By WBFO NPR
In 1902, Charles Stevenson moved a company he had bought, Eastman Machine, to the corner of Washington and Tupper in downtown Buffalo. It was then an industrial area in a booming city. Eastman is still there and still building machines to cut cloth and now owns the entire block the company started on.
President Robert Stevenson remembers when he spent summers at Eastman, starting in the 1960s. There were factories with thousands of workers on the street, fading industrial names: Trico, M. Wile, the Courier-Express. Eastman still survives.
George Eastman, who founded the company, came to Buffalo from York, Ontario, now Toronto, in 1886. He was attracted to Buffalo's electricity system.
“He was in the garment business and an inventor and he invented the first portable, fractional horsepower electric motor to drive the first electric cutting machine,” Stevenson explained.
“And, he came to Buffalo in the 1880s because Buffalo was one of the first cities to be electrified and he needed to have, obviously, electricity to make the machines and to make the motors.”
Those motors are still made in the plant, right down to the copper motor windings. The parts are still made there, even for machines from the ancient past, because some customer is still using them. Stevenson says Eastman was a part of the industrial revolution, allowing manufacturing of vast quantities of standardized clothing.
“Singer had invented the sewing machine in the 1850s, which made it possible for people to actually make clothes a little faster. But, there was no way to sort of mass produce clothing because cutting was so laborious,” Stevenson said. “They did have companies that could cut cloth but it was done by hand. It was done very laboriously, that's why they called it sweat shops, because it was very hard work. And so, what the electric cloth cutting machine did back in the 1880s was create the ready-to-wear industry.”
Today, it's different. Eastman doesn't just cut cloth, it cuts fabric, encompassing a large variety of material. The company has diversified into the aerospace, automotive, marine, furniture and recreational sports industries.
“We're not just selling machines to cut apparel cloth or broadcloth or cottons or nylons, but also composite materials, such as carbon graphite fiber that's molded into shapes and is used in the automotive and the aerospace industry,” Stevenson said.
In some ways, that's appropriate because making cutting machines is pretty high-tech. Eastman even has a software department helping to run the machines.
Eastman also has to deal with Chinese companies ripping off Eastman's intellectual property. That's even though the company spent a couple of decades buying some parts from Asia, although it's now re-shoring some of that. It's difficult when American suppliers are falling away.
The big problem for Eastman is finding the workers, particularly for the high-tech parts of manufacturing. Stevenson says the long history of the company helps attract employees. The union president has spent 43 years with Eastman.
A long-time executive, Marketing and European Sales Vice President Elizabeth McGruder agrees.
“I think that definitely the stability of a company that's committed to being in Buffalo and has been around for this long and run by the same family for so many years offers a sense of calm and security that you may not see with some of the fad, new wave companies that are popping up,” McGruder said.
Stevenson says this area still has people who want these jobs, good-paying jobs making things and local schools and colleges are becoming aware of the opportunity. He says Eastman is supporting the Northland training complex and has hired from there.
The company currently employs 150 people.
This article was published by WBFO NPR December 2, 2021. You can also listen to the story here. WBFO-FM 88.7 is the local NPR affiliate in Buffalo, New York.
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