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Life after George Bird’s Death

Bird’s Upper Mill as it looks today (photo by LLKearney)

After George Bird’s death his paper company continued to grow. First under the leadership of his son Francis William Bird and then under the leadership of his Grandson, Charles Sumner Bird, and finally the last family member to work for the company was great-grandson, Charles Sumner Bird, Jr., who also served on its board of directors. However, It should be pointed out that some of George Bird’s great-great grandchildren, although did not work for the company, but they did serve on the Board of Directors for many years. Truly making this a family run business.

Course wrapping paper (photo LLKearney)

George’s youngest son, Francis William “Frank” Bird, took over the running of the family paper mill in 1833 when he bought out his brother, Josiah. In 1837, the United States suffered a financial crash. The Panic of 1837 was a result of Jacksonian banking policies and unstable currency which came to a head in May, when New York City banks ran out or gold and silver. This started a national depression that lasted into the early 1840s. Frank managed to survive the initial panic. He even enlarged his holdings when he bought, what came to be known as the upper mill from Jabez Coney in 1838, for $23,750, that is the 2021 equivalent of $700,000. At that time he formed a partnership with his father, George, his brother Josiah and his brother-in-law Harrison G. Park. This partnership did not last long as Park stepped down in 1840, followed by George Bird in 1842. The failure of the business in 1843 that forced the company to file for bankruptcy, is most likely due to this expense in the middle of an economic depression. Published histories do not go into any detail, other than noting the company had “an unexpected obligation (that) obliged the firm to go into bankruptcy.” Perhaps this goes to the notion, that one does not discuss such things in polite society.  Frank made a settlement with his creditors, eventually paying them back every cent they were due with interest, over 20 years. This settlement appears to have allowed him to continue operating the mills.

When Frank acquired the upper mill from Jabez Coney it made news printing paper. Bird continued to manufacture this kind of paper, but he eventually switched over to making the same course wrapping paper the lower mill made. This coarse wrapping paper was used to wrap “screws, provisions and groceries” and was a more profitable product. Also during this period, Frank took on several business partners to work with him; Mr. Cushing for a few short months and Thomas Kennedy for nine years. In 1867 a fire destroyed the mill, but it was quickly rebuilt. In 1871, Frank sold the lower mill to Z. T. Hollingsworth, who soon formed a partnership with Charles Vose. By 1875 the Bird upper mill produced one and a half tons of wrapping paper daily and employed 20 men.

Red roofing paper, one of the many roofing products Bird produced

In 1877, Frank’s son, Charles Sumner Bird had graduated from Harvard and joined his father in business and the company adopted a new name “Bird and Son” or “FW Bird and Son.” Charles immediately injected new life into this 60-year-old company, as he felt it had become disorganized. Over the next fifty years of Charles’ leadership the company grew to have factories in Rhode Island, Chicago and two plants in Canada, he developed new products and expanded the size of their manufacturing plants in Norwood and Walpole. By 1880, the company had introduced steam power as well as modern machinery to make paper. The turning point for Bird and Son happened in August of 1880, when a terrible fire destroyed the mill, which was soon followed by an extremely high flood, the only machine that survived this double disaster was a machine that produced coarse paper. As the mill was being rebuilt, Charles retreated to his kitchen table, trying to work out a new product that could be made using this machine. He invented tarred paper that could be used for waterproofing structures. Three new products hit the market; “Neponset Paroid Roofing Paper,” “Neponset Black Waterproof Building Paper,” and “Neponset Red Rope Roofing Paper,” all of which quickly became very popular. In 1895 the company introduced asphalt shingles, the first of its kind and a product that virtually remained unchanged for over 100 years. By 1904, the company built a new facility in East Walpole to make this product. By 1911 the Bird company introduced a new building product, it was a felt based printed floor covering, which can be thought of how we use vinyl flooring today. A new plant was constructed in Norwood to make this product.

Charles was at the forefront of labor relations, striving to make is company a safe and inviting place to work. In 1902, the company was the first paper mill to institute an eight-hour workday, at a time when worker were expected to work a twelve-hour day. He also instituted safety programs such as a First Aide Force and an on site Fire Brigade at all his facilities. Each facility also had a library, as well as rest and reception rooms, and locally Bird employees had access to a clubhouse and athletic fields. Over the early part of the 1900s, Bird offered innovative programs and policies that greatly supported and improved employee life. These included paid vacations, an employee suggestion box, a credit union and a benefit association that paid out benefits to sick and injured employees. All of these programs we expect to be offered in any employee benefits package today, but in the early 1900s, such employee offerings were unusual.

Charles S. Bird, Jr.

Since his father’s death, Charles had run the family business without a partner, but in 1913 he took on two new partners, his son Charles, who had graduated from Harvard in 1908, and Philip Ray Allen, an 1896 Yale Grad, who had been working for the company since 1897. Allen’s first job was a salesman selling Bird products, he then became a vice-president in 1913, then president of the company 1927, and around 1936 he stepped down as president and served on the board of directors, serving there until he retired.

Philip R. Allen

Charles (Sr.) stepped down, retiring in 1927, just before the start of the Great Depression. The stock market crashed in 1929 sending the United States in to a very long financial depression. People lost their jobs, their money, their land and their businesses. However, over the next ten years Bird and Son grew and flourished. In a 1932 article about the financial health of the country, Allen notes a growing demand for Bird building products indicates that the economy is beginning to bounce back. He also notes the business had experienced a slump, but that gave them an opportunity to upgrade and fix machinery and their research department was able to improve or create new products. Over this decade, they acquired several companies that were struggling, and they built a new production plant in Walpole, which crushed and colored roof granules. When the United States entered World War II, the Bird company was able to adapt their machinery to make shell casings, centrifuges for purifying uranium, equipment for chemical warfare, machinery for making penicillin, as well as supplying the government with waterproof shipping cartons. After the war, Bird and Son returned to making building its supplies; tar paper, asphalt roof shingles, flooring for new post war homes that were being constructed. This post war building boom continued through the 1950s, and in 1964 the company announced a new product, vinyl siding. This product was extremely successful and Bird and Sons posted record profits annually, well into the 1970s. However, the Arab oil embargo dramatically raised the price of oil, an ingredient necessary to make asphalt, followed by a crash in the housing market, Bird posted their first ever annual loss in 1980.

This loss made the company reevaluate their business and change. They studied at their old standard products, culled what was old fashioned or out of date, and looked into the development of new products. Bird and Son changed their name in 1983 to Bird, Inc. and then again in 1990 to Bird Corporation, hoping this showed they were a new modern company. Bird Corporation had continued to post losses annually. In 1994, the company began to get rid of major operational departments and unnecessary businesses, in hopes of streamlining their company. When they were finished divesting themselves, all they were left with was the asphalt shingle division. In March of 1996, Bird Corp announced a planned merger with CertainTeed Corp, another major asphalt shingle manufacturing company. The US Federal government started to look into this merger as a possible anti-trust law violation, but before an investigation could start, CertainTeed pulled out of the agreement. Remarkably, Bird Corp never lost their footing in the asphalt shingle business, and began showing annual profits as a new century was beginning. After 225 years in business, Bird continues to be part of the Norwood and Walpole communities.

The CertainTeed plant on Pleasant St., Norwood

“Over the long term we have found that we prosper when we insist on the highest quality products, produced in the most cost effective, modern facilities, designed and delivered to our customers with their needs in mind, by people totally dedicated to these simple principles.”

George Bird: Son, Francis William

George Bird: The Next Generation

George Bird: Local Legacies

Go to George Bird Exhibit main page –>

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Sources:

All Images in the collage from the collection of the Walpole Historical Society – thank you!

“Bird Corporation.” Company Histories. company-histories.com

“Bird & Son, Inc.” Other Industries of New England: Their Origin, Development and Accomplishments. (Boston, MA: State Street Trust Company, 1924)

Day, Clarence S., Jr. (complier). “Philip R. Allen,” The Decennial Record of the Class of 1896, Yale College (New York, NY: De Vinne Press, 1907).

Coney to Bird. Norfolk County Deeds. Book 121/ page 281. November 13, 1838.

DeLue, Willard. The Story of Walpole: 1724 – 1924 (Norwood, MA: Ambrose Press, 1905).

Lewis, Isaac Newton. A History of Walpole from its Earliest Times (Walpole, MA: The Walpole Historical Society, 1905)

Tolles, Bryant Franklin. Norwood: The Centennial History of a Massachusetts Town (Norwood, MA: The Norwood Printing Company, 1973)

(Ward, Julia Howe?) Francis William Bird: a Biographical Sketch. (Norwood (MA): Norwood Press, 1897)

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