Charles H. Ball:
Making His Mark
Charles H. Ball, Inquiring Mind
It's fair to say that Charles H. Ball (1861-1928) is a man who made a mark on our town.
Born in Peru and educated at the Stone Schoolhouse, as a young man Ball worked in Cummington for Stevens Manufacturing. Stevens made pencils and tool handles. Ball moved to East Windsor in the 1880s, where he started out working for Granville Jordan, who owned an iron foundry and machine shop in East Windsor. Jordan manufactured "Jordan's Improved Turbine Water Wheels," circular and band saws, and other kinds of machinery.
It was a great fit for Ball, who was a gifted natural mechanic and engineer. Before long, the two men were partners in a new business, Jordan and Ball, which manufactured wrought-iron bridge stringers. This is probably when Ball began thinking about bridge design. He was unimpressed by many of the bridges he saw being built, which he felt were over-designed and too expensive.
First Bridge Sale
In 1888, the two men sold a small bridge, perhaps a prototype of the design Ball patented later, to Peru. They reportedly charged only $50, even then a ludicrously low price. That same year, Ball built a machine shop in East Windsor to work on his bridge designs.
In 1893, Ball patented what he termed "The Cheapest Iron Bridge in the World" in a promotional flyer. "As Strong as the strongest...As durable as iron and steel."
Economically priced and easy to assemble on-site, Ball's design found a ready market in nearby small towns. This was a time when increasing traffic was putting a strain on traditional wooden bridges, but iron equivalents were budget-busters for small communities. About 25 Ball bridges are known to have been built. The Coleman Bridge crossing Phelps Brook in Windsor Bush is one of the only ones still standing, though no longer in use.
This photo of the Coleman bridge clearly shows a characteristic of the design that called for hands-on community involvement - the thick pipe that forms the upper part of the bridge. "A man who grew up in East Windsor told me that...an end of the long pipe would lie in the hot ashes of an outdoor fire for hours, and then after supper when the young men of the village were looking for excitement they would take the pipe, place the heated spot between two closely located stone posts, then all would give a push and bend it in the desired shape." (From a reminiscence written by David J. Malcolm in 1928.)
Ball "represents a late flowering of the mechanic-inventor tradition" whose bridges were "strikingly elegant in their simplicity," according to documents supporting the listing of Coleman Bridge on the National Register. All that said, Ball was out of the bridge business by 1895.
Millions of Lollypop Sticks
In 1895, Ball purchased a portable sawmill and the Wooden Bench and Screw Factory, which he renamed the Ball Mill.
Over the years, this rambling structure turned out barrel staves, brush handles, pen-holders and wooden coat hangers for national and international markets. In 1905, Ball became a specialist in pointed sticks: meat skewers, lollypop sticks, knitting needles and pencils.
"He made many improvements in existing machinery, redesigning nearly every machine used in his mill. This improved equipment greatly increased production, the daily output of the factory in its early days, 30,000 individual pieces, growing to 700,000 in later years," according to a biographical sketch in the 1932 edition of the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography.
A 1924 newspaper article (source not known) claims that at that time, Ball was turning out 100 million lollypop sticks per year, for sale in England, Argentina and major US cities. At that time, Ball was recovering market share after the disruptions of World War I, and facing new competition in the form of a flood of bamboo lollypop sticks coming out of Japan.
Wooden coat hangers were another Ball specialty. According to the same article, when the historic Mary Lyon black walnut tree at Mount Holyoke College was damaged in a storm during the War, Ball transformed the tree into wooden hangers and knitting needles that were then sold at a premium price to support the war effort.
Neighbor, Citizen, Family Man
Ball would probably agree that his most important legacy was not the few dozen bridges of his design dotted around the landscape, or the river of lollpop sticks that flowed forth from his mill.
Married in 1893 to Cora Jenkins of Cummington, Ball was as devoted to building his community as to building his business. He and Cora had one child, Mary, and Cora was a hard-working partner to Charles, baking dozens of loaves of bread and dozens of pies each week for the workers who boarded in the numerous East Windsor houses owned by Ball.
Cora died in 1911. Hers was the first funeral ever held in the East Windsor Chapel, taking place even before the dedication of the building. (Ball was one of several who donated land and funds towards construction of the chapel.)
Their daughter Mary would have been younger than 10 when Cora died. It is likely she is one of the two girls in this picture of Ball's house in East Windsor.
Ball had a reputation as a fond father and a lover of children. He donated funds each year so that every child in the community could have a gift at the annual Christmas Tree event at the East Windsor Chapel. As a member of the board of selectmen for 20 years, and as Town Meeting Moderator for more than 40, Ball had opportunities to steer Windsor in a child-friendly direction.
"At a special town meeting, Windsor voted to give $300, unrestricted, to the teachers for warm lunches, prizes, candy for parties or anything else the children would enjoy. It was Mr. Ball's scheme...Later some of the voters felt that $300 was too much...so they came to the special meeting unanimous in their determination to cut the amount in half. When the time came to vote Mr. Ball announced that if there was any man in Windsor mean enough to take money away from a child the town would soon know his name. Not a single man voted to reconsider the article." (From David Malcolm's 1928 reminiscence.)
Ball died in 1928. The site of his now-vanished mill is shown as #20 on our online map of historical site markers.