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Century-old machine shop records offer window into Hatfield’s industrial past

  • Robert Forrant, a professor of history at UMass Lowell, holds old pictures from the Porter-McLeod Machine Shop that was located in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Forrant, a professor of history at UMass Lowell, holds old pictures from the Porter-McLeod Machine Shop that was located in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Forrant, a professor of history at UMass Lowell, holds old record-keeping books from the Porter-McLeod Machine Shop that was located in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Forrant, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, holds an old photo from the Porter & McLeod Machine Shop in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kathie Gow, the curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, and Robert Forrant, a professor of history at UMass Lowell, look over schematic drawings of a machine from the Porter & McLeod Machine Shop in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A socket wrench set found in the Porter-McLeod Machine Shop that was located in Hatfield. The items were donated by Scott McArthur, the current owner of the building where the shop was located.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Forrant, a professor of history at UMass Lowell, holds old pictures from the Porter-McLeod Machine Shop that was located in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Forrant, a professor of history at UMass Lowell, holds a block print used to make schematic drawings of a machine from the Porter-McLeod Machine Shop that was located in Hatfield. The item were donated by Scott McArthur, the current owner of the building where the shop was located.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Forrant, a professor of history at UMass Lowell, holds old record-keeping books from the Porter-McLeod Machine Shop that was located in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Forrant holds a mold that would have been used to make a casting for machine parts at the Porter & McLeod Machine Shop in Hatfield. The item was donated by Scott McArthur, the current owner of the building where the shop was located.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Forrant, a professor of history at UMass Lowell, holds an old socket wrench from the Porter-McLeod Machine Shop that was located in Hatfield. The item was donated by Scott McArthur, the current owner of the building where the shop was located.  —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



For the Gazette
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

HATFIELD — When professor Robert Forrant arrived in Hatfield this past May to investigate an old collection of business records, he didn’t expect to find much.

The University of Massachusetts Lowell professor had written dozens of publications on the industrial and labor histories of Massachusetts. He was confident that the records of a Hatfield machinery company would yield few — if any — historically significant findings. 

However, the Hatfield Historical Museum had secured a Scholar in Residence grant from Mass Humanities in Northampton and had employed Forrant to analyze the business records of the Porter & McLeod Machine Shop, dated from the 1880s to the 1920s. So he got to work. 

While just beginning to pore over the 38,217 pages of payrolls, machine orders and correspondence with employees, Forrant saw something that piqued his interest: a 19th-century sepia-toned photograph. 

“This picture is what made me say, ‘OK, I really want to do this project,’” Forrant, a former machinist himself, said. “This is just so cool.”

In the photo, rows of engine lathes span a long room with gears, pulleys and ropes hanging from the ceiling. Dozens of men wearing bowler hats and sporting curled mustaches roam the aisles between the machinery; those in the foreground of the picture look at the camera, scowling. 

“This was a big surprise to me because I’ve written books about the history of machinery in the Connecticut River Valley, but I never knew about any of this in Hatfield,” Forrant said. “I saw this and I got hooked, damn it.”

Forrant has spent the last four months looking at the Porter & McLeod Machine Shop’s records, and has uncovered much of the history of the company he calls a “forgotten empire.”

When Forrant first started looking through the boxes of century-old paperwork, he was trying to answer two of the Hatfield Historical Museum’s questions: Why was Porter & McLeod in rural Hatfield when the hubs of the machine industry in western Massachusetts were in Worcester and Springfield, and how did this company last in Hatfield so long?

The Porter & McLeod Machine Shop started in 1882 as Porter Machines Works. Jonathan Porter and business partner C.S. Shattuck had opened a gun shop along the Mill River in Hatfield, with Porter starting his own engine lathe company on a single floor of the building.

Engine lathes, which rotate a piece of metal while a worker cuts it or modifies it in some way, are, as Forrant puts it, “the workhorse machine of any manufacturing site that works with metal.”

The machines allow workers to achieve symmetry in manufacturing, and are used in a wide range of industries.

“The engine lathe is used in making guns, tools, car parts and train wheels, among other things,” Forrant said. 

Eventually, Porter set up his engine lathe shop in a new building across the Mill River from Shattuck’s shop, using the water from the river as power for building the machines. This recorded information answered the first question, “Why here?”

After a Nova Scotia native by the name of Hugh McLeod joined Porter in the 1880s, the business — renamed Porter & McLeod Machine Shop — grew increasingly successful. McLeod had worked in many different machine-making businesses in Worcester, where he heard about Porter. With McLeod’s and Porter’s combined machine savy, the company grew. 

“It’s a great example of how manufacturing pushed everything else. They employed people in Hatfield, bought materials in Holyoke, bought their record-keeping books from a place in Springfield, and they used Northampton Savings Bank,” Forrant said. “They were a stimulant and a small economic engine for the Valley.” 

Porter & McLeod cultivated a “loyal network” of clients, Forrant said. The high quality of the lathes they produced kept clients in the Pioneer Valley — often large companies in the arms, automobile and railroad industries — coming back. 

Western Massachusetts’ industrial history is Forrant’s area of expertise. He calls the region “the Silicon Valley of America for that time period,” the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

While he notes that it is atypical for a machine company to operate in a rural area like Hatfield, he says that the stars aligned for Porter & McLeod. The company had enough clients in the hotbed of industry that was western Massachusetts, and its reputation for high-quality lathes spread. Porter & McLeod began reaching clients beyond New England, even beyond the U.S.

“What really impresses me is the reach of the company, and the reach tells you about quality. All things being equal, a car company in Michigan would buy from a lathe company in Michigan because it’s cheaper,” Forrant said. “This company eventually sold lathes throughout Europe, in every province of Canada and in at least 30 U.S. states.”

Perhaps the farthest place from Hatfield that Porter & McLeod lathes could be found was Japan — a surprise to Forrant. Many pages of the records Forrant has been examining are orders from customers. Many are handwritten, including two orders sent by the Japanese government asking for several lathes. 

The two letters from Japan also detail the itinerary by which Porter & McLeod should send the lathes: first to San Francisco by train, and then to Japan by boat. The company must have accepted Japan’s request, because Forrant found a note from Japan thanking Porter & McLeod for the lathes, and informing the company of its products’ arrival in the Far East. 

“This was in the early 20th century, before the First World War. It really speaks to the presence of the company in the world,” Forrant said. 

Forrant said the Porter & McLeod records collection could easily have been thrown out. He said any successful company of the late 19th and early 20th century had to be meticulous in its record-keeping, but that most old records are already either in museums or long lost. 

“Hats off to the Hatfield Historical Museum for realizing this was a find and preserving it,” Forrant said. 

The Porter & McLeod records collection sat in the attic of the building that once housed the company for nearly a century, on Prospect Court near the Mill River. After the company’s closing, sometime in the 1960s or ’70s, Richard Rescia bought the building in 1989, hoping to turn the space into apartments and art studios. Rescia found the records and donated them to the town of Hatfield in 2001 or 2002. The documents then sat in the garages next to the Hatfield Town Hall until Rick Martin, a member of Hatfield’s Historical Commission, moved them to his barn to protect them from damage, as the roofs of the town’s garages leaked.

Finally, Kathie Gow, the curator for the Hatfield Historical Museum, applied for two state grants: one for $961 from the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board to provide preservation supplies for the records, and one for $1,500 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to have a researcher organize the records, since letters, photos and payrolls alike were jumbled together in boxes. 

The Hatfield Historical Museum received both grants. Forrant says he would not have been able to analyze the records in the span of four months if they hadn’t previously been categorized. 

Gow and Forrant both stress the many insights that the Porter & McLeod records collection gives into 19th and 20th century industrial history. The records show the influence and reach of a machine company in the Pioneer Valley — even one as small as Porter & McLeod with only 30 to 60 workers at a given time. The records also show the wages of long-term workers over time, reveal how bosses and laborers interacted through letters and detail the ways American businesses exported goods abroad. 

“These records are so important to have preserved and analyzed,” Gow said. “You could go so much deeper with these. Other historians, people interested in social change or immigration history could look at these, because of the records of workers’ wages and their countries of origin.” 

Hatfield Fall Festival to preview Porter & McLeod records collection

The Porter & McLeod business records collection will preview at the Hatfield Fall Festival on Sunday, Oct. 1, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The festival will be held on the second floor of the Hatfield Library, where the Porter & McLeod preview will be, as well as at the Cutter Farm Museum. 

Gow hopes that the public will answer some questions that Gow and Forrant still have about Porter & McLeod. One question is when the company closed. The Porter & McLeod collection does not include many records from later than the 1920s, and none from World War II or later.

“We know more about this company in the 1880s than we do about it in the 1960s,” Gow said. “Hopefully, people whose parents or grandparents worked at the company will come to the festival and fill us in.”

The Hatfield Fall Festival will also include live music, a book sale and arts and crafts demonstrations — like weaving, ceramics and sauerkraut making. There will also be children’s activities, cider pressing, food and refreshments. The festival will be held regardless of weather, and is free.

Next May, after collecting more information from the public, the Hatfield Historical Museum will debut its full Porter & McLeod exhibit. Forrant will give a talk on his findings and analysis of the collection. 

“I haven’t decided if I’m going to focus on a particular aspect of the collection yet, or do the whole thing,” Forrant said. “One thing I do know is that I’ll never stop working on this project.”