Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bygone Business: McAleer Manufacturing - Part I

(Courtesy of Rod and Susan Wilson)
Today's post is the first of a three-part story about McAleer Manufacturing, one of Rochester's leading industries during the mid-20th century.

McAleer Manufacturing Company was founded in approximately 1923 in Detroit, Michigan, by a former garage foreman from Pennsylvania named Charles H. McAleer (1894-1968).  McAleer developed a formula for automotive polish in a washtub in his basement and launched a successful business during the prosperous 1920s. The company grew to national prominence, and in 1930 McAleer took to the skies on a cross-country promotional tour with an airplane dubbed “Miss McAleer,” from which a loud-speaker broadcasted commercials for the company's products to prospective customers on the ground. McAleer brand polishes and waxes were so highly regarded that they became the standard against which bids for such products furnished to the United States military were judged.

In 1940, McAleer sold his controlling interest in the company to brothers Carlton and N. Bradley Higbie.  The Higbie brothers were from Chicago, and both had extensive experience in commercial banking and finance; in addition, Bradley Higbie had served at the helm of a chemical manufacturing company.  When they took control of McAleer, Bradley Higbie stepped into the role of president and his brother, Carlton, served as chairman of the board.

In June 1941, the Higbies  made a decision that would have a major impact on Rochester's history. The brothers purchased the old Western Knitting Mills factory at Fourth and Water streets, vacant since 1937, and moved manufacturing operations here from Detroit. A banner headline in the Rochester Clarion issue of June 12, 1941 heralded the prospect of new jobs in a community weary of Depression-era unemployment levels.

Just six months after McAleer announced its move to Rochester, the Pearl Harbor attack plunged the United States into World War II.  In an effort to restore the company to a sound financial footing after the setbacks it had suffered during the Depression years, McAleer management sought to procure defense contracts and turned from the production of polishes and finishes to war matériel.   The list of items that McAleer was contracted to provide for the war effort was lengthy: a water resistant coating for airplane parts; gun oil; rust preventative;  control surfaces for airplanes; and most notably, the AN- M26 photoflash flare and the MK-46 photoflash bomb.  More photoflash bombs - 50,000 in all - were manufactured and shipped from Rochester, Michigan than from any other defense plant in the nation.  At the height of its wartime production, McAleer employed approximately 600 people in its Rochester facilities.

Coming next week: Part 2: McAleer expands into powder production

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