Saturday, January 12, 2008

Goodbye, Hocker Manufacturing

The small Hocker factory that has sat across Kings Highway from our neighborhood for as long as we've been here (and longer) has closed down. This was one of only a very few industrial uses we had in Lewes; losing it is another loss of the real-ness of this town. We're moving closer and closer to becoming a large-scale retirement village.

According to a 1976 report for the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record, Hocker Manufacturing began its life in Philadelphia in the late 1800's when brothers John and George Hocker started a tin-smith business. John, who had pioneered several new manufacturing techniques, moved the business to Lewes in 1899 to take advantage of lower manufacturing and transportation costs. According to the Engineering Record, Hocker was a Sussex native and was married to a Lewes woman, which may have played a role in his move.

The first factory location was out near Pilottown, on Queen Anne Avenue. Around 1903, Hocker Manufacturing became Henlopen Manufacturing and moved to a new factory building in town on Schley Avenue, now (I think) part of the home of the Lewes Board of Public Works. The Hocker family, and their manufacturing business, prospered at Schley Avenue until 1951. They made tin boxes, bottle caps and brush handles.

Founder John Hocker died in the mid-1940s and his son, John Jr., in the late 1940s. When Mrs. Hocker died, Henlopen Manufacturing passed out of the family and the factory was closed.

In 1953, John Hocker's son Harold, who had left the business a decade earlier to raise poultry, re-established a brush business in a small building behind his home on Front Street, across the street from where the Canalfront Park is now being built.

At the time of the Engineering Record report, Hocker's was still a very small, very specialized business in a tiny building on Front Street. At some point between that report, in 1976, and the mid-1980s when I moved to Lewes, Hocker's moved to Kings Highway, at one of the entrances to the City. The business grew a little, but remained very much a niche company.

In a standard Google search, I have not been able to find an account of that move. In the 20 years that I have lived here, Hocker's has simply always been there.

In early 2007, Hocker's was sold to National Novelty Brush Company, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was, according to a story in the Intelligencer Journal, at the suggestion of Hocker's management.
"We were friendly competitors for the last 30 years," [Novelty Brush president Richard] Seavy said, "until we got a call (from Hocker) wanting to know if we were interested in purchasing it."
The housing downturn, apparently, has depressed the market for one of the main products of the Hocker's plant, the metal cap with attached brush that is used to apply solvents and cements to PVC pipe. I can see one in the hands of This Old House plumber Richard Trethewey as he runs pipe for some re-built bathroom somewhere. As a result, there's not enough business for two brush-factories and the Lewes site will close.

I'll miss it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike,

As the former president of Hocker Mfg. Co., Inc., I appreciate your sentiments concerning our closing. However, your historical information is incorrect. Our company was founded by Tom Hocker, the grandson of J.W. Hocker, Sr. and nephew of Harold Hocker. Their respective businesses, which you referred to, were actually competitors of ours at one time.

Tom entered the brush manufacturing business in 1954, when he and his mother, Theodosia, purchased the Fred L. Meyers Co. in Lewes. That business operated on Mcfee St. until 1963 when it moved to its present location on King's Hwy.

Tom was a brilliant engineer,who shortly after purchasing the Meyers Co., began automating what had been largely a hand made operation. By the time the company had moved, Tom had designed and built fully automated brush machines, capable of producing 25,000 brushes per machine per 8 hour shift. Always a visionary, Tom saw the future of plumbing heading away from metal to plastic piping, which would require glue applicators (daubers) for joining the pipes, rather than acid brushes.

In the early 1970's, Tom started the Hocker Mfg. Co.,Inc. and began designing equipment to produce daubers, caps and lines to solder them together. This business grew steadily and eventually eclipsed the Meyers Co. in size. In 1984, Tom decided to merge the two into Hocker Mfg.

Tom continued designing and building equipment until his death in 1990. His last designs included the use of robotics, which gave us a clear competitve advantage. After his death, the business continued to grow, doubling in size to the point where we were producing nearly 100 million applicators annually.

It is unfortunate for our employees that the timing of the sale preceded a major turndown in demand for our products. While jobs were offered to all our employees for the Lancaster plant, I do not expect any to move. Their ties and loyalties are here.The only positive aspect of this unfortunate event is that Tom's equipment and designs will continue on in Pa.

I will miss it as well.

Greg Wood

Mike Mahaffie said...

Greg,

Thank you so much for the additional information. I was wondering about what looked to me like a gap in the historical record between the small shop near the canal and the present day factory on Kings Highway. I thought it was simply an artifact of my limited research time. Now that you have shared the whole history, it is even more rich and fascinating. Thank you!

And I sympathize with your feelings about the closing of the plant. It is unfortunate, but it is also the way business seems to go sometimes. So despite the loss, let me repeat my thanks to you and to all the folks who made Hocker's what it has been for so many years.

I don't think we say it often enough, but small manufacturing businesses such as Hocker's are an important part of what makes a community a community. Lewes is a lovely place, with nice nature and views and quaint houses, but your work and the work of your staff at Hocker's also helped to define "Lewes."

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