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Whether you believe the old superstition that bad things happen in threes or take the more optimistic view that the third time is a charm, just about everything in E.C. Atkins’ life – good or bad – seemed to happen in threes.

Elias Cornelius Atkins arrived in Indianapolis in 1856 with a third grade education and $300 in his pocket. He was a third generation sawmaker, so he opened a small saw factory on South East Street. After the building burned in 1857, he moved his sawmaking operation to the old city foundry, which was destroyed by fire in 1859. As his business losses mounted, he was also beset by personal loss. His first wife died in 1856; his second wife died a few years later.

Undeterred by this string of bad luck, E.C. Atkins opened a third factory in 1861 and married his third wife in 1865. His business would eventually grow to become the largest saw factory in the world and his third wife, Sarah, would bear him five children and outlive him by 20 years.

E.C. Atkins & Co. was located on South Illinois between Merrill and South streets. Shown above are views of the factory from 1870 and 1884.

E.C. Atkins was not so much lucky or unlucky as he was hardworking and smart. Despite his limited formal schooling, Atkins invented many of the patented tools and machinery used in his factory. He was a shrewd but honest businessman who was not afraid to take risks. Some years after Atkins’ death, historian Jacob Piatt Dunn wrote that Atkins’ success was founded upon his “unlimited courage, ability, and determination.”

I was not familiar with either E.C. Atkins or his saw factory when I started researching this article. I had seen some saw-shaped promotional items for Atkins’ company sell recently on ebay, and thought it would be fun to write about saws this week, given the starring role that saws have played in many recent Halloween horror flicks.

But as I delved deeper into the E.C. Atkins story, I found that the real horror lay in the fact that downtown Indianapolis was once home to the largest saw factory in the world and I knew absolutely nothing about it.

In 1903, E.C. Atkins & Company expanded its footprint in downtown Indianapolis when it acquired the Manufacturers’ Building and Power Company on South Illinois Street. Parry Cart Works had previously occupied the site, but was relocating to West Indianapolis.

During its 100  years of operation, the Atkins saw factory grew from a one-room shed to a global business employing more than 1,200 workers at its flagship plant in downtown Indianapolis.   With its trademark “Atkins Always Ahead” slogan, the company was on the cutting edge of the saw industry.  E.C. Atkins & Company made saws for every conceivable purpose, from four-inch jeweler’s saws to 75 foot log saws. Regardless of whether the material was wood, metal, bone, glass, fiber, stone or slate, an Atkins Silver Steel saw could make the cut.

E.C. Atkins & Company covered the entire city block bounded by Capitol Avenue, Illinois, Henry and South streets, along with additonal buildings on adjacent streets.   The company had its own gas plant in Indianapolis, as well as branch offices in 10 different U.S. cities and sales agents in Europe, Australia and Japan.

Although Elias Atkins was primarily seen as a saw man, he also branched out into mining, joining with other investors in 1877 to establish the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company of Indianapolis. The company developed silver, copper and lead mines in Montana, where Atkins and his family moved in 1879  so he could run the mines and restore his health in the rugged mountain air.  After two years and a disastrous smelter fire, however, Atkins turned the keys over to a business partner and returned to Indianapolis and the saw factory.  The Hecla mining company continued to be a gold mine for Atkins and his business partners until the late 1890s, when Congress repealed legislation that required the federal government to make monthly purchases of silver.

The Atkins house at 1312 North Meridian was considered a showplace and was featured in various picture books of Indianapolis published in the late 1800s. The view above is from an 1888 souvenir book.

Shortly after Atkins returned to Indianapolis, he and his family moved to a massive mansion on the northwest corner of 13th and Meridian. Sarah Atkins threw herself back into with local club activities, holding office at one time or another in every club in which she was a member, including a stint as president of the Indianapolis Women’s Club. Elias continued his lay work in the Baptist Church, which he had joined when he first arrived in Indianapolis in 1856. A friend of education, Atkins had helped fund Baptist Female Seminary, which was located on the northeast corner of Michigan and Pennsylvania Street. He also made an earnest effort to establish a Baptist University in Indianapolis, donating forty acres of land lying between Meridian Street and Central Avenue north of 32nd Street. When plans for the university failed to materialize, Atkins donated the $20,000 tract to help establish the Theological Seminary of the University of Chicago.

Elias C. Atkins died in 1901, just a few months before his 68th birthday. A bizarre controversy arose shortly after his death when Emma Ney, a prominent local milliner described as an intimate friend of Atkins, filed a lawsuit against the estate in an effort to recover on two $5,000 notes which she claimed that Atkins had given her. She lost the court battle after the primary evidence in the case — the notes — mysteriously disappeared. Shortly thereafter she became deranged and was committed to an insane asylum in New York, where she remained until her death in 1903.

Ney’s death sparked a new round of lurid headlines, which prompted Atkins’ family attorney Sam Pickens to issue a statement explaining that the reason the notes had disappeared was because they had been paid off by the estate. According to Pickens, the claims were settled well before Ney became insane, a fact that had apparently escaped the knowledge of her court-appointed guardian who filed the lawsuit after Ney was institutionalized.

Sarah Atkins remained active in civic and social affairs in the years following her husband’s death. She made headlines in 1917 when she added her name to an anti-suffrage petition, telling The Indianapolis Star that she did not believe women were needed in politics. Two years later, she died and left the mansion on Meridian Street to her son, Henry C. Atkins, and her daughter, Sarah Frances Kackley. They sold the property in 1922 for $115,000 to the Indianapolis branch of the Buick Motor Company.

E.C. Atkins & Company continued to thrive during the early part of the 20th century, profiting both from the pre- and post-war building booms and the needs of the military during WWI and WWII. Atkins’ son Henry became president of the company after his father’s death in 1901, while numerous other family members continued to play key roles in the business. A Yale graduate, H.C. Atkins was an ardent advocate for the expansion of vocational education in the public schools, telling The Indianapolis Star in 1913 that “90% of our children get little benefit from public education” and that early vocational training would help break the cycle of poverty by giving boys who left school at age 14 or 16 the skills necessary to earn a living.

H.C. Atkins attributed much of the company’s success to its effective advertising campaigns. In a 1909 speech to the AdScript Club, Atkins told members that business had doubled over the past decade as the company expanded into mail order and foreign markets. One key to the company’s success was cleanliness, Atkins said, because a man in a grimy collar and dirty shirt does not make a very good spokesman. Given this viewpoint, it’s unlikely that Atkins would have embraced the product placement opportunities presented by all the saw-related horror movies flooding the screen this time of year.

H.C. Atkins died in 1942. E.C. Atkins & Company continued as a family-run business until 1952, when it was purchased by Borg-Warner Corporation. The factory was shuttered in 1961 and its operations relocated to Greenville, Mississippi. In 1963 the U.S. Post Office purchased the factory at 420 S. Illinois Street and demolished the plant to make way for a postal distribution center on the land.

Although the Atkins name has vanished from saws, it reemerged on cheesecake in the 1980s when the wife of E.C. Atkins’ great-grandson started a cheesecake factory in her garage. As Atkins Elegant Desserts prospered, the family found itself back in the headlines again when the founders of the dessert business, Jeanne and Tom Atkins, waged a bitter court battle to wrest guardianship of their incapacited son Patrick away from his longtime life partner and deny him any visitation rights. The Court of Appeals upheld the Atkins’ guardianship but found there was “overwhelming evidence” in the record establishing that it was in Patrick’s best interests to continue to have contact with his life partner of 25 years.

The assets of Atkins Elegant Desserts were purchased by a New York-based private equity fund in 2009. Atkins cheesecakes are now produced in Detroit. Used Atkins saws continue to be readily avilable on ebay, along with a variety of promotional and advertising items.

Atkins saws are popular with tool collectors, many of whom “cross-collect” old Atkins promotional items. The deck of cards pictured above recently sold on ebay for $43; an unopened pack in the same design sold for $90. Here are the prices fetched by the other items (clockwise from right): saw magazine, $10; convention badge picturing E.C. Atkins, $33; watch fob in box, $78; and stickpin, $45.

16 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: SAWS – a Halloween history tale”

  1. Brad says:

    I can only imagine what that block of meridian would look like today If it had that beautiful Victorian home, instead of what now is a personal storage facility and parking lot.

  2. Ryan says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks!

  3. Jon Atkins says:

    Libby, TX for a thorough, factual and almost complete article on my great grandfather, E. C. Atkins continuing on to today’s generation of my deceased brother’s, Thomas Kuhn (our grandmother’s maiden name whose brother was George Kuhn, Sr. of Klein & Kuhn real estate management) Atkins. To complete the Atkins Dessert portion, the plant was recently closed and the equipment was auctioned off ending 30 years of an international elegant dessert production company.
    My half-brother, Stuart Atkins, who lives in Orange City (LA), CA has been the in the shack that was the office of E. C. Atkins at the gold mining company in Montana. There are voluminous records kept by a local historian whom Stuart has met.
    Lots of history and stories and thank you for telling one of them.
    Jon Atkins

  4. Stuart Atkins says:

    Hi Libby,

    I’m the Great Grandson who Jon Atkins mentions above. I live in CA. See the website below re. Hecla and a detailed history of E.C. Atkins in Montana:

    http://glendalemontana.com/

    As Jon mentioned, I took 2 trips into the Mountains of Montana to see the ghost town of Hecla. I even found some Indianapolis artifacts from the Hecla Montana location. Great article. A few of your dates are off, as you will note from the above website. Thanks for writing about the legacy of such a great man, company, and family history. Just another bit of Hoosier and Montana history!

    And, BTW, it was not a “shack,” it was E.C.’s office back then 🙂 Yes, his little brother keeps his accurate and honest!

    H. Stuart Atkins

  5. Stuart Atkins says:

    Libby,

    One other question I forgot to ask. Where did you find the reference to E.C. Atkins’ family living with him in Hecla Montana? We know through census records that his children were born in Atlanta Idaho during the Hecla venture, but we thought they returned to Indianapolis while E.C. stayed at Hecla for a few years before returning back to Indianapolis. The historical reference would be interesting so we could verify this. Thanks!

  6. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Thanks, Jon and Stuart. I’ll go back through my notes to see where I got the info about Montana. I may have made an assumption that the family was out west the entire time since I saw that his son was not born in Indy. On a related note, I put together a PDF file of articles on the Atkins family, I’d be happy to send it to both of you. Just email me at libby@scoutdog.net if you want me to email you a copy.

    One more thing – I’m interested in the Klein & Kuhn connection. I have two great Klein & Kuhn pieces in my law office that I’d love to feature in an article if I could get info about the company.

  7. Bill Zickel says:

    My Great Grandfather worked for the E.C. Atkins Saw Co. in the late 1800’s. His father also worked there, as the foreman in the saw hammering dept.
    William D. Quinn left the Atkins Co. to start his own Saw sharpening Co. in St. Louis, Mo. in 1903.
    W.D. Quinn Saw Co. represented the E.C. Atkins Saw Co. up until the time they went out of business in the 1950’s.
    Our Company is still in business to this day, and in 2013 we will be in business for 110 years.
    The following is an article about our Company from a German saw blade grinding machine manufacturer.
    inside the magazine is a picture of our shop in the late 40’s in downtown St.Louis. The sign hanging in front has an E.C. Atkins logo, along with our Company.

    http://www.vollmer-group.com/magazin2012/ElKat_en_19/

    I hope the link works.

    Thanks, Bill

  8. Libby Cierzniak says:

    That’s very cool. Thanks for sharing, Bill.

  9. d mikels shea says:

    libby–call me re your search into Kuhn–I have few bits and pieces but very close friend has amazing link I don’t think appropriate to post–but you have my phone no. and meanwhile I will get this person’s permission to share–FYI she is a noteworthy author and amazing researcher so info credible…I would love it to be a personal visit for reasons you will understand when we talk. FYI: I was hired by ALCOA when K & K ownership in newly built Riley Center was an issue–and during some high level negotiations again not suitable for posting.

  10. Patrick says:

    My Dad was born in 1905. He worked in his brother’s blacksmith shop and later went into carpentry in St. Louis Mo. area. He also hand sharpened saws for customers. He was an expert with saws. He sharpened the crosscut saws at 45 degrees. One could cut a sawblade width off the end of a board after he sharpened it. He said that Atkins saws filed easier and lasted longer that Disston saws. Atkins saws were his favorites.

  11. Brenda Havens says:

    “Atkins and Perkins University Place” addition encompasses the northern half of Historic Meridian Park. E.C. first donated 40 acres of the area (between Meridian and Central, 32nd to 34th) to the Baptist Church in an effort to establish a Baptist University and then purchased it back for $20,000 when the plan was shelved. However, that is how the addition got the “University Place” name (Perkins, btw, was VP of the E.C. Atkins company at the time). The $20k went to help start the Theological Seminary at the Univ. of Chicago.

    We talk about E.C. Atkins on our Walk Urban Indy 1mi route in Historic Meridian Park (HMP-1a).

    Some terrific info (and a tribute video) here: http://www.wkfinetools.com/hUS-saws/Atkins/history/HIST1-index.asp

  12. donna mikels shea says:

    Libby: as always I am in awe of your research and the Atkins piece reminded me I have a tiny “saw”—for some reason I always bought and saved artifacts like paper weights, knives, little objects when they had a local or long-ago business firm names. I think I also have an Atkins brass paper weight but who knows–I am living in 2 houses bringing items to new home in “tiers” . But also, your mentions of the mansion-to-motor-car sales rooms on Meridian reminded me of one other you might like to research–especially the legal probate facet which kind of reflects the famous Brit long-playing will battle–can’t remember name. Anyway, in the 40’s I was assigned to do a feature about a then-noted local philanthropist-social name–the wonderful Sally (Mrs. Henry) Coleman. She too lived in a huge mansion somewhere around l0th to l3th on the west side of Meridian, at that time a near-90 widow of equally noted Wm.Henry Coleman. She lived a gay social life even at that age, dressing up in marvelous fashions with matching shoes, hair-bows and living in a house filled with museum-worthy French furniture. The Colemans gave their money and their names to Coleman Hospital, Suemma Vajen Coleman home for unwed mothers, and my article dealt in part with her own determination to give her $ in her lifetime–contrasted with a long-playing will dispute over her husband’s will. Two of his bequests had either the right name or wrong address for 2 non-profit homes, cannot remember names but both started with an A and his negligent atty. had put the wrong address with the right name if you know what I mean–and 20 years later still in court battle. I have a funny personal story about Mrs. Coleman’s lifetime gift to me–but ironically on her death her estate, too, became a battleground and her towering mansion became an auto dealership, later torn down. Details if you are interested.

  13. Charles Hodgson says:

    My Grandfather Louis Hodgson was Grinder #13 at the Indpls. Factory per his WW1 Draft card on June 5th, 1917.

  14. Anonymous says:

    4.5

  15. Linda J says:

    Interesting article. My uncle has hired ancestral researchers for the Arthur family. He was told his dna was matching up to the Adkins name. We’ve however never made a connection yet. My grandfather, Frank Arthur worked for Adkins Saw. Any information regarding ancestry connections are welcomed.

  16. Patricia L Doorenbos says:

    Hi Libby my name is Patty. I’m not sure if you still look at all this but I have a vintage hacksaw blade holder. I’ve been trying to find something online about it like the year and other things but I can’t seem to find anything like it.

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