Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hydreco and My Dad

I have a combination nail file, bottle opener, knife with “HYDRECO” engraved on it – quotes included. I keep stuff like this. It’s on a ring with a detachable keyring that is long since gone. Hydreco is the company where my dad worked for many years while I was growing up. They made big, heavy hydraulic pumps and valves for industrial use and my dad was a machinist.

Near as I can tell, Hydreco goes back to the 1930s as the Hydraulic Equipment Company. There have been so many mergers and acquisitions that the lineage is rather foggy. There is some association with Hamworthy Engineering, David Brown Group, Allied Signal and Clyde Blowers throughout the years. How they came to my hometown is difficult to find. It’s only slightly clearer how my family came to my hometown.

Before Hydreco, I have a vague recollection of my dad working at Eckrich (Armour-Eckrich Meats, founded in Fort Wayne, IN), more of a fond olfactory memory of smoky links. We lived in Portage at the time, a new suburb of Kalamazoo, MI. We had a brand new house on Capri Street. Down the street was a guy named Al Yingling and apparently his wife watched my brother and me while my mom was at work at Upjohn’s (The Upjohn Company, fascinating history). Al got my dad the job at Hydreco. At Eckrich, dad had a friend named Joe Gizmundo. I remember Joe as an architect with a really cool house built into a hillside. My parents wanted more land; they were not cut out for suburbia. Joe found the farmland property that became the home I grew up in, which happened to be less than a mile from Hydreco.

Dad’s 1967 Chevrolet Truck

Dad drove an old 1967 half-ton Chevy pickup to work. It had a straight six, three-on-the-tree, highway mirrors and a full-length, fleetside bed. A V-8, shortbed C/10 would be classic today, but not this one. I don’t think he bought it new – that seems like the last thing he would ever do (especially a truck). But he must have purchased it fairly new with low miles. He only drove it to work and back, hunting, hauling, etc. I don’t recall ever seeing him wash it. He would change the oil about once a year on principle – not based on mileage. That was the only time it was ever in the garage.

Visiting Dad at Work

There were several times that I went inside Hydreco to visit. It was a magical, mysterious experience for a bashful, clean-cut kid. It took a minute for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was cavernous with impossibly high ceilings with huge buckets of dank yellow light hanging from conduit amid the overhead conveyors. The smell hit you right away and then you could see the green cloud through the whole place. The smell and the fog came from the pea-green lubricant that sprayed as the mills and drills created the pumps and valves from raw castings. The lubricant served to carry away the metal shavings and keep the cutting tips cool. It’s an unmistakable smell and conjures up this very image still today. Much like high-octane exhaust fumes, it’s nauseating but a happy memory.

The floor was concrete but dirty with metal filings and rubber left from the fork lift wheels. Danger was everywhere. Clearly this was no place for kids. Men would stare and sometimes taunt. Then they would recognize my dad and say something only mildly reassuring. The constant hum of the machines would muffle the voices and even the warning buzzers that went off randomly. The explicit posters by toolboxes reminded me that this was a place for men. No smocks, no hard hats, just metal grating to protect you from flying debris. Of course, nothing about this scene could exist today.

My dad would be assigned to one machine or another, working on this pump or that. The pea-green Goliath of a machine seemed 10-feet tall, had conveyors going in and out, and must have weighed many tons. The partially tooled pumps would queue up on one side and finished ones were crated on a pallet on the other side awaiting a fork lift. Dad’s job was to interpret the drawing, set up the machine, calibrate everything to within thousandths of an inch and work out the simplistic automation (mostly lights and buttons, no fancy robotics in those days). There was some standard rate assumed and I seem to recall that dad frequently hit 300% of quota. And I recall dad having massive forearms and bit meaty hands. Steel-toed boots, jeans and a white T-shirt – no uniform.

Perception of Engineers

The uniform, if you call it that, belonged to the engineers. They wore the short-sleeved, white shirt with the thin black tie and pocket-protector. They sat in the offices at the front of the building and entered through the double-doors up front by the flagpole. The workers entered from the side, near the loading dock. I really have no idea what the engineers did at Hydreco, but they formed my first impression of engineering. With the benefit of decades of hindsight, I presume they designed the pumps and managed the transition from design to actual manufacturing as well as specifying the manufacturing equipment.
To the machinists, the engineers were a bit of a joke. They may have been educated, but they didn’t “know” things. The machinists would explain things to the engineers when they ventured out from the air-conditioned cleanliness of their offices with their pea-green metal desks and vendor-logo ash trays. Some machinists knew the necessary equations and other just simply had the feel, but they could have designed these pumps themselves. They lived with the pumps for eight hours a day, fixed the machines, perfected the manufacturing flow and put up with the condescending tone from the detached engineers.

Moving to Georgia for Cheaper Labor

Sometime in the late 1970s, the higher-ups at Hydreco decided to move the facility to somewhere in Georgia – presumably for cheaper labor. At least that’s how it filtered down to me. My dad’s factory was a union shop and I’m sure the one in Georgia had to be, also. But it must have made financial sense. It’s just business. Long before jobs were sent off-shore for cheaper labor in other countries, there was a migration to other parts of the United States for the same reason. Leaving the same void in the community and resentment toward that other place. However, Hydreco was not a huge part of the economy for my hometown and the disruption wasn’t that significant. Not even in our own house. My mom always worked. Dad did what he could until he landed another job. That’s another story.

Craftsmanship and Building Everything from Raw Material

Hydreco built hydraulic pumps and valves. Somewhere else, raw iron was cast and these casting were shipped to our factory for machining and assembly. In that sense, it was not quite raw materials in and finished goods out but close. And dad brought that sensibility home with him. He didn’t buy what he could make and he didn’t pay someone else to do something that he could do. He had more time than money. We had piles of angle iron, pipes, bar stock, gears and random chunks of steel out back. Dad had a band saw, arc welder, acetylene torch, drill press, a lathe and enough tools to fill a professional garage. We had two garages. Come to think of it, we built that second garage ourselves. That’s yet another story.

And Craftsman wasn’t just the name on the toolbox. Even with the benefit of decades of hindsight, my dad was really good with tools and took great pride in his work. It seemed like he could do anything. He tried to teach me, but I could never be as good as him. Today, I appreciate a good bead from a good welder. I look at the joints in exposed woodwork. Drips in paint. Cover-ups. My dad is my benchmark for good craftsmanship. Made in U.S.A.
He may have learned that at Hydreco. Maybe there was some informal apprenticeship that occurred with some older craftsman there. Maybe it was in the Navy. Maybe it was his dad. He never really said. It was just the way things should be done. It mattered.

I use the nail file, bottle opener, knife combo tool occasionally. It’s a physical reminder of Hydreco. And it’s a gateway to all those other memories. The smell of that coolant. The belief that I could build anything or fix anything if I had to (fortunately, I don’t). The sense of a craft and of craftsmanship. Hydreco taught me a little about the relationship between the workers and the thinkers; and the need for humility in my own career.

I probably wouldn’t forget all this if I didn’t keep this stuff. But I keep stuff like this.

NOTES: (Poole, England website) (Finland website)

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