Next time you’re standing at the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, Disney World, or even just on the streets of Chicago, New York, or almost any city in the U.S.A., chances are you can look down and spot the legacy of a post-Civil War iron master who turned a little plow forge outside Oshkosh, Wisconsin into a fundamental part of every American streetscape, with a little help from 146 years of custom factory pencils like this one we found from the 1950s.
Manholes are not glamorous, but without the ironwork of the Neenah Foundry, most of the country wouldn’t have been able to send its electrical, sewer and other infrastructure underground as the nation boomed into the 20th century, a move that was surprisingly crucial to the growth every city from coast to coast.
Neenah Foundry’s, er, founder William Aylward actually got his Aylward Plow Works started on that little spit of Wisconsin land a year before the “city” was even incorporated. And he wasn’t even the only wily entrepreneur who liked the looks of the place: Kimberly-Clark of Kleenex fame also got started there in the same year, 1872.
After pop Aylward had spent awhile taking an oxcart down to Green Bay to snatch up the Swedish pig iron needed to make those farm plows, and later barn door rollers and sugar cauldrons, his three sons decided to turn the business away from the agricultural and toward the growing urban centers of the early 20th century. The idea of making manholes and tree and sewer grates filled their eyes full of dollar signs.
By 1920, nearly all of nearby Chicago’s manholes were made by Aylward’s boys, who had decided by then to rename the business Neenah Foundry after their town. When the Great Depression hit, and FDR’s New Deal, er, plowed tons of moolah into infrastructure projects to help ease unemployment, Neenah Foundry was one of the few companies that did so well they kept growing and growing.
We don’t know when they started ordering pencils like this one to use on the factory floor, in the office, or out on the streets to figure specs, orders, and other memorandum of the analog industrial age, but we’re sure they used gross after gross of them to keep track of business as Neenah Foundry started making manhole covers, sewers, curbs, and tree grates for American cities near and far.
The Aylward family sold Neenah Foundry in 1997, but the company is still alive today after overcoming two bankruptcy filings in the last 20 years. Because their products can last over a century, long after the streets around them crumble, we’re sure we’ll keep spotting Neenah’s iron works on Manhattan streets near Graphite Confidential HQ for years to come, but it’s nice to know they’re still up in Wisconsin forging ahead, hopefully doing so with the help of more custom pencils. — Jessica Letkemann