Stillwater Manufacturing Co: Gone, but not forgotten

Firm survived fire, sale, but fell victim to economics

The Stillwater Manufacturing Co. survived a devastating fire and sale, but eventually fell victim to the economics of the early 1980s, closing in 1982. (Photo courtesy of Washington County Historical Society)

About 100 years ago — maybe not that long — the north end of Stillwater was truly the community’s business park. There was the prison, the thresher company and Stillwater Manufacturing. As the others faded into the pages of history, the Stillwater Manufacturing Co. continued in business well into the 1980s.

The Stillwater Manufacturing Co. began as part of the Seymour, Sabin & Co.. This portion of the company was the “jobbing” division, and for some time, was not living up to expectations. This department made doors, windows, sashing and millwork. In 1872, Londrus Sargent was hired to lead this department.

After Seymour, Sabin & Co. changed its name to the Northwest Threshing Co., the “jobbing” department seemed to be doing better. But because of unfair competition by using the convict labor, the company was moved out of the prison shops in 1888, and to the Isaac Staples Sawmill.

This department became the Stillwater Manufacturing Co. (SMC), a subsidiary company to the Minnesota Thresher Manufacturing Co., formerly, Northwest Threshing Co. Plans were made for the SMC to incorporate, but the parent company decided to discontinue this branch of operations and closed it down.

A movement was immediately started to resurrect the company. Londrus Sargent, along with Swen Berglund, started a partnership to get the business going again. Through hard work, “generous aid and support of the then Board of Trade and the citizens of Stillwater,” the plant was leased and the company revived, operating under the same name.

Things were looking up for the SMC. Steady growth and local patronage helped the company become one of the most successful in the city. However, on Sept. 28, 1894, the company again faced elimination. On that fateful September day, the plant was destroyed by fire. Most of the lumber and manufactured stock on hand went up in flames. A total of $60,000 worth of damages befell the company, and with insurance not covering all the damages, it looked very much like the company would again be discontinued.

Again, the Stillwater citizens came to the aid of the company. With the amount that was raised, along with the little insurance money, it was enough to purchase the land and rebuild a factory and restart the business, again.

The company slowly added new machines and put in a dry kiln. The business increased and the company became noted for their high quality product.

“The success of the company” noted A.B. Easton in his History of the St. Croix Valley, “is largely owing to the straightforwardness and honorable manner in which it’s business has been conducted, and it’s high quality products.”
In 1902, Sargent’s business partner, Swen Berglund, disposed of his share of the company and moved away. Berglund, however, returned to Stillwater several years later.

The Stillwater Manufacturing Co. for all intents and purposes became a family business. Londrus Sargent’s grandson, Ronald S. Parkhurst, led the company from 1920 until 1964. Replacing Parkhurst was his son, David. His other son, James, became vice-president.

Over time, the Stillwater Manufacturing Co. supplied doors, sashes, and-or millwork to some major building throughout the U.S. Among these are the Minnesota and South Dakota state capitols, the Castle residence in Hawaii, the Federal Building in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Sheraton Hotel in Rochester, Minn. There are also hundreds of homes in Stillwater and the surrounding area with windows, doors, or molding made by the company.

In June 1978, it was announced that Stillwater Manufacturing Co. was sold to Gordon Sash and Door Co. of St. Louis Park. Stanley G. Tilly, vice president of Gordon’s, said that they were “very fortunate to finalize this arrangement after our many years of friendly association in the industry. This will afford both of us the opportunity to expand our services to our respective customers.”

However, it didn’t seem to work as Tilly planned. Less than four years after buying SMC, Gordon’s announced the closing of the plant in January 1982. Plant
General Manager Andy Hansen said, “The economy has slowed business volume to the point where it’s not feasible to keep it [SMC] running.”

This time there was no public help. No one like Londrus Sargent or Swen Berglund to take the risk, and the company milled its last piece of wood in 1982. After 122 years in the business, SMC company came to an end.

In June 1871, as the original McKusick Mill was being torn down, the editor of the Stillwater Messenger pondered, “thus, having withstood the elements, lo’, these many years, it is forced to give way to the march of improvement, and be ruthlessly torn down by the hand of those who little think or care for its age or crepitude. So it is with us all. A little life and activity, and then we are hid away among the numbered millions of the dead, soon to pass from memory and be forgotten.”

Hopefully, the Stillwater Manufacturing Co. will never be forgotten.

Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.