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1911 business scene and Edison's concrete home

Published February 26. 2011 09:00AM

There's no better way to pump up a local economy than with a new business and the early months of 1911 saw quite a bit of activity in the region. In February, Tamaqua residents welcomed the news that F.W. Woolworth would be opening a storeroom on West Broad Street.

At the time, the chain had about 300 stores scattered around the country, the most recent one for Schuylkill County located in Shenandoah. Other regional stores were in Reading, Allentown, Bethlehem and Wilkes-Barre.

After the building's previous tenant, George A. Haefekor, vacated, Mrs. D.F.B. Shepp, owner of the Tamaqua building, began remodeling. A new plate glass window was put in, the entire front of the building was painted red to match the style of other Woolworth stores, and a new metallic ceiling was put in.

The town did lose a popular businessman in Frank Harder, who was a manager for Lyons & MacPherson's jewelry store. In his two years in town, Harder made many friends and was credited with building business for the local store.

In January he announced he was leaving the Tamaqua store in order to relocate to Bangor, where he was opening his own jewelry establishment.

His place in the Tamaqua store was filled by J. E. Wintermite of Coatesville, who had been working as a salesman for Bailey, Banks and Biddle of Philadelphia. He was well known in the Panther Valley area, having been born and raised in Mauch Chunk. After relocating, he resided with his family on the second floor of the store.

Not every county businessman was a success story. Emanuel Best of Ashland once had one of the most prominent coal operations in the region, producing more anthracite than any in the section. After selling his operation to the Reading company for $225,000, he settled into a life of luxury in his beautiful home in Ashland. But after some poor investment decisions, his finances - and rich lifestyle - soon came crashing down.

In mid-February 1911, the Tamaqua Courier reported that Best died a penniless man in the Ashland Hospital.

Tamaqua business prospects brightened during the first two months of 1911. A month before the announcement of the new Woolworth store, George Hoppes of Mahanoy City reported leasing a property at the southern end of Centre Street from the P & R. Company to build a large warehouse.

Hoppes was county agent for the King Midas flour company and his building would be a distribution point for Schuylkill County as well as the Panther Valley. One of his first purchases was a Mack delivery truck which was expected by the time the building was ready in the spring.

His warehouse was going to be built entirely of cement, following the Thomas Edison method of putting up an iron frame and pouring the cement in for the structure. The Courier stated that is was to be one of the first buildings in the state to follow the Edison concept.

With his endless list of Americans patents, no name was more globally recognized or revered than Edison's. His design of the ore milling machinery for the production of Portland cement, a new building material that was gaining favor around the turn of the 20th century, greatly impacted the construction business. As a followup, Edison believed concrete homes could revolutionize homebuilding.

The Edison plan for concrete homes was made in 1906 amid great fanfare. He announced in New York City that they would be fireproof, insect-proof and easy to clean. The walls could be pre-tinted in attractive colors and would never need to be repainted.

Everything from shingles to bathtubs to picture frames would be cast as a single monolith of concrete, in a process that took just a few hours. Extra stories could be added with a simple adjustment of the molding forms. The entire house was cast in one continuous six-hour pour.

Best of all was the home's price tag of $1,200.

"The time will most certainly come when whole houses will be turned out in one piece," one of Edison's biographers declared in 1907. When the molds were removed, he wrote, "a solid and almost bomb-proof house will be left behind."

By 1910, Edison had cast two experimental buildings - a gardener's cottage and a garage - at his New Jersey mansion Glenmont. He announced that he did not intend to profit from the concrete building venture, but would instead give away the patented information to qualified builders.

Unfortunately, Edison's plans for single-piece cast-concrete houses became a disastrous money pit. Instead of simple molds, the houses required nickel-plated iron forms containing more than two thousand parts and weighing nearly half a million pounds. A builder had to buy at least $175,000 in equipment before pouring a single house!

Although some of Edison's concrete homes are still in use in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, his concept to produce prefabricated cement houses and cement furniture never caught on and can't be considered one of the brightest innovations for the world-famous "Wizard of Menlo Park."

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