• U.S.

Business: Inconsistent Firemen

3 minute read

Iron Fireman Manufacturing Co. of Portland, Ore. makes more automatic coal stokers than any other firm. In the last few years it has grown so big that it no longer has one annual dealers’ convention. It has five—one after another, two days apiece, in Cleveland, Manhattan, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Paul. Last week, as the “traveling convention” got under way in Cleveland, 400 dealers were astonished to hear that Iron Fireman, which made $711,000 in 1937 from an uncompromising warfare on oil burners, was going into the oil burner business itself.

Iron Fireman has been for twelve years one of the few things for which coalmen could be thankful. In 1923, two years before the big anthracite strike that set the industry staggering, two Portland contractors, Thomas Harry Banfield and Cyrus Jury Parker, took over a small local iron works and with it a clumsy automatic stoker which they improved and called Iron Fireman.

Meanwhile, people were putting oil burners in their basements. Oil burners, compared to the ordinary coal furnace then in use, could be run almost as cheaply, more efficiently, with considerably less fuss. Grateful coalmen reflect that without Iron Fireman their entire market might have been lost to oil. Few Iron Fireman stokers were put into new homes but they were attached to old coal furnaces for less than $500 in 1926, $275 now. They conveyed the coal mechanically from the coal bin to the furnace, and because they fed it in beneath the fire instead of dumping it on top, there were few ashes, little smoke, and customers got more heat for their money.

In 1928 Cyrus Parker, the first Iron Fireman president, was killed in an air crash. Harry Banfield was badly hurt in the same crash, but recovered to take over. Iron Fireman has always made some kind of a profit—$484,000 is the average for the past ten years. But for two years, despite all the slighting things his salesmen have been saying about oil, Harry Banfield has been tinkering with an oil burner.

This does not mean that Mr. Banfield has lost faith in his Iron Fireman. Sales of automatic stokers are on the rise. In 1933 one automatic stoker was sold for every six oil burners; last year the proportion was one to 2.2. But he has cogent reasons for surprising his dealers: 1) About a third of Iron Fireman dealers sell oil burners as well as stokers, and he would like them to have a complete line of Iron Fireman equipment; 2) The rest of his dealers want a crack at the newconstruction market, for most contractors still put oil burners in their new houses; 3) Mr. Banfield thinks that making an oil burner may turn out to be a clever way of getting oil burner dealers to carry stokers; 4) In case all attempts to patch up the languishing coal industry fail and it goes completely to pieces. Iron Fireman will not have all of its fuel in one furnace.

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