HARVARD - Orrin Kinney isn’t sure how an old industrial building with a caved-in roof and a top floor painted in pigeon poop became an economic catalyst, but that is what happened at Starline Factory building along the tracks in Harvard.
In 1883, Henry L. Ferris invented and patented a hay carrier while working at his dairy, the Cold Spring Creamery, near Alden. Charles E. Hunt, an associate of his father-in-law, and local hardware store owner Nathan B. Helm soon became business partners in the new venture dubbed Hunt, Helm, Ferris & Co. – which soon outgrew its meager accommodations in the basement of the hardware store. In 1888 the company built a larger manufacturing facility on the south side of Front Street, followed by additional buildings alongside the railroad tracks.
Incorporated in 1902, the Hunt, Helm, Ferris & Co. manufactured more than 50 products and acquired over 250 patents on equipment designed to streamline farm work; everything from a windmill regulator to to a barbed wire stretcher, water heaters for livestock to cattle feeders. After farmers started referring to the company’s merchandise as the “star” line of farmstead equipment, they renamed the corporation Starline in 1931.
But Kinney said the company earned a wider reputation early on as a toy manufacturer. It’s repertoire included a two-wheel bicycle called the “Ferris Wheel,” sleds, scooters with their own hand brakes and a Cannonball wooden wagon.
In the early '80s the company, then known as Starline Products – with its divisions CannonBall:HNP and Star Trac – was bought out by private investors. CannonBall operated in Harvard for two more years before relocating to Beloit, Wis.
In 1990 Chromalloy American, a metal coating conglomerate, took over the plant and Kinney came to manage it. The Kankakee native, who still lives in Harvard, worked there about four years before the company closed its doors. When an earlier effort to preserve and restore the building for housing failed, Kinney stepped in.
He had worked there, and in a similar building, and saw the potential.
"For all practical purposes they wrote it off. It was caved in and sold off at auction. It it hadn’t been for the cots of tearing it down, it would have been history," Kinney said. “A lot of people figured it was useless and not condusive to manufacturing anymore. Now it’s kind of coming back into its own."
About a dozen years into Kinney’s ownership, the 278,000-square-foot Starline Factory at 300 W. Front St. boasts more than 20 tenants – a collection of artist studios and fledgling businesses that include a cabinetmaker and medical supply distribution center; as well as office spaces. The Harvard radio station, WMCW, is in the process of relocating to one of three, 6,000-square-foot spaces on the second floor. Two new industrial art galleries are planned to open this fall in the former line shaft area and the 13,000-square-foot former foyer is being readied for a possible restaurant.
“You have to have some vision. You have to see beyond the dust and dirt to see the potential,” said photographer and longtime tenant Nancy Merkling. “We want to turn this into a destination with a Wi-Fi, Internet café, comfortable couches and plenty of seating. We want to do the same in the Starline coffee shop,”
Taking baby steps <subhead>
Confronted with empty, rapidly decaying buildings, the city of Harvard launched an incubator-style, business investment program to drum up interest. Among the first to jump on boad was Kinney, owner of Harvard Products and its subidiary, Steel Span Inc. Started in 1982, the company manufactures doors, windows, metal buildings and building products such as cupolas, sliding doors and hardware mainly for commercial use.
In the early 1990s, he relocated his door manufacturing business to former Starline foundry at 6th and Blackman streets. He since has outgrown that 60,000-square-foot space and has expanded into several other outbuildings. He has 45 employees, many of whom help him renovate the Starline building. And because they feel a part of it, Kinney said, they take a vested interest in recapturing the building’s glory days.
“Did I have a vision for it right at the get-go? No,” Kinney said with a laugh. “But as we started to fix sections it just kind of evolved. Baby steps, I guess. It involved finding pieces of the puzzle and it slowly fitting them together.”
Kinney said a new roof “stopped the hemorrhaging.” But, first, it required cleaning up the mess.
“The third floor was down on the first floor. We had to start everything out and then start at the bottom and do one floor at a time,” he said. “We had to make sure that that the timbers that were there were structurally sound. They had to be checked out because of water damage.”
Kinney located an Alabama sawmill that was able to fabricate the 300-pound, 20-foot-long beams out of southern yellow pine, which then had to be positioned in the same locations as before. Particularly essential, since the building is far from square. Rather, it follows the adjacent railroad right-of-way.
“I wanted to put it back exactly the way it was – the same size and the same lengths,” said Kinney, who had 20 years of industrial engineering experience with Roper Corp. “That way we know we are protected. ... All of the weight transfer is downward.”
With the addition of metal trusses, Kinney believes it is stronger now than ever before. And it more versatile. The basement boiler room has been turned into an atrium. There is 400-person banquet hall, featuring 16-foot ceilings and 100-foot clear spans, and a paved brick walkway outside.
“I’ve always liked a challenge. All I need to hear is it ‘can’t be done,’” said Kinney, 71. “As long as I’m able, I have a project to finish.”
Kinney said he isn’t sure how much money he’s sunk into the building, nor is he really interested in knowing. The good news is its finally approaching paying for itself with another two and a half floors to go. The third floor, still vacant, is zoned for live-in artist spaces.
“In October 2005 he asked me if I wanted to do an art show, do a public event. I put the whole thing together with two other friends I painted with at the time,” Woodstock artist Gabriel Karagianis said. “He was totally accommodating from the get-go. We learned as we went along. I attached clamp lights throughout the hallway and he saw that and got a feel for what direction the aesthetics would have to go in order to accommodate a gallery space. I think we all kind of learned that together.”
Karagianis praised Kinney for his willingness to listen and his unwavering faith in a young artist just finding his way.
“I’ve never really wanted to ask anything from him since, because of his willingness to let us open the doors,” Karagianis said. “I was 26 years old when I did the show. For him to take me seriously and trust me, it was unbelievable.”
And now tenants are returning the favor, hosting popular Fourth Friday art exhibitions and creating what Harvard City Administrator Dave Nelson called a “synergy” of business and culture.
“It’s become the jewel of Harvard. I think something like that is a lesson to anybody who is trying to move into town, develop something and create change,” Karagianis said. “He added to the natural history of the town. ... Nowadays everybody wants to tear down all the old stuff and put up something that looks like everything else.”