Article by Julie Jackson reprinted with permission from The Great Lakes Reporter, Vol. 99 No. 4, October/November/December 1999.
FROM TROLLEYS TO TOLLWAYS: Root Spring Scraper Spans Three Centuries
By: Julie Jackson; compiled from Root Spring Scraper’s historical files provided by Mr. Wiliam Root.
Spanning three centuries, Root Spring Scraper Company is a story of persistence, dedication, enterprise and success. A former ice business operator started the business. Fred N. Root, a talented inventor and entrepreneur, patented, among other things, a bean hulling machine, ice-cleaners for trolley wires, a vehicle step, a life guard for street cars, snow/slush scraper for trolleys, and an underbody road scraper for horse wagons and trucks. After he died, his daughter Marie Root persisted in finding a way for her company to survive. Ernest Weeks, who hired on with the company in 1927, and later his son, dedicated themselves to growing the company. Today, the fourth generation of Roots are leading the successful company into the 21st century.
Then and now: The top picture of the latest in road maintenance technology was taken circa 1929; the bottom picture of a new scraper equipped truck was shot 70 years later in 1999.
The Trolley Business
Around 1891, Root started manufacturing the lifeguard devices in his garage. Root’s device was a basket attached to the front of trolley cars to catch pedestrians who became paralyzed in the center of streetcar tracks when the electric trains bore down on them. The basket was mounted under the front of the trolley car and automatically extended when an object on the tracks - animate or inanimate - was hit by a trip rod. The device’s effectiveness was controversial. Problem was the lifeguard worked only if the pedestrian was directly in the center of the tracks. But, when Root started manufacturing the lifeguards, it was considered an indispensable safety accessory for trolley cars. The device was sold worldwide and used in nearly every large city on their electric transit cars. Some were still in use as late as 1951 in Hawaii, Canada, and Europe.
Although successful with his lifeguard device, Fred Root’s snow/slush scraper for trolleys was destined to set his business’s future path. His first demonstration of an underbody snow scraper in 1891 was a flop. Undaunted, he tried again. Marie Root, Fred’s daughter, recalled the initial demonstration in her historical account of the company (circa 1928). “Our bookkeeper...has often
told me of the first time my father placed his first snow scraper on an old horse-car, on North Burdick Street, in Kalamazoo. His whole crowd of friends were out to see this wonderful scraper, but alas it fell all to pieces and was a complete failure. However, in about two months, he got the same crowd out again, and it worked!”
She continued, “Along about 1900, I find his first set of books, and I find an entry made to Chappell and Earl of $115 for a patent, which was for the first snow scraper. Thus the Root Spring Scraper Co. [sic] really began its existence as a company.”
The 1900 patent was actually for a helical spring with a strengthening element welded to the inner portion of the coil. The company was grounded on the basic patent and it has been an integral part of its development of present day products.
Horseracing Pays Off
Marie Root related how the business began. “He had a small shop in a downtown alley, later moved to a better location out on Spring Street, but in 1907, he affiliated himself with the Kalamazoo Railway Supply Co. They were to make the scrapers and he was to keep up the development and sell them. This plan worked for two years, but in 1909, trouble developed, and he decided to build his own place, and conduct his business all by himself.”
In 1910 Root built a new shop at the rear of his home, 530 West Ransom Street, with the building fronting west North Street. Although he did a booming business manufacturing scrapers (and lifeguards) for streetcars, the business was seasonal. The idea for a scraper for roadwork had been incubating in Root’s mind for a long time; in 1911, he did something about it.
Root was a horseracing fan. In the early 1900s, Kalamazoo was on an important horse racing circuit, and races were held weekly at Recreation Park during the season. Flying hooves constantly tore up the dirt track, and the track manager needed an efficient method of smoothing it out again. Root attached his helical spring blade to the underbody of a horse-drawn wagon, rather than at the front or rear of the vehicle. Weights placed in the wagon bore down on the blade and forced it to move the earth. The scraper was operated by chain and shive wheel; springs were attached to the blade so that if it struck an immovable object, the blade would swing back rather than be damaged. Root’s scrapers were so good that racetrack operators throughout the country bought them.
“Good Roads” Movement Helps Gets Business Rolling
Automobile ownership exploded, and people became of the need for better roads. In 1915 the “Good Roads” movement got started, Ms. Root wrote, “In 1915, I fnd an entry where the first road scraper was sold to Kent County Road Commission, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for $225.”
The first road scrapers were horse drawn. But in 1920, the first truck scraper was sold. Six truck scrapers were sold in 1920: two to Kent County, one to Calhoun County; and three to the Republic Motor Truck Company of Alma. There was strong opposition by farmers to the truck-mounted scrapers. For generations farmers had picked up extra income working on roads with their teams and they didn’t like the prospect of losing that income.
Business boomed. In April of 1921 Root lured David Burns who had been working for the Republic Motor Truck Company to sell scrapers for a 33.3 percent commission. Later in the year, Root became very ill, endured two operations and was confined in Old Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo for three months. Not expected to live, Root made a final will and incorporated his business with the three members of his family, wife Josephine M. Root, Newton Root, and Marie. But he made a remarkable recovery after his second operation and returned to business.
“In the meanwhile, my father recovered ...Business was excellent. Mr. Burns was selling almost every county in Michigan, and we were putting on a campaign of direct advertising. We sold scrapers in Colorado, Idaho, Canada, Wisconsin, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Ohio, South Carolina, Illinois, Washington, Montana, New Jersey, Arizona, Nebraska, Maine, Kansas, Texas, New York, Minnesota, and even Norway...This was during 1921 and 1922, up until the time Mr. Burns left our employ.”
Marie Scrapes By
Dark days were descending on the Root Spring Scraper Company. Marie wrote: “Now it appears from a date of a patent in September 1922, taken out by Mr. Burns, that he had been working on a truck scraper of his own; exactly the same idea as ours, except that it would operate by a worm and gear, instead of by chain and shive wheel. He knew that our springs were patented so he used … a coil spring. After Mr. Burns left, we had no salesman in Michigan and our business slipped away from us before we realized it.”
In 1925 Root died and left the business to his daughter and wife. Marie’s narrative continues: “In April 1925, I was faced with no father, no manager, a scraper that was apparently out of date; a plant sadly damaged by fire; no sales force; no one to fall back on, except myself. However, we did have many friends, a good reputation; a good bank account, and I had a determination to make good at any cost. I had two good reliable men in the shop.
“At this time, I realized that the chain and shive wheel scraper was really out of date. The scraper must be built heavier, and it must have a different operating device. The scraper must do more than simply float a road, it must do some hard scraping as well.
“During the period from 1922 to 1925,anotherscraperhad sprung into existence. This was being built by Edward Jackoboice, Grand Rapids, and he used the same idea again, but another kind of spring and he operated his scraper also by a worm and gear...”
Marie hired her company’s Ohio agent, J.N. Pneuman, as General Manager in July 1925. Because the Michigan Department of Transportation wanted a reversible scraper, the company immediately began work on it. Their new scraper the Model #26, Reversible did not meet expectations and Marie’s business problems deepened.
“The early spring of this year, 1926, was most unfortunate,” she wrote. “We had an early thaw and the bottom of all the dirt roads practically “fell out”. Many roads just were masses of soft mud. The Michigan State Highway Dept., were attempting to use our scrapers under these conditions. Conditions were had, but the scraper was not foolproof, as such a scraper must be. The gears bound. They did not work easily up and down, as they should. We had complaints about the scraper, and I was quick to realize that the scraper was not the wonderful thing that I had planned. It was not even good.
“Of course naturally I lost faith in Mr. Pneuman…He said that he had done the very best he could, and this was not good enough for me, so accordingly in June 1926, he left, leaving fourteen broken down scrapers behind him.
“I was ready to give up, but first these fourteen scrapers must be fixed up. I took my trouble to Mr. Frank Emrick, who runs a machine shop in Kalamazoo, and who is a designer and builder of machinery…and told him, that I did not want a new machine, but I wanted this fixed, so that it would work satisfactorily.”
Emerick fixed the scraper gears. Marie took her own car, and with employee E. B. Utter, visited all the scraper customers and installed the new gear units. Even though the Model #26 had been repaired, Marie did not want to sell them any longer. She wrote, “At this time, I wanted a fine, new scraper more than anything else in the world and some day the Root Spring Scraper Co. would build such a scraper.”
Ernest Weeks Walks In
Marie kept her eyes open for the right person to come along and build the ‘‘fine, new scraper” for her. At last, in the summer of 1927, Mr. Ernest Weeks of Kalamazoo, an experienced roadman, walked in the door. Up to this time, the road scrapers had been held in contact with the road by means of spring devices of one sort or another. The scrapers couldn’t be made so that they would really scrape, they were barely more than drags with a little pressure on them.
According to Marie, “He [Weeks] sold three scrapers, and then he too realized that the scraper was not what it should be. We began to plan a ad suddenly the idea of the hydraulic came to us. It did not seem a bit new, and it seemed queer that no one had thought of it before. It was the plausible operation for a truck scraper, and it was easily worked out.”
A patent followed. Of the innovation, Marie effused, “This was the very best idea that we had ever had. It was sure to he a winner, and it has been. It far exceeded our expectations.” In January 1923, the hydraulic scraper was presented at the National Road Show in Cleveland, Ohio. “Our competitors were dumb-founded. They were there with their mechanical operated scrapers. We had a hydraulic. It simply took them off their feet, and their faces seem to say, ‘Why in the world, didn’t we think of it?’
She wrote of a competitor from Grand Rapids: “Mr. Willit had offered to share his scraper with me in the late summer providing I gave him $30,000 in cash was there and merelv spoke [sic]. He had told me [last summer] that he would put me out of business and really counted me as no competition at all.”
Orders for the hydraulic scraper soared. Mr. Weeks became sales manager, then general manager, and upon Marie Root’s death in 1935, president of the company. Much of the company’s 2Oth century success was due to Weeks decision in 1928 to diversify into snowplows. The company had been stuck with a spring and summer product: scrapers to smooth gravel roads. In a May 2, 1948, Kalamazoo Gazette article about the company’s history, R. A. Patton said, “What could be more natural than to go back to the old snow removal field, but in an expanded and more elaborate fashion made possible by the powerful motor trucks then on the road. Adapting the hydraulic operating principle to the snowplow was comparatively simple. Extension of power operation to include compressed air was a natural development.”
“It wasn’t really a diversification, but a new use for an existing product,” noted an article in an April 1965 issue of the Kalamazoo Magazine. Scrapers proved so effective at removing snow and ice, in fact, that they took over almost 90 percent of the business in some areas. The standard V-type plow - designed to cut through deep drifts - continued to be made and still remains in service at the turn of the 20th century. The scrapers do what the name implies - scrape ice and packed snow off the road surface.
The Kalamazoo Magazine commented:”Weeks’appointment began a tradition unusual in American business but very successful to this case - professional management passing from father and son in a company owned wholly by another family.”
In the Business Since Age 12, Dan Weeks Takes Over
Dan Weeks took over management of the company in 1941 when his father became too ill to work. Dan had been working at the company since he was 12 years old during the summer and on weekends. He swept floors and shoveled coal for the furnace. When he graduated from high school, his father immediately sent him west on a three month tour to demonstrate the company’s equipment.
During World War II, as a subcontractor for Chris Craft, Root Spring Scraper halted production of their scrapers to build ramps for military landing crafts. By the end of the war, the company had built 10,000 landing ramps.
This 1945 photo shows Root employees next to a military landing craft.
After the war, the company resumed manufacture of plows and scrapers. Our nation’s postwar road paving and building program decreased the demand for gravel road scrapers, but increased the demand for snow removal equipment. In 1947 the company built an addition on its first building, taking in the site of the former Root home. In early 1948, the company bought an adjoining lot on Ransom Street to be used for stock storage.
The advent of the jet plane resulted in construction of new airports and expansion of existing ones, According to the Kalamazoo Magazine, “One of the high points for the company in the post-war years came in the early 1950’s, when the Air Force and the Army Corps of Engineers awarded Root Sprint a contract for one of the largest snowplows ever built. The V plow, designed to clear jet runways, was too large to fit on a railway flat car and had to be shipped in sections.”
Dan Weeks served as president of the company until his retirement in the early 1990’s. Until his death on June 6,1999, he continued as a consultant to the company. Under his leadership, Root Spring Scraper diversified once again into the manufacture of snow blowers that could be removed from trucks in the summer, thus permitting more cost effective equipment investments for public works fleets. The company manufactured only the blower and bought the engines. In 1996, however, Root Spring Scraper decided to drop the snow blower line due to its decreasing profitability.
Root Spring is the largest manufacturer of scrapers and fifth largest of plows. The company currently employs up to 50 people at peak production times.
The current president, Fred Root, took over after Dan Week’s retirement. Bill Root said, “Mr. Weeks was responsible for virtually all of Root’s current designs. The Root family, in the form of myself, brothers Rod and Fred and our spouses, currently own all of the stock in the company, the fourth generation of family ownership. We are all looking forward to the next 100 years.”
Indiana Tollway snow warrior fleet equipped with Root Spring Scrapers.