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Ferracute & Oberlin Smith

The name "Ferracute" originates from a Latin-derived word meaning "sharp" or, more fittingly, "smart" iron. Its mythical roots lie in the medieval epic "Song of Roland," where it denotes a giant who challenges the hero.

 Oberlin Smith

Oberlin Smith (1840-1926) played a multifaceted role throughout his career, serving as the president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, co-founding the IEEE, representing New Jersey in the Pan-American Exposition, and contributing to various organizations including the National Geographic Society and the Men's League for Women Suffrage, before his passing in Bridgeton on July 19, 1926, where he rests in the Broad Street Cemetery.

Timeline

Orgins

The remarkable journey of what would evolve into the Ferracute Machine Company commenced in 1863, right in the midst of the Civil War. At the age of 23, Oberlin Smith ventured alongside his cousin, J. Burkett Webb, to establish the machine shop known as Smith & Webb, situated at 21 North Laurel Street in Bridgeton. Oberlin had honed his skills at Bridgeton's Cumberland Nail & Iron Works, a pioneering post-Revolutionary foundry that played a significant role in defining the state's industrial prowess during the 19th century, propelling Bridgeton into early recognition as one of New Jersey's most prosperous cities.

In 1876-77, the cousins' enterprise underwent a transformation, relocating and adopting a new identity, the Ferracute Machine Company. This transformation would continue for the subsequent century, with its current location being on East Commerce Street. However, adversity struck when the initial Ferracute plant was ravaged by a fire in 1903. Undeterred, Oberlin Smith orchestrated a complete reconstruction and modernization, and by 1904, the company was back in operation.

Industrial Pioneers

Ferracute* blazed a trail in creating machinery for metal-can production, primarily serving the burgeoning food processing and food preservation industries. By 1891, Ferracute had transformed into a significant manufacturer of machine tools tailored for canneries. It swiftly assumed a pioneering role in the field of metal-forming press technologies, a cornerstone of the expanding American industrial landscape. These technologies fueled assembly-line production to meet the escalating demand for a wide range of consumer goods and metal products. This diverse product portfolio included bicycle components, cameras, phonographs, adding machines, and eventually, automobiles.

At its zenith, Ferracute's client roster featured illustrious names like Kodak, General Electric, International Harvester, Ford, GM, Packard, Chrysler, Pierce, and Cadillac. Impressively, Ferracute even supplied die-cutting machinery to mints worldwide, including making its initial foray into the Chinese market.

The legacy of Ferracute persisted until 1968. Over the course of its century-long existence, it emerged as a pivotal contributor to the enduring prominence of the American auto industry and a vital resource in the ascent of American mass production.

Smith's Exceptional Vision

While Smith's industrial achievements were remarkable, his true genius transcended them all. His mind, relentless and inquisitive, constantly defied expectations and ventured into uncharted territories. In the realm of electronics, some consider him an equal to Edison and Tesla, a unique blend of entrepreneurial audacity, public service, and unparalleled technical and inventive genius. He held numerous patents, but his most visionary contribution may be the one he gave away: the first instrument for magnetic recording. This invention, perhaps more than any other, secured his place in the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame and even hinted at his foresight into the future of artificial intelligence. (See his fascinating tract, "Tho' Material, Why Not Immortal?" (1887/1920), where he explores the scientific possibility of preserving unique mental activities through electronic recording and accessing them through a "memory machine.")

Smith's philanthropic endeavors during the Progressive Era were equally significant, leaving a lasting legacy on his industrial empire. As his enterprise grew, he transformed his workplace environment, fostering collaboration, creativity, and productivity through innovative incentive programs. Though he never craved personal fame, his friendships with fellow entrepreneurs and inventors, including Thomas Edison in East Orange, New Jersey, and Albert Einstein at Princeton, cemented his status as a legendary figure in his time, an early industrial guru whose home and office became a pilgrimage site.

Bridgeton City Park

Smith also played a vital role in establishing Bridgeton City Park by preserving the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works' landholdings when the industry departed Bridgeton in 1899. The Works had transitioned from waterpower to steam by the mid-19th century, and the lands surrounding their watershed had become a recreational haven for Bridgeton residents—students, laborers, and families—on Sundays and holidays. Smith advocated for the city to acquire this property, creating an enduring and exceptional amenity for visitors to this day.

The bird's-eye view captured here offers a glimpse of the Ferracute site in 1904, marking the zenith of the Ferracute era and Smith's career. This was a time of reconstruction, following a devastating fire that affected both the machine shop and the offices. The Arts & Crafts architectural style of the Administrative Building, a testament to Smith's contemporary tastes, retains its enduring elegance and architectural significance, even in its current state of decline.

The entire Ferracute site resides within the city's National Register Historic District and is presently owned by the financially challenged City of Bridgeton, a city lacking the resources for substantial preservation endeavors. Preservation experts have cautioned that without prompt measures to stabilize the structure, it may soon face irreversible deterioration.

CHABA is dedicated to facilitating the formation of a public-private consortium aimed at giving the site the attention and restoration it merits. This effort seeks to encourage a compatible and investment-friendly new purpose for the site while commencing the process of restoring the entire Ferracute site to its rightful position among America's national industrial treasures.

Ferracute Machine Company

The Ferracute site has received preservation planning and site management grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust . These affirmed both its high national significance and its substantial potential for adaptive reuse.

Historical information borrowed with thanks from:

www.novanumismatics.com/articles/numismatics32.php & www.oberlinsmith.org

The Obie Award

In our pursuit of creating a sustainable and lasting impact on public history, we proudly present The "Obie" Award. This annual scholarship is dedicated to Bridgeton High School students, a tribute to the legacy of Oberlin Smith and his remarkable Ferracute Machine Co.

Comic strip created by Carolyn Gomez and Tiffany Saquicaray as an entry to the 2018 OBIE awards.

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