A.H. Harris 100 year anniversary 1916-2016
Rewind to 1916. John McCormack’s “Somewhere a Voice is calling” is playing on the radio, some twenty years before “Somewhere over the rainbow” enters the charts. The British Royal Army Medical Corps just carried out the first successful blood transfusion using blood that had been stored and cooled. The Ottoman Empire is alive and well in what would later be known as Turkey and the surrounding Middle East. Over in Munich, the German automobile company BMW is founded. The Chicago Cubs play their first game at Weeghman Park (modern-day Wrigley Field), defeating the Cincinnati Reds 7–6 in 11 innings. Ireland is making history, the Easter Rising is in full swing while much of the rest of Europe reaches the half-way point in World War I. Later that year, Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. Meanwhile in New Britain, Connecticut, in a small stable opposite East Main Street, a 27 year old Art Harris is establishing one of many businesses in Finnegan’s Alley…
The Alley was just off Main Street opposite East Main Street and disappeared in the early sixties, through redevelopment. Back then the Alley was home to many young businesses. Finnegan’s Stable supplied draft horses to many of the local draymen including Adams Express, American Express and H.R. Walker Co. Art Harris, Jimmy Farrell and many other truckers housed their solid tired, chain driven trucks in Ed Dennison’s Garage. Art’s neighbors included Murtha’s and Hanna’s Block, The Palace Theater and Emma Porta’s Fruit Store. Art’s business back in those days consisted of all types of trucking. He hauled hardware, cast iron stoves, tools, cutlery and a thousand other items from the local factories to cities and piers in New York and New England. Furniture and fresh meat, cinders and cement, slate and shingles and even beer was trucked when prohibition was repealed. Art bought a lumber carrier to haul materials to the site of the Normal School, which would later become Central Connecticut State University, and a snow loader to remove snow from the streets of Boston and New Britain. He even attempted, with little success, to compete with the New Haven Railroad with a bus route between New Britain and Hartford, CT – the entrepreneurial spirit was strong in young Art!
One of Art’s many jobs was hauling “clinkers” out of the boiler rooms of local factories. These clinkers, or cinders, made an excellent underbed for the thousands of slates that the City specified for sidewalks. Art Harris would park a Mack dump truck under a boiler room chute until the truck was full, and then deliver the load to sidewalk contractors for a fee. The profit was small, however, and after sitting for years in Finnegan’s Stable, the two Bulldog Macks were sold to the City of New York in 1935 for the construction of the World’s Fair. Those were the lean years of the Great Depression and the New Deal. Factory shipments were down and the freight business was highly competitive and unregulated. Truckers cut prices to the bone in order to survive. Art Harris survived by delivering and unloading meat and meat products to the hundreds of small stores that dotted every street corner. Small red Ford trucks with white canvas bodies hauled the meat – refrigerated trucks were unknown at that time. The company grew and prospered and in 1936 moved to a larger facility at 1283 East Street. The new building provided not only room for the trucks but also room to expand the line of construction products and to manufacture highway expansion joints. Art patented a load transfer device that, when used in concrete roads, kept the pavement joints level and even. This was the year before the first section of the Merritt Parkway was built, 1934. The steel joints proved so successful that they were specified and used in almost every mile of concrete pavement in Connecticut for the next 30 years!
From 1941 to 1945 construction was at a standstill and there was no demand for construction products. The company once again earned most of its revenue from trucking meat products. The post war years changed all of that. Construction, nearly non-existent during the Depression and World War II, suddenly became the nation’s number one priority. There was a rush to build houses, schools, stores, highways and bridges. Art Harris’ pre-war experience and reputation in the construction industry made him a major supplier of construction products. The post war years also brought about a name change for the company. Art Harris had four sons active in the business. Each had taken jobs elsewhere but had rejoined the firm. He changed the name of the company to A.H. Harris & Sons and it was incorporated in 1955.
Growth was rapid. The interstate highway system required hundreds of thousands of feet of the Harris highway dowel assembly and expansion joints. Concrete forming items were needed on every structure from schools to bridges. Roofing, insulation and windows were needed for houses. The company was well established as a supplier of both the highway and residential construction markets. It logically followed that Harris should also begin to service the rest of the construction industry. National manufacturers approached Harris to handle their lines wherever they could be sold. Although acquisitions were rare in the early 50’s, Harris acquired the Walker Trucking Company in 1951. Established in 1883, as the H.R. Walker Co., the company had many similarities to the one Art founded back in Finnegan’s Alley. It was a trucking company that reportedly once owned over 300 horses and 100 horse-drawn wagons, it had started and flourished in New Britain, and it was family run. Walker grew steadily as a Harris subsidiary. With its fleet of tractors, trailers and hydraulic cranes, Walker, now known as Walker Crane & Rigging Corp., specializes in moving heavy and over-sized equipment. Walker was the first of many additions to come in the next 35 year, as a result of Harris’ commitment to service its customers. With New Britain as headquarters, the company began to establish division locations in other states in 1959. A satellite office was opened in the Hyde Park section of Boston, Massachusetts in the late 1950’s to accommodate a well-established customer base that had been serviced from Connecticut. This office later moved to Medfield, Massachusetts and its territory now encompasses all of Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Art’s four sons Bob, Dick, Rod and Archie, took over the management of the company after Art’s death in 1964. They continued to uphold the commitment he made to the industry and the business continued to grow to keep that commitment. A.H. Harris was supplying the needs of many Connecticut contractors who built the New York State Thruway and New York Interstate Highways. To better serve this market, Harris opened the Latham, New York division in 1969 to supply an ever increasing demand for road and bridge materials in the construction of New York State highways. Today, this division supplies the needs of general contractors and road builders of upstate New York. As the division in Latham was being built, Harris moved into the New York City/New Jersey Metro market by purchasing a company who handled similar products and had in fact bought several manufactured products from Harris’ New Britain office in the past. Located in Newark, New Jersey, the division services the New York City Metropolitan area, Long Island, Northern, Southern New Jersey and Western Pennsylvania.
The rapid growth of the company created a need for a much larger office and warehouse. In 1970, Harris purchased and moved into a 600,000 square foot plant in New Britain that had been owned by Landers, Frary & Clark and General Electric Appliance. Portions of the building are leased to local businesses, approximately 50 operations, which acts as a tremendous asset to the business community. To better serve their solid customer base in northern New England, the Medfield division expanded in 1979 with the opening of a Portsmouth, New Hampshire office and warehouse. The new office flourished and now provides building supplies to the states of New Hampshire and Maine. A.H. Harris acquired Old North Manufacturing of Lenoir, North Carolina and its subsidiary Structural Accessories, Inc. in 1983. Old North, established in 1949, manufactures chemical curing compounds, concrete additives and expansion joints. In addition, they supply the Southeast with a variety of construction products.
Later Structural Accessories moved to Terryville, Connecticut and now markets their line of patented bridge expansion joints through a national network of distributors. The most recent expansions by the divisions have been the West Seneca, New York satellite office and warehouse of Latham in 1985 and the Greensboro, North Carolina satellite office of Old North Manufacturing in 1986. In the past 20 years we added locations in the U.S. South East Region and now serve customers from Maine to North Carolina out of currently 39 branches. In addition to expanding its geographic area, Harris has also grown from within to keep up with its increased volume. Its sophisticated computer system transfers purchasing, sales, accounting and marketing information quickly and easily between all divisions. Each Harris division has its own staff of engineers who prepare detailed form layouts, bills of materials and recommendations on form erection, as well as shop drawings for fabricated bridge joints. An extensive product line servicing all aspects of the construction industry has been carefully cultivated by Harris. Adequate inventory storage space and the tractor trailers to deliver the product where it’s needed are all maintained for the customer’s benefit. Harris’ experienced account managers recommend the best products and procedures for the job and then go the extra step by extending field assistance and training in product application.
2002 marks another important milestone for our organization. A.H. Harris acquires its rebar fabrication division, HarMac Rebar and Steel Corporation, headquartered in Fryeburg, Maine. HarMac maintains a second facility in Sayreville, New Jersey and a total of currently 16 Harris locations have steel fabrication capabilities right onsite. It only makes sense for Harris to provide reinforcing steel and rebar fabrication along with all other concrete construction building materials. Harris’ slogan “Just One Call (for all your construction needs)” becomes a reality. Throughout the 2000s, Harris continues to establish itself as a leader in forming, shoring and innovation by developing their own clamp forming system Harris 1500, now our signature solution and contractors favorite. It’s also right around that time when expansion starts into government sales.
Despite its growth and change in leadership, Harris is still very family oriented to this day. The Harris brothers – Bob, Dick, Rod and Archie – entered the business at an early age. They began working in the summertime and after school driving trucks and loading and unloading everything from beef to drums of concrete adhesives. They often got up at 3 am. to see that a customer got his deliveries on time. That sense of commitment first brought to the company by its founder is very much a part of the company today. Art’s four sons carried on his legacy in their business activities and today every Harris employee performs his or her responsibilities with that same sense of commitment and pride. “Be Part of the Harris Pride” is more than just a catch phrase at A.H. Harris, it’s a tradition and a day to day reality. A century is a long time for a company to stay in business, remain successful and continue to growth at a constant pace. Harris is not the same company that Arthur Harris Sr. started in Finnegan’s Alley, but what has remained the same since 1916 is our philosophy and commitment to treat our customers, vendor partners and team members with respect and to conduct our business with integrity.
Thank you for being part of our story, here’s to the next 100 years!
Below: The Old New World is a photo-based animation project by Moscow-based digital artist Alexey Zakharov. Using archival photos from Shorpy, a site that scans and extracts reference images from the Library of Congress, Zakharov takes us back through time with a little steampunk time machine and for a moment, we get a glimpse of what it was like in the early 1900s. The animation looks convincing that you might mistake it for real film footage. [Borrowed from here]