Friday, July 20, 2012

The Jersey bounce: our history in rubber manufacturing

I've long known Butler as a small, quiet borough near Route 23 in Eastern Morris County, but it wasn't until we stopped there one Sunday that I realized the role it played in what was once a prominent industry in the state.

Much of the town's small business district is dominated by a large industrial building standing hard against the railroad tracks. In fact, it appears as if the town center might have been built around the mill-like structure. Little did we know that we were gazing upon yet another milestone in the annals of New Jersey industrial history: the site of the world's oldest manufacturer of hard rubber products.

Richard Butler bought the Newbrough Hard Rubber Company already operating in town and eventually combined it with others to create the American Hard Rubber Company in the late 1800s. Through his vision, the community grew exponentially, with hundreds of workers coming to live near the factory that provided them with jobs. The municipal website says that the Butler Rubber Mill was once the largest manufacturing facility of its kind in the world.

I'd never really connected the dots before, but it seems that New Jersey has a bit of a rubbery past that extends well beyond Butler. According to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, New Brunswick was the site of one of the country's first rubber factories, built in 1838 by Horace Day. It might also be considered an early recycling venture: the facility manufactured rubber shoes using alcohol, white lead, lampblack and rubber salvaged from imported Brazilian shoes and syringes. Charles Goodyear later successfully sued Day for copyright infringement when the New Jerseyan claimed to have been the first to vulcanize rubber to make it more durable.

In spite of Day's setback and the movement of much of the industry to Akron, Ohio, the state continued to play a prominent role in rubber. Milltown already had a sixty-plus year history in rubber manufacturing when Michelin came to town in 1907, adding a decidedly French influence to the community. Its workers produced over 4500 tires and 15,000 inner tubes a day, until the plant closed in 1930.

Never one to pass on a challenge, Thomas Edison even took a crack at the rubber business in the later years of his life. The breadth and severity of World War I prompted Henry Ford and tire magnate Harvey Firestone to be concerned that future conflicts could curtail the import of South American raw rubber to the United States. Certainly their friend Edison could come up with an alternative?

Many people don't realize that Edison loved chemistry and took great pleasure in experimenting in his lab. In what was destined to be his final project, he set about to derive rubber from the goldenrod, first by hybridizing the plant. His experimentation resulted in taller stalks that yielded more natural rubber than the average plant, yet the actual product failed to meet the desired standard. The U.S. Department of Agriculture continued his work after his death but finally closed the project in 1934, without a positive result.

Butler's rubber industry declined first with the massive 1957 fire at the Pequanock Rubber Company, and finally with the closure of the last factory in the 1970s. The original product may be gone now, but the town can be proud of its contributions to American industry.

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