February 29, 2012

The Bulova Plant: Before Time Stood Still In Sag Harbor

(click for larger version)
There was a time when the loud horn that sounds in Sag Harbor at noon literally lived up to its nickname – the lunch whistle.

At the stroke of 12, workers from four factories would hit the streets, many heading to the bars and luncheonettes and restaurants on Main Street, many more to a bench or nearby beach, lunch box in hand.

Rowe Industries, Sag Harbor Industries, the Grumman factory on Long Wharf and the Bulova Watch factory all stopped hiring and closed or curtailed operations decades ago, but during the glory years after World War II up until the early 1970s there was plenty of work for those willing to do it.

Grumman, where parts of the Apollo Lunar Landing module were produced, is long gone, replaced with a shopping mall that currently houses Bay Street Theatre (though not for long – its lease is up) and a marina.

Sag Industries and Rowe still stand, shells of the thriving factories that once employed scores of people.

Bulova, the brick mammoth in the center of town that dwarfs every other structure around it still stands, but just barely, though an ambitious renovation into condominiums promises to restore its lost luster. The building has a history as rich as the whaling port it anchors.

The whaling industry was already ending in 1836 when a group of whaling boat owners and captains, realizing an era had come to a close, decided to build a factory on Washington Street and Hampton Road, with easy access to both East Hampton and Southampton, as well as docks and waterways. If nothing else, it would provide jobs for their crews, and so it did for while, serving as a cotton mill.

The whaling boats then transported cotton, giving them a palpable secondary product to market as whales became scarcer. It was not unusual for a whaling boat to leave Sag Harbor and travel all the way to Europe, South America, and even the Pacific, hunting whales as the stock became more and more depleted.

After a fire destroyed the factory, civic leaders sought businesses to relocate to Sag Harbor and rebuild.

In 1881 Joseph Fahys, who owned a watchcase factory in Queens, did just that; in fact, the granite cornerstone of the rebuilt building was just unearthed during renovations earlier this month. Bulova purchased the building in 1936 and made its watchcases there.

For the better part of the next four decades business was booming; At its peak hundreds of people worked at Bulova; there were times when overtime was plentiful; a plan was implemented to bring Polish immigrants over from Europe before and during World War II, and the company held mortgages that allowed workers to move into homes, many in the development east of Madison Street and south of the village.

Department heads were paid a wage comparable to teachers, and company stock was given to loyal employees, placed in a retirement fund. There was an elite group of toolmakers that earned good wages as well. The great majority of workers, however, worked what was known as "piece meal" – they were, literally, paid by the piece.

A worker might have to "press" 1000 pieces of stainless steel into watchcases by centering them in an eight-ton press where they were "stamped" into shape, to earn $2. As a result, workers found shortcuts, rushed, or lost their concentration. They would lose a finger for doing so, and dozens of employees were without digits, though they found ways to keep working.

Finally, OSHA laws were put into place that required safeguards be built into the giant presses -- one would be workers would have to press two buttons, one with either hand, to activate the press. Nevertheless accidents occurred, because the workers, to increase their speed, would tape down one button or place an elbow over it.

Gold was used to finish some cases; Fahys' watches are collectors' items; he used thousands of dollars worth of gold each day in the factory's hey day.

Though it was never proven, dozens of workers — mostly men – who worked in the "coloring department" -- a windowless pit in the middle of the factory – played Russian roulette with their lives. They worked with no ventilation and for years without wearing masks – the fumes from the coloring and cleansing agents were toxic. Many died from cancer, years before their time.

Bulova produced some of its gold plated models in Sag Harbor, and many of the stainless steel bases for Bulova's watch line were stamped at the factory. Though much less gold passed through the factory than in bygone eras – and quality control was better – legend has it more than a few of the rank and file found enough gold dust over the years to earn a modest windfall.

For many years Elizabeth Hall ran the factory with an iron fist, demanding efficiency, making sure workers on piece meal were at their machines except for a brief hourly break, even counting pencils and notebooks the office staff used. Hall, with a degree from Northeastern, was sent down to Sag Harbor from Providence, where Bulova had its headquarters. She took along her semi-invalid mother, who lived in an apartment on Howard Street in the Flower Hill House.

Hall became the first female mayor on Long Island in 1957 when she was appointed to fill out the term of the elected mayor, Hap Barry.

Times were changing, and Bulova didn't change with it. For one thing, General Omar Bradley, the retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a World War II hero, stepped down as chairman of the Bulova Board in 1973 after 25 years. With his departure, Bulova lost valuable government contacts and contracts.

Moreover, as the rest of the industry was converting timepieces using digital technology, Bulova re-tooled with the advent of its Accutron line – not nearly as accurate as the digital watches Texas Instruments and others were developing at a fraction of the price. Bulova lost its market share of the European-style jewel movement wristwatches and failed to get a piece of the wildly profitable digital watches. Bulova shares plummeted on the stock market, leaving loyal employees with a portfolio of Bulova stock in their retirement funds that was virtually worthless when the factory closed in 1975 for good. It has sat there, decaying, ever since.

Like Rowe Industries, the Bulova site was contaminated. In the case of the former, Aurora Plastics owned the operation, and assorted carcinogenics, liquids plastics, degreasers, fuel and the like were dumped in the ponds behind and to the north of the plant, which is situated south of Mashashimuet Park on the east side of the Sag Harbor/Bridgehampton Turnpike.

Though today the Long Pond Greenbelt has been hailed by at least one local environmentalist "as one of the most pristine areas in the state" it is anything but — water laced with chemicals has been air sparged from the aquifer for years, and county water had to be brought in for area residences after pipes rotted out, bathrooms turned green with mold, showers were destroyed, and a cancer cluster was identified near the factory. The cleanup was funded by Nabisco, which ironically brought the factory after all the damage was done.

In the case of Bulova, the courtyard was the dumping ground for all things chemical. Rusted out 50 gallon drums that once held chemicals including cleaning solvents and assorted lubricants were strewn about for years; old-timers used to warn newbies not to smoke cigarettes down there. The ground in the courtyard is still contaminated, though D.E.C. officials said last month the clean up is nearing completion.

The current owners, the Manhattan and New Jersey based Cape Advisors, plan an ambitious condominium conversion on the site, preserving the historic redbrick exterior. It will be a dream come true for local taxpayers: condo owners are expected to be second homeowners who won't have children in the local schools, who can take a Jitney from the city to the site and walk to the restaurants, markets etc, and whose Manhattan money will swell the village's tax base. That project will be covered in a story next week.

Rick Murphy was the Time Study Engineer at Bulova in the early 70s. He replaced, among others, Bob Freidah, who became an East Hampton School District administrator and Mayor of Sag Harbor.

  1. print email
    March 01, 2012 | 04:56 PM

    I worked at Bulova a few months during the winter of 1973-74, right out of high school. A chap named Moe King use to work in the cleaning room on the second floor. All kinds of wonderful carcinogens in that place, but people at the time did not realize it.

    I snuck into the old factory in the summer of 2005 and it looked exactly the same as it did 30 years earlier, minus the machinery.

    Miss Hall's telephone was still there lying on the floor of her office on the second floor. Took a few photos. Thanks for the memories Rick.

  2. print email
    The East End
    March 06, 2012 | 02:59 PM

    This past weekend, I hosted an Open House on Buell Lane in East Hampton. As it was a rainy weekend, the traffic was light. However, I was please to have met a woman of whom I was able to have a conversation with. She lived in NJ, but her and her husband love The East End, as do I. Our conversation touched on the Bulova Building, which was owned by one of my former employers, a real estate developer. This lady went on to explain how she is originally from Long Island and that her grandmother actually worked at the watch factory. The conversation continued on.

    The point is that those of us who love The East End, love it. We enjoy the history, the stories, the seasons and the lifestyle.

    I have left The East End in pursuit of finance. However, I am back.

    Brendan Byrne
  3. print email
    May 26, 2013 | 08:30 PM

    It's often wondered why a Whale appears on some of Bulova's vintage Watch Dials. Thanks to this article the reason is now apparent.

    Fifth Avenue Reatorations
  4. print email
    Bulova article
    February 07, 2014 | 05:19 PM

    An excellent and very informative piece of history.

    Dave Johns
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