Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Merry-Go-Round Man

Location:   Binghamton, New York
Year:   1920s

George F. Johnson (1857-1948), the owner and CEO of Endicott-Johnson shoes, once the largest shoe manufacturer in the world, was a robber baron of the old school. "George F." was an unabashed Progressive and believed fervently in Theodore Roosevelt's "Square Deal" and FDR's "New Deal."   He instituted a Progressive labor system in his company which he called the "Square Deal" after T.R.'s initiative. Johnson City, New York, was named in his honor.

Coming from impoverished beginnings, he, his family, and his company (located in Endicott, the city he founded adjoining Binghamton), once employed some 25,000 workers. During World War II, this number doubled, as Endicott-Johnson was the primary supplier of GI footgear. 

People who came to work at Endicott-Johnson were greeted with, "Welcome to the E.J. family!" and George F. treated them like family. Not only were they all paid a living wage, but Johnson donated several city parks, a theatre, and a library to the greater Binghamton community. He also maintained a company store and farmer's market, subsidized worker housing at a good cost, provided excellent low-cost health care, and gave everyone who worked for him a free pair of shoes at Christmas. Children's shoes for the workers were always free. 

Even during the Great Depression, when George F. had to cut salaries he laid no one off: "There's plenty of dandelions on the hills, we'll eat those if we have to," he declared. He hated unions, and worked to undermine any union organizers in his factories. However, if he thought a union had a good idea, he would adopt it.  When a group of Endicott-Johnson employees considered unionizing, George F. approached them with tears in his eyes, imploring them not to.

Some people resented his paternalism and complained that working conditions in the tanneries particularly were rough, but Endicott-Johnson never unionized, and many of its employees worked there for up to five decades.

One of Johnson's more whimsical donations was that of six antique carousels in the region. As a child George F.'s family was so poor they could not spare him the few cents for a carousel ride, and so carousels became for him a symbol of the good life. He always called them merry-go-rounds and so do the locals. Each is free to use (except Ross Park, which charges one piece of litter per rider as a way of keeping the park neat. Ross Park also maintains a carousel museum).  The antique carousels (six of less than 200 remaining in the world) give Binghamton the name of "Carousel Capital of The World." Riding all six carousels in a day is known as "riding the circuit."

After George F.'s death, the company carried on, but was eventually bought up by venture capitalists who moved almost all manufacturing to China, leaving the locals underemployed and bereft of benefits.One of the new owners referred to George F.'s business practices as "anachronistic. I doubt whether the modern American worker would tolerate being demeaned in such a way."  

Oh, the humiliation! I didn't have to pay for my children to wear the shoes I made!

George F.

Endicott-Johnson stands abandoned today

The "Square Deal Arch" on the Binghamton/Johnson City border

One of the merry-go-rounds

A Broome County locator map for "The Circuit"

Thumbs up!


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