Monday, July 15, 2013

An Airplane Company in World War I Era Boston?

Elmer Walter Wilkinson was a distant cousin of mine.  He was born in Groveton, New Hampshire in 1885, the son of Edwin Walter Wilkinson, a local barber who had a shop in Northumberland, and his wife, Elizabeth Wiles.  Northumberland is in Coos County, north of the notches, in the middle of the “Great North Woods”.  The local economy was mostly lumber and paper mills.  However, this Wilkinson family was able to escape the life tied to lumber and paper in Northern New Hampshire.

Elmer’s older brother, Herbert (1883 – 1968) became a doctor and was in private practice in nearby Berlin, a large paper mill city.  He retired to San Diego, California later in life.  Elmer didn't stay in the North Woods, either.  He was at first a bookkeeper at a local paper mill, and then his WWI draft registration records him as living at Killian Street, Boston as a mechanical draftsman at the Sturtevant Aeroplane Company.   By the time he filled out his draft forms for WWII he was living in the Boston suburb of Lynnfield, working as a draftsman in Everett. 

This first draft card is what made me drop everything and take my research in a new direction.  There was an airplane company in Boston? I had never heard of the Sturtevant Company, and neither had my husband (he’s an aeronautical engineer).   Of course, a few Google searches led to some terrific industrial history on line.  A little more poking around also led me to find the Massachusetts Aviation Historical Society, which gave me a terrific idea.  I live near the New Hampshire Aviation Museum, which is in Londonderry, along the runway at the Manchester airport.  I made a quick phone call up there and a very talkative volunteer filled me in on more than I ever needed to know about the Sturtevant Aeroplane Company.

A Sturtevant Model A3
The first American built plane for air combat

From a family record to  Google to a historical society to an actual aviation buff who filled me in on lots of historical detail.  This is exactly how much of my genealogy research goes.  After learning about a family member, I usually do a quick internet search, followed by a visit to a historical society or archive, and then a talk with a local expert.  Does your research follow this pattern, too?  Either way, finding out more about where Elmer Wilkinson worked made his life come alive for me. 

Sturtevant Industrial History (in a nutshell)

Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant was born in the small town of Norridgewock, Maine in 1833, and started life as a shoemaker.  He designed a machine to peg shoes and came to Boston in 1856 to find funding to start manufacturing his invention.  He was tricked into losing his design but went into manufacturing wooden pegs for shoes.  He found that the machines that cut the pegs produced a lot of dust, and invented an exhaust fan which improved his work environment. He became the “Father of the American Fan Industry”, and built the first commercial blowers in 1864.  B. F. Sturtevant was another country boy from the New England North Woods who escaped the drudgery of a menial job and made a better life for himself. 

The Sturtevant Fan company made its fame manufacturing fans for all types of industrial applications before the turn of the 20th century.  He was the first to figure out how to ventilate naval ships. He diversified into heaters, engines, drying machines, vacuums and other systems.  When the BF Sturtevant Company arrived in Hyde Park it was the largest fan manufacturer in the world. By World War I they were building aeronautical engines and had expanded into Canada and other states.  During World War II they reached their height, and in 1945 they were bought by Westinghouse.  By 1989 the Hyde Park location closed, after 130 years of history.

Early advertisement for Sturtevant fans

The one surviving building of the large Sturtevant complex in Hyde Park is now an artist's loft residence at 1 Westinghouse Plaza, Hyde Park, Boston.  The Lofts include residences and 12 studio art spaces. 

The Lofts

For the truly curious:

Sturtevant Fan Company  (includes some of the Sturtevant family genealogy)

Jamaica Plain Historical Society, page on B. F. Sturtevant-

Massachusetts Aviation Historical Society

New Hampshire Aviation Historical Society

The Lofts at Hyde Park 
Copyright 2013, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Lovely. Someone had to be the Father of the American Fan Industry, and it's a distant cousin of yours!

    Since I live so far from the area of my research, I do Internet and then Interlibrary Loan and then call historical societies in the area if/when I can. Next week I'm looking at two books in the University of SC library that I couldn't even get in Interlibrary Loan!

    1. I wish he were my cousin, but he was just an employee at Sturtevant. Why is it that the most interesting books are never available except thousands of miles away?