Friday, July 12, 2013

Theodore Thieme -- Fort Wayne Industrialist

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

One of the more interesting facets of life for me is to visit with others about what they remember about growing up and the world the way it used to be. That’s why I thought the story of retired Judge Phil Thieme’s grandfather would make a great blog post so I sat down with him over lunch one day to chat about Theodore F. Thieme.

Judge Thieme says he doesn’t remember much about his grandfather, who died when Phil was 13, but he does know that he has made some decisions in his life based upon his grandfather’s character. At age 16, Phil hopped a freighter to South America. His grandfather had been a world-travel all of his adult life. That travel led in part to the opening of the Wayne Knitting Mills behind what is now Paula’s Restaurant on West Main.

Theodore Thieme was referred to in the biography “Theodore F. Thieme: A Man and His Times” by Ross F. Lockbridge (copyright 1942) as “Little Napoleon”, a nickname the elder Thieme acquired due to his height of five feet five inches, weight of about 150, and his unusually strong shoulders. Lockbridge, who had at one time worked for Thieme, wrote his book because he wanted “to do some justice in this modest effort to a life that is singularly full of lofty vision, gigantic efforts long continued, heart-breaking disappointments, and substantial and enduring successes.”

The Thieme family hails from Germany and this German heritage led to a second career for Theodore Thieme, who at one time aspired to be a musician and ended up a pharmacist. He studied in New York City where he could enjoy music when not at work. His mother had wanted him to become a Lutheran pastor, but that was never a part of Thieme’s plan. In all honesty, neither was pharmacy, but sometimes life leads you to make career decisions based upon need rather than desire.

According to Judge Thieme, at age 33 his grandfather, now a fairly successful Fort Wayne business person, “was restless and bored and wanted to do more.” He had visited his mother’s family in Dresden and his father’s family in Leipzig, Germany in 1878, meeting relatives for the first time and visiting the Paris Exposition along the way. He had attended the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876 and attended every international exposition of that type for the remainder of his life.

He loved adventure and he valued the training he had in owning a pharmacy in downtown Fort Wayne, never ceasing “to emphasize the importance of that kind of training—training in exactness covering numberless details—training in assuming responsibility for innumerable little things.”

He was also able to see opportunity in new laws, the most promising, at least for his personal interests, the McKinley Protective Tariff Law enacted by Congress in 1889. On March 31, 1890, he sold his half of the interest in the Thieme and Gross Pharmacy to J.B. Pellens. The business, located on Calhoun, was renamed Gross and Pellens. Thieme took off for Germany to start a new career.

He explained his mode of researching a new endeavor this way:

“In order to save time, I decided to begin my business investigation by inserting a few advertisements in the leading daily newspapers of each city of importance, announcing that an American gentleman was interested in introducing in his country the manufacture of some article benefitted by the new McKinley Tariff Law, and solicited correspondence. No immediate attention was to be given replies, save acknowledgement, until we arrived in Berlin, where the sightseeing part of the trip would terminate…When Berlin was reached some four months after landing in England, my mail had taken on larger proportions than I had expected; and I was assured that plenty of opportunities existed for me to grasp, the main consideration being the selection of something worthwhile.”

That “something worthwhile” proved to be full-fashioned hosiery. You can read a more detailed account of why knitting was such an art, and this style of stocking so important in Lockridge’s book, available at the Allen County Public Library. The Germans weren’t inclined to want to send trade secrets across the Atlantic to America, so Thieme set himself up in a hotel room as a prospective buyer of machinery from Poland. The Germans didn’t particularly want to sell to a Pole either, but he was better than an American.

Thieme then returned to the United States with a rough draft of the plan for his company, thinking he would set it up in Philadelphia. On a brief side trip to Fort Wayne to catch up with family and friends, he talked of his plans and was asked more than once, “But why not in Fort Wayne?” Exploring the idea with only half a mind that Fort Wayne would be an ideal location, he soon found that Henry C. Paul, president of the Old National Bank, had enough good reasons for him to light upon Fort Wayne as the location for his business. Those reasons were in the form of investors.

The caption in "Theodore F. Thieme: A Man and His Times" reads "The novelty of introducing a new industry direct from Europe in those early days of Wayne Knitting Mills, proved a fertile field for cartoonists."

In August, 1891, the Wayne Knitting Mills was organized with Paul as president; Charles S. Bash, vice president; William H. Dreier, treasurer; and Thieme, secretary-manager. The investment was small so that no one would lose money should the company fail, but enough to get it off the ground.

Thieme returned to Germany to purchase equipment and hire workers to run the knitters. Because he was fluent in German, he was able to bridge any communication gap that may have existed. Machinery was shipped within 60 days and 60 days after that labor to install the machinery would follow. Thieme returned to America.

“Arriving at New York, I arranged with an Immigration Institute to receive the people engaged upon their arrival and attend to forwarding them on to Fort Wayne. Factory quarters were rented in a building at the northeast corner of Main and Clinton Street, from corner to alley, and we proceeded to put them in a condition for installation of machinery and operation of the factory—a rather uncertain and difficult job.”

Wayne Knitting Mills opened in the fall of 1891 with the first finished product going on the market in 1892. These times were financially tenuous and it soon became apparent to Thieme that his factory must increase output without increasing costs to be competitive. More output for less wages was required but not without some dissension. However, Thieme was lucky in that eventually most who worked for him agreed and soon orders came into the plant, keeping it afloat.

Thieme worked tirelessly and by 1895, his mill employed 175 people, running 22 hours a day in three shifts. In 1898, “Thieme evolved a scheme to enlarge production without any considerable further outlay of money. He succeeded in inducing two German manufacturers to move their plants with their skilled operatives to Fort Wayne under contract with the Wayne Knitting Mills to finance and house them and also guarantee to take their output at a price of cost plus a certain per cent for profit. It proved to be a sound idea and brought valuable increases of better qualities of hosiery. After a few years, both of these were merged in the ownership of the mills.” Thieme added children’s ribbed hose and infant socks to the inventory of men’s and women’s full-fashioned hosiery.

Wayne Knitting Mill in 1910
Wayne Knitting Mills, 1910

Former Fort Wayne resident Peggy Seigel, who has written much about women’s history in Fort Wayne, noted in an article published in part on

“At Wayne Knitting Mills, the most highly skilled workers were male knitters, who were trained though apprenticeship programs to operate the complex machines that knit the legs of stockings. Male workers also took charge of the dyeing process. Most of the other jobs in the factory were semiskilled or unskilled and were performed by girls or women. Three or four ‘transfer girls' put the stocking tops onto quills that were then used to transfer the stockings onto simpler circular knitting machines, also operated by women. These operators, known as ‘loopers', sewed together the foot of the stocking. Other female workers shaped stockings by a process called ‘boarding.' Women and girls also worked as sorters, inspectors, folders, finishers and menders.”
Further on she explains, “Like female workers at Wayne Knitting, girls and women at GE and the Edison Lamp Works were not permitted to train as apprentices….”

Working conditions in those days were not what we see in today’s American factories and being a young, single woman living in a city after growing up “in the country” was not always an ideal situation. However, many young women found it necessary to work to supplement family incomes.

According to Seigel, “Wayne Knitting opened a three-story dormitory and clubhouse modeled after facilities in knitting mills in the Northeast. Widely hailed as ‘a notable step in advance in the industrial sphere’ and ‘the only building of its sort in the state, perhaps in the middle west,’ the dormitory accommodated one hundred out-of-town girls in single and double rooms at a weekly price of $3.50 for room and board. The cafeteria in the clubhouse, open to all employees, could seat 500 at a time. A large lounge was a place for residents to meet with male visitors. Recreation facilities, including five bowling alleys in the basement, were open to the women twice a week.’……The detailed descriptions of the dormitory and clubhouse in the local newspapers created an image of middle-class gentility. In the ‘large and brilliantly lighted' sitting room, ‘a young rose cheeked girl in a pretty pink dress sat at the player piano listening to the merry tune she was playing with evident enjoyment. Above the piano was a large oil painting one would look for only in an art gallery.' The room featured ‘comfortable chairs of mission style' and long tables covered with magazines.”

By today’s standards, work in the Wayne Knitting Mills was comprised of long, hard days and tedious work, just as it was in almost every factory in America at that time. But Thieme did view his employees as valuable assets and began profit sharing programs in addition to the apartments, bowling alley, tennis courts and annual parties that he hosted for his workers. Profit sharing “provided, in effect that out of each year’s net profit, 10 percent dividend should first be paid to the stockholders. Then the remainder of the profits was to be divided into two equal funds, one to constitute extra dividends to stockholders in cash, additional stock, or surplus; the other, to be applied to profit-sharing and welfare. The profit sharing covered three distinct classes—officials, heads of departments, and general employees, ranging from 250 to 300 in number, who were not on piece-work. The portion to be applied to welfare activities for the promotion of greater efficiency, unity, and good-will among all Wayne Knitters. The welfare plan was conceived for the common benefit of all, individually, and as an industrial group. It was based upon the conception that all had a mutual interest in the success of the business. It was a sincere attempt to follow the Golden Rule in the application of humanitarian principles to all features of the industry and to every individual in it.”

Welfare activities included education, recreation, protection in the way of insurance and safety measures, community activities, publicity such as an employee newsletter, health services, service awards and savings plans such as a Christmas savings.

Theodore Thieme married Bessie Loring of Boston on January 18, 1894. Together they set up house at their home on the corner of Berry and Rockhill. This home would later be given to the Fort Wayne Art School. In November, 1911, the new boulevard extending from West Main Street along the St. Mary’s River was named Thieme Drive in recognition for the improvements to that area spearheaded by the businessman.

Thieme had been an avid bicyclist in his younger days and a charter member of the Fort Wayne Bicycle Club (see the blog post and He was also a member of the Old Aqueduct Club and you can see a statue dedicated to the members at Main and Theime Drive yet today.

Thieme was also involved in a move to change the form of city government in Fort Wayne to a business form of government. The effort failed. Thieme was “not amused” so to speak and issued, in part, these words to the public:

“The legislature that was elected under the pledge to promote the widest and freest expression of local self-government, coldly refused the people of Fort Wayne an opportunity to determine for themselves the sort of government they wanted. The bill as framed, would not, if passed have bound the people of this city to a business form of government. It simply would have authorized them to determine at an election whether they desired such a change. It was designed to put the whole matter up to those most intimately and vitally concerned—the citizens of Fort Wayne. And the citizens of Fort Wayne by their own representatives have been denied a voice in their own affairs.”

In 1920, employees of the Knitters’ Union in Fort Wayne went on strike. Wages were being lowered due to a decline in business and  this action had been discussed among management and the union on multiple occasions. Thieme was in Los Angeles when the strike began and returned to Fort Wayne. The strike was eventually settled when 16 employees were terminated with the admonition that they would never be employed by Wayne Knitting Mills again. A training school for apprentices was up and running in no time and the overall damage to the company from the strike was not great.

(For more detail on this please consult Lockridge’s book and other works about unionization around the time of and after World War I.)

Thieme was one of the founders in 1915 of the Fort Wayne Morris Plan Company, the first of “twenty six companies established in the United States—the first in Indiana. It was a new type of bank—a bank for the individual. The idea was originated in Norfolk, Virginia, just five years before.”

At age 66, Thieme decided it was time to retire. He decided to form a committee of management in the year leading up to his retirement as president of Wayne Knitting Mills to train key men to step into positions of leadership with the company. But when he left for a trip to Florida, some board members pooled their stock to provide controlling interest in the company and sold it the Munsingwear Corporation of Minneapolis in April, 1923. A newspaper attack was launched against Thieme on a personal level, who responded with legal action, letters to stockholders, public statements in the Fort Wayne newspapers and a 12-page pamphlet entitled “How and Why The Wayne Knitting Mills Was Sold”. Thieme’s last annual meeting with the company was June 19, 1923.

Thieme was once again free to indulge his love of travel and from 1925 to 1935 crossed the Atlantic some 20 times and in 1929 took a tour around the world. In his later years, he and his wife split their time between Los Angeles and Fort Wayne, where they built a large home near what is now the Fort Wayne Country Club.

There are a number of resources available about the Wayne Knitting Mills. Here is one:

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