The wonderful stories about Binghamton’s early days are known largely because  a schoolteacher named John B. Wilkinson took the trouble to collect them and writen them down in a book published in 1840.  Today his tradition is carried on by the Broome County Historical Society, which has an impressive facility on the second floor of the County Library Building on Court Street.  In addition to dedicated amateur historians, the county has just enough money to employ two professional historians to keep track of our local past.  Before, I would have regarded their interest as quaint and provincial, but now I am beginning to think of them as keepers of a flame of infomation that I will need to consult as I begin to think about my city in a new way.

Binghamton’s era of prosperity might have ended with the nineteenth century except for two men, George F. Johnson and John B. Watson.  Johnson founded the Endicott-Johnson shoe company, which for a period was the largest manufacturer of shoes in the world.  Watson built a small company that made time clocks into the International Business Corporation (IBM), initiateing the mechanization of business and the age of computers.  Both took a paternal interest in their employes that stands in stark contract to the Enrons of today yet failed to serve their interests over the long term.

Unlike the crule factory owner of a Dickens novel or the sweatshops of today, Johnson took a passionate interest in his employees.  He called it “Industrial Democracy,” but it was more paternalistic than democratic.  he offered affordable housing in neighbourhoods that rose away from the river toward the steep hills.  He provided health care and made sure that the hospitals were sufficiently staffed with doctors.  Every baby received a ten-dollar gold piece and a bank account with another ten dollars as an opening deposit.  He voluntarily shortened the workday from nine and half to eight hours without any loss of pay, prompting a parade to be held in his honour.  The factory walls were adorned with wholesome proverbs such as “LIVE AND LET LIVE” and “FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL — SAVE!”  Workers were encourageed to publish their criticisms in the company magazine.  He created parks and other recreational facilities, including the world largest aboveground swimming pool for its time, which could accomodate 2000 bathers under the big block letters “COME ON IN — THE WATER’S FINE!”  As a boy, Johnson had been so poor that he couldn’t even afford to ride a carousel, so he built carousels throughout the city that could be ridden without charge.  Thanks to an endowment provided in his will, the carousels are maintained, and children continue to ride without charge to this day.  One of them is located across the street from my house, and I garden to its merry calliope music.  Johnson was so popular among his employees that they erected stone arches over Main Street, entering and leaving Johnson City, with the words “Home of the Square Deal!” carved along the top.  Efforts to unionize the Endicott-Johnson shoe company failed because Johnson had already given his employees everything they could imagine asking for.

Watson followed in the paternalistic footsteps of Johnson in this development of IBM.  Johnson convinced Watson that he could stay in the area and that the business would come to him.  A huge complex of buildings was built in Endicott, down street from Johnson city on the Susquehanna.  Engineers were recruited by the thousands, as the shoemakers were a few decades before.  Just as Johnson painted wholesome proverbs on his factory walls, Watson made a mantra out of the word THINK.  Before IBM became known for computers, it was filling an insatiable demand around the world for time clocks, adding machines, scales, automatic payroll machines, and other devices that made businesses run efficiently.

Alas, Binghamton’s prosperity was not to last.  For all of his benevolence, Johnson was slow to modernise his factories and could do nothng about the economic forces that caused the shoe industry to march west and eventually overseas.  IBM followed.  The workers who had placed their trust in Johnson and Watson found themselves defenseless against less enlightened leaders and harder economic times.  Today, when IBM is mentioned, it is mostly in connection with a toxic plume that contaminates the gournd water of sections of Endicott.  The remains of Endicott-Johnson’s physical plant include the arches, still standing, and the abandoned factories.  I have been told that the primary ethos of the Tri-Cities area (the collective name for Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott) is the sense of having been betrayed.

David Sloan Wilson, The Neighborhood Project (2011) pp. 34-38

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