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How Hilliard helped win World War II

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On Aug. 9, 1945 — three days after an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan — Edward A. Mooers, general manager of the Hilliard Corp., sent a letter to Hilliard employees, beginning with “Now we know.”

He was referring to the oil reclaimers which had been shipped to Oak Ridge, Tennessee — where the bomb was developed.

He went on to write, “All we’ve known until the atomic bomb news ‘broke’ two days ago, was, this was secret project number 1, it was said to be of equal importance post war …over a period of nearly two years we have shipped 134 machines to this plant. We are now working on an order for 16 on which the highest priority, AAA, was ‘slapped’ last week … We can all take some credit for having had a direct part in this revolutionary development. We can definitely share the satisfaction of ‘helping to win the war.’”

Hilliard’s contribution to “winning the war” went beyond the effort at Oak Ridge.

The Star-Gazette reported on Feb. 25, 1945, that “Oil purifiers, reclaimers and filters being manufactured in large quantities for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Maritime Commission in the company’s two local factories are prolonging the life of mobile fighting equipment as well as the life of the nation’s oil reserves.”

In addition, clutches were made for naval gun fire control and sub signed detection equipment, as well as purifiers for refrigeration units for the South Pacific.

The success of the company at the end of World War II was a far cry from its low point in 1933, when just seven people were employed, with an average employment of 10 for the year.

The company was incorporated in 1905 as the Hilliard Clutch and Machinery Co. It was founded by William J. Hilliard, “a skillful machinist and pattern maker with imagination and initiative,” according to Ed Mooers. Hilliard was born in 1884 in Alliance, Ohio. From there, he moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, and Niagara Falls.

While in Niagara Falls, he invented what became known as the “Hilliard Clutch.” After patenting his invention and moving to Elmira around 1900, “he interested a number of Elmira men in investing money in a new company to make his new clutch.” They raised $54,000, incorporated, rented an old building at 102 W. Fourth St. and began production.

The building, still in use today, was built before the Civil War. The second floor once was a dance hall patronized by rolling mill workers and builders of the Erie Railroad. The Irving D. Booth hardware concern and the Barton-Wheadon wholesale grocery also started business in the building.

In his history of the company, “The Hilliard Corporation: Past and Present,” Mooers noted that “On April 18, 1906, 23-year-old Max Erhart (Mr. Hilliard”s brother in law) unlocked the front door and swept the building for the first time. Erhart was Hilliard’s first employee.”

The only product made was the Hilliard Friction Clutch. The company struggled. For the first seven years, 1906 to 1912, “total sales were $25,914 and total loss was $50,075 ….” A reorganization took place in 1908, which brought in new capital and a “rejuvenation.” The Star-Gazette reported that change was intended to “extend business and make it one of the biggest and best concerns of its kind in the state.”

In 1912, W.J. Hilliard sold all his stock, moved to St. Louis and severed all connections with the company. He died in December 1956 at age 72.

Over the years, the company experienced ups and downs. In the January 1925, the “shop force consisted of 13 men, each working 50 hours per week. The total payroll was $366.98 averaging $28.22 for each employee.” Also that year, the company changed its name to the Hilliard Corp. and started making an oil reclaiming machine.

A newcomer to Elmira, Delos Giles rescued the company, which was on the verge of selling out or closing. He was aware that General Electric had developed a machine for reclaiming oil to be made reusable. General Electric wanted to find a company to produce the reclaimer under a royalty arrangement. Hilliard secured the contract, improved the reclaimer and began production of their second product.

In a 1957 article, the Star-Gazette noted that the Hilliard Corp. “would be considered today by most standards as a small and solid organization with a diversity of customers that means steady employment and successful operation ….” That remains true today.

At the time of the article, Hilliard had approximately 150 employees; today, somewhat larger, they employ around 490. Now they have two divisions — the Motion Control Division, which produces clutches and brakes; and Hilco, which produces filtration products. Arie van den Blink — chairman and chief executive officer, as well as the grandson of Edward Mooers — claims proudly that their market is worldwide, doing business with more than 60 countries. Hilliard has well over 30 patents and he notes that everything they make, they design.

Now, instead of two standard products, a clutch and an oil reclaimer, they make “thousands of standard products” that can be customized or, if needed, newly designed.

Jim Hare is a former history teacher and mayor of the City of Elmira. His column appears monthly in the Star-Gazette.

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