Like many pioneer towns in the early days of the what was considered the West, Connersville served as a safe haven for those venturing into the great unknown. Established in 1813 by John Conner, Connersville became known as a safety point from the Delaware Indians due to Mr. Conner's deep connection through his wife to the tribe. Connersville started as small squared plotted by John and included his trading post and later included several brick structures, including a jail/courthouse build around 1820 and a few houses. The advancement of the Whitewater Canal Company in the 1840s connected Connersville to ports in Cincinnati via Lawrenceburg to the south and Hagerstown to the North.
Connersville emerges from a pioneer village from 1813 - 1845 into a small, but might industrial town in the two decades to follow. The Canal attracted Dayton-area businessman William Gephart of the Gephart Stove Company to erect a foundry on the south end of Water Street in 1846. Mr. Gephart used power from the Whitewater Canal as a mechanism to melt iron to build wood stoves for cooking and as a heat source. He later leased the space to a company that manufactured threshing machines and steam engines. But by the 1860s, brother Francis and Philander Roots had purchased the foundry.
Twenty years earlier Alanson Roots along with his sons Philander and Francis visited Connersville at the request of a family friend, William Pelan, the local Presbyterian minister. The Roots family had a well established goods store in nearby Oxford, Ohio, but were looking to expand their woolen business. In 1846 after returning from Iowa, the Roots brothers open the Roots Woolen Mill between 6th and 7th Streets in Connersville on what is now Fire Station 1 on Grand Ave. By 1854, Philander Roots was attempting to build a more efficient wheel for the woolen mill. Thinking that a water powered wheel from the canal was the answer, Roots built a lobe blower but the water proved to be a non-factor in the development. Then, by a happy accident, Roots developed a blower that used air forced between two propellers to spin the wheel. This became known as the Roots Principal and the Positive Displacement Rotary Blower was born.
In 1857, once again thanks to minister William Pelan, another significant Connersville investment took place. John B. McFarlan, carriage maker from Cambridge City, moved his establishment at the request of his childhood friend, Pelan, to Connersville. As the story goes McFarlan and Pelan had been friends since arriving in the United States on the same boat from England. Both families settled near Cincinnati. Mr. Pelan became minister of the English Presbyterian Church in 1849 and would remain until 1868. McFarlan opened his carriage shop on 6th and Grand Ave, adjacent the Roots Mill, the site would later become the home of the McFarlan Hotel and the Central State Bank, two McFarlan ventures. By 1886 McFarlan saw a need to bring his suppliers from the region to a singular location for more efficient production. He turned 100 acres of prime farm ground on the North end of Connersville into the McFarlan Industrial Park, the first of its kind in the nation. Under the guidance of McFarlan, his Connersville Land Improvement Company flourished as he brought suppliers into the new industrial park. Additionally, McFarlan started the Connersville Natural Gas Company after securing the rights to the natural gas pipeline from nearby Carthage to allow for production 24 hours per day.
The industrial park grew with ventures such as the George R. Carter Company, maker of leather goods, the Central Manufacturing Company, Connersville Blower, Wheel Works, Munk & Roberts Furniture, Indiana Lamp Company, Stant Manufacturing, and Ansted Spring and Axle. Mr. McFarlan's foresight set in motion Connersville's development in the early part of the 20th century as a manufacturing giant in the Midwest and the entire country.
In 1898 the former owners of Munk & Roberts Furniture Company closed their doors on Mount Street to open Rex Buggy Company. Rex Buggy made entry level and economy buggies for the every day traveler. Rex had two primary products, the Rex Buggy and the Yale Surrey. Quickly, as business began changing at the early part of the century, Rex made the decision to get into the window and top business. The Rex Storm Shield was developed as a way to keep the elements out of the face of the buggy driver. Whether it be from a downpour of rain or dry conditions throwing dust, the Rex Storm Shield helped protect the driver. As market forces changed and the automobile took over as the main source of transportation, Rex shifted their business into tops for touring vehicles. By the teens Rex had produced tops and enclosures for some 50 automakers in the United State including Cadillac, Haynes, Oakland, Chevrolet, Lexington, Buick, and Dodge. As the depression hit and the slowing of the purchase of automobiles came, Rex switched into the appliance business for the new home refrigerator. By 1942 10% of all refrigerators were made by Rex at their Connersville plant. Additionally, Rex produced radio cabinets for companies such as Crosley. Powell Crosley, a former employee of the Central Manufacturing Company in Connersville, chose Rex to handle production of radios and refrigerators for his appliance business. After WWII, Rex became a wholly owned subsidiary of Philco and in 1961 Philco was purchased by Ford Motor Company. During the post War years, founder and president Charles C Hull, who had been installed at the ripe age of 23 years old as president, was being outed from his own company. A young Indianapolis accountant was hired by the name of Sam Regenstrief to save Rex. Sam was offered ownership in preferred stock in exchange for making Rex a profitable venture. He far exceeded expectations and turned his stock into the down payment for American Kitchens, a division of Auburn Central. Later Regenstrief would be known as the dishwasher king as the owner of Design & Manufacturing until it's sell to Whites Consolidated in 1989.
At the same time, the assets of E.W. Ansted's automotive empire had been broken up prior to the Great Depression. In 1927, the United States Automotive Corporation, headed by Frank B. Ansted, had fallen into receivership and the assets would be auction off. The once thriving automotive business that included Connersville Wheel Works, Ansted Spring and Axle, Lexington Motor Company, and the Central Manufacturing Company were auctioned off to the highest bidder. The Bigger and Better Connersville Committee purchased a large portion of the assets in order to attract the investment of another titan of industry. E.L. Cord, owner of Cord Corporation and its more than 100 companies were looking to expand their automotive manufacturing of the Auburn Automobile Company. The nearly 1 million square feet offered by the assets from Ansted made the sales pitch appealing to Cord. Cord had been one of Ansted's customers through his Central Manufacturing venture and in 1927 Cord bought the assets and in January 1928 moved production of the Auburn Automobile Company to Connersville. Later in 1928, after failing health caused his move to Arizona, McFarlan's grandson, Alfred Harry, would also sell the assets of the remains of the McFarlan Motor Company to Cord. The end of the early industrial Titans loomed in Connersville.
World War II brought great prosperity to Connersville's manufacturing production and war effort. Connersville was award many contracts to produce goods for the troops abroad. Bomber wings, munitions, trailers, and jeep bodies were some of the largest contracts awarded to Connersville companies during the war. The Central Manufacturing Company was a responsible for building 500,000 jeep bodies for Willys and Ford Motor Company through 1948. Rex Manufacturing, Stant Manufacturing, Roots Blower, and others continued to flourished as the post wars years laid the foundation for the Baby Boomers that followed.
Like many industrials towns, as globalization made the United States less competitive in the market, industries were lost in Connersville. By the late 1980s and early 1990s Connersville had lost large employers such as McQuay Norris, H.H. Robertson and Design & Manufacturing among others with smaller manufacturing emerging to help replace the once thriving industry. Companies such as Benson Aluminum and Fayette Tool and Engineering emerged to create manufacturing jobs in Fayette County. Today, Connersville's manufacturing is lead by companies such as Stant, Howden-Roots, Hydro, Fayette Tool, Keener Metal Fabrication and others. While Connersville no long has the most manufacturing jobs per capita in the United States, it is still a very industrious town full of some of the greatest and most skilled machine laborers and engineers in the world.
Henry Blommel, local automotive and manufacturing historian provided most of the information included is this history. Mr. Blommel was previously president of Historic Connersville, Inc. A veteran of World War II, he served in the Third Army Ordnance, Automotive Maintenance Company in England, France and Germany. Mr. Blommel was also an archivist and historian of Connersville's manufacturing and automotive history. His definitive work on "Indiana's Little Detroit 1846 - 1964" provides a comprehensive history of manufacturing for Connersville. He received the man of the year award in 1967 from the Connersville Jaycees and worked as a postal carrier for the USPS from 1956 - 1984.