If you’re staying at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Rock Falls, IL on the Riverview side, one cannot help but notice the Lawrence Brothers Building. A monument to the industrial manufacturing era, Lawrence Brothers bolstered our twin cities’ economies for more than a century and, very evidently, is now slowly decaying. Imagine for a moment, as you hear the whistle and rumble of the trains rolling by across the Rock River in Sterling, Lawrence Brothers Manufacturing in the height of production.
History of the Lawrence Brothers Building
As Written by the Sterling Standard/Daily Gazette (now Sauk Valley Media)
Where it all Started-Rock Falls, IL
“Lawrence Brothers, manufacturers of house, barn and warehouse door hangers and rail, strap and T hinges, door stay rolls and steel frame wood pulleys, wire nails of all sizes, occupying sections 1,2,3 and 4 of the Industrial building, in Rock Falls, and are the largest manufactures of door hangers from Maine to California.
The firm is composed of John H. and Edward Lawrence, both of whom reside in this city (Sterling) In 1876 John H. Lawrence first began the manufacture of door hangers in but a small way. After a short time …. 1882 practically started the present plant in the third story of the present Lawrence block on West Third street. The business increasing, more space was needed and the big warehouse and the distillery grounds were utilized and the works moved there, In 1893 even this building proved too small and the plant was moved to the present location in the Industrial building, in Rock Falls. Prior to this, in 1892, a factory was established in Pittsburgh PA for the manufacture of steel rails for the door hangers and as a distributing point for the Eastern trade. This has also prospered greatly and is already outgrowing its present quarters.
This institution is one of great pride to not only the owners but also to every resident of the two cities. The home plant is under the direct management of Edward Lawrence, while John H. is cashier of the Sterling National Bank.”
~ From The Sterling Standard December 11, 1896. This plant did move to Sterling.
“Lawrence Brothers, Inc. one of the forerunners of all the manufacturers in the Sterling-Rock Falls area has been accredited with much of the progress of the growth of this community. One of the founders, John H. Lawrence came from Burlington, Vt. in 1873 with a background in banking. At that time Sterling was only a small town. He purchased the retail hardware business operated by Diller and Heitshu, located on the northwest corner of Third Street and First Avenue with a partner, Chauncy Betts. When Edwin F. Lawrence graduated from Vermont Methodist Seminary in Montpelier, Vt., in 1875, he joined his brother in Sterling and was persuaded to work with him in the hardware store.
These were the years of the log constructed fences used on the rolling prairies. But the fences were cumbersome as well as inadequate. The “Lawrence Brothers,” as they became known, saw the need for a new type of fencing and began its engineering in a small factory on the river bank. Working with W.D. Collins in 1876 and 1877, the Lawrence brothers invented and made one of the first patented barbed wires ever made, and sold, the patent rights in New Jersey.
The two brothers, still engaged in their hardware store, heard the need for a new barn door hanger from their customers and set to work again. About 1878 they replaced the clumsy door hanger then in use with a new steel door hanger, invented and patented in their “shop,” and the first-ever offered to the hardware trade. This smaller article was manufactured in quarters on two upper floors in a building in the Academy of Music Block on W. Third St., Sterling. By this time Edwin F. Lawrence had purchased Mr. Bett’s interest in the hardware store.
In 1880 the store was moved to the Academy of Music Block and by 1883 the brothers built the block where the Brown’s Business College was later located. Since the lease to the Academy of Music Block expired before their new building could be completed, they were forced to begin construction of another building, three stories high. Excavating in March through five feet of frost, the building was completed in 30 days. Three years later, in 1886, the hardware store was sold to the Crawford brothers. The Lawrence brothers, by this time, were known as ‘Lawrence Brothers, Manufacturers of Peerless and Faultless Steel Hangers and Rail, Adjustable Stay Rolls, Hay Fork Pulleys, etc.’
During these years they patented a bolted wheelbarrow with bent legs, all in one piece. The rights were sold in Ohio, where it is still being manufactured. Early invoicing, indicates that most of the manufacturing was directed toward the farmer. The success of the burgeoning business in that day made necessary the rental of a warehouse. The Distillery Trust building, near the railroad tracks along the river, then owned by Mr. Miller, was used for this purpose for three years until 1893 when the brothers bought the Industrial Building in Rock Falls. This building at 102 West First Street, Rock Falls, was later occupied by the Dearborn Manufacturing Company and then the Flexonics Company. Lawrence’s stayed there until 1913. For power, they bought and used the first 10-horse-power engine built by Charter Gas Engine Company of Sterling. During 1889 even wire nails were made by Lawrence’s, but when the Trust failed to operate the machines were sold to the Dillon-Griswald Company. At the same time, they rented space in the Industrial Building to Cobb and Drew who later sold out to Russell, Burdsall, and Ward thus establishing another of the most successful manufacturers of this area, the RB&W.
Lawrence Brothers acquired the strip of land on which they are presently located in 1910 and began building the new plant, which was ready for occupancy three years later. The new building was built on the ground, which some say had been an old dump and others, a cafe. Excavation during construction revealed that both theories may be true as old cups and saucers have been found buried beneath the plant as well as perfect glass relics, a turn of the century pop or medicine bottle, and an ink bottle. At the time of the new plant’s opening the ‘subway’ was non-existent and steps leading down to the river ran directly off the entrance of the new factory. A crowded railroad bridge crossed the river east of the plant and railroad transportation provided the raw materials at the door of the factory and removed the finished product to market.
Between 1903 and 1926 the garage hardware business grew in tremendous proportions because of the promotion of the automotive industry. From the original steel door barn hanger, of which 150,000 dozen were distributed in a span of twelve years and over 25 million feet of Lawrence Bros. patented steel track was sold, the company had expanded into constructing strap hinges in many designs and finishes, door plates, locks, screen door sets, windows, wagon stakeholders, and many other items. These products were shipped from Maine to California in the United States, to London from where they were distributed all over Europe, to South America, Australia, and New Zealand. The manufacturers noted that anywhere in the world where men sleep in houses and keep their stock in barns, the products from the Lawrence Brothers are bought and sold.
In 1924 it is recorded that the average payroll of the factory carried 250 names. Today the Lawrence Brothers, Inc., has a total of 475 employees (1967). John H. Lawrence passed away in 1928 but the heirs continued the partnership of the corporation until 1940, a year after the death of Edwin F. Lawrence when they decided to incorporate.
During the Second World War, approximately 62 employees of Lawrence Brothers left to join the Service and the company supplied much of the needed supplies to the government in the way of hardware for camps, hospitals, airbases, ordnance depots, and other war industries. In September 1950 E.F. Lawrence III began to work full time with the company and in the following year, John A Lawrence did likewise. The current members of the Lawrence family who are officers in the corporation are E.F. Lawrence Jr., president, and his two sons, E.F. Lawrence III and John A. Lawrence, vice president. The need for expansion was felt in 1954 and an addition was made to the existing plant. Two years later in 1956, Lawrence Brothers entered into the fabrication and anodizing of aluminum products, becoming licensed by ALCOA.
A year ago E.F. Lawrence Jr., announced plans for the construction of a new plant to be located on Route 30 three miles east of Rock Falls. The new plant was completed in the spring of 1967 and twenty employees are now engaged in the work at that factory. Definite plans have been made to increase the workforce as installations are completed. The new Lawrence Brothers building provides room for existing manufacturing activities and houses the Lawrence Aluminum Finishes, a division of Lawrence Brothers, Inc. Within the structure is one of the largest, most modern aluminum anodizing plants in the United States, applying various finishes to a wide range of aluminum parts, used in appliances, vending machines, furniture, and the communication equipment industry.
The over 100,00 square foot plant was built in this area because of its access to railroad and trucking transportation. The 57-acre site provides ample space for a large employee parking lot and loading facilities as well as additional space for further expansions as the demand for the manufactured products continues to grow with the world. Hardware by Lawrence Brother is still furnished in every corner of the world. Orders were filled for a hotel, recently finished, in Sydney Australia, and one in Dublin Ireland. Lawrence Brothers have also supplied many local buildings with hardware. Some of the better-known constructions throughout the nation include the UN building in New York and the Prudential Building in Chicago.” ~Sterling Daily Gazette July 25, 1967, & July 25, 1975
“Side note: The Lawrence Brothers Manufacturing Company is still fully operational in this year of 2004. With the closing of the Northwestern Steel and Wire Mill, it is now the largest employer in the area. We are truly proud of a family business that has been totally successful and still managed to keep it in the United States of America.” ~ unspecified month or author, 2004
Two Short Years Later … Lawrence Hardware Closes Its Doors
“This was the final year of operation for a century-old manufacturer: On Oct. 6, Lawrence Hardware shut down after a hard-fought battle against the inevitable. The former industry innovator was an anchor in the community for 130 years. Starting out as a hardware store in 1876, Lawrence Brothers became an early manufacturer of barbed wire and carved a niche for itself by making farm-related items such as barn door hangers, rail, pulleys, and nails. By 1940, the company founded by John and Edwin Lawrence was a full-line hardware factory. It was largely profitable through the 20th century but slipped into bankruptcy in 2001 when it was bought by Howard Industries and renamed Lawrence Hardware. At one time, Lawrence employed as many as 475 people in two locations in Sterling and Rock Falls.” ~ Sauk Valley Media “A Look Back at 2006”
Lawrence Brothers Building Today
The growth and industrial transformation of the American workforce can still be seen in our Twin Cities. It can be glimpsed at such places as Only the Best, Hennepin Feeder Canal, Dillon Home Museum, Wahl Clipper Museum, John Deere Historic Site, and the Fire Museum. Contact the Sterling/Rock Falls Historical Society or visit the Whiteside County Illinois Genealogy and History website for more information.