Horsepower transformed the quality of life in York in the last decades of the 1800s.
And we’re not just talking horses and mules that pulled wagons and other conveyances in those days before the automobile, although that’s part of the story.
We’re talking about the tail end of horses — hair from horse tails, that is.
The horse hair was shipped to York from South America and prepared for looms. That hair, when supplemented by cotton and linen, was used to make hair cloth furniture.
Then in the 1880s, horses — maybe in protest of their tail hair being loomed into furniture — powered a change in the making of horse cloth textiles.
Every York hotel had a stable. And most things made in the burgeoning factories had to be conveyed in horse-powered wagons to the railroads. Workers traveled in trolleys to factories via horse-drawn trolleys.
Those horses — and their manure — powered flies.
And that caused John W. Eisenhart to refit his looms from hair cloth to wire cloth. The looms spun out meshes — screens — for windows.
York Wire Cloth was formed on East Market Street in York in 1889. And then a buyer made it New York Wire Cloth, maker of insect wire screening, in 1892.
But it was not just local bugs that fueled the growth of New York Wire. Fifty years later, fighting men in World War II faced swarms of mosquitoes in the South Pacific. A call went out to New York Wire to produce screening that would keep malaria-spawning mosquitoes at bay. New York Wire won the coveted Army/Navy “E” award for the miles of wire cloth sent out.
Still, this prowess in screen making was eclipsed in the public mind because New York Wire hosted a factory whistle with an unusual adjustable valve. Just as a kazoo can make music with human wind, the factory whistle was powered by steam and, in recent years, compressed air.
In his history of New York Wire, Robert D. Horn said Karl Alex Smyer coaxed Christmas carols from this whistle starting in 1926.
Factory echo community
New York Wire is one of those iconic local factories in which generations of families worked, and its employment roster gives a lesson in the social history of York.
Horn points out that the company changed with city demographics. In the 1960s and 1970s, old-time German names — Strausbaugh, Flinchbaugh and Rauhauser — were replaced with Latino names: Valenti, Sotomayer, Negron and Sierra. Around 2000, those with Asian names answered roll call: Tran, Nguyen, Sok and Truong.
Skilled workers were needed because the production of screening was competitive from the beginning.
In 1950, for example, seven wire cloth factories operated just in York County. As the years passed, New York Wire operated plants in York, Hanover and Mount Wolf.
In the 2010s, New York Wire closed its massive plant on East Market Street.
Then, three years ago, the place became home to a different type of maker.
Artists and craftsmen now make and sell their work formed with their hands.
New owner Mark Lane Properties of Philadelphia transformed the old factory into entrepreneurial space, highlighted by The York Merchant and Exchange and Flea market places.
Looms have been replaced with booths and artist studios, and the owner has kept features of the old factory intact. New York Wire’s mission statement remains posted on the wall. The old refinished hardwood factory floors shine. Spools of wire serve as a common decoration.
And in a recent contest in which artists painted New York Wire-themed designs on tablets, wire cloth made a comeback.
Artist Gail Mancha purchased wire mesh at Home Depot, and she used it as a tool to create her tablet design.
The factory whistle that made New York Wire famous internationally could be making a comeback, too. Since the closing of New York Wire, its Christmas morning concert has been performed at Metso Minerals on Arch Street in York.
Mark Lane Properties has reached out about the possibility of its return.
And horsepower is in a different way today. It forms the bristles in the brushes of artists, and it’s a staple in some handmade crafts — jewelry, for example.
In a Rotary speech in 1950, New York Wire’s Robert P. Turner Jr. concluded with this summary of the company’s history: “And that’s the story … all the way from a horse’s tail to a whistle’s toot.”
But the adaptive reuse of the old factory into a hub for the arts represents a new chapter to that story.
Factory whistle to return?
To add detail about this maker’s space, I posed these questions to Mark Sherman of Mark Lane Properties:
Q. What are your plans and what is the big picture vision for New York Wire Works?
A. In 2019, we became the owners of a 215,000-square-foot property filled to the brim with wire spools, old machinery and rich history as far as the eye could see. Three years later, we are well on our way of converting this historic wire factory into York’s newest, most expansive creative community. Spaces are currently being renovated and converted into artist studios, workspaces, offices and retail suites. We are home to The York Merchant, an original crafter’s marketplace with a team of over 100 local makers and artists. The Wireworks Exchange and Flea can also be found on our main floor, which is an upscale flea market featuring unique, pre-loved finds. Most recently, we opened Wireworks Cafe inside our lobby. Our mission is to become a true hub for creatives and entrepreneurs and build a community of like-minded individuals to help encourage and network with each other, in order to help one another pursue their goals. We hope to become a destination for the York community to discover local arts, history, entertainment, and more.
Q. From touring the complex, it’s obvious that there is respect for New York Wire’s history and legacy. Can you explain how you’re building on that?
A. We are extremely proud of our rich history and intend to embrace it as we continue our renovations. We have preserved much of the original machinery and wire spools that were throughout the complex, and have incorporated these pieces of history. We have a gift shop, where historic memorabilia can be purchased. We will also be building out a self-guided historic tour.
Q. What other features are most intrigue you for restoration? And please tell us about the proposed resident cat colony and similar special features.
A. One of other areas of the building that we have begun to restore is our signature event space — Whistle Hall. This 10,000-square-foot area will be used for all types of special events including weddings, parties, corporate affairs, fundraisers and so much more. We are also looking forward to developing our Cat Colony Oasis, which will be found right off of our rear parking lot. We have a cat colony with about 25 to 30 cats, and we are working with the York County SPCA on how to best build out shelters and a play area. We intend to build out a structure that allows them to climb, play and relax, which will also include a cat garden, and an elevated cat walkway (our “CatWalk”) that allows them to go to and from their shelters in a safe and protected way. We aim to have this completed in the spring.
Q. The York Factory Whistle was part of this complex for decades. Is there an idea or a plan to seek returning it to its longtime home?
A. The York Factory Whistle is a huge part of not only our personal history, but of York’s history. We have a goal of bringing it back to our property so that the annual Christmas morning whistle concert can once again be held here. To this effort, we are currently in communications with members of the whistle committee. CDs of the steam whistle are also available for purchase inside The York Merchant, courtesy of Factory Whistle master Donald Ryan.
Sources: Robert D. Horn’s “The History of The New York Wire Cloth Co.,” York County History Center files.
Jim McClure is the retired editor of the York Daily Record and has authored or co-authored eight books on York County history. Reach him at [email protected]