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Greenlee History

The "Barrel Making Machine"

The story of what is today Greenlee began in Crawford County, Pennsylvania over 160 years ago. Born on the family farm in April of 1838, Robert and Ralphwere the twin sons of Edmund Greenlee, a farmer of some ingenuity. Among the labor-saving devices Edmund created was a line of wooden barrel making machines he patented when the boys were young. Growing up in this environment seems to have fostered some valuable skills in the brothers; both demonstrated mechanical aptitude and inventiveness, and, before they were 20, proficiency as coopers (barrel makers).

A company biography, Round Bits...Square Holes, written in 1962, stated, "No training could have been more timely." Indeed, shortly after the twins turned 21 in 1859, Edwin Drake drilled the region's first successful oil well only a few miles from the Greenlee home, others soon followed, and the resulting demand for oil storage barrels soon exceeded 1,000 per day, "more than all the barrel makers in northeast Pennsylvania combined could produce." Ralph and Robert put their father's machines to good use; what would one day become Greenlee had begun...

The Move to Chicago

As both oil production and barrel supply began to stabilize over the next couple of years, the brothers considered taking their operation to a city, where many additional markets could be found; at the time, wooden barrels were used for storage and shipping of innumerable Greenlee Historical Building products. Father Edmund apparently encouraged this and even agreed when the youung men decided, in 1862, to move their business all the way to Chicago, where the wooden barrel market was growing as fast as the city, a major shipping point for grains and meat. The onset of the Civil War and the Union Army's use of the city as a primary arsenal and supply point also created a greater demand for new barrels.

Within one year of their 1862 arrival in Chicago, Ralph and Robert were well established, and as the barrel machine business grew, they expanded further by becoming general suppliers of other manufacturers' production machinery. However, the brothers' primary interest was always in developing new products, and Greenlee Brothers & Co was officially formed in 1866 with partner William Brooks. (It is interesting to note that during this time, the brothers wooed and wed Brooks' daughters, Robert to Emily and Ralph to Elizabeth Brooks!) When the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 left Greenlee Bros unscathed, the greater demand for woodworking machines during reconstruction only added to the already solid business of supplying furniture makers and other wood products manufacturers. An 1873 magazine article reported the brothers had "25 men employed building planers, matchers, shapers, saws......and other products."

The "Hollow Chisel Mortiser"

Promising in an early catalog "if a machine we build is equaled by any other make, we either improve it or cease its manufacture", Ralph and Robert achieved another triumph with the invention of the "hollow chisel mortiser" in 1874. Similar in size to a table saw, this revolutionary tool combined the cutting edge of a four-sided chisel with the boring ability of a rotating bit to produce square holes in wood (a design used worldwide to this day and the inspiration behind the Greenlee "Square G" logo, top of page), enabling speedier, more accurate and more solid construction of wood products. The mortiser proved so successful that the brothers purchased a lot for the construction of a new factory (ironically, only one block from the site on DeKoven Street where Mrs O'Leary's infamous cow supposedly started the Chicago Fire).

The "Greenlee Tie Machining Car"

After the Civil War ended, the nation continued expanding westward at an increasing rate, and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad line in 1869 further fueled this migration, helping to bring thousands of settlers west of the Mississippi. This in turn prompted the building of thousands of miles of new railroad track; from 1870 to '80, 40,000 miles of new track was laid, and in the next decade, another 65,000 new miles were added, every one of them requiring several thousand wooden ties to support the track. The Greenlees responded by developing a larger and more complex innovation than any of their previous machines, the "railroad tie machining car", a self-contained rolling tie-milling factory in a boxcar. Fed rough timber on one side, this could produce up to 6 finished ties per minute sliding out the other. (By 1911, Greenlee was building "self-powered tie machining & spike driving cars" and other extra-heavy duty tenoning, mortising and cutting machines for both railroads and railcar builders.) A manager of the Pullman Car Company wrote Greenlee Bros "They in all respects excel, rather than fall short of, what you claim for them."

The "Self Feed Power Rip Saw"

In 1875, the first Greenlee catalog was produced, and 1881 saw the brothers achieve another milestone when they introduced the "self-feed power rip saw". Designed to speed production times as well as prevent the loss of digits common among sawyers until that Greenlee Historical Building time, this table-sized machine immediately proved even more popular than the mortiser; by the time 2,000 mortisers were sold, there had been 9,000 rip saw sales, with customers reaching all the way to South America, Europe, and even Australia. For a while, when an ordered saw was being shipped, an entire railcar would be filled with the same machine, with word sent ahead of this; along the way, the whole carload would be purchased.

The Move to Rockford

By the turn of the century, Greenlee had outgrown a succession of buildings in Chicago, including two foundries for casting their own parts. After their own Great Fire left the principal manufactory "an ice-covered ruin" on a sub-zero night in 1897, the brothers began searching for a piece of land with railroad accessibility large enough for about 20,000 square feet of new buildings and foundry, and with acreage for future expansion. In 1903, they chose a large piece of land in Rockford, Illinois, (already a furniture manufacturing center, it was home to many of Greenlee's customers), where the Illinois Central Railroad could (and did) build rail lines right into the new plant in 1904.

Shortly before World War 1, Greenlee made their first tools for metal working machinery, and soon followed with the company's first metal working production machines; both automobile and railcar manufacturers—heavily reliant on Greenlee machinery—had begun replacing wood vehicle frames with metal. In 1927, a separate firm, Greenlee Tool Company, was established to carry on the small tools business while the machine tools remained with Greenlee Brothers & Company. Within a year, Greenlee Tool introduced a line of metal hole "knockout" punches, followed in 1930 by the "hydraulic-powered pipe & conduit bender", among the first products developed especially for electrical contractors. The long line of benders which developed from this beginning—and a host of other products developed especially for this trade—continue as an important part of Greenlee business to this day.

The "Automatic Transfer" Machines

While additional woodworking machinery, small tools, and electrician's products continued to be developed, by 1935 Greenlee was building "automatic transfer" metal production machinery incorporating hydraulic feed & clamping mechanisms; operators Greenlee Historical Machine had only to load raw parts and press a button. During World War II, Greenlee built an $800,000 175-foot long automatic transfer machine to mill the cylinder heads for B17 Flying Fortress engines; loaded with 130 cylinder heads at a time, in 49 seconds it performed 162 machining operations previously requiring 300 man hours. Part of this machine
subsequently joined the machine tool exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The post-war years saw Greenlee producing massive machines capable of milling a hundred engine connecting rods or refrigerator compressor bodies per hour and, in 1953, Greenlee built—in only eight months—eight 262-foot long machines which each turned out 100 transmission cases per hour for General Motors.

Greenlee Today & Tomorrow

In the decades since, many changes have occurred at Greenlee, including acquiring Fairmont Hydraulics in 1992 and German tool manufacturer Klauke in 1996. Expansion into the data/tele communications equipment industry has been facilitated with the purchase of Datacom Technologies in 1998, Progressive Electronics and RIFOCS in 1999, and both IMAP Corporation and U.K.-based Chesilvale Electronics in 2000.

Greenlee continues to enlarge its product offerings, as well as developing totally new ones for the electrical, public utility, agriculture, construction, plant maintenance, and data/tele communications industries. Today, hundreds of pages catalog the product lines offered by thousands of Greenlee distributors worldwide.

Greenlee is a very different company than in years past, but the innovative, adventurous spirit of Ralph & Robert Greenlee to invent and deliver the highest quality products and service possible lives on. With our commitment and our ongoing growth through new products and acquisitions, Greenlee continues looking boldly toward the future.