100 Years of Ulbrich: 1929 & The Great Depression

This is the third article in our history series commemorating Ulbrich's historic 100th Anniversary.

For our first article, we dove into our founder's story. The second article followed Fred Ulbrich Sr. out west as he searched for a business big enough for his ambition.

The 1920s had been an exciting time for Fred Sr. and his family, but 1929 would change the course of his life.

Three Important Events to Occur in 1929

First and foremost, Fred Ulbrich Sr. married the woman he loved, Ada Marie Cei.

Fred Sr and Ada's Wedding Day

Ada was five years old when she, her younger brother Alfred, and her mother took a treacherous voyage from Italy to America in search of a better life. Her father Giovanni was waiting in Wallingford, where he'd been working to provide the means for his family to join him in America.

The Cei's homestead included a modest vineyard, a vegetable garden and plenty of chickens, rabbits and pigs. Ada went to school until she finished the eighth grade. Then she went to work in a sweater factory that she called a "sweatshop," in a wooden structure nearby to Fred's scrapyard. When Fred and Ada's paths crossed, they formed a strong bond. They were married at Holy Trinity Church in Wallingford on September 15, 1929. The wedding reception was held outdoors at the Cei's small vineyard on Carlton Street.

The second important event of 1929 for Fred Ulbrich occurred when stainless steel became commercially available in the United States.

As backstory, a new form of corrosion-resistant steel had been conceived in 1913 by an Englishman named Harry Brearley. In a research laboratory in Sheffield, England, Brearley and his colleagues were tasked with improving the wear and tear on rifle barrels. They mixed elements for testing purposes, and discarded the samples when results were unsatisfactory. Then Brearly discovered a rustless sample containing nearly 12% of chromium: stainless steel.

Great Britain pioneered the use of stainless steel for cutlery and for ceremonial swords for the British Army. Although the English were the first to develop a rustless steel, the Germans anticipated its potential use for armament purposes. They were especially interested in the alloy KA2 — the K stood for Krupp, a massive munitions and steel complex in Essen, Germany; and the A stood for Alloy. Today, this alloy would be called 301 stainless. After WWI, Krupp licensed its technology to a melting firm in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area called the Ludlum Corporation.

One of the suppliers for Ludlum Corporation was the Wallingford Steel Company. Wallingford Steel was originally an offshoot of the Wallace Silversmith Company, so now there were four major industries in town. Wallingford Steel converted raw steel coils into a rolled end product. The steel was used by other manufacturers to make anything from machine parts to automobiles. Most applications of Wallingford Steel coils were tied to the cutlery industry. Ludlum eventually bought out Wallingford Steel in 1935.

Wallingford Steel Company Employees
The Original Employees at The Wallingford Steel Company, 1922

By this time, Fred Ulbrich was already selling scrap to Wallingford Steel. They enjoyed his quality and service so much that they made him a broker for scrap material coming into their plant. Fred greatly appreciated and valued Ludlum's Wallingford Steel scrap account. He was Ludlum's primary scrap broker in the Northeast. Fred also serviced two dozen other companies producing extra scrap metal as a byproduct from the products they were making. He bought their scrap, segregated it and sold it to the Ludlum Corporation or to Schiavone.

Fred made sure that the scrap was not contaminated with unwanted elements, such as zinc, copper, or brass. He collected scrap made from this new rustless steel, he made sure it was segregated properly, and he shipped it back to the Ludlum Corporation to be melted again for reproduction. He was closely involved with America's introduction to stainless steel, even though it was at the scrap level. He understood from the beginning its importance and potential. He was friendly with experts and businessmen who dealt in stainless steel.

Its various applications in the cutlery, automotive and architectural industries became familiar to Fred. To learn more about metals, he attended night courses in metallurgy at Yale University for several years. He learned the theoretical side - which he called "the book side of metals" and became an amateur metallurgist. Unknowingly, Fred was also on his way to achieving his dreams while becoming a significant pioneer of stainless steel in the New England region.

The third event of the year was a harbinger of widespread financial calamity — The Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Fred Sr. started his company four years into the decade known as the Roaring Twenties, a time of American prosperity and confidence. Jobs were plentiful, the Middle Class was growing, houses were being built for soldiers coming home from war. Times were good for hard-working and optimistic Americans until the Stock Market Crash of 1929. People lost their jobs; money was scarce and confidence in the economy sunk to its lowest possible point.

Wall Street Crash of 1929

Fred Sr. and Ada were on their honeymoon in New Hampshire that week in late October when the stock market crashed. Fred often said he never lost a cent in the crash because he dealt heavily on the barter system.

He didn't have much money in the bank. What money he made, he saved for his family and entrepreneurial pursuits. Fred's scrap accounts also provided him with a small income. Wallingford Steel actually reported a profit during the Great Depression era — therefore, Fred Sr. had plenty of work to do and he was seeking to grow operations.

Fred Sr. and Ada came from frugal families, and since neither grew up with money, they weren't used to spending it. They were almost self-sufficient from the start of their marriage. Ada planted a large garden that supplied most of their food. Both the Ulbrich's and Cei's knitted and sewed much of their clothing. Fred bartered used auto parts for money items that the family needed. However his customers were not generating much money, and Wallingford Steel wasn't buying much scrap. It became survival time.

Fred Ulbrich Company Building Scrap Steel

The next five years were spent collecting scrap and old automobiles. He erected a fence around his property, and fixed up his building. This was completed with the help of transient labor. During depression times, very little money was exchanged for services. The barter system was a common form of exchange. What little money Fred Sr. received was from an occasional sale of scrap, a rare cash sale of used auto parts, and from the unusual leasing of his chicken coop. Fred once claimed that, "Even the chickens had to make sacrifices."

While the Ulbrich's were protected by Fred's specialized work, other families weren't so lucky. Many people lost their jobs, income and life savings. It was a disaster that would take nearly a decade of recovery led by heavy governmental intervention. As a result, scores of penniless men went from town to town, searching for work or for food. There were many of these drifters riding on rail cars across America.

In Wallingford, the Fred Ulbrich Company scrapyard became a popular train stop for those in need of work and a meal. Fred Sr. made handshake agreements with many of these men. Knowing that he could provide laborers with basic necessities, he hired men riding the rails for short periods of time. They were paid a wage and Ada Ulbrich would feed them soup, vegetables, chicken and eggs. In return, the transient men worked for Fred Sr. by helping to double the size of his building. Along with his brother Henry, Fred Sr. oversaw every moment of the expansion. By the time it was finished, the entire structure was 120 feet in length.

Fred Sr. and his brother Henry Ulbrich Overseeing Expansion
Fred Sr. and his brother Henry Ulbrich Overseeing Expansion

In addition to the Great Depression, the Prohibition Era dominated American life in the early 1930's. Making alcohol was illegal but people still wanted to drink. Fred claimed that practically every bathtub in Wallingford was filled with "bathtub beer" or "bathtub gin," and it was collected by unmarked trucks that made covert deliveries. Demand for booze was so high that Fred was approached to lease his chicken coop as a secret distillery. A huge still was installed in the coop. The mixture was twice distilled to make sure it was drinkable.

This distillery required tons of ice. It wasn't long before Fred and his partners were top customers of the only icehouse in Wallingford. As a cover for the operation, he erected a small hut, and each Saturday ice was delivered to South Colony Street (U.S. Route 5) near the intersection of John Street Bridge. He filled the hut with ice and people purchased it on their way to New Haven. Yale baseball or football games were big events in those days. Only a small portion of the ice was in Fred's hut, while the great majority was being used down the hill in the distillery.

Chicken coop

Soon, men from the icehouse were mimicking Fred's ice hut idea. They built a larger hut near Fred's on South Colony Street, stocked it with vast amounts of ice, undercut his prices and stole his customers. Neither hut was profitable, and the icehouse men nearly went bankrupt as their ice melted away. They never figured out how Fred Sr. could buy so much ice without going broke, and they never knew about the secret distillery. Fred would chuckle when he told this story, which often ended with him saying, "Crazy laws make honest people dishonest."

During tough times Fred made a living any way he could. He stockpiled cases of canned fruit and vegetables as a precaution because he could not be careful enough. After all, he had a new member of the family on the way. Ada gave birth Fred Ulbrich Jr. was born on December 15, 1930. His early years were spent at home on Carlton Street with his Italian-speaking mother and grandmother. Fred Jr. repeated kindergarten at Washington Street School since he only spoke Italian.

Christian Ulbrich; Ada and Fred Ulbrich Jr
Fred's father Christian Ulbrich on left; Fred's wife Ada and son Fred Ulbrich Jr. on right

Then Christian Ulbrich, beloved father, artist and singer passed away in 1933 at the age of 73. Fred Sr. became the family's de facto patriarch and had a second son, Richard "Dick" Ulbrich on July 16, 1934. Then Fred Sr. moved his family closer to his mother. He rented out the Carlton Street homestead and made a $1,500 downpayment on 36 Franklin Street, Wallingford; over the tracks on the east side of town where his sons could grow up in an English-speaking neighborhood.

By 1936 the Ulbrich's were settled and America's economy was in recovery mode. That year, the Ludlum Corporation merged with the Allegheny Corporation, forming Allegheny-Ludlum. Fred Sr. was replaced by as scrap broker and could no longer sell scrap directly to Wallingford Steel. The scrap business had become more sophisticated. Substantial scrap operations would soon require capital-intensive equipment on an international scale. Major scrap dealers had loading docks in deep water harbors, equipment, personnel, and scrap to fill cargo vessels en route to Europe or Asia.

The Ulbrich's did not have the funds to fulfill this capability. For the time being, Fred Sr. still had two dozen industrial scrap accounts but he no longer solicited new accounts. His venture had reached a ceiling of sorts. The local metals market proved to be too small to support two major scrap dealers, so he sold his material exclusively to Schiavone & Sons. He and the Schiavone's were close friends.

Potential for new scrap metal sales was nonexistent, so Fred Ulbrich Sr. pursued other business ventures.

Fred Sr. opened a shop on North Colony Street as part of the Western Auto franchise of stores. The shop specialized in selling new auto parts and accessories. It was not a wild success in the least. Though he advertised his low prices for parts like mufflers and windshields, the customers had tight pockets. There wasn't enough money to go around, and people weren't buying.

He then tried investing in real estate. The Wallingford Bank & Trust Company foreclosed on a few properties, and Fred, Sr. arranged to assume control of them (no money changed hands). Fred Sr. acquired two inexpensive houses on Colony Street, and an apartment building on Meadow Street. He fixed them up and rented the units. This house flipping venture never moved the needle financially, but overall, Fred Sr. was able to provide for his family through his entrepreneurial lifestyle.

Fred Ulbrich for Warden

Fred Sr. was also an active member of the community. He chaired Wallingford's Knights of Columbus Pinta Council No. 5. He once represented the Council at an international convention in Seattle, Washington. He was a member of the Wallingford Lodge of Elks, the Loyal Order of Moose and the National Institute of Scrap Iron & Steel. Soon enough Fred Sr. was a part-time politician, serving as Chairman of Wallingford's Democratic Party - in the mid 1930's, when the town was dominated by the Republican Party.

His favorite politicians were President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia. Friends of Fred Sr. endearingly nicknamed him "The Little Flower" due to his resemblance to LaGuardia. Both men were known for their boundless energy, inspiring attitude, and short stature. Like LaGuardia, Fred Sr. felt a patriotic inclination towards public service. He first ran for elected office in 1937 when he lost a Democratic Party primary for Warden of Wallingford (equivalent to Mayor when the town operated under a town and borough form of government). In 1939, he conceded another primary for the Second-Selectman position.

Life was hectic for the Ulbrich's. In need of more income to support a growing family, Fred Sr. used his connections and know-how to enter the cutlery trade. The Wallingford and Meriden area was the second largest silverware center in the world, so it was only natural that Fred Sr. tried his hand at cutlery. One of his major scrap accounts, the Sta-Brite Corporation, located in New Haven, manufactured stainless cutlery. He had scrap metal; he knew the industry and he knew how to manufacture the product.

Ulbrich Stainless diner-quality cutlery

The Fred Ulbrich Company went into the business of making a "diner" quality cutlery line of knives, forks, and spoons. Diners were at their peak popularity in the United States, and diner utensils were simple in design, easy to make and inexpensive. Forks, knives, and spoons were made of stainless steel, and were either one piece or two pieces with a wooden or zinc-based handle. Fred Sr. converted part of his South Colony Street building to manufacture cutlery. His brother Henry supervised the enterprise. For an inexpensive item, the quality was excellent. He obtained orders, hired people, and shipped a good product. The cutlery business was successful and Ulbrich was a known entity in the New Haven area.

Fred Sr. and Ada had thrived in tumultuous decade. They had a family of three boys after the birth of their last son Daniel on November 26, 1939. Things were looking up, though the future was clouded due to Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany. The Ulbrich's and their Wallingford neighbors were receiving ominous letters from relatives in central Europe. Words of worry and talks of war were a part of almost every letter. For a war to start, it seemed to be only a matter of time — and it officially began when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.

Want to learn more about Ulbrich’s century of excellence?

Visit our Centennial website for a company timeline, treasured memories, and more!


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