W.F. Barnes and Rockford’s storied past, part one
By Jim Hagerty
Several notable products were built in Rockford over its time as one of the largest manufacturing hubs in the country. From hammers to socks to mini bikes, Rockford companies helped innovate a number of industries. One of the companies was started by a visionary who landed in Rockford at the time of the Civil War.
While living in New York, young farmer John Barnes made his way west, stopping in Rockford, where, history would have it, he settled, finding work as a woodworker. Barnes carved model pieces as an employee for Emerson Talcott. He soon found a need to create a machine to streamline his work. That idea not only spawned a local empire, but revolutionized the way tradesmen did their jobs. So was born the foot-powered woodworking machine.
Barnes was soon joined by his brothers W.F. Barnes and B. Frank Barnes, and the W.F. and John Barnes Co. was started in Rockford. Here, the brothers manufactured foot-powered saws, lathes, grinders and drill presses. By the late 1800s, W.F. Barnes was pumping out close to 100,000 drill presses a year and caught the eye of a young Henry Ford, who was just getting his empire on the road in Detroit. Through Ford, Barnes’ machines were shipped throughout the auto industry, eventually creating a worldwide footprint that included more than 40 patents.
In 1907, John S. Barnes, son of the founder, patented a fountain pen that would also be manufactured in Rockford. According to the original patent, the pen was designed to “vary the flow of ink to the pen in order that heavy or light writing may be done.” The invention was a complement to Barnes’ 1903 patent, a pen with an elastic ink reservoir. With an already notable reputation at the World’s Fair, Barnes and Rockford were household names, two that would allow the company to withstand two world wars and the Great Depression.
To be continued …
From the July 2-8, 2014, issue