In case anyone is unsure of Wendell August Forge’s history, here is a timeline of major activities in their history…
Wendell McMinn August was born on February 18, 1885 in Rew, PA. His mother died in childbirth, and at three weeks of age, Wendell was taken to Brockwayville, PA (later known as Brockway), to live with his uncle and aunt, Daniel and Ellen (McMinn) Groves.
Wendell August graduated from Bucknell University in 1907 with a Bachelor of Science Degree. After two years of teaching mathematics in a private school in Massachusetts, he gave in to his desire to see something of the West. After traveling through the far West, and holding various jobs, he returned to Brockwayville, PA.
Wendell August married Jessie McVean Palmer in 1912, the daughter of Dr. William and Mary Palmer of Johnsonburg. Within a few years Wendell became a coal broker, and also held interests in the Toby Diamond Mine, Fox Ranch, and L. M. Groves Mercantile Company.
Jessie and Wendell August built a home in the newly renamed town of Brockway, PA. They asked Ottone �Tony� Pisoni, a blacksmith at Wendell’s mine, to hand forge latches for two doors in their new home. Wendell was impressed with both the quality and modest cost of Ottone’s work, and asked him if he would like working for him in a new forge making hand wrought iron wares.
In October, Wendell August, with four blacksmiths, one of which was Ottone Pisoni as the lead blacksmith, established the Wendell August Forge. The new Wendell August Forge produced a line of ornamental hand wrought iron, which included fireplace andirons, candlesticks, lighting standards, doorknockers, latches, and railings. and window and door grills.
James McCausland, who had trained as an architect at the University of Kansas, joined the Wendell August Forge, and became the Designer and Operations Manager, a job that he held until his death in 1958. McCausland is credited for being the originator of many of the company�s most popular designs during both the wrought iron and wrought aluminum periods of the Wendell August Forge. James McCausland became a significant figure in the development of the hand forged aluminum industry.
On October 24th the stock market crashed and the Country moved into the Great Depression. Wendell August lost virtually everything except the Wendell August Forge. Six workers continued at the Forge, laboring for six months without a paycheck in order to finish a contract and maintain the company and their jobs.
The Pittsburgh based Aluminum Company of America, Alcoa, was beginning plans for a new research facility in New Kensington, PA. They asked for bids to create elaborate aluminum gates for the stone wall surrounding the Aluminum Research Laboratories. Wendell August Forge acquired some aluminum bar stock in order to experiment with hand forging the metal. Ottone Pisoni worked with the metal until he could bend and twist the metal almost at will. Wendell August Forge won the bid to create the aluminum gates as well as the elevator doors inside the facility. The Alcoa gates, which still stand today, opened the door for the Forge to receive additional contracts for hand wrought aluminum architectural installations throughout Western Pennsylvania.
The craftsmen of Wendell August Forge traveled ninety miles from Brockway to install hand wrought aluminum grillwork in the Grove City National Bank. The President of the bank, Edwin J. Fithian, recognized Wendell August Forge as a company that could help bring new industry and economic development to the Grove City community. At the urging of Fithian, Wendell August was invited by the Commercial Club of Grove City to relocate his Forge to Grove City, and Fithian invested in the company to facilitate the move.
The construction of a concrete block building to house the Wendell August Forge began on Madison Avenue in Grove City on April 16, 1932. Wendell August’s business plan was to be engaged primarily in doing the type of remodeling that had been done for the Grove City National Bank, and, as a side line, to manufacture a line of hammered aluminum “novelties” such as trays, plaques, and panels. Articles of Incorporation were signed in June 1932. Edwin J. Fithian was named President and Wendell August was designated Vice President.
On Wednesday, July 27, 1932 eight Forge craftsmen started work in the new Grove City facility: James DePonceau, Benjamin Formani, Les McLaughlin and his brother Warren McClaughlin, William Miller, “Tony” Pisoni, and brothers �Doc� Rossi and Natale Rossi. Die engraver Louis Donato joined the company a very short time later. Supervisor James McCausland, Sales Manager Howard Chapin, and Sales Representative Arthur J. Palmer completed the roster of the new company. The first known catalog for Wendell August Forge was effective as of October 1, 1932, and featured items targeting the luxury market.
Under the stewardship of Arthur J. Palmer, an experienced Gift Ware Representative, Wendell August Forge product was already being shown at major gift shows in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. The line was being well received and sales were far ahead of what had been anticipated.
Edward J. Fithian was an active participant in the Prohibition Party, and his integrity was publicly challenged because of a purported Beer Mug being made at the Wendell August Forge. Shortly after that, Fithian sold his share of the Wendell August Forge to Wendell August.
Wendell August Forge was asked to create mementos commemorating the �Millionaires� Flight� on the Hindenburg air ship that took place at the end of the trans-Atlantic season. There were seventy-two guests on this flight who were considered to be among the most powerful and wealthy men in the United States. The best that can be determined at this time is that the unusual mementos produced by the Forge were presented to the guests of that flight.
Pictured is the actual prototype of the pieces presented to the guests of the Hindenburg on October 9, this piece is at the Wendell August building in Grove City, PA.
The Wendell August Forge Catalog for 1937 showed approximately two hundred items and sixty different motifs.
With American involvement in WWII looming ever closer, aluminum supplies became difficult to acquire for non-military use. The Saturday Evening Post carried cartoons emphasizing the need to conserve and collect aluminum for the National Defense Program. Civilian use of aluminum was stopped shortly after the Declaration of War by the United States that followed the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor.
During World War II, Wendell August was forced to shut down the operation of the Wendell August Forge because all aluminum production was allocated for the manufacture of military equipment, most particularly aircraft.
In August 1942 Wendell August obtained a contract to house and feed military personnel at the Madison Avenue building. These were Navy and Coast Guard men who were being trained in diesel engine operation at the Cooper-Bessemer plant in Grove City
By April of 1946, the Wendell August Forge was back in full operation. Louis Donato did not rejoin the company following the War, and Natale Rossi assumed the die engraving duties.
Significant post-war architectural commissions included a variety of Jewelry stores and about twenty Bank interiors.
The decade of the 1950�s marked the beginning of a difficult period for Wendell August Forge. The combination of a number of factors, such as the slowing of post-war spending, the increased competition from a rising number of aluminum giftware manufacturers, and the revival of the imported goods market all contributed to diminishing sales. This downward trend in sales for the Wendell August Forge continued during the 50�s as consumer decorating tastes shifted to a more modernist style. Many changes to the company�s product line did little to stimulate sales.
Die engraver, and blacksmith, Natale Rossi, volunteered to go on the road to seek new customers. He focused on businesses that were looking for client gifts. Rossi�s efforts kept the company afloat.
1958 was a particularly difficult year as it saw the untimely death of Chief Designer and Plant Superintendent James McCausland. His death deprived WAF of its primary design source. The product line continued to languish, and lacked freshness, for several years following McCausland�s death.
The difficult business conditions of the 1950�s continued for Wendell August Forge through the 1960�s and into the 1970’s. By 1960, the group of skilled craftsmen had dwindled to eight workers.
In April of 1963 the company�s namesake and founder, Wendell August, died after suffering a heart attack while having lunch at a Grove City restaurant.
After Wendell August�s death in 1963, his son Robert (on the left) owned and ran the company. He opened a small gift shop attached to the Grove City workshop. This area had previously served as a �viewing area� where prospective buyers could view samples of items produced at Wendell August Forge. Although the retail store was well received by local Grove City residents, Wendell August Forge�s corporate business still carried the day.
The basic giftware line continued to feature the highly simplified forms with small motifs that had come into use after James McCausland�s death.
In the early 1970�s, at the urging of the Wendell August Forge Office Manager, Mary Lou McNaughton, the most important contribution to the company�s product line in decades, was introduced, Collector’s Plates. These limited edition Collector�s Plates spoke to the popularity of collectibles in the United States, were well received, and have continued to be since then.
Mary Lou McNaughton also urged Robert August to submit information about the Wendell August Forge to various publishers of Tour Books. Tourists began to plan their trips to include a visit to the Forge, and eventually Tour Buses noted the tourist activity and included the Wendell August Forge in their Western Pennsylvania tours.
In February of 1978 F. W. �Bill� Knecht III, an eighteen-year veteran with IBM, and a resident of Youngstown, Ohio, purchased the Wendell August Forge from Robert August. Before the year was out, Robert August died of cancer.
Knecht developed a retail operation that included workshop tours, antique display cases, and other on-site experiences at the Grove City location. Remodeling the buildings began, and this first step toward the new Wendell August Forge was completed that November.
Wendell August Forge received a commission from the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to produce twelve solid bronze plates commemorating the SALT II Treaty between the U.S. and Russia. The plates were presented to the signing dignitaries in Geneva, Switzerland.
Natale Rossi, after a noteworthy career with the Wendell August Forge that began in the 1920’s, retired in December.
Natale Rossi, the Forge�s Master Die Engraver for over 30 years, was selected as a recipient of the prestigious Hazlett Memorial Award for Excellence in the Arts in Pennsylvania.
Dave Bruck and Steve Adams were recruited to assume the die engraving.
At the urging of his wife, Connie, Knecht introduced an annual Christmas ornament, the most commercial success in the company�s history.
Len Youngo was hired as a die engraver.
This was a time frame in which the Wendell August Forge dramatically expanded in several directions. Product lines were extended, new motifs in new directions were created by Bruck and Youngo, and new marketing efforts were successful in stimulating sales.
In 1989, Knecht was joined in the business by his daughter, Debbie, and his son, Will.
Knecht�s daughter, Debbie Fetter, was responsible for a new consumer catalog designed to enhance the retail operation.
In a move intended to address the needs of the corporate market, Wendell August developed a new business-to-business division.
In July, Wendell August opened an additional retail and workshop facility in Berlin, Ohio. This 13,000 square foot all open beam timber framed facility was conceived as potentially a place to visit by design, rather than just incidentally. Once inside, a visitor can find a Company Museum, Gift Shop Tour area, and a Forge workshop. This impressive structure is in the heart of Amish Country where it is now visited annually by thousands of tourists.
In October of 2000 Wendell August opened a retail store in the Prime Outlet Mall of Grove City.