A collection of bicentennial biographies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. featuring Marcus & Charles Ahlstrom, Karl Peterson, Frederick Gurney, Charles Dahlstrom and Reg and Elizabeth Lenna (all from Jamestown). Originally broadcast on local radio stations May 9 – May 13, 2011.
No. 86 – Marcus & Charles Ahlstrom
Marcus and Charles Ahlstrom were brothers who immigrated from Sweden to America during the 19th century. Marcus was born in 1845 and Charles was born eight years later in 1853. In 1869 the two came with the rest of their family to the United States and settled in Jamestown.
Charles was musician and considered a “piano expert.” So in 1875, he and Marcus established the Ahlstrom Piano Company. Their factories were located at 112-114 East Second Street, Jamestown. The company built a full line of square grand pianos and uprights at first, but discontinued the square pianos before 1895. After the turn-of-the-century, the firm added grand pianos and player pianos to their product line.
The Ahlstrom Piano Company was known for building very good quality, durable pianos and player pianos and the company aided in the development of the entire Piano Industry. A device developed by the Ahlstroms for dividing tone volume was so well received that it became a universal standard and is still used today by virtually every piano maker in the world as the left pedal on every vertical piano manufactured.
Marcus passed on June 15, 1909 in Jamestown. Prior to his death he had served as vice president and traveled the country and the world selling the top quality pianos.
The company continued to manufacture pianos until 1926.
No. 87 – Karl Peterson
Karl Peterson was born in Jan, 1866 in Sweden and came to America at the age of 20. It is said he was an avid inventor and had a natural gift for mechanics.
In 1903 Peterson entered into a partnership with J.P. Danielson to create the J.P. Danielson & Company in Jamestown. The company initially operated as a maker of pliers and wrenches, including a type of plier-wrench known as a “lightning wrench.”
In 1907, Peterson founded the Crescent Tool Company of Jamestown. Crescent Tool initially produced pliers. Other early tools included a type of wrench-plier known as a “lightning wrench.” The products were well received, but the company soon became better known as a maker of adjustable wrenches. Crescent’s particular adjustable wrench design became very well known, even to the point that all makes of this style came to be called “crescent” wrenches. This despite the fact the actual wrench design did not originate with his company. But Peterson still held the patent for the device, which allowed him to make a very profitable business from their manufacture.
Crescent tools were with Charles Lindbergh when he flew across the Atlantic Ocean, as well as with Explorer Richard E. Byrd when he departed for the Antarctic. In addition, during World War II, the Crescent Tool Company was awarded the coveted Army Navy “E” pennant three times for outstanding production and quality product.
The notoriety of Karl Peterson continues today. Through a fund created in his name at the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation, more than $30,000 is awarded annually to various organizations.
No. 88 – Frederick Gurney
Frederick W. Gurney was born in Massachusetts in 1867. He spent time living out west before eventually finding work in Jamestown.
In 1903 Gurney established the Gurney Ball Bearing Company. By 1905 he was manufacturing bearings for the automotive industry, with his company working out of the Gokey Shoe factory building in downtown Jamestown. In addition to housing a ball bearing company and a shoe manufacturer, the building also contained two worsted mills operations and a metallic door company.
In March, 1910 the great Gokey factory fire took place, burning for thre days. Afterward, Gurney Ball Bearing moved to Scott St. after the fire and moved again to Chandler Street in 1920. During that time, Gurney saw his radial-thrust angular-contact bearings find use in early aircraft engines. Those same innovative bearings permitted a major advance in aircraft propeller technology – allowing the pitch to be adjusted in flight. Gurney also invented the Radial Type R ball bearing, which enabled unprecedented accuracy for high-speed machine tool spindles.
By 1924, the Gurney Ball Bearing company merged with a number of New England companies and became the Marlin Rockwell Corporation in Jamestown. It continued to have a strong relationship with Jamestown throughout the 20th century, and today operates as part of the SKF Group in both Jamestown and Falconer.
Gurney lived to the age of 77 and died in Florida in February, 1944.
No. 89 – Charles Dahlstrom
Charles Peter Dahlstrom was born September 4, 1872 on the Island of Gotland, Sweden. He was educated in Sweden and at the age of 12 attended a school of technology in Stockholm. He had an inventive mechanical mind and was a skillful mechanic. A natural inventor he was noted for his genius in devising improvements on machinery from a very young age. In 1891, after learning the trade of tool and die making, Dahlstrom came to the United States.
Dahlstrom found work at his trade in Buffalo where he worked for several years. He also spent time in Chicago and Milwaukee before eventually finding employment with the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. Here he formed a personal acquaintance with George Westinghouse and the two became friends.
Dahlstrom eventually made his way to Jamestown and entered the employ of the Art Metal Construction Company. It was during his time with Art metal that he invented a metallic door. After obtaining the patent to the door, Dahlstrom severed his connection with Art Metal and organized the Dahlstrom Metallic Door Company in 1904.
The door was immediately met with public favor, with its special adaptation to high buildings and hotels being quickly recognized. The door was adopted almost universally by all construction companies, and the company was soon compelled to erect a four-story brick plant on Buffalo street. From there the construction industry demanded other materials, and roll forming began for all types of construction material for high-rise buildings throughout the county.
During its heyday, the Dahlstrom plant was considered the largest and most important in Jamestown. By 1920, the company comprised ten buildings and employed 500 men. But Charles Dahlstrom did not live to see the full fruits of his labor. He died in Jamestown, April 10, 1909 at the age of 36.
No. 90 – Reginald Lenna and Elizabeth Lenna Fairbank
Reginald Lenna was born in Jamestown on Dec. 3, 1912. He was the son of Oscar A. Lenna, president of the Jamestown Metal Equipment Company of the Blackstone Manufacturing Company. Reg attended local school and graduated from Jamestown High School and the Manlius Military School before attending the engineering school at Lehigh University. Upon his return to Jamestown he became identified with the Blackstone Manufacturing Company and the Jamestown Metal Equipment Company.
At Blackstone Lenna became an assistant sales manager and served as a director of the Jamestown Malleable Iron Company. Following service in World War II, he became Assistant to the President of Blackstone in 1947 and was instrumental in entering the Blackstone Company in the international market.
In 1961 Lenna married Elizabeth “Betty” Smith and shortly there after he became president and CEO of Blackstone. Together, the couple transformed the company into an international business enterprise with plants in Sweden, Canada, and Mexico. They also formed a partnership in local philanthropy toward the community and the arts that has remained unmatched to this day. The Reg Lenna Civic Center in Jamestown and the Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall at Chautauqua Institution are two examples of their generosity.
In 1976, Reg Lenna was knighted by the King of Sweden, the Royal Order of the North Star, and received an honorary doctorate in 1981 from St. Bonaventure University. He died on Feb. 15, 2000. In 2002, Betty married Joseph A. Fairbank, the owner of Fairbank Farms in Ashville. She passed away on April 15, 2011.
Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit www.McClurgMuseum.org or contact your local historical society.
– J. Sample