Joseph Soper Interview:
This is file 38, cycle 2. This is jean McMillen. Today’s date is August 9, 2016. I am interviewing Mr. Joseph Soper who is going to talk about Keuffel & Esser, slide rules, and anything else that tickles his fancy. But first we’ll start with the genealogical information.
JM:What is your name?
JS:April 17, 1932
JS:Elizabeth, New Jersey.
JM:Your parents’ names?
JS:May Rudmin Soper and Joseph Lincoln Soper
JM:Do you or did you have siblings?
JS:Yes I have three siblings younger than I am. They are all passed on. Their names were starting with the youngest Jack, Bob, and Don Soper, none married, they stayed single. Jack was the nickname for John.
JM:After high school you went into the service; when you got out of the service, you used the GI bill to get more education.
JS:Yes, that is correct.
JM:Where did you go for this extra education? And what was it?
JS:I tried to advance myself by going to Newark College of Engineering. When I applied, they said that that they couldn’t take me. I needed additional education in report writing and mathematics. Using the GI bill, I went to Newark Prep School. I spent a year there at night classes and worked during the day. Finally I had enough credits to be able to go to the Newark College of Engineering. It was not for a college course; it was a manufacturing course for two years in the evenings three times a week.
JM:Was this manufacturing or management?
JS:Management and manufacturing.
JM:How did you get hired by K & E?
JS:To back up to go back to the service, I was lucky in my training for test pilot training school in Maryland. Patch river they called it. That was my first sighting of slide rules. Every test pilot who came out to our planes to go through the test program had a K&E slide rule. What confounded me back then was that they would use a slide rule while flying a jet singlehanded. I had to question that. “How do you do that?” They said, “Oh we put the stick between our knees and fly.” They could actually do calculations on the plane which was fascinating. That was my first sighting of a K^E slide rule. After I came out of the service, I worked for Color Reproductions which was a screen printing company in New Jersey. I was there for 16 years, including the time in the service. When I came out, I went back there with them. I had reached the level where I felt that there was no place to go. I thought I have to move on to increase me ability to raise more money and a better job. At that time I read an article in the New York Times that Keuffel & Esser Company was looking for someone to set up an advertising specialty department. It required people with knowledge of screen printing which I did have, hot rolling stamping and engraving so that all their products could be somehow engraved or printer with their name. These items could be executive gifts to be given out to raise business. This was an advantage to K&E because instead of selling them one at a time over a counter, they could sell hundreds of them at one time. They found this very profitable. We set up this department.
JM;When were you hired at K&E?
JS:That goes back to 1966.
JM:When you came to Lakeville, where did you work first? What building?
JS:When I was coming to Lakeville, first of all I have to back up a bit here. Fred Leubuscher was having some difficultly with cycles.
JM:We are going to get to Fred a bit later. Tell me the building.
JS:The first building I went to in Lakeville was the main shop on the pond.
JM:You told me it was the Town Garage on Porter Street. (12 Porter Street, now a law office Ed.)
JS:That was after they found a situation for me. The first place would be next to the pond (Pocket Knife Square, the old Holley Manufacturing Co. / Lakeville Journal building Ed.) Then I went across the road and up on the third floor.
JM:Alright, you are talking about Pocket Knife Square.
JM:Then you went over to the Town Garage on Porter Street.
JS:That came about one year later. We rented that for a few years.
JM:K&E Headquarters are in Hoboken, New Jersey.
JS:That is correct.3.
JM:They had three other states where they had plants in.
JS:More than that.
JM;But you mentioned 3.
JS:There were three possibilities for me.
JM:They were which states?
JS:That was in Salisbury Products which is what I ended up in. Then there was one in Cape May, New Jersey, and one in Kennebunkport, Maine. Those were the three choices.
JM:You developed the Advertising Specialty Department.
JS: That is right.
JM: At Pocket Knife Square there were three brick buildings. There was the building that was Holley Manufacturing, and there was a small brick building beside that. Then across the street which used to be the forge for the Salisbury Iron Works was also a brick building.
JS:Those are the three main buildings.
JM:Tell me about Fred Leubuscher.
JS:Fred Leubuscher came up to Connecticut from New Jersey. He lived in Essex Fells, New Jersey. He decided to semi retire and move out of that area up to Turkey Hill. I am not sure that is a designation in Lakeville or not, but that is what he called it “Turkey Hill’.
JM:Where was that located?
JS:Off Belgo road
JM:Was it on Belgo Road or was it on Reservoir Road or Ore Mine Road?
JS:Belgo goes up Reservoir Road goes at right angles
JM:Reservoir Road goes across.
JS:Somewhere in there I am not sure exactly where.
JM:It may have been, and I am guessing, where Shagroy’s Farm was which was a turkey farm.
JS:That makes sense.
JM:Was Fred hired by K&E?
JS:No he only knew the vice President of K&E. He was friendly with him because he lived in Essex Fells. Fred was a civil engineer. He did work for Mr. A. W. Keuffel, doing landscaping and that type of thing. When Fred and George came up here they bought an interest in Local Industries Inc. He decided to see if they could restore that to a paying business. Once they got into that business, Fred and George threw their hearts into it. [They met Jim Harvey who made ammunition, fishing lures and fishing nets in beautiful crafted wooden frames.} (See File #18-21 Cindy Smith< Judy & Verne Harvey) They managed to get a company that wanted beautiful maple boxes and Fred set up an operation in that building. JM:Maple, not cherry?
JS:It could have been cherry too; I have several of them and I could not make up my mind which was cherry or maple.
JM:When Fred was running the Local Industries in that company, they were making Harvey Lures, and they were also doing skis.
JS:They were doing skis and other fishing equipment. That’s as far as I know, they could have done other things. He did not own the business; he just bought into it; he and she owned stock in it. Eventually when Fred went to K&E with the tongue and groove composite for K&E instruments, he had already set up for Local Industries to do this work with the cutlery company. He thought well gee let’s see if we can move on and get additional orders. So he talked to Mr. Keuffel .he was asked for a box to be sent up to make a quote on. They were made out of mahogany down in New Jersey. Fred sharpened his pencil and he did a quote on the box. They went down to Hoboken and presented it to the buyer. The buyer said how did you arrive at this price? Fred went through the steps and they said you can make the box 6 minutes faster than we did here in Hoboken. Fred said, “Well in that case I want to raise my price.” Which he did and they were perfectly happy to do it because their response was, “We want our suppliers to make money.” They had a lot of boxes made by Local Industries. Fred was told by Mr. Keuffel that “If you can get control of Local Industries and buy out the other stockholders, would you be willing to do work for us that go beyond just boxes?” Fred said that he thought he could. K&E offered to start a company called Salisbury Products of K&E provided that Fred could get control of the company. Then K&E would buy him out with a 60% /40% proposition. Fred would own 40% and K&E would own 60%.
JM:But there was also a buy back clause, wasn’t there?
JS:There was a buy back clause. K&E would buy the company outright for value or some other term, and he agreed to it. K&E established the funds to build the factory you see there now. (It was 2 different additions to the old forge building. Ed.)
JM:Why was that necessary?
JS:Because of the amount of work there had come up from Hoboken.
JM:Also I believe you said that they were going to work with celluloid and they needed.
JS:They were going to work with celluloid at the site. Fred said, “No we don’t have a facility where you can work with explosive materials such as that. We need a sprinkler system and fire doors. That is when K&E made the offer to build a factory with that equipment which they did. Fred was still 40 % owner of that building too. That is how it got started. This all happened before I came up here. I came up here in 1966. I was on board in Lakeville by 1967, January, 1967.
JM;Can you tell me about Dick Bianchi?
JS:Dick was already working for a tire company up in Detroit, Michigan when he was asked to take on a role as a manager with a paper coating mill that K&E owned. He went into that job. When Fred expanded the Lakeville plant to the point where he couldn’t do everything that he wanted to do, he needed help. Dick Bianchi was asked to come down to Lakeville as a transfer and fill the position of Production Manager in this plant. Fred would still be Plant Manager. Now on the wall was a flow chart and I distinctly remember a dotted line that went from the President of the company down to Dick Bianchi around Fred Leubuscher. They pretty much ran the business; Fred was free to come up with projects and ideas for improving the process; it stayed that way for quite a while. When I came of board, the first thing they asked me to do was to forget about Advertising Specialties. “You have to work on our slide rule problem.”
JM:What was the slide rule problem?
JS:Up until the time the operation came to Lakeville all the slide rules were made of mahogany with a celluloid coating. They were engraved in Hoboken. Women sat around a table painting in the color and then with a fine steel wool, they would buff it off. That is how they got the color into the celluloid. Now they were starting an entirely new project up here in Lakeville. It was going to be molded plastics slide rules. They were trying desperately to get away from mahogany. About one third of mahogany slide rules had to be tossed because of warping. The idea came to K&E to mold slide rules using the process that was used to make 78 vinyl records. That was the process they swiped; it took them a long time to make their own process. The masters for this line were engraved in Hoboken very careful engraving. Then they were sent out be plated with iron. We got into the slide rules business in Lakeville; that was the primary business. We were the premier manufacturers of slide rules in the United States at that point.
JM:Was that Salisbury Products?
JS:That was Salisbury Products.
JM:What was the number of staff?
JS:I can remember most of them, but a few came and went.
JS:Chet Patchen was our most important guy because when things went wrong, call Patch. He would down and resolve the problem because he designed and built many of the manufacturing machines. A wonderful guy, not everybody got on with his sweet side, but for some reason I did. Anything I wanted all I had to do was mention it. I did not tell him how to do it, all I had to do was ask him if this could be done and the next thing I knew, he laid things on my desk, all done.
JM:That works very well. There was a lady named Marion Smith?
JS:Marion Smith. She lived in Millerton; her husband was in refrigeration. She worked for K&E during the day assembling parts and piece for K&E. I realized that she looked like she was a talented person that could do screen printing. So I asked Marion if she would like to get into this business. She said sure. She was willing to do anything different. She liked to fool with colors. She used to do watercolors. This was graphic arts so she wanted to be involved. She worked out very well. Right up to the end of doing slide rules, she was doing the printing for us. K&E moved their headquarters from Hoboken to Morristown, New Jersey, leaving space in Hoboken. A new company had bought out K&E called Kratos Company. That company came from California; they were in the aerospace business. For some reason they decided to buy K&E. The children of the founders and others in the company decided they wanted to get out and take the money and run. Kratos made the decision to move K&E to Hoboken; that came as a lightning bolt out of the blue. None of us could believe it. We did our best to convince them to leave us alone. That was in 1969. We did everything we could to stay. Fred was let go as Plant Manager and he became a consultant to K&E. They would use him to head projects anywhere in the country. Dick Bianchi had taken on a job as Plant Manager in New Jersey for a film and coating plant. Everybody else in management was asked to go to New Jersey during the week and come home on the weekends for their families.
JM:Did you go to Hoboken or did you go over to Millerton?
JS:I told Dick Bianchi to tell the management that I am not interested in going back to New Jersey. I had owned a house down there; I had sold it. I came up here and we built another home, three years later. They were asking me to go back. I talked to my wife and we dug our heels in and said we are not going back. After that I got a call from the personnel director; he invited my wife and me out to dinner along with Fred and George Leubuscher. We all went over to a place in Amenia to have a really nice dinner. I told my wife that they are going to try to talk me into going to New Jersey. She said, “We don’t want to go.” “Fine.” When we go there they surprised me by offering the job at Millerton, New York. I could take the screen printing operation over there and stay up here.
JM:That plant building is across from Agway on route 22.
JS:Correct it is a big place.
JM:Did K&E come back to Lakeville?
JS:One year later I was working in Taconic Products Plant in Millerton doing the same printing cycles and sending them down to New Jersey to be processed along with the advertising specialty business. At that time the K&E operation which had moved to Hoboken turned into a disaster. They were over 2million dollars in back orders. They had the orders but they did not have the product. Gordon Card (See tape #24A Gordon Card) went down to set up the operation; he was so frustrated because they could not get people locally who could do the operation, run the equipment and that is why they fell so far behind. It was not Gordon’s problem; it was the people could not be trained to do these jobs. Then the decision was made to return back to Lakeville. When Lakeville closed, Fred Leubuscher went in and bought all the buildings (4), smart move. He did absolutely nothing with the buildings, all the wires, cables plumbing and everything was in the same position as when they picked up the operation and moved it. They came up and worked a deal with Fred. Fred said he wanted 2 5 year leases with an option to renew. K&E agreed out of desperation. They had no choice but to bring it back. I was asked to leave the Millerton Plant, the Taconic Products Plant, and return to Lakeville as General Foreman. I had all that experience. Dick Bianchi was asked to come back from New Jersey to the plant as Plant Manager of the whole thing. Fred was still on a retainer. I was Dick’s general foreman. Within three days we had everything hooked up after the owners left; we were back in producing slide rules and LeRoy products in Lakeville. It was a marvelous move.
JM:Tell me a little bit about Leroy Lettering.
JS:Leroy Lettering was the biggest money producer the company had. That goes for the whole company. We had a product that could be engraved. Our engraving was top notch. We could engrave these templates. Engraving was done one at a time on a single spindle machine. Fred Leubuscher has to take credit for designing a machine that could do 6 at a time in the same time it would take do to one. That machine was built by an outside company; Fred said that given the resources I can build an 8 spindle machine right here in the plant using Chet Patchen and his machine shop which he did. That machine worked beautifully. In the time it takes to do a single engraving, we could end up with 7 or 8. It was so good, he decided to move on and he built a 16 spindle machine. Everybody said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, I can do it.” K&E didn’t buy the idea; they sent us their own engineers to see what Fred had to say about it and how he was going to do it. He managed to convince the engineers to put the money into the project. It can work. Fred made the first one and it worked so well, that they made 2 more. We had such capacity for Leroy Lettering. There were other companies that made Leroy type templates, but there was no way in the world that they could engrave at the rate we did. We had the machines and the production.
JM:You started the print department to put logos on slide rules and then there were the boxes that were made for cutlery first and then for precision tools. Then you have the Leroy Lettering process. Did they make other precision or drafting instruments as well as slide rules?
JS:Yeah but they were not unique to K&E. A lot of companies made triangles flex curves, T squares and all this stuff, but the engraved templates and the slide rules were unique to K&E.
JM:What happened in 1976?8.
JS:K&E stopped producing slide rules. That was another bolt out of the blue. A fellow in San Leandro, California, Robert Ragen designed and built the first full functioning electronic calculator because that ultimately was the cause of the demise of slide rules. He used a K&E decillion slide rule made right here in Lakeville, Ct. “This slide rule helped design the very machine that would ultimately render us obsolete in slide rules.” He dies a few years ago. He worked for another company, but he was credited with using transistors. Remember the early transistors? They were before calculators. Later on integrated circuits took that job over, but he was the first to produce a calculator.
JM:Because of producing the calculator, they no longer made slide rules.
JS;It took a few years, but eventually slide rules ran out. Each year the production was less and less. Schools were a little bit reluctant to switch from slide rules to calculators. Not only were they expensive, but somehow it seems that the professors were so used to using slide rules they resisted the idea.
JM:Sure, you use what you are used to.
JS;Anyway it did replace slide rules.
JM: I have these figures that K&E at the beginning had about 3,000 employees.
JS:That’s the Hoboken Company and the outlying companies.
JM:By 1985 there were only 700 employees left?
JS:In 1985 Kratos had made a mess of the company; they were selling off parts of it. They found out long before that sometimes the parts were worth more than the whole. They were making money by selling off divisions. They also went bankrupt. It was a leveraged buy-out; many banks had loaned money to Kratos to buy K&E. Now the banks were stuck with K&E. They renamed the company back to K&E again and went out looking for another buyer. This new buyer was a company called Azon. Azon was in the business of paper and film production for engineers, designers, and craftsmen. They were located in Binghamton, New York. They wanted K&E for the machinery for coating; they did not want anything else. Somehow we managed to convince them that little Lakeville was making money. We were making Leroy templates. They decided that they were not going to dump the Lakeville plant, but they were going to keep it as long as it was profitable. It was about that time that Dick Bianchi decided to retire. In 1985 he decided to step aside; he had 34 years’ experience with K&E. I was named Plant Manager.
JM:Product Manager or Plant Manager?
JM:I thought that was in 1987?
JS:I went back to him as … He was Plant Manager. He took over from Fred. I was his Floor Manager.
JM: Because what I read in the information you gave me, was that you were Product Manager in 1985 and then in 1987 you became Plant Manager.
JS:That could be because Ken Craver was Plant Manager in Millerton and they wanted him to oversee Salisbury, but when he wasn’t there, I was running the place. I drifted right in when they let him go and closed the Millerton plant and moved it out. When they let him go, the company made me Plant Manager for Lakeville. That stayed that way until 1985 when Dick Bianchi stepped out. We moved the plant at that time over to Canaan, Connecticut.
JM:That was in 1990. Then you went up to Canaan then?
JS:Yeah I went to Canaan. I took the Leroy operation. We dumped everything all the equipment that was unnecessary for Leroy; that was all sold off. We moved into Ghi’s sign shop; we took 2/3 of that big building they put up over there on Route 7. We moved in only the Leroy operation. The building is near the police station. We stayed there for 5 years; we had a lease for 5 years. Azon Company decided to get out of the Leroy business because they were also bailing out. They put the Leroy up for sale; a guy from Binghamton, New York, who had an injection molding plant decided to come down and buy the operation. I don’t know the name of the company but he was happy to get it. It was sold for pennies on the dollar. He was going to move it out of Canaan to Binghamton and wanted me to go to Binghamton with the product line as I was the manager. I said that I was not going to sell and move to Binghamton. No you don’t have to sell; you can come out here for the week and go home weekends. I said, “That is not going to work. I am too old that that business.” I stepped aside and I decided to slip into retirement in 1995.
JM:You were kept on as a consultant for 6 months?
JS:I was hired back as a consultant until the sale was made; I was there as a private contractor. I stayed on until they were going to move the plant. I could add one thing. “What a roller coaster ride I had with the company. First with K&E, the Kratos, back to K&E, then on to Azon Corp. over almost 30 years I never missed one paycheck and never had to move my family once, which was unusual.” I am proud of the fact that they felt the need to keep me on.
JM:You were a very valuable employee.
JS:I like to think that.
JS:because they never tested me!
JM:They tested you and you came up just fine. Before we close, I do want you to tell the story about the Spider Lady in Hoboken.
JS:Early on when K&E built the manufacturing plant in Hoboken, they made a lot of instruments that were used for surveying. One of the biggest needs was for a hair line fine enough that the cross hairs would look very sharp in the magnifying glass of the bomb site of the black box during the war. They made that equipment and all sorts of surveying instruments. They had a building on top which looked like an astronomy building; they used to test their equipment by reading something on the building in downtown Manhattan. They had to get fine enough cross hairs to zero in on a particular point but they couldn’t manufacture a hair that fine. How it was determined I don’t know but the spider web served the purpose if they could collect the spider webs, wash them, and carbonized them. Then they could be used for cross hairs. They hired a woman who did not mind being around spiders. It was in the bottom of the Hoboken building. She would just dump all these spiders out and they would run around on this glass wall. They could not climb glass; she would poke at them with a glass rod until she picked up one of the webs with the spider on it. They spider was making a web trying to get away. She would let that spider go, and with another glass rod she did the same thing. She would roll up the spider web on the glass ord. These spider webs on the rods were sent where they could be carbonized to make them black. They were finer than anything a human could make at that time. They were used in all of the cross hairs of all the instruments that used them. Her name was Mary, the Spider Lady. I never saw or met her, but I have heard people talk about it.
JM:That is fascinating. Thank you so much.
JS:You are welcome.