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Last Man Standing:
The "final tour" of Sheaffer Pen

Sheaffer Pen headquarters along Avenue H in Fort Madison, Iowa. This is the newest of the Sheaffer facilities in Fort Madison, dating from 1952.

On Friday, October 8 2005, some 150 visitors descended on the city of Fort Madison, Iowa from as far away as Alaska and Washington, D.C. to enjoy a rare privilege: a guided tour of the headquarters of the Sheaffer Pen Company. The event coincided with Fort Madison’s Oktoberfest celebration (as well as homecoming weekend for the formidable Fort Madison High Bloodhounds), and was jointly sponsored by Sheaffer Pen, the Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce, and Pendemonium.

The promoters billed this as the “final tour” of Sheaffer, and indeed the ever-present subtext for this event was this year’s announcement by BIC (the current owners of Sheaffer) that they would be closing the Fort Madison plant in 2006. This closure would not only cost the jobs of most or all of the 125 or so employees on the Sheaffer payroll in town, but would also spell the end to nearly a century of pen design and manufacture in the town whose name used to be proudly stamped onto every Sheaffer product.

At this writing, we hear many rumors as to the future of Sheaffer, and the local Fort Madison Daily Democrat reported in covering the tour that Lee County development officials were attempting to find a buyer for the firm (and had at least a couple of unnamed prospects on the hook). One might also take the recent hiring of three full-time factory-based sales reps as a hopeful sign. For the moment, however, it seems prudent to assume that Sheaffer will in fact close its doors in Fort Madison within a very few months.

The mood, therefore, was decidedly bittersweet as collectors, fans, retirees, and local folks gathered to steep themselves in the history of Sheaffer, and to see the sights and meet the people behind this famous brand.

Fort Madison: Pen City

Fort Madison is located in the southeast corner of Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from Illinois and a few miles north of the Missouri border. The original fort was a log-built garrison for the First Regiment, U.S. Infantry, erected in 1808. This installation lasted barely five years on what was then the western frontier of the U.S. before it was burned and abandoned by its retreating troops in the face of Indian harassment (instigated by the British) during the War of 1812. Only the foundations of the fort remained when the town began to grow around it in the middle of the 19th century, and it was not until the 1980s that the fort was painstakingly rebuilt in authentic fashion (albeit a mile or two east of its original location) by the volunteer labor of inmates from the nearby Iowa State Penitentiary. This maximum-security prison, by the way, is another Fort Madison landmark, and the largest such institution west of the Mississippi River; it is the other reason why Fort Madison is sometimes called “Pen City.”

ATSF 2913, a restored Baldwin steam locomotive, stands in Riverview Park, just west of the Sheaffer plant.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Santa Fe railroad built a depot and shop in Fort Madison; although these have since closed (the depot is now an art center), the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe line that runs along the river at the south edge of town remains a critical and very busy transportation artery. A 1940s-era Baldwin 4-8-4 “Northern,” one of the last steam locomotives to see revenue service, was donated to the town by the railroad and stands in massive and fully-refurbished glory along the BNSF right-of-way in Riverview Park. Another legacy of the railroad was the Santa Fe bridge, built in 1927, which allows cars and trains to cross the Mississippi at Fort Madison; this bridge has a "swing span" that swivels like a turnstile to allow ships to pass, and is the largest such bridge in the world today. One frequent user of the swing span is the old-fashioned Mississippi riverboat that houses the Catfish Bend Casino, which twice annually makes the commute between Fort Madison and Burlington, Iowa a few miles upriver.

Sheaffer locations in and around town

The early years of the 20th century saw the emergence of Fort Madison’s most famous corporate presence, the W. A. Sheaffer Pen Company. Sheaffer’s presence in the town has waxed and waned in tandem with the fortunes of the company.

Walter A. Sheaffer was born in Bloomfield, Iowa in 1867, the son of a local jeweler. In 1906, he moved east to Fort Madison to take over a jewelry shop of his own (at what is now 726 Avenue G, approximately where the modern R.J. Allison jewelry shop now stands). Sheaffer became interested in the young fountain pen industry, and soon had worked out his own technical innovations, chief among these being the famous lever filler. Sheaffer’s pen used the same soft rubber sac as other early self-fillers (like the Conklin Crescent), but the lever made his pen more convenient to use and carry, and much more sleek in design. He was granted patents on his designs in 1908 (for the lever filler) and again in 1912 (for further improvements including the spring pressure bar). During 1912-13, Sheaffer swallowed hard and invested his life’s savings into setting up a pen factory in his shop; he then incorporated his firm and took up operations in the upper two floors of the Hesse building just up the street from his former jewelry shop (this building still stands, and is home to the Ivy Café and Bake Shop, as well as private residences).

The Hesse building, site of the original Sheaffer factory (on the upper floors).

Walter Sheaffer was an astute marketer and promoter as well as an inventor, and his venture proved to be very well timed and successful; by 1917 the company was doing well enough to be able to purchase the much larger Morrison Plow Works plant, a short walk away along what is now U.S. Route 61 (Avenue H, Fort Madison's "main drag"). This facility, with modernization, sufficed for Sheaffer’s growing domestic production for the next several decades, and gave birth to such famous Sheaffers as the Lifetime, the Radite plastic pen, the Balance, the Vac-Fil, and the Touchdown, as well as the junior-line Craig and Wasp pens.

Sheaffer Plant #1 (formerly Morrison Plow Works), circa 1920. The plant was demolished in the year 2000, and remains a vacant lot adjacent to the current facility.

In 1937, W.A. Sheaffer retired as president, and was replaced by his son Craig (who had worked in his father's factory from the start). Four years later, the U.S. found itself involved in the Second World War. To boost the war effort, and to offset the loss of business in the pen market, Sheaffer pursued and won numerous contracts for war production, and put its precision manufacturing capabilities to work making bomb and artillery fuses, communications plugs, and an intricate auto-tune head for military radios. This war work was so extensive that the company expanded yet again, converting a former paper mill at Avenue O and 20th street into Plant #2 (or, the “War Plant”). Sheaffer also moved into a former button factory at Avenue I and 12th street (Plant #5), and opened satellite plants downriver in Quincy, Illinois and to the northwest in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

Sheaffer's "War Plant" at Avenue O and 20th street, near the Santa Fe rail line, no longer used by the company. The Sheaffer water tower shows off a great deal of rust, although a 1970s-style Sheaffer logo remains visible.

The former Sheaffer Plant #5 (tool and die works), no longer used by the company

After the war, Sheaffer quickly reconverted to peacetime pen production. Although the Quincy and Mount Pleasant plants remained in operation for a time, the bulk of fountain pen production for the U.S. reverted to Plant #1 (the old Morrison Plow Works building). In about 1951, Plant #5 was razed and rebuilt to become the new home of Sheaffer’s tool and die operations (which were so highly regarded that they sold their services to other firms), along with a screw machine works and deep-draw facilities (for forming metal caps and barrels). Skrip ink was packaged in Plant #2, which also served as a warehouse and shipping facility.

In 1952, coinciding with the introduction of the Snorkel pen, Sheaffer completed construction of a brand-new and fashionably utilitarian headquarters building on 301 Avenue H, next to Plant #1. This building primarily contained administrative offices, as well as a huge new employee cafeteria. Sheaffer had begun feeding its employees onsite during the war years, and the new facility continued this tradition in spades; it employed two full-time gourmet cooks and a pastry chef, and had walk-in coolers large enough to hang sides of beef with which to feed hungry penmakers. One retiree remarked that you could buy a home-baked cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee for fourteen cents, and no doubt many Sheaffer employees often found lunch at the plant to be their best meal of the day. From the entrance of this building, you can still see the river marina where the Sheaffer company yacht, the Wasp, was formerly moored.

In 1966, Sheaffer was sold to the diversified Textron conglomerate, and thereupon ceased to be a family-run operation. The company was sold yet again in 1988 to Gefinor, a Swiss investment bank, whose party apparently included former executives of Parker Pen. At about this time, Sheaffer facilities began a slow but inevitable contraction; Plant #5 was closed in about 1985, and Plant #2 in about 1993 (both buildings, along with the Sheaffer water tower at Plant #2, still stand at their original sites). In 1997, Sheaffer was sold to its current owners, Société BIC of Paris, the famous makers of disposable pens, lighters, and shavers. The Sheaffer payroll, which once boasted more than 2,500 employees during the immediate postwar years, is currently down to something like five per cent of that figure.

In the year 2000, the old faithful Plant #1 (the Morrison Plow Works building) was demolished, and it remains a vacant lot. Today, the headquarters building at 301 Avenue H is the sole Sheaffer facility in Fort Madison, housing manufacturing and shipping operations, along with repair facilities and sales, and some administrative offices.

Inside the plant

Throughout the day on Friday, Sheaffer employees took small groups of visitors through 301 Avenue H on tours that lasted about 90 minutes. My own visit began at 9AM, in perhaps fittingly drizzly gray and somber weather; our guides, Greg Goss and Bonnie Krogmeier, diplomatically forestalled any questions as to Sheaffer's future, reading a prepared statement that referred us to the head office at BIC.

Today, all Sheaffer brand pens are assembled in, and shipped from, the plant on Avenue H. These include the “popular price” pens and pencils (the Tagalong, the Sentinel, the Circle Grip, and the Viewpoint Calligraphy), as well as the more expensive “white dot” instruments (Javelins, Preludes, Agios, Intrigues, Legacy Heritages, and the new MPI). Some of the pens are made completely within the plant, while parts for others are sent out for specialized processing and returned to the plant for assembly. All fountain pen points, including the trademark inlaid points on the Intrigue and Legacy models, continue to be manufactured in-house.

The typical metal-barreled Sheaffer pen begins life in the metal fabrication area on the first floor, where brass is drawn into tubes, cut, stamped, and shaped by hand on pneumatic equipment. There’s nary a sign of computerized metal fab equipment; everything is done by human touch. Most of these parts then move across the floor to be either painted (with lacquer or matté epoxy finishes) or electroplated (with nickel, gold, palladium, or other precious metals) on special plating racks. Some parts are sent out to contractors to apply the newer and more exotic finishes (like the PVD techniques used to create the Silken Bark Intrigue, or the Rainbow finish offered on the Agio and Prelude lines). Parts are then sandblasted or polished to a high shine by industrial-strength buffing equipment. The plastics for the sections (as well as for the barrels and caps of the less-expensive models) are cast in-house. All pens are hand-assembled and packaged for sale onsite, with each model having its own final assembly area within the plant; the finer pens go in clamshell gift boxes, while blister-pack equipment is used to package the less-expensive models on hang cards.

The various processes that go into making Sheaffer pens generate quite a bit of toxic waste, so Sheaffer has a very large, well-secured, and scary-looking waste-handling area on the first floor. It’s adjacent to but comfortably distant from the large shipping and receiving area, where one can also find the new offices of the full-time Sheaffer reps, who take orders from dealers around the world for new pens and accessories.

The second floor houses the tool-and-die operations, where Sheaffer employees build and maintain the equipment used in pen manufacture (prototypes of new models are also hand-prepared here). Across the floor, the manufacture of Sheaffer ballpoint refills is done on a single complicated machine that fits the balls into the refills, fills them with ink (from large hoppers filled from 55-gallon drums), caps them, and stamps them with factory nomenclature. A short distance away, the point units of the Calligraphy model fountain pens are assembled on a machine that employs automated optical scanning to identify misaligned points; these are kicked out for hand adjustment.

One large room on the second floor is devoted to the manufacture of fountain pen points. Sheaffer employs a proprietary gold alloy called (fittingly enough) “Sheaffer Gold” for its better pen points. Received in ingot form, the gold is melted by an employee appropriately known as the “gold melter” (there’s something to put on your Form 1040) and processed into sheets. The basic shape of the point is cut from the sheet, polished, stamped with Sheaffer nomenclature and hallmarks, and then carefully contoured (or “set”) into the familiar compound-curve inlaid shape. The hard metal tip is welded on and ground to shape, and the point is then slit by fragile, paper-thin carbide disks spinning at thousands of RPM. The Sheaffer plant is one of the handful of facilities in the world, and possibly the only one remaining in the U.S., where such points are made in production quantities.

Elsewhere on the second floor, the quality control department uses military-spec sampling procedures to inspect incoming parts and materials as well as samples of outgoing pens; here, workers use a variety of gauges, tools, and inspection equipment (including an X-ray machine and a 230-power magnifier) to check parts. To insure that these parts meet spec, the QC staffers compare them to “visual standards,” pen satchels containing examples of both acceptable and unacceptable parts. For instance, the visual standard for the new Rainbow finishes illustrates how each part must include at least four different colors, and must be free from pitting or scratches.

In the repair department, Sidney Brown heads a staff with more than 70 years of collective experience in the repair of Sheaffer pens. They can and will repair almost any pen Sheaffer ever made (with the notable exception of Vac-Fil pens of the 1930s and 1940s). To hone their craft, they use an assortment of “learner pens,” what a collector might call “junkers,” spanning many decades of Sheaffer production.

On the top floor of the building, in the former executive suite, a team headed by Sheaffer retiree Tom Frantz (the firm’s former patent attorney, and son of W.A. Sheaffer’s personal secretary) has assembled the Sheaffer Archives, a formidable collection of Sheaffer pens and associated items from past and present. These include not only the well-known senior models, but also economy pens from the 1960s, ink bottles and cartridges, packaging, and promotional materials. Tucked away almost invisibly in a corner was a tray full of old but pristine “cutaway” pens, promotional tools that dealers used during the middle of the 20th century to show how the pens were made. The Sheaffer Archives also house an excellent collection of the desk sets for which Sheaffer is renowned; in a sure sign of the influence of the internet on modern collecting, Tom recently bought one such set from eBay to include in the Archives. In an adjacent room, you can find the original Sheaffer boardroom table, as well as the original Coles Phillips paintings commissioned by Sheaffer for use in its advertising from the 1910s and 1920s, and an original print of the famous 1912 Sheaffer patent.

The end of the tour offered an unexpected treat: the opportunity to visit the Sheaffer factory store and purchase new pens and accessories at generous employee discounts, as well as a variety of closeout models at jaw-dropping prices. The two cashiers in the store were hard put to keep up with the lines of eager pen enthusiasts looking for souvenirs, and had to close briefly at least once during the day to restock. The store also offered goods from the parent company; BIC disposable shavers were apparently big sellers.

Sheaffer residences

Fort Madison was home to Sheaffer Pen, but was also home to the Sheaffer family themselves. The city boasts block after block of fine Victorian-era homes, including several owned by W. A. Sheaffer and his family. Sheaffer’s first home in the town was a relatively modest white frame house at what is now 1121 Avenue C. In 1909 he moved to the Albright house (built by the daughter of Betsy Ross, the creator of the U.S. flag), and in 1914 he moved again to a handsome Victorian brick house at 833 Fourth Street (now Avenue E). Finally, in 1924, the Sheaffers built a secluded family enclave on High Point, a bluff overlooking the town just uphill from the penitentiary.

Former Sheaffer residence (1914-1924) on Avenue E

Also noteworthy is the Sheaffer Clubhouse (331 Avenue D), a recreation and exercise center that W.A. Sheaffer built for his employees in 1927 (the dress code for exercising ladies apparently called for black bloomers and hose, and white shirts—spandex had not yet been invented nor would likely have been tolerated in those days of relative modesty). This facility became a YMCA in the 1960s, and is now a private residence.

The grave of W.A. Sheaffer is marked by a simple plaque

Just uphill from town, the Hillcrest Memorial Park serves as the final resting place of Walter A. Sheaffer, his first and second wives, and his son Craig. A decorative dwarf tree and a plaque mark the simple Sheaffer plot at the edge of the park, and the graves themselves are equally unostentatious, matching the others in this small and quiet cemetery.

Dana Bushong jewelry shop

At 805 Avenue G, across from the original W. A. Sheaffer store, and behind a period display sign, stands the Dana Bushong Jewelry Shop. When Walter Sheaffer left the retail business in the mid-1910s, he sold fixtures from his store to Bushong, and the current owners Skip and Michele Young proudly display these today. Step into their shop, and you see two enormous and beautifully carved sliding-front jewelry display cases (whose doors have been permanently fixed open to avoid what Mr. Young called “the Guillotine effect”), along with a handsome grandfather clock that still keeps excellent time.

Furniture, however, is not the only connection that the Dana Bushong shop shares with Sheaffer Pen; for many years, Mr. Bushong was one of the “legal forgers” who hand-engraved Sheaffer’s famous Signature and Autograph pens. These pens were sold with stout solid 14k gold bands, and the customers returned them to Fort Madison along with specimens of their signatures for the ultimate in personalization. Owing to the shape of the pens, machine engraving was not practical, and so skilled artisans like Mr. Bushong did the work by hand. The Youngs continue the Dana Bushong tradition, offering a selection of modern Sheaffer pens for engraving.

One of the two massive sliding-front display cases from the original W.A. Sheaffer jewelry shop, now fixtures in the Dana Bushong shop (new Sheaffer pens for sale are displayed at left).

For the weekend, Skip and Michele not only offered a hospitable welcome to the weekend visitors, but decorated the show windows of their shop with a variety of Sheaffer and Bushong memorabilia, including engraved pens, photographs, vintage news clippings, copies of Sheaffer company publications, and even a pack of authentic “PFM” brand cigarettes issued by Sheaffer in 1959 as a promotion for its new Pen For Men (these were short unfiltered smokes, perhaps suitable for the manly kind of men whom Sheaffer hoped to attract with its new flagship model).

Pandemonium at Pendemonium

In addition to the factory tour, the Fort Madison weekend provided a chance for collectors from all over the country to get together and swap stories. The nexus for most of this socializing was the Pendemonium store at 619 Avenue G, from which visitors could see both the Mississippi River and the Sheaffer plant. Hosts Sam and Frank Fiorella, along with Sam’s daughter Heather, saw to it that visitors were kept fed (with a standup buffet in the shop on Thursday night, a happy hour at the Lost Duck brew pub for some fresh pumpkin beer, and a Friday night dinner beneath the original Sheaffer factory site at the Ivy Café). Throughout the weekend, Pendemonium employee Michelle did yeoman duty behind the antique cash register, dispensing pens, ink, paper, and answers to questions from befuddled visitors. For those with wheels and some spare time, Sam provided a self-guided tour of Sheaffer sights in and around town. If you were at Pendemonium Friday afternoon, you were treated to a classic tradition of small-town America: the Fort Madison High homecoming parade, which featured a marching band and numerous improvised floats (including one that inexplicably contained two high-school girls engaged in a boxing match).

Sherrell Tyree was on hand at Pendemonium with her capacious toolbox, fine-tuning and repairing pens on the spot while chatting with their owners. I discovered her in conversation with a woman who had a small case full of exquisite Sheaffer pens, including a mint gold-fill overlay, a brilliant red chased hard rubber flat-top, and numerous unusual cutaway models; all looked as though they had emerged from the factory just minutes before. When asked where she had managed to accumulate such a collection, she simply said, “Oh, I went to the attic.” The woman was Georgina Frantz, the wife of Tom Frantz (the curator of the Sheaffer Archives), and one of the weekend’s volunteer guides. Despite her seemingly solid family connections by marriage, Georgina’s own career at Sheaffer did not always go smoothly. “There was a pecking order at Sheaffer,” she told me, by which married family men were considered first for desirable jobs, followed by single men, single women, and finally married women; when Georgina married, she was exiled to the confines the Skrip ink plant. Perhaps more fortunate was Letta Grosekemper, a fifty-year Sheaffer veteran (and another of the tour guides) who for decades has done what could well be the most exacting job in the plant: the manufacture and grinding of fountain pen points and nibs. If you have a Sheaffer of recent vintage that you enjoy, you may well have Letta to thank for it.
The Sheaffer event attracted the attention of the press; Sam Fiorella was interviewed by local television (which also set up cameras in Sheaffer’s lobby during the tours), and the event ended up on the front pages of the Fort Madison Daily Democrat and the Burlington Hawk Eye. The latter also printed a feature on Sherrell Tyree’s repair work. In the weeks preceding, these papers had been running doleful stories about the potential economic impact of the Sheaffer closing, and so the lead in the October 12 Daily Democrat has a similar tone: “You feel kind of like a vulture picking over the corpse of a whale as you walk through the mostly empty halls of the once giant pen manufacturer.”

Reflections

Even if you weren’t keeping up with the news, you could not help but notice that Sheaffer Pen in the year 2004 is not what it once was. Outside, the building looks a bit careworn, with rust blooming through paint on window frames; the building is surmounted by a large illuminated sign with the trademark white dot, but when I asked about photographing it, I learned that the sign is no longer lit at night.

Things were cheerier inside; the building is old but tidy, pleasant, and well organized. There was plenty of empty space, most used for storage (not unusual in plants such as this). The walls were hung with card racks (presumably for the production control system) as well as motivational posters extolling the “BIC Way,” but one could also see classic Sheaffer advertisements proudly displayed in more than one office. The shipping area was relatively quiet during our visit, but was stacked high with boxes of pens waiting to be sent to dealers, and the sales reps looked busy within their offices.

More than one visitor remarked on the relatively small number of employees at work, given the size of the plant. I myself saw what could have been no more than two or three-dozen people on the job, although admittedly we were not taken into some of the more dangerous work areas. While some of the workers were intent on their tasks and seemed disinclined to entertain visitors (and who could blame them under the circumstances?), many others eagerly welcomed the tourists, even setting out bowls of candy and homemade cake. I must also particularly commend the genial hospitality of our receptionists, members of the local Red Hat Society.

Sheaffer is the last of the big full-line U.S. fountain pen makers of the past that remains in operation in its hometown in anything close to its original form. Parker no longer manufactures pens in its Janesville, Wisconsin facility, while the U.S. operations of Waterman and Wahl-Eversharp are but distant memories (along with those of the dozen or two other U.S. makes that attracted national and even global attention sixty or more years ago). And so, if these are indeed to be the final days of Sheaffer in Fort Madison (and that’s as yet far from certain), we must also give the company full credit for being the Last Man Standing.