WAREHAM, Mass. — Machinist Ted Roy shoveled coal into an old potbellied stove. Outside, the temperature was zero. Inside the Tremont Nail Co., which produces square nails with 19th-Century equipment, it was nice and warm.
Roy, 71, has worked for Tremont since 1934. "Nothing has changed," he said. "This place looked old the first day I went to work here. I grew up on square nails."
He makes replacement parts for machinery that breaks down. "You can't buy parts for this stuff. If it breaks, we have to fix it," he said. His son and grandson also work for the nail company, which employs 32 workers.
Tremont Nail Co., 60 miles southeast of Boston on Buzzards Bay at the beginning of Cape Cod, is America's oldest nail company. Only one other company in the nation, Wheeling Corrugating in Wheeling, W. Va., still produces square nails.
"Square nails are the only products Tremont has ever made, and production has been uninterrupted for 169 years," proudly noted the firm's president, Donald Shaw, 59, who has been with the company 23 years.
"When I tell people I am president of a square nail company I invariably get the same reaction," Shaw said. "They are amazed to learn four-sided nails are still being manufactured. The fact is there continues to be a strong market for this old product."
The volume of production has remained fairly constant over the years, Shaw said, but inflation continues to drive up the value of gross sales. Gross sales last year--$3.5 million--were the highest since the company was formed in 1819.
Throughout the first half of the company's history, square nails were used in the construction of homes, commercial buildings, wooden boats and all types of carpentry.
Today, 85% of Tremont Nail's output is masonry nails used for fastening furring strips to concrete in the construction of concrete structures. The remainder of the production is used in wooden boats, heavy timbers and restoration or duplication of 18th- and 19th-Century buildings.
"We sell square nails all over America and export about 5% of our total output," Shaw explained. The company makes 220 different sizes and styles of nails.
Square nails, or machine-cut nails as they are also called, were a major technological achievement in the late 1700s. Before that, all nails were hand-wrought. Strips of sheet steel the width of the nails are fed into the machines to be cut and shaped into the final product.
When cut-nail machines were invented in Massachusetts, the machines were hand-powered. It wasn't long before the machines were powered by steam or water. At Tremont, electricity finally replaced water power in 1941.
Thomas Jefferson purchased one of the early cut-nail machines in 1796 and produced and sold square nails from that year until 1823 at Monticello.
Richard Ryle, 45, one of several "feeders" on the production line, inserted strips of sheet steel into cut-nail machines. "These machines were last made 80 years ago," Ryle noted.
Used Local Ore
Nearby, Wally Anderson, 32, was operating a cut-nail machine made in 1850. The main mill building was constructed in 1848. Nails are heated and hardened to a cherry red 1,800 degrees in the same furnace in use since the mill opened.
In the early days the steel for the nails came from ore in local bogs. Wareham, population 2,500 today, at one time was home to five square nail factories, making it the square nail capital of America.
Wire nails, the type of nails used today, came along in the 1850s and by the 1880s and 1890s pretty well replaced square nails as fasteners in the building industry. Wire nails are cut and shaped automatically from coils of wire.
Bethlehem Steel and U.S. Steel were big producers of wire nails for many years. But in the past 15 to 20 years, foreign imports have forced most domestic wire nail companies out of business.
"Last year, a (South) Korean square nail company established solely to compete with the two remaining square nail factories in America started exporting nails to this country," Shaw said.
"The Koreans wanted to buy some of our cut-nail machines to start up production. We refused to sell the machines to them. We feel our quality of nail is far superior to the Korean nail and believe our customers will continue to buy from us."