they think they are dry and let then sit around for a month or so to dry a little more, the bends loosen up and you've got trouble.

    Scafidi: Do you have much spoilage due to the time it takes?

    Hoopes: No, the main loss is the stock--the defects--the stock cut into strips mainly, end the strips with curly grain or knots or defects are sent back to be cut into spokes while the clear strips are used to bend the felloes because the defect is going to smash or break in the bending and you have nothing.
  • Assembling wheels; Selling wheels; Local uses for spare wood; Companies that Hoopes Bro. Darlington worked with
    Keywords: Autocar; felloes; Franklin; Locomobile; Mack; Pierce Arrow; rubber; sales; spokes; springs
    Transcript: Scafidi:How meny felloes do you put on a wheel?

    Hoopes: Well, the usual assembly is two to the wheel, 180° , but with the big heavy stuff they will use one to every two spokes. so if you have 16 spokes you've got 8 big pieces of felloes. The tire is an essential part of the structure--it keeps the whole thing tight. If the tire gets loose and starts to work the first thing your wheel is worn end loose, and you're in trouble.

    Scafidi: You can hear on the street when a tire is loose.

    Ryff: What was the most popular wheel?

    Hoopes: Most popular? Factories building buggies used to put them out at amazing prices. Some of the southern factories would sell a buggy for around $75 or $85, ready to back the horse up and hitch it to it-- and there were a tremendous lot of them uesed-a tremendous lot of share- cropper wagons one mule wagons they they didn't even have the facilities to have the buggy to transport thenaelvea around. They used the wagon to take the stuff to market and haul it to town. and then Saturday night the family took their chairs with their deer hide seats and put then up on a wagon and went to town, purchased their week's groceries, etc.

    Ryff: When did you start putting the rubber tire on the wheels?

    Hoopes: I think the rubber want on before my tine. I came around here only about 1906 or so on a part time basis, while I went to school. They had the rubber in quantities then. I think the rubber tire was started about 1880, something like that and it wasn't too widely used. It was used for people who could afford it but the rubber adds a very appreciable cost to the wheel and most of them didn't want that cost, they were out on dry country roads, etc. and they didn't have the hard roads like they have today. of course, and the character of the highway increases the noise and the rattle anyway and they probably weren't as high strung or as nervous as we are today, and the noise didn't bother them too much.

    Scafidi: There wasn't as much noise than as there is now. Could you supply wheels for any purpose like all the way from a brewer's wagon to one of these great big drays in the 1890’ s with those huge coaches with seats all over It?

    Hoopes: Well, we would. we could and still can make wheels up to five feet in diameter and they can make then up to size 5" wide spoke. but they don't do it--this would be easy in equivalent to what you call the brewer's wagon. the 4" spoke wheel a set of than are good for a load capacity of 30,000 pounds, and the average buggy job is figured for a load of 600-750 pounds. Now that is per set--for 2 axles actually-- 4-wheel vehicles and the capacity of a set.

    Scafidi: You speak of a set meaning 4.

    Hoopes: Two front, two rear.

    Ryff: Well, what happened with wood that wasn't used?

    Hoopes: They burned it. They used to sell tremendous quantities of it for local firewood before the days of the oil burner, and the poor families would have an airtight stove in the house. They stoked it up with wood and that kept them warm in the winter time. But mainly now they burn it under the boiler to make steam to dry the wood in the kilns, and also they use steam in retorts to soften the wood so that it can he bent--steamed to make it easy to bend.

    Scafidi: Did the company ever try, first of all, the lumber yard business?

    Hoopes: No.

    Scafidi: How about buggy making. Ever take a flyer at that at all?

    Hoopes: No. They didn't want to compete with their customers and they had enough problems without going that far--concentrate on wheels, which was a wise thing to do. First they started out with the horse-drawn vehicle wheel and then they made all types from the very heavy wagons to the light buggies, and a lot of the wheels were used for hose reels and factories where you've seen them--they still make a few of then. Sale way with the white wings over in law York City. They have a can on wheels that they push up. and than they shovel, and the can will go down the street--there are still a few-they used to be a big item. They used to asks 5,000 of those at a shot for New York alone. Now there is a little bit of sweeping, of course, but it is mainly power sweeping. When the automobiles started coming in they quickly got into the wooden automobile wheel and got into it very successfully, and had a lot of high grade customers like Locomobile, Pierce Arrow, Franklin, in the east. They never got into the business in the west where there was a tremendous volumes-kept a bunch of wheel factories busy. Wood spoke wheels lasted from 1900, when the automobile industry started, to about 1920, and then it changed to metal. here they made a lot of heavy truck wooden wheels too. Again, people like Autocar, Mack, so long as they used wood, they made them. Then when the metal started to come in with pneumatic tires the wood went out--the wood wasn't quite as free from trouble as the metal, and the company here tried to get in the metal but they had no foundry. They were making cast wheels at that time, they weren't disc wheels. But that was a field by itself. and the metal wheel— you still see plenty of the spoke wheels where they mount the rim right on the spokes on the trucks. we got into that with the depression, and they had no foundry and the foundries got into it, and the foundry, if they had a cripple, or a bad casting, could throw it back and melt it and use it. The company here bought their castings, and they lost a lot of money, and they dropped that. To use the space, they got into the spring business, which you've seen out here making upholstery springs and mattress springs. And then, as that went along, one of the big producers that had factories of that kind all over the country, wanted a new location, and approached us. They had nationwide distribution while we had local distribution, so we sold out to thee and leased the specs, and they've been at that ever since.
  • Getting into the spring business; The Great Depression; Tustom work for antiquers; Competition; Trade association for wheels
    Keywords: American Wheel Company; Great Depression; Locomobile; Packard; springs
    Transcript: Scafidi: When was that?

    Hoopes: That was back in the start of the Depression, along about in the 30's some time. The wood wheel industry--the horse were pretty well on the way out, still a lot of competition left. How today the competition in virtually gone--it'a died of its own lack of business, you might say, but we've kept in it in a small way; 30 men or so, and a space. using maybe a third of the space we have here for it. And we still get pretty wide distribution--every state in the union, and a lot of people fixing up vehicles, and the Army building vehicles. and, of course, they make a lot of fixture wheels--10,000 or an a year of then fixture makers who make chandeliers out of then, so we get enough to operate in a rather modest way.

    Scafidi: Did you ever go into automobile luxury wheels? I have a friend who has a 1931 Packard, and it had the extra special wheels, I guess that are wire wheels today. Big wooden wheels.

    Hoopes: We make a lot of that type of wheel, yeah, but of late years to take care of the so-called antiquers who fix up and one those old cars it got an that we couldn't keep a trained man, so we dropped it. But we made some wheels for Packard. We made that type of wheel for Locomobile with special embossed spaces on the spokes and patterned spokes. And we need to make a wheel for American France fire engine company; quite a fancy job. and didn't get too well paid for it considering what they had to do because there was competition, plenty of competition. A lot of factories going out of business and trying to hang on by the skin of their teeth.

    Scafidi: Was there ever any kind of trade association in wheels?

    Mr. Hoopes: Yes. At one time they used to have a wheel association, and another tile they thought they'd form the American Wheel Company and corner the market. They got half a dozen of the biggest wheelmakers to go together to form the American Wheel Company they were going to divide the territory up and set any price that they wanted, you know, end make a killing. They started off with it--the first thing some of the smaller makers, when the prices went up a little bit, the smaller makers cut in, and American Wheel Company went busted. And this company sold its entire plant to American Wheel Company and was quite enthusiastic about it when it started. but as it started to go bankrupt and so forth they went to the bank and borrowed money, and bought the plant back and paid it off and thought they had learned a lesson.

    Ryff: Whatever happened to the American Wheel Comapny?

    Hoopes: That was the end of it, it went broke and disappeared. A lot of the correspondence--I don't know whether your people got any of it--was American Wheel Company correspondence--that was before my time in the 90s.

    Scafidi: Has there ever been any attempt to try to rationalize the competition during the time while the car, the auto was coming in?

    Hoopes: What do you mean rationalize?

    Scafidi: With the increased competition from the automobile. and apperently, my impreession is that the market for carriege and wagon wheels is shrinking. Didn't people try to make regions or cut out territory for themselves?

    Hoopes: No, there wasn't any of that. There wasn't enough cooperation and of course legally you run into some obstacles when you do that. They just didn't do it, and things got in pretty bed shape there for a while. Went a good many years and worked pretty hard, and didn't have much to show for it. In fact what we show for it today is rather modest--hardly pays for the effort we put into it.
  • Survival since the World War Two; Training at Hoopes Bro. Darlington; Changes to Florida's forests
    Keywords: Carriages; Delmarva Peninsula; Florida; Hickory; Horses; Logging; Pine; Training; Wagon wheels; Wagons; World War (1914-1918); World War (1939-1945)
    Transcript: "What we show here today is rather modest..."
  • Buying wood; Selling wheels; Electrifying the factory; Steam engines
    Keywords: Amish people; Boards; Doyle's rule; Electricity; Electrification; Generators; Lancaster County, Pa.; Logging; Lumber; New Holland, Pa.; Porter-Allen steam engine; Sales; Sawyers; Steam engines; Wilbraham steam engines; Wood
    Transcript: "You buy it buy the thousand feet, sawed wood... they have what they call Doyle's rules... gives the approximate number of board feet that can be sawed out of a log..."
  • Clarifications from first interview; Hoopes Brothers & Darlington, Inc's involvement with the Peerless Spring Company; The Great Depression; Location in West Chester;
    Keywords: American Wheel company; Great Depression; Hoopes Brothers & Darlington, Inc.; Patents; Peerless Spring Company; West Chester, Pa; Wheels
    Transcript: "Well, they had to let quite a few employees go and as the depression got quite intense we built up this spring business..."
  • Types of wheels made at Hoopes Brothers & Darlington, Inc.; Differences between types of wheels; Buying wood; Making skies during World War II; Making wheels for World War I; Drying wheels
    Keywords: Ash; Black birch; Cherry; Elm; Hickory; Hoopes Brothers & Darlington, Inc.; Patents; Skies; Wheels; Wood; World War (1914-1918); World War (1939-1945)
    Transcript: "At one time, I imagine they made half a dozen different patents... a lot of them were just talking points and little else..." "In the decorative wheels we use most any type of wood.."
  • Repairing wheels; Making rubber tire wheels; Advertising; Making non-wheel products
    Keywords: Advertising; Amish people; Lancaster County, Pa.; Repair; Rubber tire wheels; Spatulas
    Transcript: "If it's deteriorated more than half.. losing two or three of its spokes, it's better and almost as inexpensive to make a new wheel.. we try to avoid repair work."
  • Maintaining machinery; Treatment of elderly employees; Accidents
    Keywords: Accidents; Lathes; Maintenance; Old age; Pensions; Repair; Social Security
    Transcript: "It's all worn to a pint where it requires considerable maintenance..."
  • Length of the work week; Current challenges; Fire at Hoopes Brothers & Darlington, Inc.
    Keywords: Hiring; Hoopes Brothers & Darlington, Inc.; Labor; Sprinkler systems; Staffing; Unions; Work week
    Transcript: "Worked ten hours a day and five hours on Saturday... thought nothing of it and that was standard practice... now we're down to nine hours...""We're short on supervision, we're short on maintenance, it shows in our work and its worrisome."