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Hockensmith Corp.'s rich history still lives

| Friday, May 30, 2008

Although the Hockensmith Corp. was closely associated with Penn Borough near Jeannette, the firm actually originated in Irwin around 1878. It was 25 years later that the company moved to Penn.

The firm's founder, Franklin C. Hockensmith, was born in Franklin County in 1853. His father was a blacksmith and Frank worked with him until he was 17 years old. He became an expert at the trade, demonstrating an inventive genius and an aptitude for making intricate machinery. After leaving his father's shop, he worked with his brother for a year as a blacksmith.

In 1866, Hockensmith moved to Taneytown, Md., where he worked in machine shops, making threshing machines and other farm machinery. He remained there for two years and became a machinist. Then he returned to Franklin County and went into partnership with his brother in a large country blacksmith shop.

The Irwin Foundry was established in 1869, by Lauffer, Hurst & Co. Two years later, Frank Hockensmith came to Irwin and went to work in the foundry. He spent a year there as a journeyman before being made foreman, a position he held until the business failed in 1875.

Hockensmith then rented the building and ran the foundry successfully for several years. He formed a partnership with Robert Wilson for a year and then with Wilber Fulton for another year before selling his share of the business.

In the meantime, he invented the "Common Sense Mine Car Wheel." It was patented in 1883, and he spent a year introducing and advertising the new wheel design. It eventually became known wherever coal was mined throughout the country.

In 1885, Hockensmith and Sewickley Township native D.M. Wagoner formed a partnership and bought the foundry from the Fultons. The new firm was known as Hockensmith & Wagoner. Within three months of the acquisition, the entire plant was destroyed by fire. However, the determination of the partners was demonstrated by the immediate rebuilding of the plant on a larger scale. On property purchased from R. & H. Fulton, they were back in operation only three months later.

The business grew rapidly as the fame of their work spread and, by 1891, orders were being received from all over the country. Hockensmith and Wagoner repeatedly increased the capacity of their plant, and employed a growing workforce. They added new and improved machinery, enabling them to fill large orders promptly.

That year, the company leased the Irwin Novelty Works, which they managed in connection with their other plant. The works consisted of a foundry, a machine shop, a blacksmith shop, and a pattern shop. All kinds of metal and brass castings were made there. Mine supplies and furnace castings were their specialties.

The addition gave them capacity to produce 500 wheels per week and eight complete cars per day. By then, they'd already sold more than 80,000 wheels. Their continued success showed what could be accomplished with skill, perseverance and good business sense. The firm of Hockensmith & Wagoner became one of Irwin's most successful companies.

Through years of close attention to the development of the coal mining industry and strict attention to the business, the partnership gained wide recognition, and grew to such a point that, in 1902, it was felt that its expansion warranted the abandonment of the partnership and the establishment of a company. The first officers of the Hockensmith Wheel and Mine Car Co. were F.C. Hockensmith, president; D.M. Wagoner, treasurer; and F.L. Shallenberger, secretary.

Their limited acreage at Irwin made further growth impossible, and a new location was sought. The company investigated numerous sites and selected a tract owned by the Penn Gas Coal Co. on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad within 100 yards of the freight office at Penn Station.

Work began immediately on construction of a new plant, which was equipped with the most up-to-date machinery for the manufacture of mine cars and wheels. The company moved to its new location in October 1903.

By 1922, two expansions at the Penn facility resulted in a modern plant three times larger than its original size, covering five acres of ground. At that time, the company regularly employed between 200 and 300 men.

During the 1930s, the owners recognized that the decline of the coal mining industry was inevitable. Through diversification, two new product lines were added. The Penn Body Division built dump bodies, special bodies and hydraulic hoists for the trucking industry; operations began in 1930. The Superior Mold and Iron Division produced ingot molds, ingot mold stools and cast iron castings up to 20,000 pounds for the steel industry; production began in 1936.

In 1947, the company's name was changed from Hockensmith Wheel and Mine Car Co. to "The Hockensmith Corporation," reflecting the addition of the new product lines.

Innovations in mine car wheel design and functionality were continuous throughout the life of the product. After the success of the Common Sense Wheel, the Ramsey Wheel, the Eureka Wheel and the Oilspock Wheel were known and respected throughout the mining industry. Each wheel design had its own unique qualities.

The company's management took pride in the fact that the owners participated in the "hands-on," day-to-day operations. The men who built the business into one of the best known and most highly respected organizations in its industry were actively engaged in its direction; the owners were also its officers and managers. Three generations of Hockensmiths served as president -- Frank; his son, Wilbur D. Sr.; and his grandson, Wilbur D. Jr.

Other Hockensmiths who were involved in ownership and management of the company included Franklin C. II, Scott F. Sr., Scott F. Jr., Carl D. Hockensmith and Chuck Murdock, a Hockensmith son-in-law. Wilbur D. Hockensmith Jr. had a 1964 patent of his own for a three-axle trailer running gear. His son, Harvey, was the last of the Hockensmith family's owner-managers.

William Hansen, a close friend and University of Pittsburgh classmate of Wilbur D. Hockensmith Sr., was superintendent of the foundry. Hansen's son, Rolf Hansen Sr., became president, and his grandson, Rolf Hansen Jr., served as secretary, having also worked in accounting and purchasing, as well as in the foundry. Similarly, the company provided employment for multiple generations of many Penn-area families.

The production of new mine cars was phased out during the 1950s when strip mining became popular and deep mining declined. But the company was still making wheels in the 1960s and took orders up until the 1980s, subcontracting the production.

The Penn Body Division employed very skilled craftsmen who made an excellent product. The company pioneered the use of telescopic hoists. Unfortunately, they eventually could no longer compete in price with their nonunion competition, and truck body manufacturing ended in the late 1970s.

Over the years, Hockensmith family members sold off their stock to other investors. There were, inevitably, differences of opinion among the shareholders regarding the future direction of the company.

During the early 1980s, as the steel industry declined, ingot mold business levels fell flat. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1987, and was then acquired by Shenango Corp. Unfortunately, the industry wasn't doing well at the time, and recovery plans were unsuccessful.

The plant was shuttered in the early 1990s, and most of the equipment was sold. Now the property and buildings are owned by Frank Mangery, who operates Mangery & Sons Crane Rental and several other businesses at the site.

To old-time Penn residents, the place will always be known as "Hockensmiths." It's no wonder; Frank Hockensmith founded the company, and his skills, ingenuity and vision were responsible for its early success. Four generations of the Hockensmith family were involved in the ownership and management of a very successful and respected Westmoreland County manufacturer for more than a century.

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