Uniroyal, Inc. Records, 1917-1990


The forerunner of Uniroyal Inc.'s Eau Claire plant was the Gillette Safety Tire Company, founded in Eau Claire in 1916 by Raymond B. Gillette of Michigan, an inventor of a safety shoe for tires. S.P. Woodard of the Car Spring Rubber Company served as the company's first president; Gillette, first vice president and general manager. The plant engineer was R.W. Hutchens. Approximately 250 people were employed at the plant which produced 200 rubber tires and 200 inner tubes per day.

On May 23, 1917, the company produced its first experimental tire. After one year the plant was expanded to a capacity of 500 tires and 500 tubes per day, and its name was changed to Gillette Tire Company. Gillette then purchased the Chippewa Valley Rubber Company, a manufacturer of rubber fabric, raincoats, and hospital sheeting also located in Eau Claire. The addition of a machine shop permitted the company to add to its line the manufacture of rubber manufacturing equipment, such as tire molds and tire building machines, other mechanical goods, and consumer items such as rubber heels, raincoats, horse collars, and picnic coolers. It quickly became the largest employer in the Eau Claire area.

During the early 1920s, the Gillette Tire Company experienced a period of financial difficulty and went into receivership. This led to its reorganization in 1925 as a Wisconsin company under new management. (Gillette was originally incorporated in the state of Delaware.) F.C. Herman of Springfield, Missouri became the new president and R.W. Hutchens, former plant engineer, became vice president and factory manager. Howard O. Hutchins, brother of R.W. Hutchens and a foreman in the Calendar Department, was placed in charge of bicycle tire manufacture. Edward Hutchens, their father, had been a member of the company's board of directors since 1918. Under this new management, production concentrated on automobile, truck, and bicycle tires, inner tubes, and rubber-making machinery. The manufacture of waterproof fabrics and mechanical goods was discontinued. In 1926, R.W. Hutchens succeeded Herman as president and general manager, and H.O. Hutchens acquired his brother's position as factory manager. Under Hutchen's leadership the Gillette company became one of the largest producers of bicycle tires in the country.

During the late 1920s, Gillette continued to increase its output, which peaked at 19,000 tires and 14,000 inner tubes daily, with 1,600 workers. The company also experimented with new manufacturing methods, such as water cure processing for inner tubes, and products, such as pneumatic tractor tires. Gillette made significant contributions to the rubber industry in these and other technical areas.

In 1931, United States Rubber Company purchased a substantial interest in Gillette as part of an effort to obtain a greater share of the automobile tire market. U.S. Rubber, formed in 1892 by Charles R. Flint, ranked third among the nation's “Big Four” rubber manufacturers. In 1930 U.S. Rubber had signed a contract to supply 90 percent of the tires sold by Montgomery Ward under its own brand name and the Gillette factory was strategically placed to service Ward's needs in the Midwest. U.S. Rubber was also a major supplier of tires to automobile manufacturers. After 1931, it was said to be the world's largest supplier of original equipment tires by virtue of its contracts with the General Motors Corporation.

U.S. Rubber did not acquire controlling interest in Gillette until 1940. Even then, the plant retained the Gillette name and the “bear for wear trademark” for another decade, and continued to turn out Gillette brand products along with Ward, Atlas, and U.S. Rubber's brand, U.S. Royal. After the formal takeover, U.S. Rubber implemented a program to expand and modernize the Eau Claire factory. Employment was increased to 2,600 workers and tire production capacity restored to pre-depression levels of 9,000 to 11,000 units per day. Expansion was also motivated in part by the U.S. military's increasing demand for airplane and truck tires.

Workers at the Eau Claire Plant organized their first labor union in 1919, Rubber Workers Union #16454, with 285 members. However, the union failed to survive its first confrontation with management over the issues of wages and ten to fourteen-hour shifts (then the norm for the industry). It was not until New Deal legislation gave workers the right to organize and bargain collectively that Gillette employees attempted to form another union. In 1933, they organized Federal Labor Union #18684 and two years later, when the United Rubber Workers of America (CIO) was formed, the Eau Claire union became Local #19. (Following a change in organizational name at the national level, Local #19 was known after 1945 as the United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum and Plastic Workers of America.) Formal recognition of Local 19 as the collective bargaining agent for wage employees was achieved in 1937 and workers obtained their first written contract in 1938. At this point, Gillette was the largest industrial employer in the Eau Claire area and among the top five in the state of Wisconsin. Employees included approximately 275 women, primarily as builders of bicycle tires. The Eau Claire plant was subject to numerous job actions, including strikes in 1950, 1951, 1955, 1959 and 1967. In 1959 the company sought an injunction against mass picketters; and in 1967, office employees and production workers, numbering 2,275, joined 50,000 workers in a nationwide strike against the rubber industry over wages and benefits. Lasting 97 days, it was the longest strike in the industry at that time.

During World War II, when crude rubber supplies dwindled and civilian uses of rubber restricted, tire and tube manufacturing at the Eau Claire plant was sharply curtailed. With America's official entry into the war, the government enacted a freeze on the sale of all rubber goods for civilian purposes. At this point, the U.S. Rubber company sold the entire Gillette plant to the United States Government. Since at that time the military's demand for ammunition was greater than its demand for tires or rubber goods, the facility was converted into an ordnance plant for the manufacture of small-caliber munitions. U.S. Rubber continued to operate it (and four other ordnance plants) on behalf of the government. All machinery for making tires was dismantled and replaced with ordnance equipment, and additional buildings were constructed. Much of the tire equipment was shipped to other U.S. Rubber factories, some was placed in storage and the remainder was scrapped. Approximately 2,100 workers were temporarily laid off while the change-over to ordnance took place, although some were employed on the new construction. Operation of the Eau Claire Ordnance Plant began on August 17, 1942. At the peak of production, 6,200 workers representing about 70 percent of the original workforce were employed in making small-caliber ammunition; women comprised approximately 61 percent of the total.

War production at the Eau Claire Plant was extremely demanding. Production schedules were subject to abrupt change, and changes in specifications required constant retooling. Because of the critical need for manpower, work days were lengthened and employee vacations were suspended. Nevertheless, workers managed to fullfill the targeted output, and six months after conversion took place, received the Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in production.

Within one year of conversion, the military's need for small arms ammunition had been satisfied and a large surplus accumulated. It was decided that military tire production, especially heavy-service tires for airplanes and amphibious craft, and the further development of synthetic rubber were more pressing concerns. In August 1943, the Eau Claire Ordnance plant was released to reconvert to tire production. On December 31, 1943, U.S. Rubber re-purchased the property for 1,025,000 dollars. Eau Claire was the nation's first major industrial plant to reconvert from war production and in October 1944 production of synthetic rubber tires was resumed. At the same time U.S. Rubber initiated a program to modernize and expand the Eau Claire plant, a process which involved extensive new construction, refurbishment, and the installation of new tire and tube-making equipment. This building expansion program was completed in 1947. It doubled the size of the factory, increased employment beyond pre-war levels to approximately 4,400 workers, and increased production to over 20,000 tires per day. In order to accommodate Eau Claire's increased production and trim transportation and storage costs, U.S. Rubber began planning a new warehouse in 1946. By 1951, a new 77,000 square foot facility had been constructed across the street from the plant. When reconversion was completed, Eau Claire was the country's fifth largest tire factory, and according to company officials, the world's most modern.

In 1952, factory manager Howard Hutchens was appointed special management representative for U.S. Rubber's Tire Division. Although reporting to the company's New York headquarters, Hutchens' office remained in Eau Claire. He was replaced by Frank A. Cobb, formerly a time-study manager, supervisor of methods of standards, and superintendent of production. Cobb was followed by Robert Francis in 1958, and four years later C.W. Chatterson became factory manager.

Over the years, both employment and production levels at the Eau Claire Plant fluctuated with the demand for rubber goods and new developments in the industry. Production of tubeless tires began in 1954. Due to rapidly rising demand for this type of tire, production of tubes was discontinued and 250 tube division workers were laid off. Between 1948 and 1960, employment dropped from 4,000 to 3,200 while daily output increased from 20,000 to around 30,000 tires.

In 1965, U.S. Rubber once again expanded and improved the Eau Claire factory, adding jobs and new production facilities to manufacture giant off-road tires used on heavy construction, mining and earth-moving equipment. The largest of these tires weighed 5,600 pounds and stood over ten feet high. Eau Claire could produce 40 per day compared to a daily schedule of 30,000 passenger tires. By 1965, Eau Claire ranked third largest among tire plants in the United States. In 1967, U.S. Rubber unified all its diverse trademarks and subsidiaries in 23 countries under the name Uniroyal Inc.

Other developments in the industry which affected Eau Claire included the invention of the bias belted tire in 1968, steel-belted radials for passenger cars and Monoply truck tires in 1973, and the mini-spare tire which began production in 1979. Such developments were accompanied by the installation of the latest tire-building equipment. Eau Claire was reported to have been the first to manufacture the Monoply truck tire which was built on a wire carcass with wire belts. During the 1980s, the factory stopped making farm, Monoply, truck, and Giant off-road tires while intensifying production of passenger radials. Competition from imports was cited as the rationale behind many of the production changes. By 1987, about 1,500 employees were turning out tires at the rate of 29,000 per day in as many as 300 different sizes and styles.

In 1986 Uniroyal and the B.F. Goodrich Company merged in a joint venture to become the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Company. By then Uniroyal was the leading supplier of tires to General Motors and Goodrich was known for its high-performance replacement tires. However, the merger brought about difficulties as incompatible equipment and differences in cost-accounting procedures hampered production and efficiency.

In 1989-1990, Uniroyal Goodrich was purchased by Michelin et Cie, a French-based tire company. Michelin was the inventor of the radial and the acquisition of Uniroyal Goodrich made it the world's largest tire manufacturer. The purchase of Uniroyal Goodrich was intended to increase Michelin's share of the car-tire replacement market, and to strengthen its ties to General Motors by absorbing Uniroyal's 35 percent share of GM purchases. Approximately one year after the buyout, the Eau Claire plant was closed down.