By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
A Pittsburg business that opened its doors a century ago to provide early coal mines with industrial supplies will celebrate all month as the host of a museum exhibit chronicling the development of industry across Southeast Kansas.
“Not many businesses have made it to 100 years, and we’re pretty proud of that,” said Kevin Mitchelson, a local attorney whose family is just the second to own General Machinery since it opened in 1912 and incorporated in 1914.
Called “Tools of the Trade,” the exhibit is one of a series of monthly exhibits leading up to the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit in May at the Miners Hall Museum in neighboring Franklin.
The exhibit includes a lifelike mannequin builder with sawhorses and tools from A. Messenger Lumber Co., contributed by J.D. Messenger, complete with rusty nails scattered on the floor. There is a mannequin brick mason — fingers tied in gauze — that local bricklayer Adam Lusker and Missouri-Kansas Local 15, Bricklayers union, put in place. There is a mannequin machinist set up by Jim Van Becelaere of Van Becelaere’s Machine Works. It is posed in front of a lathe.
On the wall is a plat map circa 1910 with about 40 dots indicating where pioneers of early industry were — and in some cases, still are — located. Among them is General Machinery, which businessman S.A. Rose established at 701 N. Broadway, then later moved to 202 N. Broadway. A fire would claim that building, but Rose would reopen at 512 N. Elm St.
After the death of the company’s founder, his son, Delbert Rose, ran the business until retiring in 1979, and it was purchased by the Mitchelsons.
Among the holdings is a notebook of correspondence to and from General Machinery from 1914-16, including letterheads used by local mine companies and other Pittsburg businesses during the boom days.
Mitchelson noted that the company’s foundation was built with the support and cooperation of other early businesses. Original stockholders had last names that captured permanent places in Pittsburg history — names like Thomas McNally, of McNally Manufacturing, and A.H. Schlanger, a businessman who left money in his will for the city to build a park that was named after him.
McNally Manufacturing, which manufactured equipment used in coal mining, is represented in the exhibit by original 1919 drawings for a steel mine tipple — the first steel mine tipple in the U.S. The drawings are signed in approval by Thomas McNally himself.
About 90 percent of General Machinery’s business came from McNally and the coal mines, until the late 1970s and early 1980s. When the mines shut down and McNally closed, the company “had to diversify,” Mitchelson said.
“They had to do a better job of serving the manufacturing companies across the Four States, continue to work hard to take care of their customers and build new business,” he said. “To their credit, management and staff have done an excellent job.”
Mitchelson said he believes the business now has the largest inventory of such supplies outside of Kansas City or Wichita. He credits the company’s longevity and success to “a very experienced crew.”
“They all know the industrial supply business and customers’ needs, and we’ve had a very loyal customer base,” he said.
“IT IS AMAZING,” said museum coordinator Phyllis Bitner of the “Tools of the Trade” exhibit. “The variety of tools, photos and stories is astounding. They have spent a tremendous amount of time on it.” The museum, at 701 S. Broadway in Franklin, is open Mondays through Saturdays through the end of January, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment by calling 620-347-4220. Admission is free.