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February 23, 2013

Firearms manufacturing created Ilion in the 19th century

By Mark Simonson
The Daily Star

---- — One can only wonder what the late Eliphalet Remington and son might be thinking these days, about five states courting the Remington Arms Co. Inc. plant in Ilion to relocate to more “gun-friendly” states. 

The efforts have been under way since the passage of the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement, or SAFE Act, in January. If Remington stays, it will mark its bicentennial in Ilion in 2016, having employed thousands from northern Otsego County and the Mohawk Valley throughout its history.

Remington and his wife, Elizabeth Kilbourne, were among the many people who headed west from New England after the Revolutionary War. The Remingtons left Connecticut in 1800, finding some acreage to their liking in the hills just south of Ilion. Eliphalet built a forge and blacksmith shop to help in making his own farm equipment.

Among the Remington family was Eliphalet Jr., who was age 23 in 1816. He wanted a rifle for hunting, but one was quite expensive. His father offered him the use of the forge to make one of his own. Young Eliphalet collected enough scrap metal until he could shape a thick, oblong sheet of metal around a rod. He then lap-welded the edges, removed the rod and had the first Remington barrel. With help from a Utica gunsmith, the firearm became ready for use.

Young Eliphalet obviously had some skill in forging, as neighboring farmers soon wanted similar rifles. The Remington’s forge in Ilion Gulph became a shop for making not only guns, but also a variety of farm tools. Orders for Remington’s guns were so good that once the Erie Canal was dug through the valley in 1821, they could be shipped and sold in remote areas.

Remington’s forge was a bit remote from the Erie Canal, a four-mile journey. By 1828, Eliphalet saw the need to be closer to sources of transportation. With financial assistance, Remington bought 100 acres south of the present East Main Street and east of Otsego Street, and built his first armory.

The village grew with the Remington factory. It soon became evident that a post office was needed, as well as a permanent name for the village. It had been called a number of names, including Remington’s Corners, but Eliphalet Remington had refused the honor of the village being named after him. David D. Devoe became the first postmaster and came up with the name Ilion, which he remembered from ancient history as the Greek name for Troy. Devoe sent the name to Washington, D.C without consulting the citizens, and Congress approved the new name. The village was incorporated in 1852.

While guns made for good business, the Remington armory continued making farm utensils and other iron articles. It wasn’t until 1845 that the gun business expanded, with the armory’s first government contract for the Mexican War. The Civil War meant even more business, as Remington received over $2-million for arms delivered. By now, Eliphalet joined forces with his three sons, forming a company called E. Remington and Sons.

By the 1870s a letdown in work at the armory came as other countries began to establish their own munitions factories. According to “Ilion — The Town Remington Made” by Warren E. Schulz, the Remingtons had thought about retiring, but continued operations and diversified their manufacturing into peaceful lines, including agricultural implements, sewing machines, electric light systems, typewriters and much more. The first 100 velocipedes made in the United States were produced in the Remington plant.

E. Remington and Sons had hit grave times by the mid-1880s, and was bought in a sale in 1888 by a firm called Hartley and Graham. The company was reorganized and named the Remington Arms Company. The company continued to struggle, but prosperity returned in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

During World War I, when the U.S. entered, normal employment of 900 jumped to 11,000, in producing nearly 3,000 rifles per day. The same escalation was true during World War II. Employees came from near and far, some commuting by rail and later by car. Relatives have told me that my grandparents, James and Emma Cleary, met at the Remington factory in World War I. The day after they met, the war was over and they were let go, amongst many others. The couple later married and eventually made their way to southern Otsego County.

Today, Remington Arms employs nearly 1,200.

On Monday: Some of the life and times of our area in February 1968.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.