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Illinois

Rockford Manufacturing Marvel Restored And Museum-Bound

A machine built in Rockford more than a century ago is halfway to its new home in a national museum.

The 1910 Greenlee Variety Woodworker is 2.5 tons of ingenuity, representing the quality of manufacturing equipment the Rockford-based company has been known for since the Civil War era. Just ask Steve Williams, who rescued and restored the Variety Woodworker in rural Montana.

“It’s the best of the best,” Williams said during a stopover at the Greenlee headquarters in Rockford Monday. “It’s an example of the best of all those kinds of machines in the day. Most weren’t as complex. It’s darn good looking, I'd think you would agree. And it’s the last one in existence.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

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Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ
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WNIJ
The Greenlee Variety Woodworker during its quick stop back home in Rockford.

Williams is escorting the 1910 Greenlee Variety Woodworker from his home in Montana to the National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It has been a long journey in other ways, too, but Williams insists he has loved every minute of the 1,500 hours of labor put into the restoration.

Williams is a woodworker and tinkerer extraordinaire. It was love at first sight for him when he pried open the specially-made crate that had housed the Variety Woodworker for the past 40 years in a remote area of a Montana farm. The owner had purchased the behemoth from the Anaconda Copper Company’s liquidation sale – then realized it was too much machine for his workshop. So he smeared it in lard to protect the iron, boxed it up, and there it sat until he answered Williams’ ad looking for antique woodworking equipment. Williams bought it on the spot.

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Credit Steve Williams
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So what is the 1910 Greenlee Variety Woodworker anyway? It’s a machine used to cut huge wooden patterns. The Anaconda Copper Company needed precise patterns for its massive gears for mining operations around the world. The wooden patterns were pressed into sand and molten iron was poured into impressions. Anaconda used the Greenlee woodworker for 70 years, keeping it in pristine condition and never altering it. Williams said it still has its original fasteners. Still, it took him several years to completely restore it, down to creating the paint that was the “Greenlee Green” of that era.

A piece like that belongs in a museum – if you can find one that can handle such a massive endeavor. And Williams found the right home for his baby: The National Museum of Industrial History, a Smithsonian affiliate in Bethlehem, Penn. It’s scheduled to arrive Thursday, May 27, where it will join other massive working industrial machines on the museum floor.

The Greenlee Project found a fitting benefactor to fund the restoration – Emerson Electric Co., now the parent company of Greenlee. Emerson’s Vice President for Human Resources for Professional Tools Lloyd Everard was one of the dozens of employees who attended Monday’s celebration at Greenlee headquarters in Rockford. For him, it was an amazing connection to his company’s past.  “A lot of these machines were melted down in World War II, so they don’t exist,” he said. “I’ve only seen pictures of it in a catalog.”

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Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ
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WNIJ

Parting with the machine he’s spent every spare moment with over the past few years won’t be bittersweet for Steve Williams – it will be downright sad. But he won’t dwell too long on handing off his Holy Grail of Woodworking to its new owners. The pilot and Vietnam vet has his next project in his sights – restoring a 1948 Cessna 140 he can fly around his home in Kalispell, Mont., the Gateway to Glacier National Park.

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