Monday, July 8, 2013

Plumbing Local Family History: Aird Dorrance

Henry Aird 01Last week’s coverage here of Airdmore, that unusual camping colony at Elizabethtown in 1922, prompted a number of questions for me, particularly about the unusual surname of the main player, Henry Aird. The name was familiar to me in only one regard―from the plumbing supply company, Aird Dorrance, based in Morrisonville, near Plattsburgh, and with facilities in Ballston Lake and Clifton Park. I wanted to know: could there be a connection between the modern company and the business founded more than a century ago by Henry Aird?

If so, then he left a remarkable and lasting impact on North Country history in an economic sense, creating jobs for more than a hundred years, all of them resulting from choices he made in his business career long ago.

So I started digging. Early on, the effort was plagued by the usual problems that require clarification, especially regarding early records. As uncommon as the name Aird is, there were Airds and Bairds in Elizabethtown at the same time, led by men with the same first name―Henry. Both were among the moneyed class of visitors who frequented the village. Keeping their stories separate was easy enough, but the Airds’ reuse of given names and middle names, and the inconsistent use of middle initials in identifying them in legal papers and newspapers, was another story.

With those issues finally sorted out, some specifics were revealed. Henry Aird was born in 1840 in the Scottish lowlands region of Lanarkshire County. His family emigrated to the United States in the mid-1850s, a move perhaps prompted by their home region’s badly failing economy―low wages, high unemployment, dismal housing conditions―and the hope for a new start in America.

More than a decade before they left Scotland, Mrs. Aird had married a man by the name of Alexander Hamilton. Her brood had grown to include five Aird children plus two Hamiltons by the time the family moved to the US. The boys, led by 22-year-old Andrew Aird, began seeking business opportunities.

In 1864, Andrew and Henry Aird joined with William Hamilton in establishing a sewing machine sales and repair company in Troy, representing the Wheeler & Wilson company. In 1871, they opened a second outlet in the city. But in 1872, Henry branched out on his own, purchasing a Singer franchise. His brother and step-brother continued operating under the name Andrew Aird & Brother.

After a couple of years, Henry began looking for something different. In 1863, he had worked as an iron molder (the molds were used to create castings), developing skills that would soon guide his life in a new direction. At Cohoes was Smith & Company, makers of molded pipes and tubing. Henry became linked with the firm, and with two partners, he became co-owner of the newly named Curtis & Company. In 1887, a fourth partner, John Don, joined them. Ten years later it became the Cohoes Tube Works.

The firm flourished in a very lucrative industry, leading to more and bigger changes. In 1899, the Aird-Don Company was incorporated with capital of $150,000 ($4.3 million in 2013), under directors Henry Aird, John Don, Henry A. Aird, and Don Ennis.

The Aird family already enjoyed considerable wealth, but in 1899, more came their way―perhaps whether they wanted it or not. The National Tube Company was formed, capitalized with $80 million ($2.3 billion in 2013)―and financed by J. P. Morgan. Under its “umbrella,” 14 companies were absorbed, representing 90 percent of the entire industry. Two of the 14 were the Cohoes Tube Company and the Syracuse Tube Works, both owned in large part by Henry Aird and John Don, who were chosen to serve on the board of directors of the newly formed National Tube Company. Aird was named president of Aird-Don, and Don became secretary and treasurer.

They may have joined willingly, but any resistance would likely have been futile. The monopolistic powers of a trust were very familiar to the super-rich Morgan, as well as the man who held the reins to the entire works behind the scenes: J. D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest man in history. A trust increased profits by eliminating competition, but the National Tube Company had another purpose. Andrew Carnegie was soon to announce plans for facilities that would compete directly with Morgan and Rockefeller. By forming the tube trust, they sent a clear message to Carnegie that the competition was not welcome.

The individual tube companies flourished under the trust, including Aird-Don, which added branches in Plattsburgh, Kingston, and Schenectady in New York, and another in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Remember my curiosity about the Aird name and its possible connection to Aird Dorrance? With the Plattsburgh branch of Aird-Don in the early 1900s, I thought I had my answer. Well, not quite.

The money kept rolling in for Henry Aird and John Don (fellow Scotsmen, by the way). They retired from the board of National Tube in 1901, and with 14 others formed the Troy Trust Company, putting their newfound riches to work. Meanwhile, Aird-Don, home of the famed Troy Boiler, an industry standard, remained a leader in the field of wholesale gas, steam, and water supplies.

Members of both families traveled often, played leading roles in their communities, and enjoyed all the perks accompanying great wealth. In 1913, Henry, the family patriarch of the Airds, passed away. His estate, divided among family members, was valued at about $7 million (in 2013 dollars). His sons and other relatives carried on the family businesses.

Among a great number of those relatives, one name in particular caught my eye. Henry’s youngest child, Alice, married Frank Dorrance in 1908. And there it was―the Aird-Dorrance connection! It appeared that the company in Morrisonville had, in fact, combined the two family names. Which it had, but not in the way I first thought.

While living in Montreal, where Frank Dorrance was a civil engineer in the waterworks department, he and Alice had a son in 1926. They named him Henry Aird Dorrance, keeping the Aird component alive.

Fast forward 77 years to 2003, to an obituary for “Mr. Aird Dorrance,” cited as “the founder of Aird Dorrance Plumbing and Heating” in Morrisonville in 1960. Was it just coincidence that the grandson of Henry, born 13 years after his grandfather’s death, had pursued the same business?

Maybe. But in the years between Grandfather Henry’s death in 1913 and Aird Dorrance’s birth in 1926, the plumbing supply company (Aird-Don) had added a branch in Plattsburgh (Morrisonville is basically a Plattsburgh suburb). I could only guess that Frank had purchased the Plattsburgh branch, but as it turned out, Aird-Don had endured until 1951, when it was merged with the parent company, W. A. Case & Son of Buffalo. Mr. Aird Dorrance lived in Plattsburgh at that time, and later moved to the Albany area.

For nine years, it appears the name Aird was absent from Plattsburgh’s business scene until, based on his past experience in the industry, Mr. Dorrance and his wife Barbara established Aird Dorrance in 1960.

One more piece of information added to the family saga. What the above-mentioned obituary failed to note was one very important fact regarding the deceased: Aird Dorrance’s name was actually Henry Aird Dorrance. So the name had come full circle, attached to a pair of plumbing supply companies formed 80 years apart―and both very successful.

In 1995, Frank and Sheila Dorrance, the son and daughter-in-law of Aird and Barbara (and great-grandson of the original Henry Aird), joined the company.

In 2011, they sold Aird Dorrance to VP Supply of Rochester, but the local company retained its name. Sheila and Frank continued to handle Aird Dorrance’s three locations: Morrisonville, a showroom in Ballston Lake, and a warehouse in Clifton Park―just seven miles from where Henry Aird started it all with the Cohoes Tube Company.

Deciphering it all could drive you plumb crazy, but there’s no denying it’s a story that holds water.

Photo: Henry Aird (circa 1900).

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

One Response

  1. Big Burly says:

    Thanks Lawrence,

    Great read.