Most people in the border communities know at least a little about Butterfield’s, the international company that for so many years played such an important role in the development of Rock Island, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont.
OVER A CENTURY
The company’s unusual location astride both the Tomifobia River and the Canada-U.S. border allowed it to employ a skilled international workforce and to develop markets for its products in both Canada and the United States. The company thrived for over a century, despite several changes in ownership (Butterfield’s, Union Twist Drill, Litton Industries…).
At its peak, Butterfield’s employed upwards of 800 people and its sprawling factory covered an area of well over 200,000 square feet on both sides of the border. Needless to say, Butterfield’s was the major employer in the area, and contributed immensely to the local economy and to the prosperity of the border towns. Even during the Great Depression, when many companies closed or laid-off their employees, Butterfield’s managed to keep most of its skilled workers on the job, alternating work weeks instead of putting people out of work.
It is now over twenty-five years ago that Litton, Butterfield’s parent company, made the momentous decision to close its plant in Rock Island and consolidate its Canadian operations at its facility in Smith’s Falls, Ontario (leaving only the Derby Line plant in operation in this area). That was back in 1982, following a long and bitter strike on the Canadian side of the factory. And that was how the long and illustrious era of Butterfield’s in Rock Island came to an end.
What many people are not aware of is that this unique company began on a very modest scale, and that it owed its start to a man named Lewis Young, who in the late 1870s invented a special tool for repairing and tightening worn out wagon wheel axles. Young, who resided in Derby Line, may have lived on this side of the border, as well. He certainly did business on both sides of the line, and quickly made a name for himself.
According to a Butterfield’s company history, produced for the plant’s centenary in 1980, Young got his start in business by travelling around the countryside, demonstrating the effectiveness of his invention. He would visit blacksmith’s shops one at a time in Quebec and New England and sell his tools in this fashion.
Most of the roads at that time were full of bumps and ruts, and the axles on horse-drawn wagons, buggies, and carriages were subject to a great deal of wear and tear, making them notoriously wobbly and rattly. So, there would have been plenty of demand for anything that improved the situation, and when Young came along with his invention, he had no trouble finding eager listeners for his sales pitch. In 1880, he took out patents for his device in Canada and the United States.
F. D. BUTTERFIELD
In 1880, Young sought financial backing to expand his business from Colonel F. D. Butterfield, of Derby Line. The two formed a partnership, and purchased a wooden building on Foundry Hill in Rock Island, where they set up shop and hired some talented workers, including George Reece, who would later invent the “Reece die.”
Butterfield’s grew steadily, and the company expanded both its clientele and its products, which in a short time included an extensive line of metal cutting tools, including taps, dies, drills, screw plates, and reamers. The company prospered, and after a few years, relocated down the hill to its new location directly on the border. It was that location that the company would occupy until the Canadian side of the plant was closed in 1982.