Tacks, brads, nails spew out of old factory

Jacques Kelly

November 07, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

All the bluish carpet tacks sold nationally by Woolworth and WalMart stores pass through the hands and grocery scales of 11 women at a venerable East Baltimore plant.

They hand-pack tacks at the Holland Manufacturing Co., better known around Little Italy as the "Tack Factory," at Bank Street and Central Avenue.

Just a handful of blocks away from stylish Inner Harbor apartments, one of the few surviving downtown manufacturing plants turns out tons of brads, tacks and nails in little bright blue and yellow pasteboard boxes. Since the company opened in Baltimore 90 years ago, Holland fasteners have gone into major league baseballs, countless school bulletin boards and enough sofas to seat all of Baltimore.

The tack factory is a neighborhood institution. Over the years, Holland's time-card rack has listed the names of the Jachim, Votta, Biscotti, Russo, Gerlach, Curry, Pasqualone, Pleines, Granese, Boeri, Mezzanotte, Fica and Romaniello clans. Some of the company's pensioners put in 60 years of active service.

"I came here when I was 16. It's the only job I've ever had," says Charles Gerlach Jr., the plant superintendent, who's been at work there 45 years. His brother Jim also works there. He arrived in 1959.

"It was my grandfather who designed some of the specialty machines that make our products," says President Richard S. BTC Holland, who runs the family owned firm with his brother Robert ("Bob"), his sons, Stephen and Randy Holland, and son-in-law Jim Flynn. Including family members, some 38 people are employed at the tack factory.

Richard Holland explains that his grandfather, Franklin Holland, who was from New England, set up the Baltimore tack works in 1901 after working for the Stanley Tool Co. in New Britain, Conn. Since the 18th century, the Holland family has been involved with tools, nails and hardware. Sons often were christened with middle names that came from tack or tool and die companies -- Stanley, Erwin or Shelton.

That Yankee ingenuity remains at work at the factory today. Aged, efficient tack-making machines clatter like mechanical locusts, chewing raw steel and spitting out tacks. With their spinning flywheels and overhead belt drives, the old machines resemble a 1915 Charlie Chaplin movie set.

During the Civil War, long before the Hollands occupied it, the Central Avenue part of the building was a hospital for wounded Confederates. The heavy iron bars still guard the windows. Thick wooden beams and flooring support the noisy manufacturing portion of the plant, which sounds like a machine gun target range.

The machines' pulsating parts cut ribbons of thin steel into the tacks that were once universally used for upholstery, rugs and odd jobs around the house. Staple guns have cut into large chunks of the firm's business, but there are still tons of brads, nails and tacks to make each year.

"The casual customer who goes into a five-and-dime for a small box of tacks is still the backbone of our business," Holland says.

The firm recently shipped 15,000 dozen red, white and green thumb tack cards for the upcoming Christmas holiday season.

Holland once made a heavy-duty staple, a type of fastener used in the manufacture of baseballs. The Holland staples held

together the halves of the sphere's leather skin while it was hand sewn. Once the sewing was tight, the staples were pulled out and discarded.

And each one of those little blue-and-yellow Holland boxes (they once had a Dutch windmill on them) is hand-packed by the 11 women in the packing room. They use old-fashioned grocers' scales to weigh out the proper amounts. They also work faster, and more efficiently, than machines.

"I can roll out of bed and come to work," says Frances Votta, the packing room's chief. "I get here before everybody else and have the work laid out at 7 in the morning. It's the greatest place in the world to work."

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