On North Second Street in Philadelphia an old firehouse has been turned into a splendid museum of the city’s fire-fighting past. The tall doors are now windows, and behind them the boiler of a ninetyyear-old American LaFrance fire engine gleams in the afternoon sunlight. Nothing better expresses the heroic age of American industry than a big steam pumper: the great, confident machine, all brass and nickel and paint and capable of throwing nine hundred gallons of water a minute, an output the next century has been able to improve by a mere hundred. And yet the superb engine is as dead as the little 1730 hand pumper beside it, while what is perhaps the city’s most impressive embodiment of surviving nineteenth-century energy is in fact housed in a modest industrial building right across the street.
JOHN GRASS WOOD TURNING CO. says the sign in the window, MFRS. OF WOOD POLES ROLLERS HANDLES MALLETS MAULS . Inside is a small front office dominated by a huge iron safe—on rollers, but looking no more mobile than the Pentagon—and, beyond it, a lift from the first generation of elevators. Behind that is a long room filled with the sweet, urgent smell of fresh-sawn wood and the slap of leather belting.
“Take a look around,” says the owner, Lou Bower. “I’m right in the middle of something.” He feeds wood into a circular saw with sure, unhurried hands while overhead a shaft running the length of the shop spins away, powering the machines below as it has since 1863.
Bower finishes up and slaps white gusts of sawdust from his pants. Yes, he says matter-of-factly, it’s all pretty old stuff. He points to the raised iron letters on a lathe that identify it as “Walker Bros. #1, May 17, 1873.” But if he isn’t much excited by the age of his equipment, Albert LeCoff is. “This is the oldest existing hand-woodturning shop in America,” he says. LeCoff is the executive director and curator of the Wood Turning Center, a Philadelphia-based organization devoted to the study and preservation of “wood and other lathe-turned material.” For such an organization, the survival of Bower’s operation in this form is nearmiraculous.
The John Grass company has achieved its singular longevity simply by going about its business, and the whole shop bears the signs of generations of day-to-day work. A notice on the wall forbids smoking and warns that “a fire in this building may put every man out of work—Act of Assembly, June 1911.” A tool chest has been improvised from a crate whose chromolithographie label proclaims the “Philadelphia Steam Biscuit Bakery.” In the front office a billhead offering “low prices on flag poles of hardwood varnished with ball and truck, 6ft. 15c, 8ft. 20 cts.” carries the Second Street address and the date June 25, 1898—the only proof Bower has that the company had moved from its original Vine Street home by the turn of the century.
A Bower was probably already working there by then, and in 1911 Lou’s grandfather bought it from the Grass family. His son—Lou, Sr.—learned the business from him and taught it to Lou, Jr. “I was always around the shop from when I was this high. I came in full-time about thirty years ago.”
There were twelve employees then, but now that foreign competition has killed the domestic banner-pole business, the number has dwindled to two: Jose Abrante, a turner, and John Dailey, the sawyer. If the equipment isn’t state of the art at John Grass, at least the job security’s pretty good: Abrante has been there for fifteen years, and Dailey for forty-five. It’s the latter’s job to cut wood and glue up the blanks that form the massive balustrades that make up a good part of the business. These are turned the same way they would have been back in Grass’s day. Bower demonstrates: He slides a belt from the loose pulley that holds it when it’s idle onto the drive pulley, and a century-old lathe begins to spin.
The main shaft—and all the machines that run off it—are driven by a seven-horsepower motor in the basement. “It’s the one that replaced the steam engine,” said Bower. “I think that was back before the 1920s.” The solid iron motor is no bigger than a beach ball, and a vivid example of why electric power so quickly superseded steam once it had become generally available.
“Almost all this machinery has never been repaired,” says Bower. “It’s running on its original bearings.” This antiquity gives him a measure of satisfaction, but he clearly takes more pleasure in what it represents: a family bond stretching back three generations. Across Second Street the fire museum’s curators keep their equipment immaculate; Bower gives his an occasional slap of tung oil. It is all alive and humming, though—not through antiquarian reverence, but because it is the furniture of his life.