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Wendell August Forge's hand-hammered aluminum carries on 77-year tradition

Sunday, November 26, 2000

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

GROVE CITY -- NO LOCAL INSTITUTION has left its stamp on Western Pennsylvania quite like the Wendell August Forge.

One of two die engravers at the Wendell August Forge, Len Youngo works pretty much like his 1930s predecessors, using hammers and small chisels to cut designs, in reverse, on steel slabs. The nearly 20-year veteran is holding a die that he engraved for Boy's Life, the national magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. The forge will use the die to make 8-inch bronze plates that Boys' life will give away as awards. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

If you're from here, or have lived here for a while, you've probably at least heard of this metallic manufacturer, retailer and tourist attraction. Travel guides, billboards and blue road signs all point to this tidy factory, which sits on a dead-end street under a huge American flag in this Mercer County community, about an hour's drive north of Pittsburgh on Interstate 79.

You may well own, or at least have seen, a piece or many pieces of the distinctive hand-hammered aluminum "giftware" that the forge has been banging out now for 77 years.

You may even have visited the forge, perhaps in a tour bus, and marveled at the shining array of Wendell August products and patterns.

Plates, coasters, accent dishes, hostess trays, hot mats, turkey platters, chip and dip sets, treasure boxes, covered tins, candlesticks, water pitchers, bookmarks, pencil cups, key chains, napkin holders, wall clocks, waste baskets, bookends, switch plates -- in motifs ranging from "Dogwood" to "Soaring Eagle" to "Last Supper" -- the forge produces tons of these and other items, mostly in aluminum, but also in bronze and other metals.

As you can see on the free shop tour, each piece still is made mostly by hand. And every one gets hand-stamped on the back with the Wendell August shop mark, which has evolved over the years, as growing numbers of collectors know.

To fans, these pieces are beautiful, and the forge is a special place.

Others find the products icky and the showroom ticky-tacky.

Carnegie Museum of Art assistant curator of decorative arts Elisabeth Agro, who visited for the first time while helping to pull together the museum's current "Aluminum by Design" exhibition, prefers not to take sides, but says, "It is a quirky place. Their history goes back to the 1920s. They dress in 18th-century costume. I don't get that."

If you get past the cashiers' long dresses, past the model steam train that chugs incessantly overhead on 200 feet of track, past the coin-operated player piano, the 250-gallon coral reef tank filled with exotic marine life, and "W.A." the parrot, the Wendell August Forge does have a real and compelling history.

It's a story that links with Pittsburgh's, and helps put this area on the map, in ways that might surprise you: So universally known for steel, this region also can lay claim to being a cradle of aluminum, especially the hand-wrought decorative ware the forge pioneered.

"It all stemmed from Pittsburgh," says Bonita J. Campbell, an engineering professor at California State University in Northridge and an aluminum historian. She wrote the book on Wendell August Forge, subtitled "Seventy Five Years of Artistry in Metal," that was published last year just after the forge's anniversary. She's also continuing to research the broader story of the development of aluminum, particularly for decorative and other consumer uses.

The Wendell August Forge is a main character, the trunk from which many other important metal crafters branched off, and unlike most of them, it's still living.

 
 
Forging Ahead


Curator of Carnegie's Aluminum Exhibition has designs on new projects
   
 

Turning aluminum into art

Wendell August wasn't a craftsman, but he was a real person. Great-grandson of a Russian refugee, he was born in 1885 in McKean County. He was raised in the Jefferson County town of Brockway, where his businesses came to include a coal company that included a blacksmith shop. In 1923, his need for door latches for his new home launched the shop into the business of forging ornamental iron.

But the reason the Wendell August name lives on is aluminum. In the early part of the century, it was the relatively new "wonder metal" -- light, strong, rust-free. At the forefront of fostering uses for it was the Pittsburgh-based Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa, as it became known. In 1929, near its factory in New Kensington, the company set about building its Aluminum Research Laboratories, which of course would be heavily ornamented with aluminum architectural elements. These already were becoming popular, but typically were made by casting the molten metal.

August, the story goes, had other ideas for how to make the elaborate gates designed for the labs. He had his blacksmiths experiment with hand-working "cold" aluminum bars, and they came up with a sample section that showed how artfully this material could be crafted. Alcoa was so impressed that it awarded the forge the contract to make the gates.

Even more experimental, and more historically important, were the elevator door panels the forge made for the research center. As retold in the Carnegie exhibition's catalog, forge craftsmen did this via a process called repousse, French for "pressed back." Designs were cut into steel templates, and the softer sheet aluminum was hammered into those cutouts, leaving the design raised on the front of the aluminum.

So striking were the panels that the architect requested the forge make, as mementos, some similar trays. Alcoa executives so much liked the trays, not to mention their commercial possibilities, that they showed them to Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann. He liked them so much that he not only commissioned a tray picturing his Fox Chapel estate, but also suggested that the forge make a line of fancy aluminum art and gift items to sell in his store.

The forge obliged, making refinements that included cutting into thick steel dies much more detailed designs of flowers, fish, sea horses and more.

And the rest is history -- the birth of what Campbell describes as "the uniquely American hammered aluminum industry," which would spread from coast to coast and flourish into the 1950s.

That story is enough to fill, as she has, a book. But to highlight Wendell August's heydays:

After moving to Grove City in 1932, the forge survived the Depression by making aluminum grills, lights and other fixtures for area banks. Before its "novelty line" of art and giftware took off, it also made a name for itself outside this region by crafting similar fixtures for the Stouffer restaurant chain, even passenger ships. Business was helped all along by Alcoa, which in a 1932 trade article effused that "it does not require an excessive stretch of the imagination to surmise that today's examples of the handiwork of these genial Grove City artisans will be the museum pieces of a later age."

Actually, an 87-by 58-inch panel of the original gates, on loan from Alcoa, are in the Carnegie exhibition.

Today, you might know Wendell August from the "Flying Ducks" chafing dish you inherited from your aunt, or the engraved plaque your employer awarded you for top quarterly sales, or the Pittsburgh skyline souvenir coaster you bought at the Duquesne Incline.

But few people know that, back in the '30s, architectural jobs were the biggest part of what the forge did. Campbell, who praises its ornamental work as without peer, had a difficult time tracking down surviving examples. But they include such local landmarks as St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon, for which the forge made 75 light fixtures and the ornate baptistry gates (now in the lower church). The gates are, in the words of the Rev. Thomas R. Wilson, who authored a history about his former church, "Fantastic. Oh, God!"

The forge decorated numerous churches, but to Campbell, its most sublime commission is the baptismal font cover, topped with the figure of St. John the Baptist, that employee Natale Rossi made for Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio. As she notes in one of the makers profiles on her Internet site, www.aluminet.org, a visit to that church "yields a full appreciation of the legacy with which the Wendell August Forge has graced this country."

Alas, not even the forge itself has a good handle on what architectural gems still are out there, in private homes as well as in public spaces. Unsung examples can be found at places ranging from the Ambassador Apartments on Centre Avenue in Oakland, the front of which is graced with a pair of sailing ship window grills, to the Duquesne Club, Downtown, where the Garden Patio is furnished with aluminum tables and corner units.

The din of the shop was loud enough to make her cover her good ear, but, "I love it! I love it!" shouted Pauline Morford, 72, of Napoleon, Ohio. She was part of a busload of tourists from Toledo who recently walked through and admired samples of Wendell August products. As they learned from a "Fun Forge Facts" sign, the shop annually goes through about 35 tons of aluminum and 12 tons of bronze. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Marketing a magic metal

Aluminum housewares have been dubbed "poor man's silver," but in the early days, Wendell August targeted the upscale market. Shown at shows in New York and Chicago, its line of everything from punch bowls to floor lamps sold at Marshall Field's and other exclusive outlets around the country. "For a while there," as Campbell puts it, "it was the thing to have."

The forge also did commissioned works for clients such as John D. Rockefeller. Wendell August archivist Cathy Youngo, assistant to the forge's CEO Bill Knecht, spends a considerable amount her work day shopping for such rare pieces on the Internet flea market, eBay. She does this with not only Knecht's blessing, but also his money, as the former IBM salesman battles other avid collectors to buy up the history of the company he bought from the August family in 1978. Classics from his collection are scattered around the offices, including a prewar lily pad torchiere, in the conference room, that set him back about $3,000.

"This is one of my favorites," Youngo says, as she lovingly caresses a circa-1931 turtle shell birdbath, which was designed like a large turtle shell resting atop cattails that stand on a smaller turtle's back. Rockefeller placed several around his pool, and they probably served as receptacles for his guests' wet suits.

"There are great stories behind this stuff," says Youngo, who pulls from a display case another aluminum treasure: An ashtray commemorating a 1936 "guest flight" on the airship Hindenburg. That was one year before that dirigible, and dirigible travel, went up in flames at Lakehurst, N.J. She knows of just one other of these ashtrays, which probably were gifts for bigwig guests. But what makes them most remarkable is that the delicate glass Hindenburg replica, suspended above where cigarettes would smolder, is filled with the ship's actual "Essodiesel" fuel.

Other artifacts -- said to be destined for a company museum by 2002 -- are good ways to trace the history of not just Wendell August, but also American consumerism. For example, another favorite of Youngo's is the toaster, encased in aluminum in the "Wheat" pattern, that was marketed in 1937 with a stand and four trays -- a "Toastmaster Hostess Hospitality Set."

Smoking stands, silent butlers, celery trays -- these are all products of the times, and Wendell August wasn't the only company that sold tons of them. Aluminum had such cachet that scores of other makers sprung up. Several were in and around Grove City, including men who used to work for Wendell August such as Arthur Armour, Arthur Palmer and James DePonceau. Others arose in New York, which became another aluminum center. Texas expert Dannie Woodard, who publishes The Aluminist newsletter of the 300-member Hammered Aluminum Collectors Association, says, "It was like a family tree, with the forge being the start."

Alcoa worked with anyone who could create markets for its magic metal, and even got into the action itself by mass-producing its popular Kensington and Wear-Ever lines. There seemed to be room for everybody.

Then World War II hit, and aluminum supplies were directed to the war effort. Many makers closed. Wendell August shut down his plant, but did get a contract to house Navy trainees there, and made it through.

The post-war years turned out to be lean, as the forge was buffeted by forces including changing consumer tastes. August died in 1963, and the forge nearly did, too. Compared to machine goods and the pop art of, say, Andy Warhol, Campbell writes, handcrafted metal ware "was perceived as a quaint curiosity."

August's son, Robert, carried on long enough to see that shift to an advantage: He opened a small gift shop in the plant, and it became a popular spot for locals to visit, since they could watch the few remaining craftsmen hammering away.

In what may have been a masterstroke, the forge got listed in a Mobil tour guide book, and by the late 1960s, buses were pulling in. Now, according to the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau, a recent study numbered annual visitors to the forge at 300,000.

The product line has become more populist, much of it geared -- starting with a series of Bicentennial commemorative plates -- toward the market for "collectibles." The forge also found a niche making custom designs for businesses, schools and groups to give or sell as awards and souvenirs. Products like this saved the forge and are what keep it cranking today.

Campbell credits the forge for its key role in the story of how aluminum became commonplace in the American home. She wishes it were a bigger presence in the main Carnegie exhibition, which, besides the gate panel, includes only a 1930 desk set. (Two forge pieces are in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.)

But if Wendell August is underappreciated, even here at home, that may be because it has lost much of what once made it great, Campbell says. "The art and the majesty are pretty much gone," she says, noting how the forge, unlike in its golden age, doesn't employ its own designers. The professor, who can get pretty deep about this stuff, adds that she understands today's economic and aesthetic realities.

"The world moves on," Campbell says. "What they've done is preserve a little piece of history, skill and talent there. That's important."

History by the piece

These days, the original vine-covered factory on Madison Avenue -- now on the National Register of Historic Places -- doesn't look much different from when it was built, but it looks small compared to the gift shop and office additions.

Wendell August is a relatively big operation, with a second, perhaps more kitschy location, opened in 1994, at Berlin in Ohio's Amish Country (where a brochure invites you to see "the World's Largest Amish Buggy!"). It also just opened a store at the Grove City Factory Shops. Employees number about 125, a figure that rises, along with overtime, this holiday time of year.

President Will Knecht, Bill Knecht's son, doesn't share financial details but says the firm is doing well. Now it's pushing to expand its products -- perhaps adding more "sculptural" pieces soon -- and its reach, in a bid to become known outside this region, too.

Meanwhile, the forge bangs you over the head with the past, stressing, in its catalogs and Web site, how its products are old-fashioned, American and handcrafted.

Like a grandma who doesn't advertise that her cooking isn't entirely from scratch, the forge has quietly added more modern shortcuts. Or not so quietly: Now workers guide pneumatic hammers that pound the metals into the dies. That's easier on them than swinging several-pound hammers all the livelong day, which is now known to cause repetitive stress injuries.

The pieces are edged, formed and finished mostly by hand, but not every one gets its "carbon coloring" by being placed in the coal fire of the shop's sole "forge." Due to high volume, most pieces now are colored with an acid solution.

To the company's credit, it hides little from visitors on the free self-guided tour. You're basically free to walk into the shop and walk right through the clanging hammers, whirring polishing wheels and flickering flames. Youngo jokes, "It's not OSHA approved."

Folks love it. "I go through every time I'm here. I find it fascinating," says Judy Dames, who recently drove all the way up from Bridgeville with her husband, Andy. They're demographically typical: he sitting on the antique bench and watching the aquarium, and she shopping for two hours, while waiting for the engraving on the golf bag tag and bookmark gifts she'd picked out. She explains how the couple enjoy searching for the artist's initials and other elements hidden in the designs, but says the main appeal is that the pieces are made by hand. "You don't see much of that anymore."

Though workers are graded on how they interact with visitors, many clearly enjoy it. They reflect a pride that is genuine when they talk about engraving the dies and the other production steps, which include striking on not only the forge's mark, but also the "touch marks," the symbolic signatures of the craftsmen.

In other words, there is more to this place than marketing hype. Even if you find some of it hokey, you can't help but enjoy reading the "Fun Forge Facts," such as how in 1979 Wendell August was commissioned to make 12 special bronze plates for President Jimmy Carter and the other signers of the SALT II arms treaty.

In fact, the forge has created all kinds of such special pieces, from a gold plate for Pope Paul VI to inaugural medals for Gov. Tom Ridge. This month, it finished a silver and bronze ceremonial "chain of office" for LaRoche College President Monsignor William A. Kerr.

At the start of the shop tour, United States and world maps are filled with pins marking points as remote as Mongolia where Wendell August giftware has gone.

But more telling would be a map of this region that could mark all the homes that have these bits of aluminum them. Not to mention all the hearts.

Especially in and around Grove City, families have owned and given Wendell August pieces for generations, as you can learn from talking to loyal customers who flock here.

"It still is a really good wedding gift," says Pam Kilgore, whose collection includes "Pine" pieces that were her grandmother's. She recently came from her home in Polk, Venango County, to buy for newlywed friends a heart plate inscribed "Cathey & Tim."

Retail manager Karl Hart says the store offers about 1,300 items, but this time of year, by far the most popular are the Christmas ornaments. The first ones, from the early 1980s, are "retired" and nearly impossible to get. Already on sale is a new limited-edition "12 Days of Christmas" set for 2001 that starts at $120 plus shipping. Hart says, "You'll see where people make their annual mecca [here] in November and December."

One of them is Sandra Oakes, of nearby Hadley. She buys every ornament, every year, and displays them year-round in her kitchen. Her mom has all the ornaments, too, as do her sister and her aunt. Even her husband, Everett, likes them -- "The detail in them is real pretty" -- so much that he built her a shelf to display her other Wendell August items, which include a plate for five years of service at Horizon Hospital in Greenville. She says, "I'll be getting another one next year because it'll be 10 years." She'd like to hand the ornaments down to her sons.

Thus is hand-hammered aluminum part of the fabric of Western Pennsylvania.

This Thanksgiving Day weekend, Wendell August employees were to park off-site and walk to the forge, some of them bringing umbrellas from home to offer to the customers who'll have to stand in line outside because it's so busy. Thousands of people will buy pieces as gifts, or pieces to keep and enjoy themselves -- pieces that some hope someday will be worth something.

They probably will.



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