The word “centennial” is getting a lot of usage these days. It’ll get even more around these parts in the coming years.
This year Indiana is observing its bicentennial anniversary, 200 years of statehood. Events marking the significance of the achievement have been staged around the state. One of the most comprehensive of these was the Bicentennial Torch Relay, which crossed into and out of all 92 counties.
It arrived in Columbus in September, when a crowd of several hundred greeted dozens of local residents who had been nominated to carry the symbolic torch through Bartholomew County and to the library on Fifth Street.
While the state’s anniversary is important to local residents, two other upcoming celebrations have a far greater impact much closer to home.
In 2019, the community’s largest and most significant employer, Cummins Inc., will turn 100. That’s a remarkable achievement for any business enterprise, but in considering the history of this global manufacturer, it’s a tale almost made for Hollywood.
The company was created by a chauffeur-mechanic named Clessie Cummins and his employer, a Columbus banker named W.G. Irwin. It would have been an understatement to have called it a risky venture, and its first quarter-century of existence bore that out. It wasn’t until 1937 that the fledgling maker of diesel engines turned its first profit. Today, it has plants around the world and employs thousands in Columbus alone.
There won’t be a lot of time for the community to take a break from the Cummins Inc. celebration because two years later in 2021 Bartholomew County will observe its own bicentennial. Actually, that celebration might start quite a bit earlier. In 2019, it will be 200 years since the arrival of the first settlers in Bartholomew County.
That’s a lot to celebrate, but there’s one centennial that sadly will never come to pass for thousands of local residents who worked at a company most had simply known as Arvin. Ironically, the company that would later be called Arvin Industries began life in 1919, the same year that Cummins Engine Co. was launched.
It was born not in Columbus but Indianapolis, where a Bartholomew County native, Q.G. Noblitt, formed a partnership with a friend, Frank Sparks. Noblitt, who like Clessie Cummins was a tinkering mechanic, had hit upon an idea of developing an air pump that could be used in the repair of flat tires. He assured Sparks he could develop such a device, and Sparks said he could sell it.
Both were true to their word. Their company, aptly called the Indianapolis Air Pump Co., turned a $10,000 profit in its first year of operation.
Indeed, whereas Cummins struggled in its infancy, the Air Pump Co. expanded, even venturing into the manufacture of toys. The company name was changed in 1927 to Noblitt-Sparks, reflecting the names of its cofounders. It was initially unfazed by the breakout of the Great Depression but experienced a downturn in business in 1931, the year it moved its corporate headquarters to Columbus.
That began a relationship that would endure through the rest of the 20th century. The name Noblitt-Sparks was a household phrase in Bartholomew County. From 1931 to 1950 thousands of local families who received paychecks from the employer became part of the extended company family.
The air pump manufacturer expanded into other areas. Workers produced automobile exhaust systems. They even ventured into the manufacture of radios. They proved adaptable. When World War II erupted, Noblitt-Sparks joined thousands of other industries in converting their operations to wartime production.
Workers who once had assembled car mufflers and radios were suddenly asked to put together chemical and incendiary bombs, rocket-launching tubes, steel containers, fire extinguishers, anti-tank mine parts and parts for military vehicles. The company was recognized for its wartime service with “E” awards from the War Department, and dozens of its employees made the ultimate sacrifice during the war.
It returned to peacetime production after the war and in 1950 changed its name to Arvin Industries. The company remained a bedrock in its adopted community. Over the next 50 years while it assumed an international role, it was still very much a hometown operation. It became so successful that it was named a member of the Fortune 500 leading corporations in the country, joining Cummins on that list.
While the impact of the companies was global, Columbus and Bartholomew County benefited from both employers, not just with the paychecks they provided or the local taxes they paid, but the involvement of their workforces in making the city a better place to live.
Their foundations provided assistance for scores of local initiatives, and a partnership between the chairmen of their companies, Henry Schacht and Jim Baker, was instrumental in the success of Focus 2000, an effort of the public and private sectors that moved the community forward on a variety of fronts.
By the turn of the century, the ties of Arvin and Cummins to the community seemed unbreakable. Families assumed that their children would have jobs at the companies just for the asking. Social agencies and other not-for-profit groups built their futures around their continued involvement.
That changed in 2000 when Arvin Chairman Bill Hunt announced that the Columbus-based company had merged with Meritor Inc., a Michigan-based manufacturer. At first, the impact on the community appeared minimal. Columbus plants continued in production, but there was one significant change. The headquarters for the merged company was moved to Michigan.
For a time there were hopes that the new and expanded headquarters would return to Columbus, but that was only a futile dream. The nightmare came when ArvinMeritor began divesting itself of its Columbus properties. The final insult came when the Arvin name was dropped by the company as it returned to the original Meritor.
Today, there is little but memories with the Arvin name attached. An argument can be made that the legacy of the company that began by making tire pumps has been passed to a major local manufacturer, Faurecia Inc., which has acquired old Arvin properties. Indeed, many Faurecia employees consider themselves the descendants of the Indianapolis Air Pump Co.
Still, the Arvin name will linger through the lives of its former workers and ironically be repeated in their obituaries. But it doesn’t look as if there will be a centennial anniversary for the company that Q.G. Noblitt and Frank Sparks started in 1919.
Perhaps sometime that year former Arvin employees or their descendants at Faurecia might gather and raise their glasses in at least a quiet salute to a company that is now a thing of the past.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.