SUTTON HANDLE FACTORY
quote by I. C. Sutton in interview by Ann Faris for the Arkansas Gazette of Little Rock, October 16, 1949
"No son of mine will ever sit down, fold his hands and live off the Government." I. C. Sutton of Lurton, intelligent, educated, working owner of one of the most complete small handle factories and sawmills in the state was speaking.
"I canít keep the government from adding taxes and telling me how to run the plant Iíve spent half a life time building, but I can teach my sons to get out and hustle for themselves. By golly, the small business is the backbone of America, even if some of these so-called Ďenlightened law-makers in Washington donít know it."
On this philosophy of honest, independent work, Sutton Handle Factory began. Although this unique business is not the largest of itís kind in the state, ranking only fourth, itís spreading network isnít trifling. It reaches out over the miles to bring in 25 to 35 workers in the factory and "for every man inside, thereís another one in the forests getting out the trees." It has a weekly pay roll of $1,200 to $1,800, nets around $160,000 yearly. $140,000 of it in handles, the rest in lumber products. The business spills itself over a goodly part of the mountain it stands on.
The story of the building of this factory is the kind of success yarn with an "it-might-have-been-us" flavor which is considered typically American. It is the story of a family industry,begun as an experiment, carried on by a father who practiced what he preached and taught his sons to work. The mother who co-operated, rounded out the picture.
For many years the Sutton family interests and efforts have centered around this business, which has served not only to provide a livelihood for four sons and a son-in-law, but a heritage for an increasing number of grand and great-grandchildren.
There are other unusual angles to this business. In fact, itís all surprising. Youíre driving along in the hills on state highway 7, swerving now and then to avoid a mother sow and her prolific family in the middle of the road. You climb upward through the forests, look down on the valleys below. There at the top of a mountain are several small stores, a few houses, but mostly the Sutton Handle Factory.
You are in Lurton, whose official population is listed at 106. First comes the stores, then the big white Sutton home and then the mill. On the side next to the road is a huge pile of shaped, short pieces of wood which prove to be ash and hickory tool handle trimmings that are discards. These are sold for firewood and are highly prized for that purpose, as they burn long and brightly.
Running along the brow of the hill and just under it are roofed stacks of lumber. Behind these are the mill buildings, with their large modern machines, room-sized kilns, a modern office complete with time clock, a dictaphone, a stenographer, a business manager and a slogan, which says, "Be Careful, America Needs Your Skill." The contrast between the primitive surroundings and the modern, yet individual efficiency of the factory is startling.
This modern way of carrying on one of the oldest industries in the state began with a man who had the brains, brawn and stubbornness to crystallize a vague dream, shape it and make it come true.
He was a traveling mechanic for a drainage company in Chicago, back in 1915, and his charming young bride traveled with him. His job was to go into a new community, settle down in a trailer house which his company shipped to them by rail, then rent out drainage equipment to contractors. The first pare of settling in a new territory was always the assembly of the sections of their portable home.
At that time there were no railroads in Newton County. The natural beauty of the mountains and valleys with their green trees the year around, made a deep impression on these city-bred people who did not object to less efficient means of transportation.
One day Mr. Sutton happened to be in Harrison, Ark., and overheard a man say he had driven to town "to get a patent on his wifeís land."
"I told that man if it wouldnít cost me over $5 to get in to the railroad when necessary, Iíd buy their homestead myself and settle down in Arkansas just to look at the scenery. It turned out that I bought the 60 acres of land the man registered and another 160-acre place near it and did move here to live. About a year later I bought our present home and moved in it," Mr. Sutton relates.
Although their only neighbors were a family a quarter-mile up the road, and another one a half-mile down, the Suttons opened a small general store. As he tells it, he kept looking around at the trees and wondering how they could be turned into economic assets. It didnít seem right not to be making practical use of all the growing wealth around him.
"I began working with wood, making rough chairs with hickory bark seats. I used a small hand turning lathe and sold them for $1 to $1.25 in the store." Mr. Sutton recalls.
One day in 1929, a man down the road at Bass advertised a small rough turn handle mill for sale. Mr. Sutton went down to look at it, found that the man had wanted to move there to work, but his wife was unhappy in the wilderness and refused to stay with him, so he was selling out and going back to civilization. Mr. Sutton had no such difficulties, so he bought the little mill, moved it up the hill and began turning out handles for farm tools. Gradually he added other equipment until the factory became what it is today.
When a town grew up around them, it was Mrs. Sutton who named it. The Place on the hill once had been known as Old Spence. In order to keep in touch with the world, Mrs. Sutton applied for the job of post-mistress. She was asked to submit four names for the new post office. The one chosen was the name Lurton, which belongs to her sister, Mattie Lurton, who lives near Alton, Ill. Mrs. Sutton held the position of post-mistress for 27 years before she retired.
At first she helped her husband with book keeping at the factory. As the coupleís four sons were born and grew older, each was taught to work with wood. Today, Irving S. Sutton Jr., the oldest at 38, is superintendent of manufacturing. Harry, the third son, is superintendent of timber supplies; he sees that the trees get out of the woods. Daughter Maryís husband, J. H. Thompson, worked in the mill at Lurton until it expanded to include another sawmill in Harrison and now he manages that. Charles, the second son, worked in the mill until the war, when he learned electric wiring and decided to become an electrician. He lives in Independence, Mo., and is the only member of the immediate Sutton family who is not associated with the factory at the present time. Bert, the youngest boy, was accidentally killed on the job in a logging accident several years ago.
Sutton men earn their keep, for the making of tool handles as it is done there is a highly skilled, technical job, little related to whittling around the stove in off seasons. Each kind of handle is made by a different process. All require the use of the 13 x 30 room-size kiln for drying; all require sawing, turning, and sanding machines; most ash handles are chucked, ferruled or bent.
After the hugh trucks and tractors have brought in the logs, they are sawed into squares or other shapes, which are dried and turned on a machine called a dowel. The wood is tested for moisture content, and if necessary, is dried again. It is then "turned to shape," "chucked to size." finished smooth and waxed.
Bent ash handles are boiled in water with steam to soften, then put into forms and bent into shape. After they are dry, they are finished on a sand belt machine.
With hickory, it is different. Mr.Sutton says hickory handles are sawed out "practically by eye," and "a man gets to be what might be called an artist with a saw on this job."
Handles for shovels, axes, hoes, spades and "eye hoe" handles, ball bats and even extra long pike poles for logging use on the river are made in the Lurton Factory. Mr. Sutton doesnít know how far over the world his products have traveled, since they are marketed by a regular sales organization. He does know theyíve gone all over the United States, with carload lots for California, Maine and other coastal states and quite often foreign countries.
It hasnít always been easy. Once he ran up against a problem he didnít know how to solve, so he visited another handle factory and "got an eyeful" and now "does it like the other fellow." The problem was that sometimes when the ash wood handles were bent, they splintered down where the shovel or other tool was to be attached. Now the Sutton Factory keeps a woman whose sole job is to wear gloves, apply waterproof glue to the underside of the splinters and put them in a clamp to dry. Theyíve never come unstuck yet.
Sometimes when he listens to the bedlam the 50 machines make when they are at work, Mr. Sutton remembers his first little rough turn mill. He has more time at home and leave much of the responsibility of the business to the boys.
But they still believe in the gospel of honest work, well done. They have 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild who may come into the mill some day. They hope so. For, by golly, the Suttons of Lurton didnít raise their family to live off the government!
The above was transcribed by Lloyd Sutton, Grandson of I. C. Sutton...Thanks Lloyd!
The I. C. Sutton handle factory was moved to Harrison, Arkansas about 1952. The name was changed in 1958 to Sutton Products, Inc. Irving and Harry, two of the sons joined in a partnership at this time.
Although none of the original partners are a part of the corporation today, the company is still operating with one of the grandsons at the helm. It is now owned by Irving Suttonís son, Bobby Lynn Sutton. The company has since moved to a new location near Bergman, Arkansas, which is just a short distance north of Harrison. They no longer make handles, but primarily make wood turned parts for the furniture industry. They also make various size bar stools, which is becoming their main product. Bobby Sutton and his wife, Helen, live near by at Diamond City, Arkansas. Bobby is looking into the possibility of making a totally new product, made from the sawdust and woodchips, using a new resin technique for a synthetic type product.
Bobby Sutton has since died and the Sutton Products operation is closed out.
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