Historic Forge Arises from the Flames

2/8/2014 7:00 AM
By Carol Ann Gregg Western Pa. Correspondent

GROVE CITY, Pa. — If ever a company experienced a turning point in its operation, it was the historic Wendell August Forge. On Mar. 6, 2010, the company’s flagship sales location and production facilities in Grove City, Pa., burned to the ground. The long-time producer of handmade metal ware had been an anchor in the community where it had operated since 1932.

On the day of the fire, as owner Will Knecht and many of the employees gathered in the parking lot in shock, Knecht gathered them together into a prayer circle to put the situation in God’s hands.

“We knew we were not in control,” Knecht said. “But, we knew that God knew the future. It was not easy to follow the Lord’s lead.”

With the help of community leaders and other business owners, the historic company was back in production within five days in a temporary facility where they had produced their handmade metal products in the past. Fortunately, the company’s large machines had not been damaged by the fire. The facility was just very dirty. The dies had been stored in a vault that protected them from physical damage as well.

It was imperative that production begin again as soon as possible since the company had a major order from the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. The team was about to play its last hockey game in the Civic Arena and it had commissioned metal plates that were replicas of the tickets for that final game. Each person attending the event was to receive one of these souvenir tickets to commemorate the event.

“Some companies would have pulled their order and moved it to another company following the fire,” Knecht said. “But, the Penguins called and wanted to know what they could do to help. It was wonderful.”

That was just the beginning of the second era of Wendell August Forge as it moved forward. The company celebrated its 90th anniversary last year with the opening of a new, modern facility that houses the company’s flagship salesroom, production floor, distribution facilities and corporate offices.

The historic company was started by Wendell August in Brockway, Pa., in 1923. The story goes that he had need for some door latches for his new home and went to purchase them. He thought they were too costly so he asked one of the blacksmiths, Tony Pisoni, at one of the coal mines where August had an interest, if he could make something like the latches. Pisoni made the latches for a fraction of the cost they were bringing in the hardware store. At the time, August saw that with the increase in wealth in the area, more people would like to have wrought iron products for their homes and businesses. Therefore, he started Wendell August Forge.

According to the company’s website, its first product line included “one-of-a-kind fireplace andirons, candlesticks, lighting standards, doorknockers, latches, railings, and grilles for windows and doors.” August was invited to bring his company to Grove City, Pa., in 1932 by a local industrialist and the company has been there ever since.

Following World War I, Alcoa (The Aluminum Company of America) was searching for new uses for the new metal that was being used in the war effort. It hired Wendell August Forge to make gates of wrought aluminum for Alcoa’s research center. Those gates had been returned to Wendell August and they went through the recent fire. However, they are now at the entrance to the new production floor.

The early items made at the forge were for the wealthy of Pittsburgh. The first die that was cut depicts the Kaufmann House, which was the home of the family that owned Kaufmann’s Department Store.

In the 1960s, the forge made hand-wrought aluminum decorative work for banks and churches and that was noted in Wendell August’s obituary when he died April 3, 1963. August’s son, Robert August, took over the business and it was under his tenure that the first gift shop was added.

The company was located at the end of a dead-end street, so other than local folks and their friends, not too many people knew about the business or the shop. Bob August’s secretary thought it would be a good idea to have the shop listed in the Mobil Oil Company travel guide and that was the first effort to attract tourists to the forge.

In the new facility, visitors can again see the many items that are made by the workers but they can also learn about the history of the company in the new gallery dedicated to Catherine E. Youngo. Youngo was a long-time employee who, in her retirement, served as historical consultant. Tours of the production floor are also available. Youngo’s son and grandson are both artists who cut dies for the production of the forge’s metal items.

Besides production pieces, the shop located west of Grove City has Christmas ornaments; gifts for weddings, anniversaries and births; and memorabilia for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team and several of the National Football League teams, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jewelry designed by several local artists are also produced at the facility.

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