May 1995

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The Extraordinary

Kate Gleason

How She Put the World in Gear


Donovan A. Shilling

The factory that graces much of University Avenue near Culver Road is well known to all of us as the Gleason Works, famous for their gear-cutting machines. Today it's one of the area's last companies that manufactures heavy machinery. It is also retains its original Victorian name—Gleason Works—rather than use the terms "company" or "corporation" in its title.

This tale is not so much about the Gleason Works, as about the remarkable Kate Gleason who not only aided her dad and her brothers building this company, but also made great contributions to many others.

The year 1865 was a banner one for the Irish immigrant and machinist, William Gleason. That was the year that Mr. Gleason started his tool factory along the Genesee River at Brown's Race, and, more importantly for our story, that was when his daughter, Kate Gleason, was born. While Kate grew up, her father was busy building engine lathes and woodworking machinery.

In 1876, when Kate was eleven, two events that would shape the rest of her life occurred: Her

brother Thomas Gleason died, and it was in that year that her dad would invent the world's first commercially practical bevel-gear-cutting machine. (It's now in the Ford Museum in Dearborn.) Bevel gears, by the way, are essential in mechanical devices, such as automobiles, for transmitting power around angles.

The passing of Thomas, who acted as the firm's bookkeeper, left a void in Bill Gleason's small machine shop. Thus, as a very young girl, Kate assumed her brother's bookkeeping responsibilities. Later at age 19 she entered Cornell University. Her stay was brief, however, due to her father's desperate need for Kate to return to her bookkeeping to straighten out the mess into which the books had fallen during her absence.

She also influenced her dad to concentrate on gears rather than tools. Kate pointed out that "Gears wear out much quicker than tools." Time would show that Kate gave the right advice.

Finally, in 1888, Miss Gleason did return to Cornell. There she created quite a ripple as the first woman to attend the Sibley College of Engineering. Her years in college were fairly pleasant for the pert young student. Academically she did as well as her male peers, but she had to put up with the nickname "Sibley Sue."

Upon graduation she again returned to help in the family business, working with her two brothers, Andrew and James. The mechanically knowledgeable young woman set out as the first traveling saleslady for an industrial firm. Kate felt she must act and dress like a man if she were to succeed in a man's world selling a very masculine product, heavy machinery. By 1890 she was the firm's chief salesperson, and also its secretary and treasurer. According to some, Kate's mannish approach to sales turned many men off despite her technological know-how and promotion of a good product.

On a woman-to-woman basis Susan B. Anthony, according to one source, discussed the merits of femininity with the 25-year-old Miss Gleason. Kate had spent her entire life among men: her father, brothers and the factory workers. Little wonder then, that she acted, talked and even walked like them. Miss Anthony patiently explained the advantages of wearing fancier dresses, more attractive shoes and the value of a new and softer hairdo. The results were amazing. The transformed Kate, now wearing perfume and make-up, was to wow her old accounts. The booming bicycle industry placed dozens of orders and the fledgling auto industry, just emerging, would become major customers for the Gleason Works.

In the early 1900's her brother, James, invented a two-tool gear generator with toolbits simultaneously removing stock from the opposite sides of a gear blank. No great shakes by today's standards but a terrific technical breakthrough for the times. Sale of these newest machines brought Kate new contacts. She so impressed and charmed her clientele that she received more than 200 letters proposing marriage. Even Henry Ford was among her admirers.

Business flourished as the demand for automobiles swept the nation. The Brown's Race location was no longer adequate and in 1911 the Gleason Works relocated to a 22 acre site on University Avenue. The new plant looked little like a factory. It had wide landscaped lawns and an airy, well-lighted interior. The facade for the office was modeled after the Pan-American Building in Washington, D. C. Kate had much to do in the selection and design of the new structures. It was almost in George Eastman's backyard.

One addition to the new plant, known only to a few, is the old bell from the Cotton Mill that was next to their father's factory at Brown's Race. Kate and her brother had the relic installed atop the plant's new power house. It had special sentimental meaning for the Gleasons who used to hear it ring at 5 o'clock in the morning to call out the laborers, and at 7 o'clock for their half hour breakfast break.

The year 1913 brought the introduction of another new Gleason machine that could cut spiral bevel gears needed for dozens of purposes in mechanical devices from sewing machines to locomotives. The Gleason Works now become internationally famous, doing business in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Just a year later, the First World War broke out. That same year Kate was admitted as the first woman member of the prestigious American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Retiring at age 49 in 1915, Kate left the family firm in the competent hands of her brother James. The following three years of war deeply touched Miss Gleason. Kate wanted, in some small way, to correct some of the ruin she had read about. At the war's end she decided to turn both her considerable financial resources and her energies toward healing a small French village called Septmont destroyed in the conflict. Gleason money went toward rebuilding the village hall, community center and market place. Kate was later honored with a medal by the French government for her unselfish postwar reconstruction efforts on behalf of the French people.

In 1917 when she had become president of the First National Bank of East Rochester, she was the first woman bank president in the Rochester area, if not the whole nation.

The plight in 1919 of many of the poorer Italian workers, employed to make railroad freight cars by the Merchants Despatch Transportation Company, opened a whole new spectrum of philanthropic interests to Kate. They required good homes, good food, and a good benefactress. Kate Gleason began exploring ways of building a model industrial community in East Rochester (called Despatch in the early 1900's).

Her first project involved giving East Rochester kids and their parents a park in which to play. To that end Kate used both her charm and her clout to influence a large number of Gleason workers to turn a swamp into a park. That area, now called Lyon Park, was a combination of brambles and stagnant water. The laborers had to drain the water, bring in earth fill, drive out snakes, and swat mosquitos all during the park building campaign. It was rumored that the Gleason workers were happy, some of them even eager, to return to their former work.

Phase two of Kate's ideal community was to provide inexpensive housing. She wanted the new homes to be fireproof, if possible, of adequate size for families, and built to last 100 years. Plus the houses were to be buildable by unskilled labor (the prospective homeowners). There was only one material that would fill all these requirements— concrete. Kate's Herculean specifications for the project awed many of those who heard her proposal. Nevertheless, she initiated a plan whereby 100 fire proof, six-room houses were to be built by unskilled labor using concrete.

On the southwest corner of Commercial Street and Roosevelt Road special concrete pouring machinery arrived. Work began with wooden forms and a newly designed telescoping tower to pour the concrete. In this manner at least 57 units were completed in an area that became to be known as "Concrest." The homes were clustered around each other in a representation of a French village similar to one that Kate had once visited.

As each unit was completed it had to pass Miss Gleason's personal inspection. Always a stickler for detail, Kate made sure that certain amenities were included in the homes prior to the new owner's arrival. Curtains, shades, and screens were placed on windows. Built-in bookcases were added as well as kitchen cabinets. Then, in each kitchen, Kate had a cookbook, a mirror and even a powderpuff added as a gift to the fortunate new housewife. The cost of each unit was $4000; mortgage payments were a modest $40 per month. Many of the new homeowners looked upon Miss Gleason as their "Lady Bountiful." Concrest, also called Marigold Gardens, won yet another honor for Kate Gleason. She was selected to become a member of the American Concrete Institute. Not only was she the first woman to be admitted as a member, she may have been their only woman member.

Miss Gleason purchased 100 building lots on a 30 acre tract just west of the Americn Piano Company plant. Three new industries were started there, the most notable being the Auto Trailer Company that constructed two-wheeled utility trailers. A portion of this project became Hillcrest, a nine-hole golf course complete with a clubhouse called "Genundewah Court." The timing for a golf course, was unfortunately, 30 years too soon. The clubhouse, however, at 307 Roosevelt road, has served the community well. Known today as The Roosevelt Apartments, it currently houses more than twenty families.

Not known to many is the fact that Kate built a home in East Rochester. Fashioned after the Spanish Alhambra Palace, it was architecturally unlike any other residence in the area. A central patio was covered with a specially designed glass roof that could be rolled aside on ball bearings to open to the sky a mosaic floor and fountain plus a rock garden and palm trees.

The house also had a wooden staircase constructed so that the owner could easily draw it up after retiring for the evening.

Kate Gleason passed away January 9fh, 1933, at age 68. During her lifetime she had accomplished much. Her fourteen million dollar estate went to cancer research and libraries in Rochester and at Cornell. Some money must have been left in a trust fund for other East Rochester projects. Her sister, Eleanor, who was present in August of 1949 when the Gleason Memorial Pool was dedicated, stated that Kate, were she there, would acclaim her "hearty approval and pride in that project." Kate Gleasom believed that the genuine heart of America was not Wall Street, and not Broadway, but small town Main Street U. S. A.

(c) 1995, Donovan A. Shilling.
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