Columbus Washboard Company celebrates 120 years
LOGAN — A local staple of the community, the Columbus Washboard Company, is celebrating an auspicious milestone this year as the company turns an incredible 120 years old.
According to the history of the Columbus Washboard Company, it was officially started when Frederic Martin Sr. started building washboards for resale from his backyard in 1895.
He would continue to hand make the washboards over the next 30 years, and though no sales information is available, it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 washboards were made and sold during that time.
Everything changed in 1925 when Martin’s son, Frederic Martin Jr., purchased the company from his father. At the time, the company consisted of a metal crimping machine, a few saws, and the patent for the “Bear On Easy” washboard.
The first year in the hands of Frederic Jr. saw more sales than the combined estimate of the 30 years prior, with the first year yielding 1,322 washboards sold.
Over the next five years, sales peaked at 20,436 washboards in a year. Then, in 1941, sales peaked at an incredible 1,278,757 per year.
Over the years the numbers have declined as other methods have gained popularity, but the company continues to sell approximately 20,000 washboards each year.
Throughout the years, the company offered several different types of washboard featuring different textures and sizes as well as different metals — even creating boards made of glass or wood during the metal shortages during WWII.
Today, the different variations of boards are all available, and still made by hand using the traditional methods upon which the company was founded.
Even some of the original equipment is still used, though for safety reasons some pieces have been modified or replaced. The poplar wood that is used to build the washboards is grown and harvested locally.
There were only three real changes made to the process of making the washboards over the last 120 years; the employees who build the boards now use a nail gun for the six nails that hold the board together, the logos are now screen-printed onto the wood by a local company for a clearer picture, and the metal that is used for the washboards is now purchased in large rolls that are already the proper width, eliminating some of the waste.
In 1999, when the owners were considering closing the doors, the Columbus-based company was purchased by a new group of people; Jan Richards, George D. Richards, Linda Franklin, Karen Schwab, Pam Gartin, Bevan and Jacqui Barnett, and Larry Gerstner, who proceeded to relocate the business to Logan.
The business is currently owned through a joint partnership between Joyce and Larry Gerstner, Jacqui and Bevan Barnett, and James Martin, who was brought in to replace Jacqui as factory manager when she stepped down.
“We’re very glad that we did it in 1999 when this opportunity became available,” said Jacqui. “It was sacrilege to me that all that old machinery would be just trashed and sold for scrap. I’m really glad that we kept it running.”
There were times when the new owners worried that the efforts to keep the business open would be in vain.
September 11, 2001 was a very difficult time, not only as a nation, but for many people as a business. According to Jacqui, sales went down in many areas that were considered non-essential, and for many people washboards fall into that category.
Washboards are a product used primarily by a select group of consumers, and so in order to continue to support themselves, the company has expanded its inventory to include not only washboards, but soaps, laundry supplies, salves, creams, and even butter.
Other products being released this year include a clothes airer to dry clothes and gardening twine made from all-natural materials.
Martin also helped the company expand its market by getting active online and building relationships with companies overseas. This effort, as well as steps such as working with tourism, has helped the company stay afloat when all others like it have faded away.
The company is celebrating its 120th year by building a limited edition washboard featuring its own unique model number, the original spiral texture in the metal, and one of the original logos.
“You can’t invent history like this,” said factory manager James Martin. “This is just awesome.”
Though the Washboard Music Festival is run by a different entity, the Columbus Washboard Factory will be selling items during the festivities, which begins this evening.
Visitors are also welcome to visit the factory and see how the washboards and other items are made on guided tours.