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Steady Work At The Nail Factory

Fall 1985 | Volume 1 |  Issue 2

The herring are back again, battling their way up the Wankinko River past the Tremont Nail Company in Wareham, Massachusetts. “We caught a bunch this morning,” says Donald Shaw, the company’s general manager. He opens a stoneware crock to show the fish lying under a thick layer of salt. “We pickle ’em overnight, and then the boys have them for lunch the next day.” He points to a brand-new barbecue grill, very bright among all the old, dark metal in the company’s machine shop. “That’s why that’s there. The last one wore out. We’ve been doing this every spring for—oh, much longer than anyone can remember.”

All the rituals of the Tremont Nail Company go back beyond living memory; Tremont has been making squarecut nails since 1819, and the current factory has turned them out since 1848. “Our average machine,” says Shaw, “is anywhere from 85 to 135 years old.” The equipment is not kept running through love of tradition. Tremont simply has no choice: it’s been eighty years since anyone manufactured a cut-nail machine.

During colonial times nails were hand wrought and, consequently, quite valuable, but square-cut nails—which are sheared off one by one from a steel strip —began to appear surprisingly early. Between 1791 and 1815 no fewer than eighty-eight patents were awarded for nail machines, and by 1830 factories throughout the Northeast were turning out cut nails indistinguishable from the ones Tremont produces today. Late in the century, however, cheaper, more easily made wire nails came to command the market. But the square-cut nail holds with a tighter grip, and because this quality is particularly desirable in flooring and masonry work, demand remains strong enough for Tremont to sell forty to fifty thousand kegs every year.

The process of making cut nails begins with the cleaning of steel sheets twenty-two inches wide by nine feet long. At Tremont there is nothing quaint about this initial step. Until recently it was done, as it had been from the beginning, with sulfuric acid, but when that started to threaten the local environment, the company shifted to a Wheelabrator, a $350,000 behemoth spangled with red and green control lights, which scours the sheets with broadsides of steel shot fine as sand. Once cleaned, the sheets are cut into slender strips of nail plate, stacked into bundles, and wheeled across the yard—and into the last century.

The nail mill, a long, gently sagging building made of chocolate-colored shingles, is as big as an airplane hangar. Inside, the first impression is of dark and heavy scaffolding, obscure fire, and incoherent busyness. Soon, however, the scene resolves itself into the order and purpose of any well-run factory. The difference is that this particular factory has been well-run for nearly 140 years now; it is the picture of a prosperous operation on the eve of the Civil War.

Every machine in the place is powered by belts that loop down from great, spinning overhead shafts. “This building,” says Shaw, slapping a wooden upright thick as a tree trunk, “was all built by ships’ carpenters. And they were geniuses . Look”—pointing to a wooden wedge driven in where the upright meets one of the beams that support the shafting—“they put those wedges in everywhere. That way if anything settles and a shaft ever gets out of alignment, all you have to do is take a mallet and hammer the wedge in a little, and you lift it back to true.”

The belts drive the cut-nail machines. There are fifty of them arranged into “batteries,” and they are impressive enough for the military term not to seem foolish. Workers move back and forth among them, fastening strips of nail plate to the nipples that feed the plate into the shears and then flip it over after each cut to compensate for the nail’s taper. The ancient machines work quickly; they can bite off 180 nails a minute.

Once cut, the nails go to the furnace for hardening. Brought to a cherry-red eighteen hundred degrees, they are cooled by water from the old sluice which turned the centrifugal waterwheel that powered everything until electricity replaced it in 1921. The brick-hardening furnace is the very one where the process of heat-treating nails was invented more than half a century ago. “We tried to replace it,” says Shaw, “but modern furnaces wouldn’t put out the volume we wanted. Finally we said, ‘Look, we know we can get a thousand pounds an hour from the old one.’ So we rebuilt it.”

The men who earn their livings amid the slap and rattle of the ancient equipment seem to have absorbed the sense of the past that it imparts. On the wall of the machine shop are chalked small memorials: “H Perry retired Fri 5/13/83”; “First snow Jan 1, 1954”; “Main shaft welded 1977.”

Tomorrow when they knock off for lunch they will eat the herring, as Tremont workers have done every spring for generations. And tomorrow, too, they will be going to the funeral of Frank Anderson. He was a first-rate blacksmith who made the larger spikes that have to be fashioned by hand. He made them for fifty years. And before that his father worked at the same machine. And before that—his grandfather.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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