100 Years of Ulbrich: Fred Sr.’s Dream

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

For our first article, we shared a profile of our founder, Fred Ulbrich Sr.

Now, we’re going to retrace Fred Sr.’s steps as he journeyed out west, ultimately returning to Wallingford with the grit and experience needed to follow his dream and form a company.

If you ask us, we’d say our Centennial Celebration is evidence his wildest dreams came true.

Fred Sr.’s Dream

Fred Sr Portraits Early Years
Portraits of Fred Sr. in His Early Years

Frederick Christian Ulbrich Sr. was born in Wallingford on June 8, 1901. He grew up to be 5’4” tall with a stocky appearance. During his high school years, the United States entered World War I, but he was too young to join the military. After graduating in 1918, he was busy with small business ventures in addition to his job at Judd Company. On the side, he ran a mail order business selling household items out of catalogues.

Fred Sr. had multiple side jobs. He sold boxed lunches, newspapers and candy to rail passengers. Joined by one of his friends, Morton Downey (who became a nationally known singer), they hopped on the train in Wallingford three times a week to sell what they had to riders bound for New York City. However, one day while working at Judd Company, Fred Sr. was trucking materials down a ramp when a wooden shard stabbed the sole of his shoe and punctured his foot.

An initial medical operation was unsuccessful in completely removing the splinter. Fred Sr. was unable to perform his job at Judd Company and could no longer cater to his train route. Several surgeries and many years later, the remnants of the splinter were finally removed, and he was able to walk without the aid of crutches. While his foot ailed him throughout his life, Fred Sr. carried on without complaint. He would need a job that did not require walking or physical exertion.

He was hired on as a salesman at Wallace Silversmith Company Sons, one of the two large silverware, cutlery and hollowware manufacturers in Wallingford. The other was International Silver Company, which had several plants in Wallingford and Meriden. As a matter of fact, the Meriden Wallingford area was once the second largest silverware and flatware manufacturing centers in the world behind Sheffield, England.


Fred Sr. loved his job on the sales desk. His role consisted of pricing and processing orders, as well as communicating by telephone with customers. He had a terrific memory and managed to memorize the price book. His output of work was substantial. For his abilities, jovial personality and work ethic, Fred Sr. was well-liked by his workmates. Consequently, his office manager allowed him to sell candy and sandwiches on breaks.

Even though his job at Wallace Silversmith provided excellent training, he felt terribly confined and knew that opportunities for advancement were limited. As mentioned, Europe’s prejudices were obvious, but the United States was not perfect either. In order to advance to a better position Fred Sr. either needed a college education or his family needed to be part of an accepted social order. He had neither a college education nor was his family part of Wallingford’s business establishment, so he decided it was time to seek his fortune elsewhere. Prone to taking risks, he left his steady job and headed west.

At twenty years old, Fred Sr. drove to Pennsylvania in an old touring car. His first destination was the coal mines. Coal mining was not what he expected. He once recounted his gratitude for getting out of the mine alive. He worked in a mine for a single day, though he did receive a day's pay. Fred Sr. continued to travel the Midwest in search of a daily wage. He worked on a railroad, on a farm, in a factory and performed every type of task imaginable.

Fred worked as a fishermen on Lake Eerie for two months under the supervision of a boss who carried a revolver. On what was supposed to be payday, the boss simply refused to pay. Then he threatened Fred Sr. with violence if he went to the police. So Fred Sr. moved on to the next job; a traveling carnival. When he became tired of one job, or if he didn't get paid, he simply moved on to the next town or city.

Donora Works, US Steel, Donora, Pennsylvania
Donora Works, US Steel, Donora, Pennsylvania

In the United States after World War I, odd jobs were plentiful but pay was sparse. Fred Sr. gained new skills and knowledge, some good and some bad. It was experience Fred Sr. would not have had if he stayed in Wallingford. He landed a steady job at the Donora Works of the United States Steel Company in Donora, Pennsylvania. His first role was as a utility man to fill in at factory positions when somebody got hurt or failed to show.

To put it mildly, conditions at the steelworks were absolutely atrocious. The noise was unbearable, the heat was fierce and it was extremely dangerous. A portion of the mill had pickling acid tanks that fumed through the air. Hundreds of horses carted material from one place to another, but they were not allowed in the pickling building due to potential illness. There were, however, people working in that building.

Eventually, Fred Sr. earned a full-time job as a scrap inspector at Donora Works. The role was important. If scrap was not properly separated, then the melt mixture would be incorrect. Improperly dividing copper, zinc brass and other alloys created voids or holes in the final steel product. When a bad melt solidified into metal, further processing was needed and the material had to be re-melted. Since scrap dealers were paid per pound, they often hid rocks in scrap bundles. Fred Sr. came to understand the value of honestly and carefully segregating scrap before the melting process.

Sorting scrap is one of the fundamentals of the steel industry, which Fred Sr. learned well and never forgot. This would prove to be his master key to success in the steel business. After nearly a year with U.S. Steel, he had the ambitious idea of returning to Wallingford to establish a metals scrapyard. He realized something that few people did — central Connecticut lacked a reliable small-scale scrap dealer with insight into how scrap should be prepared for melt mills. There was a reliable scrap dealer located in New Haven, some ten miles away called Schiavone & Sons, but Fred knew he could create a similar, yet more dependable operation.

Wallingford, Connecticut
Wallingford, Connecticut, Map Division 1905

At 23 years old, he bought a parcel of land on Wallingford’s Dudley Avenue, parallel to train tracks and located a mile from the center of town. It was an uninhabited area in 1924. Wallingford was a small town with a population of about 5,000 divided by the railroad tracks. The wealthiest families lived on the east side of town and the working families resided on the west side where three major manufacturing concerns were located. Immigrants from Italy, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries tended to live on the west side of town.

Fred Sr. gathered scrap iron and steel from automobile owners and from farmers with rusted tractors. In many instances, the transaction did not deal in dollars, but in chickens, eggs, milk, and vegetables. It was a scrapyard on the barter system. He would go into the fields, torch the old equipment, bring it back to the scrapyard, segregate it and then sell it to Schiavone & Sons or to a nearby steel mill called Wallingford Steel Company.

Fred Ulbrich acquired Model-T Ford automobiles and other wrecked vehicles headed for the scrap heap.

In the process of dismantling automobiles, Fred and a few co-workers separated different elements: iron, steel, copper, zinc, wood, glass, rubber, upholstery, engine blocks and more. They kept operable auto parts and sold them to locals and people passing by the shop. Fred’s company became a secondary source for cheap, reliable and plentiful used parts for cars, trucks and tractors. In fact, Fred started calling himself “The Auto Parts Man.”

He had minimal help and the work demanded long hours — but it was worth it. Fred enjoyed his occupation as a “Junker” and he loved the rush of starting a business. Fred Ulbrich Company was an instant success. He named the company after himself, as many independent businessmen often did, and he became well-known in the Wallingford area. Later, when the State of Connecticut started to regulate scrapyards, Ulbrich was awarded “Permit #1” before any other scrapyard in the state.

Fred Ulbrich Company
Fred Ulbrich Company

Fred had come a long way in a short amount of time. The principles instilled in him by his parents of honesty, frugality, hard work and respect for others were part of his character. To many people Fred was viewed as a go-getter and a risk-taker. Not many people left Wallingford, and then moved back to start a business. Fred had gained self-esteem and confidence from his previous work experience. He was familiar with dangerous and hostile working conditions. He had been exposed to environments that conflicted with his conscience.

He dealt with moral quandaries and he toiled endlessly to earn a living wage. In return, Fred learned the basics of business and life itself at young age. Sometime he was bothered by pains in his foot. They were difficult to overcome, but he got by well enough. He experienced many of the difficulties involved in getting a promotion. He witnessed the ugliness of ethnic prejudice as a kid from a German family living in an Irish neighborhood. During World War I, Fred was subjected to many taunts, shoves and even a few fists.

By the time Fred had come back from the mid-Atlantic states, he had been through a lot — especially when compared to other young men of Wallingford. He founded his company with a certain level of knowledge, but he strived to know more. Fred often sought higher education for himself and for those around him. He was extremely curious and ready for greater challenges. He wanted life in its fullest form, and he worked tirelessly towards his dream of his owning a company and raising a family.

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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