Hudson Alexander’s Around The Block

Updated

It would be almost impossible for most of us to even imagine the hardships suffered by those who lived through the Great Depression. But there was an occasional glimmer of hope, even in those dark days of economic gloom and doom. And that was the case when Dortch Stove Works announced plans to set up shop here in Franklin.

The welcome news came in December 1932 from Oscar Dortch, a Maury County businessman, remembered by many as a “natural-born industrialist.” Dortch had amassed a fortune in the phosphate business, back during the “boom years” at Mt. Pleasant, in the early 1900s. He’d ventured into the stove business in 1919, at first setting up shop at Bridgeport, Ala. He’d started his business in an old shed, and he’d planned to stay there. But when his Alabama workers made demands that would have rendered his shop unprofitable, and then called a strike, Dortch simply closed his doors and moved the shop to Nashville.

Dortch, like most good businessmen, seemed to always have a knack for being at the right place at the right time. That was certainly the case in 1932, when the auctioneer’s hammer came crashing down on the former Allen Stove Plant here in Franklin. Built in 1928, at the present-day site of the Factory at Franklin, out on Franklin Road, Allen Stove had a modern facility and state-of-the-art equipment. But unfortunately, by 1930, they’d become an early casualty to the Depression. On auction day, Allen’s property and assets, once valued at over $400,000, went to the high bidder — which happened to be Dortch- for a mere $80,000.

In March 1933, Dortch Stove Works was open for business. And in short order, they placed 125 local workers on the payroll. Mr. Dortch was president of the company. He brought in his son-in-law, Edward Criddle, as vice president; his nephew, G.O.

Stanley, as secretary; and Tom Lance as treasurer. Ben Latta was placed in charge of the office.

By 1934, the company was working 300 men and the payroll had expanded to about $1,000 per day. In those days, the plant’s capacity was four railcars of stoves per day, and it was operating at full capacity. There were thousands of stoves sent to retailers all over the country.

One local man who realized the economic importance of Dortch was Waldon Smithson, who went to work at the plant in June 1937.

“That plant was mighty good for Williamson County,” Smithson told me, during a recent

interview. “But in those days, it sure wasn’t easy to get a job out there. It took me two weeks, sitting out on their front porch every day, to finally even get a chance at a job.”

According to Smithson, it was customary for a group of eager job-seekers to gather in front of the plant each day. They were all there, hoping to get hired on by Atwood Vaughn, the plant superintendent. They knew, if Vaughn ran short of help inside the plant, he’d always check first out front for available workers.

“We were just beginning to come out of the Depression when I got hired,” Smithson said. “I remember that Mr. Jimmy Lanier was the company paymaster at that time. He’s the one who put me to work. I started out at 23 1⁄2 -cents an hour. And by 1941, I was making about 35 cents an hour. At our peak, we had about 500 employees, with about 125 in the steel shop alone.”

Officials at Dortch Stove Works had at least two major labor disputes. They sought relief through Chancery Court in 1938 and 1951, when striking workers disrupted work at the plant. In 1955, Dortch Stove Works was sold to Magic Chef, a stove company based out of St. Louis. Magic Chef continued to manufacture stoves at the facility until the early 1960s.

Even today, as you pass by The Factory at Franklin, if you look real close, you can still see a faint imprint bearing the name “Dortch Stove Works.” The years have faded the old paint. It’s almost like an old ghost from the past … a bygone era … but one that helped pull a lot of people through some tough times around here, too.