Friday, August 17, 2012

Sylvanus Bowser


The more deeply you delve into Fort Wayne and Allen County history, the more you realize what a truly unique heritage this city holds. When our new gallery, Allen County Innovation, opens this fall, you’ll have a chance to take a closer look at the products developed and produced here and the people behind them. Their ingenuity is remarkable and made a lasting impact on our lives.

A number of these people have been profiled in the Old Fort News over the years and so in this blog post we quote from an article by Richard V. Pierard that appeared in Volume 26, Issue 4, in 1963. Its title is “Sylvanus Bowser”.

Bowser grew up with 12 siblings. He was born north of Fort Wayne, lived for a short time in Kansas and had very little education since the bulk of his childhood was spent in manual labor helping to support the family. At age 13 he joined a Sunday School class in the neighborhood and competed with the other students who were vying to win a gilt-edged Bible with a gold clasp by memorizing the most Bible verses. Bowser prevailed, memorizing 654 verses, over 200 more than the second place finisher.

Armed with the knowledge that he had the intellect to learn, he talked his father into allowing him to attend school, which he did for three months and two weeks before he had to return to work to help the family finances. This was the end of his formal education but he continued on his own to practice reading, writing and arithmetic.

Bowser was a deeply religious man from a young age.

“Later in life he testified that when he was about eighteen years old, in a vision one Sunday on the way home from church, God had called him to preach. He replied to God that he was unable to do this because he only had two weeks and three months of schooling, and he had to care for his parents, two brothers, and a sister. Then, the ‘torment’ in his soul left him. This decision, however, did not prevent him from being deeply involved with religious activities throughout the remainder of his life.”

Bowser married in 1876 and supported his family as a traveling salesman for several companies. But he fell into debt, deeded the family home to his creditors and moved his family to smaller quarters. He also suffered a breakdown, “probably due to overwork”, and was unable to function as a full-time employee due to “nervous spells which unfitted him for work for three or four days at a time”.

His life changed dramatically in the early morning hours of a wintry day in 1885. Before heading off to his travels as a salesman, he had drawn a day’s supply of water for his wife. While on the road, he began thinking of a method to more easily draw water by bucket from the 70 foot deep well. He shared the idea with brother Augustus who consulted with a mechanic friend who declared the idea impossible.

Bowser, however, thought he was onto something and decided that oil might be easier to deliver with his system. Since most grocery stores also sold kerosene that was stored in tanks often in basement corners, he believed his invention had a future. Ever the sales person, he approached his customers and ended up with five orders for a product that did not exist! Spurred on by this success, he convinced his brother Alexander and his nephew Allen to assist him in his work. Three months later, the first completed order was delivered on September 5, 1885 to Jake Gumpper, a Fort Wayne grocer. Gumpper’s store was chosen for the first pump because Bowser was broke and needed credit for groceries at Gumpper’s store.

The business grew, however, and on July 1, 1888, he organized S.F. Bowser and Company.

“Bowser had opened the door to the production of modern liquid fuel handling devices by his invention. The significant difference between his kerosene pump and its predecessors was that his was a self-measuring pump. That is, it would deliver an accurately measured quart, half-gallon, or any other particular quantity of oil desired by means of simple strokes of the handle. This meant an end to the messy measuring out of oil by hand, and it lessened the possibility of a storekeeper cheating his customers by giving the purchaser less than the full amount of oil for which he paid. The present-day gasoline pump evolved from this rudimentary pump and tank outfit.”

By 1894, Bowser’s company was one of the leading industries in Fort Wayne. Despite a fire, the company continued to grow. Newly constructed facilities were not, however, insured for fire and in 1897 another fire broke out on Christmas morning, destroying not only buildings but product ready for shipment. So rebuilding began again and all was fine until 1898 when “some of the ‘most trusted employees misused the company’s funds’ and put it in a ‘very bad financial condition’.” Reorganization followed and on April 17, 1899, the company incorporated.

“The main products of the company were various types of oil handling equipment. They included such items as storage tanks, siphons, oil cabinets, pumps, lubricating oil facilities, etc. The early catalogues offered the public a wide variety of these items to fit nearly every oil handling need. Around the turn of the century, Bowser Company produced such items as dust pans, ratchet screw drivers, and wash boards, but the making of these was later discontinued. With the advent of the automobile, S.F. Bowser and Company began pioneering in the invention and production of gasoline handling equipment for both home and public garages, and later for public filling stations.”

Twenty years after its founding, sales reached a million dollars and ten years later six and a half million. Branch offices were opened in the US, Canada, Europe, South America and Australia.

Bowser saw himself as responsible for his employees and their welfare, establishing the Bowser Employees Relief Union in 1908. This provided sick, accident and death benefits for members at a low premium. The company donated $10,000 as the beginning capital.

He also provided a large company picnic each year at Winona Lake where he owned a cottage. The crowd of people attending was so large that one year two, twelve-car trains were required to carry the 1200 people the forty mile distance to the picnic site. Bowser also built a playground for the neighborhood children who lived near his plant.

Bowser sought to influence the spiritual lives of his workers, inviting two evangelists—M.H. Lyon and Billy Sunday—to his plant in 1915 to talk with workers on company time. He ‘forbade drinking, smoking, dancing, etc., as he genuinely felt they were harmful to the men.”

Bowser’s company supported the war effort not only because he felt it the right thing to do, but also because WWI helped the company to grow. By the end of the war, this man, once a poverty-stricken salesman, was worth at least $4 million.

Bowser was described as courageous, far-seeing, cheerful, tireless, determined, optimistic, hard working, a risk taker, honest, and inventive. In 1907 he patented two massage devices and a third in 1910. All worked on the principle of rollers. He retired in 1922 and continued to work on his inventions.

Bowser had a “strong religious bent. By the time he had reached middle age, religion was the dominant feature of his character. However, this was not by any means a superficial or mystical type of experience. His relationship with God was vivid and personal, and his religious expression came from a sincere heart. It is quite important not to underestimate the influence which religion had in his life as it was the motivating force behind his optimism, willingness to work, and paternalism.”

But the future was not a rosy one for Bowser and his company. He had competition from rivals like the Wayne Pump Company and the Tokheim Company, both based in Fort Wayne. Bowser built a new office building in 1917, which quickly grew in cost to three times the original estimate of $350,000. This was capital that could have been used for other purposes.

“By 1919 the company employees had become dissatisfied with Bowser’s paternalistic policies. Moreover, he had a strong dislike for unions and would not recognize one in his factory. This did not please the men. On May 19, 1919 a shop committee presented some written demands to the company which it refused. One week later, the committee firmly declared that either the company would accept the demands immediately, or a strike would be called. The company countered with a lockout on May 28.”

The plant reopened a few days later with non-striking employees and strike breakers. The company set about hiring new employees. But the business was not operating to peak capacity. A strike riot broke out at the plant on June 25 and several of those not on strike were attacked and injured. The company sought an injunction from the Allen County Circuit Court, barring strikers from interfering with non-strikers. The injunction also limited the number of picketers at the plant gates.

The strike drug on with more acts of violence and a few jail sentences for defying the injunction. The company continued to operate but the strike had taken its toll on the business and the company “lost heavily, both in money and prestige…”.

Bowser had set up the Bowser Loan and Trust Company at this time to help employees buy their own homes. He built another building for this part of the company.

The company continued to struggle but by 1923 sales had risen to $12 million a year and the plant produced its one millionth pump that year also.

But Bowser was aging and his health failing. He retired as company president on January 1, 1922. He contracted diabetes and dropped many of his pursuits including the board of Bowser Loan and Trust. By 1931, however, he had found a physician who was able to assist him in becoming well enough to travel to Europe. But he eventually lost much of his fortune in the Depression and lost all of the control of the company he had founded when the corporation was reorganized.

As he aged, he became more and more eccentric and spent the remainder of his money and time on ”trips, inventions and agitation to reorganize the church”. By 1937, his health was better but his diabetes started to trouble him again the next year. He became confined to his home and died on October 3, 1938 at age 84. He is buried in Lindenwood Cemetery.

At the time of his death, Bowser had gone from being worth millions to an estate valued at $11,000.

 “He was indeed an unusual millionaire since he was able to spend almost all of his money before he died.”

There is a wonderful photo of Bowser in the latest edition of the Old Fort News. Pick up a copy in our gift shop today.

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