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Sunday, September 4, 2016

The "The Giant In Lancaster" Story

Photo I sent to Jerry of the Armstrong Plant near his house.
Remember to click on photos to enlarge them.
It was an ordinary day.  Just sent an email with an attached aerial photo to my friend Jerry to find out where the railroad tracks might have been in the photograph.  Jerry and I lived a few blocks from each other in the late 1940s into the mid-1960s.  Down the street from Jerry was this huge factory we knew as Armstrong's.  From time to time we would play football on the parking lot when it was not in use. 
Original Armstrong building in PIttsburgh, PA
Never thought much about the place until my grandfather showed me his watch he was given when he retired from Armstrong when I was a young boy.  Armstrong Cork Company, as it was first known, was the largest employer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for most of the 1900s.  It began as a closure manufacturer and eventually added glass production, flooring, ceiling and other products unrelated to its early production.  
Lancaster Cork Works on New Holland Pike in
Lancaster, PA. Today it is a hotel. 
24-year-old Thomas Armstrong used $300 of savings as a shipping clerk to buy a small cork-cutting shop in Pittsburgh in 1860.  Originally the business carried the name of his partner, John O. Glass, but Glass's interest in the business was purchased by Armstrong's brother and the company was renamed Armstrong, Brother & Company  They began to manufacture cork stoppers, first by hand and two years later by machine.  Their raw product came from the bark of the cork tree which grew in Portugal, Spain and northern Africa.  They originally bought the cork from a U.S. supplier, but then began to order direct from Spain which eventually led to business overseas.  
Armstrong Cork Company can be seen in the background.
This is an area that was developed to help with housing
for those who worked at the factory. Jerry lived closeby
and a few of our friends lived in these houses.
During the Civil War they made bottle stoppers for the Union Army and then landed a large contract with a New York drug firm.  They began to stamp each cork with "Armstrong" and guaranteed the quality of each sale.  By the 1890s Armstrong was the world's largest cork company.  In 1893 they purchased the Lancaster Cork Works located on New Holland Ave. in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and added insulation, cork-boards, gaskets and flexible coverings for machinery.  
There were so many Lancastrians who worked
at the plant that a parking lot was built on the
opposite side of the railroad tracks that ran
near the factory.  This bridge was built to allow
workers a way to get to the parking lots.  This
bridge was recently taken down.
In 1895 the company name was changed to Armstrong Cork Company.  Thomas died in 1908 and was succeeded by his son Charles.  In 1908 Armstrong began to make linoleum floor covering in a new plant in Lancaster at 313 West Liberty Street.  Linoleum is a mixture of cork flour, mineral fillers and linseed oil which was pressed under high temperature onto a burlap backing and colored with pigments.  This was the building that sat close to the homes of Jerry and me.  I found that Armstrong was a pioneer in employee benefits.  
This building is known as Armstrong Manor. It is about a
mile from the Armstrong plant on Liberty Street.  I was
purchased to give lodging to salesmen, guests and
customers of Armstrong Cork Company.
They had free dental service for employees, extra pay for overtime, shop committees to communi- cate with manage- ment, paid vacations and group life insurance.  They also were one of the first company's in the U.S. to provide pensions and group medical insurance.  My grandfather worked at Armstrong Cork Company for years and loved his job.  When he retired he received a watch with his named engraved on it.  
The rear of the watch that my grandfather gave to me.
He was given the watch upon retirement from Armstrong.
I now am the proud owner of it.  In the 1960s Kerr Glass bought the New Holland Ave. plant to make glass bottles.  In 2004 the building was purchased to change to housing.  Armstrong has opened other manufacturing plants in Lancaster County to make a variety of other building materials and eventually the West Liberty Street site was closed and sold.  
A better look at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, PA
Armstrong also changed it's name to Armstrong World Industries and still has some manufac- turing in Lancaster, but very little compared to the early 1900s when they employed many residents of Lancaster.  Armstrong began to close and demolish some of their buildings in the mid-2000s.  I found a few photos posted online by Gene Viera which shows the demolition of the floor plant on Liberty Street being demolished. I also talked to my friend Jerry about the photo I emailed to him and we reminisced about the good old times when we were kids in the Armstrong neighborhood.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.

Demolition beginning in January 2007.  The pole in the right center appears in the following two photos to give you a reference point.
June of 2007
September of 2007.

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