Third of four parts
Time waits for no man or woman, much less for those who spend their hours make clocks.
But over a course of 36 years, countless Wilson Countians clocked in daily at Lux Clock Manufacturing, which once commanded an entire block of West Main Street.
The company, founded in 1914 by the Lux family in Waterbury, Conn., expanded to the South in late 1953 and selected Lebanon as its first branch site. Officially opening in the spring of 1954 with 125 employees, by the late 1970s, it had more than 800 workers on the payroll including nearly 150 at its Carthage plant.
Shuttered on the last day of 1989, the Lebanon factory not only made alarm clocks, novelty clocks, wall clocks and automobile clocks but also produced parking-meter movements, thermostats, automatic-timing devices for appliances, such as washers, dryers, broilers, electric ranges and toasters, and the multi-million-selling Minute Minder.
A number of employees worked with Lux for 30 years or more under the banners of Lux Clock Manufacturing, Robertshaw/Lux Time and Siebe Automotive, but for as long as the factory stood in Lebanon, most locals simply referred to the plant as Lux.
‘Mr. Joe’ was father figure
The Wilson Post recently interviewed a handful of Lux old-timers to document their memories of a place that is gone but not forgotten. Practically all recollect it with fondness and pay kudos to plant manager, the late Joe Gwynne Atkinson, the first person in Lebanon hired by Lux. Several of these workers spent their entire careers with the company, even as it morphed into different entities which took them to other Tennessee towns, other states and even to other countries.
If anyone represented the personification of this once-booming Cedar City factory, it was Atkinson. Born in Lebanon in 1919, he grew up on a farm on Atkinson Road in the Rocky Valley community.
A stellar football player at Lebanon High and Castle Heights Military Academy, he received a scholarship to Vanderbilt University where Paul “Bear” Bryant was an assistant coach. Atkinson captained the 1941 team, which beat Alabama 7-0 on Nov. 22, 1941.
During World War II, he served in the Navy in the South Pacific as skipper on PT-110 and was in the same torpedo boat squadron with John F. Kennedy, who became a bosom friend.
Atkinson’s daughter, Vicki, shared, “After the war he got a telegram that read, ‘You have a job.’ It was signed by Bear Bryant, who was then the coach at the University of Kentucky. A lot of Daddy’s management skills can be attributed to Bear Bryant. He had extremely good work ethics. Later, Lebanon city leaders Mayor William D. Baird and Jimmy Nokes Sr. knew Lux was coming, and they knew my dad would be the right man to lead it. So, they offered him the football coaching job at Lebanon High School.”
(As head coach of the Blue Devils from 1950 to 1952, Atkinson guided his teams to a 27-3-2 record.)
“Lux was one of the most ethical, high-quality facilities in this town. William Baird said it was one of Lebanon’s first modern industrial factories. Dad hired everybody and wanted what was best for the employees. He knew everyone’s name, their spouse’s names and their children’s names. It was not a Yankee plant, not a cold-blooded plant. It was a family plant. Lux was concerned about its employees,” said Vicki.
“Daddy was an extremely humble man who tried to help others and was involved with the Boy Scouts and Junior Achievement. Later, Daddy and his assistant, Wendell Kopp, were bumped to the Carthage factory. Daddy was never negative, so he went. The union had tried to get into the Lebanon plant in 1975, and Daddy kept the union out until they went over to Carthage. Before you know it, they had him back here.
“When he retired in 1984, he bought a great big old John Deere mower and trailer. He loved mowing. He mowed lawns for the little old ladies in the neighborhood and all the grass at Lux. It was his place until the day he died. He died in 2001 at the age of 82 from complications of a bleeding ulcer and COPD. He was a court bailiff at that time, a county deputy, who mentored Terry Ashe (later a longtime sheriff of Wilson County). Somebody said to me, ‘Work ethics died when Joe Atkinson passed away.’ ”
Writing to JFK
From 1959 to 1964, Annabelle Robinson served as secretary at Lux for plant manager Atkinson as well as the general manager. Among other tasks, she did a load of typing.
“I enjoyed very much working at Lux. Mr. Atkinson was a true professional: sharp as a tack, tough and sharp and very good to me and very polite,” said Robinson, who went on to teach math at Lebanon High School for years. “He wanted things done exactly right. The atmosphere was very friendly. We worked awfully hard. He demanded excellence and was kind of a perfectionist.
“I typed a letter to John F. Kennedy one time for Joe Gwynne, back in the days of carbon paper. I don’t know how many items I had to type over as it had to be letter perfect. Kennedy had just been elected president and that was what made me so nervous.”
She stamped the dates
Lebanon’s Dimple McCaleb Piercey Taylor, 88, was a Lux veteran who poured heart and soul into her work from 1954 to1989. Her first husband, the late Wayne Piercey, also worked for more than 10 years as a Lux assistant foreman.
“I had tried two factories and didn’t like that, so I applied at Lux. Mr. Joe told my husband to bring me. I didn’t come through the office. I came through the back door,” said Taylor with a laugh.
“My first job was assembling parts, staking a shaft through a lever for alarm clocks. Then I had a job stamping the date on the back of the keys that wound the clocks. Production on that was 2,409 pieces an hour. That was the first automatic machine that came in the factory. I could double that almost,” said the speed demon, famed for how quickly she slid the keys into position and then with her feet kicked a pedal on the machine that immediately stamped the date on the key.
“One day they made some adjustments to the machine. My foreman, Raymond Word, raised the production. That afternoon when I got through, he said ‘Something’s wrong with the machine. Would it be OK if we just give you 150 percent today?’ I was fast with my hands and feet. In two or three hours I could produce enough keys for three or four days.”
During the early years Lux was in Lebanon, Taylor stamped the date on practically every key that went out the door with a clock.
“Later they brought in a fully-automated machine to do the job. I said, ‘I hope it doesn’t work.’ I was a cut-up. I made good money on that machine. Raymond would say to me, ‘Just kill some time if you want to’ (because she was far ahead of schedule).
“After that job, they brought wall clocks in. I was the first one to assemble those. I had to oil and grease those wheels as I assembled them. Then I worked in the motor department with the big Benderson Machine that we called Big Ben. It took four women to operate it, and a man to run it. I got to where I could run the machine as good as him, and if he was late, I would run that machine.”
Taylor noted that she performed dozens of tasks at the Lebanon factory and often would help catch up on the assembly lines if they got behind. She also worked with three employees on another machine called Little Ben.
“I was sorry to see Lux close. It was a good place to work and you could make good money if you worked. I did so many jobs that I’ve forgotten some of them. I enjoyed assembling clocks and running Big Ben and Little Ben. Two men told me, ‘Dimple, you run Ben better than any man.’ Every time they (management) came from Waterbury, they watched me operate the key machine. I had some great times there,” said Taylor.
Making his mark at Robertshaw
Lebanon native Ronnie Marks put in 20-plus years with Robertshaw/Lux enlisting with the company while he was an industrial engineering major at the University of Tennessee.
“The Robertshaw plant in Knoxville was just down the street from the UT campus and we had labs for some of my classes there. One of the engineers suggested that I might want to sign up for the co-op program which meant you worked a couple of quarters and went to school the other two quarters every year. He said it would give me a head start in the job market when I graduated. I broached the idea of working in Lebanon since it was my hometown and then started working there in 1962,” said Marks.
After graduating from college in January 1966, Marks was offered a job by Lux as an industrial engineer, which he accepted. He served a stint as a pilot in the Air Force and then returned to accept the job of industrial engineering manager.
“It was a family-like atmosphere, a fantastic place with a lot of great people. We had a lot of women employees doing the assembly work. Females made up probably 85 percent or so of the workers. Product assembly was made up of a lot of small delicate parts and women’s finger dexterity was almost always more capable than men’s. They excelled in it,” said Marks.
As engineering manager, he went through a series of posts with the company. Among his assignments was the responsibility for building the Carthage plant (1973-1974).
“We had just moved into the new plant in the industrial subdivision near the Cumberland River in March 1975. The Corps of Engineers had approved of our building even though it was within the flood plain because our floor level was about a foot above the 100-year-projected flood level. We had just moved in and here came a 100-year rainfall putting our new plant under three feet of water,” Marks recalled.
“We managed to dry out and move on and it turned out to be pretty successful. I managed the plant for about a year and then returned to Lebanon as the division purchasing manager for a couple of years. I was named sales and marketing manager in late 1979 and did that until I left in the spring of 1984 to start my own business.”
Marks joined the company when the Lebanon factory was called Robertshaw Lux Time Division. At that time there was a full-blown company trucking operation running between Waterbury and the Lebanon plant.
“We later became part of Robertshaw’s Tennessee Division which merged us with the Knoxville plant, formerly called the Fulton Sylphon Division. They manufactured thermostats and other temperature controls for automobile and truck engines. Lebanon, Carthage and Knoxville management worked together as one profit center,” Marks noted.