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 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.
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.
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.