Friday, April 12, 2013

We used to make things in this country. #19: Butterfield & Company, Rock Island, Quebec

Axles on horse-drawn conveyances took a beating on the rough American roads in the late 1800's.  A young man named Lewis Young took note of this and in the late 1870's invented a special axle cutter for repairing and tightening worn out wagon wheel axles.  He marketed his invention by taking around to blacksmith shops in both Quebec and New England, where it sold well.  In 1880, he approached Colonel Frederick D. Butterfield for financing to expand his business.  

Butterfield had left the army and moved to Derby Line, Vermont to manufacture the Reece sewing machine.  (Coincidentally, John Reece who developed the first automatic eyelet buttonhole machine in 1874, had been born in the township of Stanstead, Quebec, which included the town of Rock Island.  His first production sewing machine was offered for lease in 1883, and it wasn't until the 1970's that the Reece Company began selling their machines, abandoning their practice of leasing their machines and collecting weekly rentals plus payments for the number of buttonholes sewn by each machine.)

The sewing machine business was experiencing a downturn, so Butterfield willingly went into partnership with Young, establishing one factory in Derby Line and also purchasing a wooden buildling on Foundry Hill in Rock Island, Quebec just across the border.   

Original Butterfield factory  (

Other partners in Butterfield & Co. included John Hay, and George L. Reece.  Reece came up with his patented screw plate, which provided the company with one of its major products to meet the needs of steam-fitters and engineers (although this product or a similar one was also marketed by the E.F. Reece Company of Greenfield, Mass.  Both Edward F. Reece and his brother,Virginius Reece, had patented been awarded patents for dies, and were partners in the business after leaving Wiley & Russell.  For more on the complicated history of tap and die making in Greenfield, visit American Centuries.)

Over the following years they had to tackle how to make cut-thread carbon taps to an accuracy of 2 to 5 thousandths of an inch, and then progressing to ground-thread high speed steel taps requiring an accuracy of half a thou.  Over time, the company improved on its methods of hardening and tempering its products, beginning with heating them in sand and tempering by color, followed by heating carbon steel taps in hot lead and drawing them in oil, and finally hardening them in electric furnaces using gas curtains to exclude all but the necessary elements.  Eventually, the company was offering an extensive line of cutting tools, including taps, dies, drills, screw plates and reamers.  

Canadian Machinery, 1921

Railway and Marine World 1910

With prosperity, the company moved to a new location on the Tomifobia River directly on the border between Quebec and Vermont.  At its peak, Butterfield employed around 800 people in a factory that spanned over 200,000 feet on both sides of the border. 

 Butterfield Factory, 1921
J.H. Ashdown Hardware Co., Ltd., Winnipeg, Manitoba.  1953/1954 Catalogue

The firm had a huge economic impact on the area, and managed to maintain most of its workforce even during the dark days of the Great Depression.  In the late 1960's, Litton Industries bought Butterfield and made it a division of the Union Twist Drill Company of Athol, Massachusetts to form Union-Butterfield.  From my own collection, it seems that drill bits and taps made in Rock Island were sometimes stamped "Butterfield" and sometimes "Union."

However, all good things come to an end and in 1982, following a lengthy strike by Canadian workers, Litton Industries decided to close down the Canadian side of the operation.    Ultimately, production was also moved from Derby Line to a new facility in North Carolina.  In 1990, the two large  toolmakers SKF of Sweden and Gunther of Germany merged, forming CTT.  As SKF had previously acquired Dormer, this was also part of the mix.  The newly formed CTT acquired Union-Butterfield the same year.  In 1992, CTT itself was acquired by Sandvik.  The Dormer brand survived; Union-Butterfield did not.  It didn't help that, in 1995, a disgruntled former Union-Butterfield employee entered the North Carolina facility with guns and opened fire, killing 3 men and wounding 2 others. At the time, it was western North Carolina's worst case of workplace violence.  In a subsequent jury trial, widows of two of the murdered men were awarded nearly $8 million from Dormer Tools and Union Butterfield.  (Dormer appealed and later settled out of court.)  Shortly thereafter, Sandvik closed down the North Carolina facility and moved operations elsewhere.  As one person commented on a tool enthusiasts' forum:
"I always thought it was a sorta gross over reaction to kill off the U-B name. The whole thing would've faded from the minds of those who knew about it with time, and if you went a hundred miles away from here there probably wasn't one person in a thousand who'd have remembered it a month after it happened. OTOH, the U-B name had a reputation for good cutting tools that had been built up over 40 or more years. Not minimizing the seriousness of the tragedy by any means, but it just seemed like a real dumb move on Sandvik's part."
The corporate ownership picture remains a little confusing.  The French cutting tool company Tivoly (founded in 1917 by Lucien Tivoly) also reports having purchased Union-Butterfield from Litton in 1998. Founded in 1984, the Canadian company previously operated under several different names: Outils Coupants International (Division Rock Island) Inc., Outils Coupants Tivoly Inc., International Cutting Tools (Rock Island Division) Inc. before becoming Tivoly Cutting Tools Inc.

Tivoly was dissolved in 2003.

On the Canadian side, Rock Island was incorporated into the larger town of Stanstead, Quebec in 1995. In this town, the Quebec-Vermont border passes back and forth between streets, actually dividing some individual houses in half so that the residents prepare dinner in the United States and eat it in Canada.  The Canadian side of the old Butterfield factory is now the home of several small industries, such as the Sealander Waterworks which is a demonstration site for renewable energy.  For more on the history of the town, visit the Rock Island Project.

David McIntosh.  The Collectors.  A History of Canadian Customs and Excise.  Published by NC Press Ltd in association with Revenue Canada, Customs and Excise and the Canadian Government Publishing Centre, 1984.


lbgradwell said...

Another fascinating story!

Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

there no tools that compare to butterfield please fire up the system pc

Anonymous said...

Butterfield's went on strike after the unionized workers discovered that they were being paid much less than their american counterparts. When they wanted parity, they were shut out by management and the owners who wanted much cheaper but completely well-trained workers, it got ugly. Entire families moved to Smith's Falls, Ontario to work in their other factory. The Three villages or Stanstead now, is a small declining ghost-town.

garuca1 said...

Are the tools worth anything

Mister G said...

Unfortunately not anything near what we hope.

Unknown said...

I went to work for Union-Butterfield in 1984 which was owned by Litton at that time. The plant called "Strait line" was located in Gaffney South Carolina. Its headquarters was in Asheville,NC where the shooting happened. I work there untill 1999, the plant closed in 2000. Tivoly bought Union Butterfield then sold it a couple years later to Sandvick.

Mark said...

I worked at Butterfield as a custom tool designer from 1977-1980 in Derby Line. Happy to reminisce with these old photos and history of the place. 40 years later, I have the opportunity to need a custom tool made and I found out that at least 2 of the people I worked with are STILL there (Tivoly now)! Hope someone sees this post, it is 7 years since this article was put on here.

Mister G said...

Thanks for your comment! If you have pictures or stories I'd love to add them to the post!

Anonymous said...

My Great-Grandfather worked at Butterfield for many many years. I am just looking into my family and discovering many interesting things. His name was Elijah Lowell and worked for Butterfield until he passed away! These are great photos to see where he worked!

Anonymous said...

My father worked at Butterfield for 44 years. During his time there, in the fifties and sixties and probably for longer than that, the Holland family owned the business.

MtnCobb said...

We are dusting off our Butterfield Die set to make some nipples today.

Anonymous said...


Mister G said...

Thanks for the note!

Anonymous said...

Union Butterfield taps are still around today!

David said...

@garuca1, so far as I know these aren't collectible - in usable condition they're probably worth as much as any other high-quality tap and die set. I picked up a bunch of individual Butterfield taps at a flea market recently for $3 each.