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Column: Ex-Orinoco Furniture building once used for bombs

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Mary Glasson had a special reason to read the Feb. 14 story in The Republic about plans to convert the 19th-century Orinoco Furniture Co. building on 17th Street into an apartment complex. She once worked there.

It was a while back, long before John Counceller and his son, Andrew, acquired it in the 1990s and rented it to a variety of small businesses. It was before Arvin Industries made radios there in the space where early 20th century skilled craftsmen turned out some of the finest furniture in the country.

Mary worked in the Orinoco building during World War II, shortly after the structure had been purchased by the Noblitt-Sparks Co. The building was used to make bombs.

Mary wasn’t actually employed by the Columbus-based firm. She was a federal employee, charged by the government to inspect and approve the finished products. Those products were 100-pound incendiary bombs that would later rain down on targets in the European and Pacific theaters.

They made a lot of them, more than a million according to the late Coke Coons in the company history, “Arvin ... the First 60 Years.” The “fire bombs” were just a portion of the products Noblitt-Sparks made for the military. With the outbreak of hostilities following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the company became one of many American industries that made a switch to war production.

Employees who had once made auto mufflers, room heaters and home radios switched over to producing materials for the War Department.

Here in Columbus, radio communications equipment was turned out at Noblitt-Sparks’ 13th and 14th street plants; metal reels, gasoline drums (referred to as “blitz cans”) and water cans were produced at the 17th Street and Central Avenue operations.

Elsewhere ammunition boxes, fire extinguishers, their pumps, anti-tank mine parts and automotive parts were assembled at a plant in Franklin. The Greenwood factory was charged with making bomb-burster wells and anti-tank mines, while automotive and radio parts, gasoline drums and bomb-burster wells rolled off the lines at a plant in Seymour.

Just as the ranks of those who served in the armed forces 70 years ago and more during World War II are thinning, so too are those who stayed behind to support the war effort.

Many of them were women who went to work in factories at jobs once regarded as for men only. When war broke out, there were 258 women employed at Noblitt-Sparks. By 1943, the number of female workers had grown to 1,347.

The 91-year-old Columbus native recalled that her time in the Orinoco plant was brief, “only a few months.”

“They were constantly transferring the inspectors from plant to plant,” she recalled. “They didn’t want any of us to become attached to any of the businesses or employees to the point that it might sway us in inspecting the products.”

Then, only a few years out of high school, Mary came to understand the policy in a very direct manner. “Q.G. Noblitt (co-founder and president of Noblitt-Sparks) had an office in the building, and he often challenged our findings when we rejected some of the bombs,” she said.

With the defeat of the Germans and Japanese forces came an abrupt change. By the end of 1945, Noblitt-Sparks plants were making automotive parts, home radios, car heaters, metal furniture, dinette sets and electric heaters.

Just as Noblitt-Sparks is beginning to fade from the city’s collective memory, so too are the products that its workers made. While “fire bombs” occupy only a small period in the former company’s history, it’s a time that needs to be remembered.

Thank goodness there are still people like Mary who can do that.

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