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8 comments

The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

Posted August 03, 2007 9:39 AM by Steve Melito
Pathfinder Tags: capacitors motor controllers SCRs

Years ago, I spent a summer working at the Brown Street Mill in North Adams, Massachusetts, a gritty little city in the Berkshire Hills. Once upon a time, North Adams was a vibrant, industrial center and a magnet for immigrants with last names like mine. The Sprague Electric Company, the city's major employer, operated bustling factories on Marshall and Brown Streets. Winter and summer, day and night, shift-workers stubbed out their cigarettes and filed through Sprauge's iron gates.

Across the street from a church and down the street from a bar, the Marshall Street complex buzzed with physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and skilled laborers. They rubbed shoulders, both figuratively and literally, with unskilled workers like my grandparents, who assembled electrical components, gas masks, and parts for the first atomic bomb. By the mid-1960s, the Sprague Electric Company employed over 4,000 men and women in a city of 18,000 souls.

During Sprague's glory days, most everyone worked at Marshall Street at some point in their lives. My grandfather, an avid outdoorsman who called the brick factory "my prison", worked the second or third shift while his wife, my grandmother, worked the first. Parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all built electronic components for an hourly wage. While scientists at Sprague's research and development center studied the nature of semiconductors, NASA used Sprague-built components in the Gemini program.

Sadly, the heyday of Sprague Electric was relatively short-lived. After the Marshall Street plant closed in 1985, some operations were moved to a small, sheet-metal building in a drab industrial park on the outskirts of town. The fate of the Brown Street Mill remained uncertain, but a new owner kept hope alive. Commonwealth Sprague Capacitor, Inc., a successor company to Sprague Electric, continued to build passive electronic components such as metallized and non-metallized film and paper capacitors. Product offerings also included silicon controlled rectifiers (SCRs) and motor controllers.

Around the time that Governor Michael Dukakis was done telling the world about "The Massachusetts Miracle", I took my turn working for what was left of the Sprague Electric Company. Home from college for the summer, I jumped at the chance to earn an extra 30 cents an hour by leaving my job at a local school supply business. My first day at the Brown Street Mill gave me a glimpse into the gritty world of my forbears.

Part 2 of this industrial folk-tale is now on CR4. You can read Part 3 and Part 4, too.

Resources:

http://www.powerpulse.net/mfgr_display.php?mfgr_id=416

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Adams,_Massachusetts

http://www.vishay.com/company/history/

http://electronic-components.globalspec.com/ProductFinder/Electrical_Electronic_Components/Electronic_Components_Passives

http://nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_product=NATB&p_theme=natb&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&p_topdoc=1&p_text_direct-0=10E581B95D33B158&p_field_direct-0=document_id&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&s_trackval=GooglePM

http://cr4.globalspec.com/blogentry/3186

Steve Melito - The Y Files

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Join Date: Sep 2007
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#1

Re: The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

09/23/2007 7:16 PM

I grew up in No Adams. My mother worked at Sprague's during WWII and my wife worked there during the 50's. Not being able to handle the sprague crowd, I spent my between UMass semesters working at the fancy woolen mill (Strong Hewitt) up on the North Branch of the Hoosac (Hoosic;Hoosick depending on where on the river you lived on its way to NY State). Left there in 1964 and have returned on occasion--the last time being mid Sept of this year (07). Glad to see that something useful was done with the 100 Gazillion square feet of old factory space! (MASSMOCA).

R3

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Guru
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#2
In reply to #1

Re: The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

09/24/2007 8:16 AM

Thanks for joining the conversation, R3. And welcome to CR4!

Moose

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#5
In reply to #1

Re: The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

06/22/2011 7:02 PM

My father, Kenneth Roy used to work for Sprague as well. I've always heard how bad the company was from both parents. If not you personally, I'm positive your family knew my family. If you knew my dad personally, please feel free to contact me personally at my e-mail address.

Laurel.

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Anonymous Poster
#3

Re: The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

11/09/2009 11:51 PM

Steve, very interesting blog on Sprague Electric. My father worked for over 30 years for Sprague, starting out in North Adams and in August of 1969 we packed our bags and moved to the new plant in Wichita Falls, TX. Enter culture shock, no more extended family, most if not all the family (dad and mom's) were either in North Adams or the imediate area. Dad worked for Sprague until they closed operations in Wichita Falls. They are now 78 years old enjoying a quiet life in the hill country outside of Austin, TX. I brought my wife up to the Bershires for a visit (November 2009) and for the first time ever went in the old plant, now MASS MoCa. It was not the Art that I was interested in but the mass of buildings that once held Sprague and its predecessor Arnold Print works.

Thanks you again for your Blog!

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#7
In reply to #3

Re: The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

04/18/2012 12:55 AM

I was hired by Sprague Electric Wichita Falls operations in 1987. By that time the descent has already started. I was a young Indian Ceramic Engineer from Georgia Tech ready to take on challenges of the world and was far removed from the company's finances. I was treated very professionally and later chosen to be a team member to lead a JV with Mitsubishi Chemicals & Ceramics group, Chichibu, Japan. I stayed on pretty much until the final days in 1990-'91 and now fondly reminisced those uncertain days. I am interested know the name of your father with whom perhaps I have worked with at the Texas plant.

Decades later, coincidentally my job took me to Western Mass (where I now live). Could not wait to show my wife and daughter the gritty town of North Adams where I came to interview and later made several business trips. For some sentimental reasons I have still preserved a Sprague folder handed that my hiring manager handed to me at the Wichita Falls airport. The folder read 'Sprague can open the door' and I often surmise what it could be if the company that wrote the books on 'Ceramic Electrolytic Capacitors' were still in business.

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#8
In reply to #3

Re: The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

05/15/2012 5:27 PM

I was telling a collegue about old Sprague today and took a quick look to see what might remain. I immediately found this delightful account.

I left WF about 18 months before closure was announced. Your description of your father fits one person I worked with. I would love to confirm.

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#4

Re: The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

11/19/2009 4:59 AM

FYI - I just finished a brief biography about Carroll Killen, a Sprague engineer who played an important role in the company's success. Many thanks to jerrkowa for bringing Killen's career to my attention. Click here for the bio.

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#6

Re: The Sprague Electric Company's Long Goodbye - Part 1

10/17/2011 9:16 AM

This morning I received an email from a student looking for information about Commonwealth Sprague Capacitor, Inc. Such is the power of Google - and that of this forum! I made a few phone calls and learned that my old summertime employer, Commonwealth Sprague Capacitor, Inc. no longer exists. It was sold to a company in Mexico called NGM. If others have additional information about this final chapter in the Sprague story, I hope you'll share them.

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