June 21, 1889, was a noteworthy day in the city of Canton, Ohio. 126 years ago this Sunday, the first watch case was made at the Dueber Hampden watch works in Canton, which would go on to become one of the city’s largest employers over the coming decades.
In 1886, businessman John Dueber purchased a controlling interest in the Hampden Watch Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. Two years later, he relocated that company as well as his own, the Dueber Watch Case Co. (from Newport, Kentucky), to Canton after the city and its officials were successfully able to raise $100,000 to attract the new business. Located in two adjacent factories, these two companies shared manufacturing facilities but initially remained separate. The Dueber Watch Case Company provided casings to the Hampden Watch Company, which manufactured the internal workings of the watches.
Dueber and Hampden quickly became two of the area’s largest employers. In 1888, the companies’ first year in Canton, the firms employed 2,300 local residents–nearly 10% of the city’s population as reported in the 1890 census! Thanks to these two companies, Canton became an important center for watch manufacturing in the United States. In 1923, the two companies formally united together, becoming known as the Dueber-Hampden Watch Company.
A changing manufacturing environment, new watch fashions and declining sales contributed to the Dueber family selling the company to Walter Vrettman in 1925. Vrettman went bankrupt not long after in 1927 and sold all of the company’s equipment to Amtorg, a Russian purchasing company, after the company finally ceased operations in the city in 1930. Nearly 30 boxcars of machinery left Canton in 1931 with a group of former Dueber Hampden employees (watchmakers, engravers and various other technicians) who were contracted for one year to teach the Russians the craft of watchmaking at the First State Watch Factory in Moscow.
Although the immense watch works have since been torn down to make way for I-77 through Canton, the legacy of this important local business lives on in northeast Ohio and beyond!
Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!