North St. Paul residents reminisce on a historic local business


Bruce Fisher, a board member for the North St. Paul Historical Society, explained that one of the buildings was parallel to the Soo Line railroad tracks and had the railcars go right into the building to make loading and unloading easier. The tracks are still there today, although they can’t be seen because they have been paved over.

Title plates like the one above were placed on the high end conveyors that Standard Conveyor built.

Standard Conveyor is long gone, but memories remain

When you look out on North St. Paul’s quiet residential neighborhoods and scattering of small shops, it’s hard to imagine the suburb was once a bustling manufacturing hub peppered with three and four story factories located along the railroad tracks. 

Today’s North St. Paul is home to large companies like Berwald Roofing & Sheet Metal Co., Inc., and T.A. Schifsky & Sons, Inc., but in the early 1900s some of the largest businesses were Luger Furniture Factory, North St. Paul Casket Company and, of course, Standard Conveyor.

Many longtime North St. Paul residents are already familiar with the former company, Standard Conveyor, because between 1906 and 1981 nearly everyone in the town had a family member or friend employed there. 

On Jan. 24, 2017, community members gathered at the North St. Paul Historical Society Museum for a presentation about Standard Conveyor and to share stories about this historic company, but this could be the last time such a large group will meet specifically about Standard Conveyor.

Perhaps it is the busy lifestyles of the young, or that new residents don’t have familial ties to the area’s past, but very few residents younger than 60 attended the Standard Conveyor presentation to learn about this thick chapter of their city’s history.

Standard Conveyor was one of the biggest companies in North St. Paul between 1906 and 1981, and it was one of the three largest material handling businesses in the country. The company sold a broad line of custom-built conveyor products such as spiral chutes, record lifts and luggage conveyors. The company’s headquarters in North St. Paul employed between 250 and 300 people at the time it closed. 

 

North St. Paul Historical Society

The North St. Paul Historical Society often features guest speakers at their monthly meetings held at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of the month at the North St. Paul History Museum, 2666 Seventh Ave. 

The museum also currently has several Standard Conveyor artifacts on display and is open Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information call 651-747-2432 or email nsphistorical@gmail.com.

 

Memories of Standard Conveyor

Leroy Spangler grew up in North St. Paul, and right after graduating from North High School in 1953 he started working for Standard Conveyor for 67 cents an hour. His first paycheck totaled around $67. 

Spangler stuck with that job all summer until he was drafted into the military. After two and a half years stationed overseas in Korea, he went back to his job at Standard Conveyor. 

“He went through the good times and the bad times. They finally let him go in 1980. By that time he was a lead man and they’d give him a stack of prints... and he’d send a half dozen guys and get the materials and build a conveyor,” said Bruce Fisher, a board member for the North St. Paul Historical Society.

Spangler explained that when he would get the blueprints from the engineers, they would be designed in one direction and say “as shown,” so when they needed to build the exact same conveyor in the opposite direction the engineers would have to draw up the blueprints all over again, which was time consuming. 

Then one day Spangler and some others were horsing around and realized they could just hang the original prints in the window to see the reverse image. They eventually developed a habit of doing this to save time.

 

Product demonstrations popular among workers

Apparently, the men in the shop occasionally had some mischievous fun on the days when products were tested or demonstrated on the freshly built conveyors. 

Bruce Fisher, a board member for the North St. Paul Historical Society, shared a story he collected from a former worker who was unable to attend the Jan. 24 presentation. 

In this instance a 200-pound crate of meat was brought into Standard Conveyor to ensure that the conveyor would work properly for that product, but at the end of the day after most of the workers went home someone discovered that all the meat had disappeared.

Leroy Spangler, who worked in the shop, chuckled and added that the same thing happened on a similar big job for Hamm’s Brewery.

Standard Conveyor’s Silver Lake slide

For years a beloved feature of Silver Lake Park was the spiral-shaped metal slide located near the swimming beach. The slide was built by Standard Conveyor, which made structural repairs almost impossible after the company shut down in 1981. Ultimately, the slide was removed in 2012, much to the dismay of North St. Paul residents.

According to former Standard Conveyor employee Randy Greenlee, the chutes were assembled in the shop around columns with holes drilled in them.

“Each column was drilled in a different pattern to conform with the size and pitch of the chute they were building. The wings were prefabricated in the sheet metal shop, but when they came down every part was hammered and fitted in assembly and then taken apart and shipped and reinstalled,” Greenlee said.

Some of those chutes were used to transport boxed products to a lower level of factories or office buildings while others were used as fire escapes. The Silver Lake slide was originally the fire escape for the old Standard Conveyor office building. 

North St. Paul Historical Society board member Sue Springborn says that her brother-in-law grew up in North St. Paul, and sometimes as a little boy on his way home from school he and other kids would climb up the circular fire escape and into the building. 

She adds that occasionally there would be men working in the building, and they would throw buckets of water down the chute at the kids to get them to stop, but that only made the slide more fun.

According to Review archives, the North St. Paul Lions Club repurposed the Standard Conveyor fire escape as a slide at Silver Lake Park in May 1955. For over half a century it was a popular attraction unique to North St. Paul, but in spring 2011 the slide was closed after it was hit by a vehicle that “careened off the street and smashed the steps.” 

The community rallied together to save the slide, but by early November 2011, the city council decided that the slide had to be retired. In addition to needing structural repairs, the slide was too tall to be insured by the League of Minnesota Cities. 

The slide remained closed until it was removed June 2012. Three generations of children were able to enjoy the slide over the years, and it is still remembered by residents as an icon of North St. Paul.

According to “A Century of Good Living North St. Paul” by Rosemary Palmer, Standard Conveyor survived the first exodus of large factories in North St. Paul, which took place in the 1950s, and by the beginning of the 1960s “most new commercial development was occurring outside North St. Paul’s village limits in areas where large tracts of land offered ample space for sprawling office complexes and manufacturing businesses.”

Palmer wrote that in the early 1970s “interstate freeways including I-694, I-494 and I-94 were under construction,” but Standard Conveyor, which shut down Aug. 28, 1981, was just one of many long-term North St. Paul manufacturing companies that closed in a wave throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Standard Conveyor was located on Second Street North, just west of the North St. Paul Public Works facility. 

Bruce Fisher, a North St. Paul Historical Society board member, explained that one Standard Conveyor building, the office building that was built in 1951, is still there today, but almost everything else has changed since Standard Conveyor pulled up stakes 36 years ago.

“Now they’ve got loading docks out there and storefronts, and there’s half a dozen different businesses in there,” Fisher added. 

According to Fisher, Gene Berwald, who graduated from North High in 1954 and now owns Berwald Roofing & Sheet Metal Co., Inc., bought the property when Standard Conveyor went out of business in 1981, and still owns it today. 

 

Humble beginnings 

Randy Greenlee worked in the engineering department and later the sales department at Standard Conveyor. He explained that the original idea for the manufacturing business came when some railroad yard workers nailed coffee cans to 2x4 timbers to help roll sacks of product to the rail cars. 

A company called Minnesota Manufacturing developed from that idea, except instead of using coffee cans as the rollers, the company used wooden dowels that were bored out on the inside. 

After about two years, H.L. Donahower bought the company and changed the name to Standard Conveyor. 

Leroy Spangler began working in the shop in 1953, and shared his memories of Standard Conveyor at the historical society meeting. Spangler remembered Donahower as a nice man who would walk through the shop every day to talk and shake hands with the workers.

Gene Cournoyer, who worked in the cost and sales departments starting in 1960, recalled that H.L. could afford to have a personal chauffer who drove him to work every day and picked him up at the end of the day, but Cournoyer also remembered him as a very good businessman.

“He built Standard Conveyor to the point where they were a major player in the industry,” Cournoyer said.

 

Custom products

Greenlee explained that the big three material handling companies all began before World War II and were referred to as “custom houses.” They were called that because they designed and constructed conveyor systems that were specific for the use. 

Greenlee explained that the conveyor companies that came after World War II sold only pre-engineered conveyors, and while these conveyers could do the job, they were not of the same quality as the custom-built conveyors. 

For example, Standard Conveyor fabricated almost all of the components for its conveyors except items like chains, motors, sprockets and bushings. The company also sold its products based on the weight that each individual bearing and roller was rated for, and Greenlee and Cournoyer both know of businesses that are still using custom-built Standard Conveyor systems today. 

The pre-engineered conveyors built by later companies were sold only based on the type of job it could do, not the weight that the components were designed for. 

A few Standard Conveyor products included palletizers to stack goods on a wooden pallet, spiral chutes for fire escapes and transporting goods to a lower floor, lifts to transport records and mail in high-rise offices, pneumatic tubes for banks, luggage conveyors for airports and self-bussing conveyors for cafeterias. 

With its large product line, Standard Conveyor sold products in almost every industry including health care, automotive, military, food service, grocery, cosmetics and package handling. Its products were used by small local businesses all the way up to major companies like Revlon and 3M.

“They really had a broad product line and did well with it. There weren’t many customers that we couldn’t service,” Cournoyer said. “It was great selling for them because everybody was a customer.”

 

The end of an era 

Everything with the company seemed to run smoothly until the late 1970s when a combination of three separate events financially crippled Standard Conveyor. 

Standard Conveyor filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 1978 or early 1979, according to Greenlee. He explained that this was a result of rising interest rates, a workers strike and three giant military jobs, one of which was severely underbid and ultimately ended up being the tipping point.

However, this was not yet the end of Standard Conveyor.

After the first bankruptcy, a new president was hired, and he found out that the job for the Naval Air Station in San Diego was bid about $2 million below the next bidder. Lucky for Standard Conveyor, there was no paper trail showing that the government went back to have them verify that the bid was correct. 

Cournoyer added that this policy was in the contract, and because it wasn’t fulfilled, Standard Conveyor was able to get out of its contract.

“So then they had a second wind,” Cournoyer explained, but added that as the company was being built back up, the owner discovered the company had picked up five product liability lawsuits that were not covered by insurance. 

Standard Conveyor filed for bankruptcy a second time and the company closed for good.

It is true that the landscape has changed and Standard Conveyor products are slowly being replaced by more modern machinery, but many North St. Paul residents carry on the memory of this historic company. 

Even those who are too young or too new to the area to remember, are affected by this historic company. Through its innovative product line and national sales, Standard Conveyor changed the way American industries operate, and with its local headquarters, Standard Conveyor helped North St. Paul develop into the city it is today.  

 

Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com.

 

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