From ladders to lofts:
John S. Tilley Ladders Co. History
John Tilley (1806-1878) made barrels, and ladders as a side line, in the Rensselaer County town of Grafton, NY, before moving to the village of West Troy (now Watervliet) in 1855 to concentrate on manufacturing ladders and scaffolding. His son, John S. Tilley (1852-1913), took over the business in 1878. Originally founded as a shop at First Avenue and Second Street, Tilley Ladders by 1886 occupied a modest rectangular commercial building with double loading doors at the first and second stories of the main façade. A 1903 Sanborn fire insurance maps show that Tilley had become a small complex comprised of a three-story building where sawing and planing was done, lumber sheds of various sizes and five dwellings. John S. Tilley in 1886, 1887 and 1896 filed several patents related to improvements to his step and extension ladders, and ladder hooks. Tilley’s general goals were to increase ladder strength and make ladders easier to operate, as, in one instance, making it possible to stack sections of extension ladders against a building. In 1907, a trade journal reported that Tilley had doubled its manufacturing capacity because of demand for ladders, scaffolding and staging, ladder hooks and brackets and flag poles.1
A catastrophic fire in July 1915 burned the site to the ground, but plans to rebuild were announced later that summer.2 A two-story brick factory of over 30,000 SF was built between First and Second Streets. By this time, Tilley’s son-in-law, Herman B. Gaffers, headed the company. Under Gaffers’ tenure, the plant more than doubled in size with the 1924 construction of a three-story brick masonry building, joining the original building. The building was designed by Troy architect William E. Clark (1882-1935), who mainly designed alterations to factories, stores and schools. The Tilley commission likely ranked as one of his largest, which included the expansion of the Silver Bay Association Adirondack resort (1925–1926) and an addition to Troy’s Leonard Hospital (1932, no longer extant).
The new Tilley addition mirrored in design its older counterpart. Clark employed neither mill construction – fire resistant arrangement of heavy timbers common in late 19th and early 20th century industrial buildings – nor a reinforced concrete structure, which by 1924 was commonly used. Clark used a combination of heavy timber columns and beams along with braced joists. Some concrete was used for column bases in the basement.
At about this time, the Tilley ladder line included approximately 17 different models, plus several types of scaffolding and parts such as ladder and gutter hooks. A 1929 sales catalog advertised these types, most manufactured until the company folded in 2004. Models corresponded to uses. The “Electrician” was an especially popular model in the trades because its versatility as a heavy duty ladder-trestle combination. Window dressers favored the “Decorator” because it was strong but easy to use because its back legs folded over the sides of the front to make it compact. Window cleaners could reach different window and floor heights with a specifically designed sectional ladder, with features such as a narrow, tapered top to fit between window mullions and splayed side rails that widened the distance between the feet, for greater stability. The “Trojan” was a light ladder for painting and housework, with a V-shaped support between the rear legs for increased stability. The “Omega” was used for fruit harvesting because its design allowed pickers to better position between trees, with flared front side rails to accommodate uneven ground. Extension ladders came in various heights, as did tall single ladders. Typically, rungs were made of hard wood, like ash and hickory, while remaining parts were made of Western hemlock and sitka spruce. Tilley had lumber yards and sheds to season wood for months at a time.
Tilley widely advertised in trade magazines and displayed products at trade shows, such as the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and the International Convention of the Master Painters in 1922.3 While ladders and staging were decidedly meant for ordinary work and chores, Tilley did provide equipment for more notable projects. Tilley scaffolding was used on church projects and public works projects, such as repairs to the New York State Education Building. Tilley ladders were used in the 1929 construction of the airship U.S.S. Akron.4 Admiral Richard E. Byrd Jr. used Tilley ladders during his South Pole expeditions. By the 1930s, Tilley ladders were being shipped throughout the United States, to Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and South Africa.5
Gaffers was succeeded by his son-in-law, Lewis S. Howland, who guided another phase in the company’s growth by establishing a second plant in Davenport, Iowa in 1950.6 Tilley phased out the manufacture of scaffolding and in the 1950s began manufacturing aluminum ladders. This growth is reflected in the factory’s most recent additions, the 1964 “Aluminum Building,” for storing finished aluminum ladders, at the east end of the complex, and the 1956 lumber storage building at the west end.
The front loading door in the 1924 building led to a rail system used to transport lumber to the rear of the building to air dry. The entire first floor of this building was devoted mainly to woodworking, including sawing and planing. In later years, aluminum ladders were made on the second floor, then sent through a chute to the SE “Aluminum Building” and onto trucks in the rear yard. (Here, too, was a bin to dump wood shavings, once widely used by dairy farmers for bedding.) Rungs were made on the third story as were fiberglass ladders when they were introduced in the 1980s.
Extension ladder assembly in the adjoining circa 1916 building lined the entire north side of the first floor, with finished ladders loaded at the east corner. The second floor of this building was used to store parts.7
While competing ladder companies can be traced to the early 20th century, and competition did effect Tilley Ladders, the soaring cost of liability insurance, with premiums eating up 30 percent of sales revenue, forced Tilley to close in 2004.
1. The Iron Age, vol. 79 ( New York: David Williams Company, 1907).
2. The Iron Age, vol. 96 (New York: David Williams Company, 1915)
3. “Manufacturers’ Exhibits at the Convention Attract Much Attention,” The Painters Magazine (New York, 1922)
4. Hugh Allen, The Story of the Airship. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 1931.
5. “Tilley Ladder Company Established in 1855, One of the Largest Ladder Manufacturers in the United States.” Clipping from unknown newspaper. 26 September 1937.
6. “Ladder Company Purchases Firm in Davenport, IA.”
The Times Record. 19 January 1950.
7. Interview with Robert Howland, former owner, John S. Tilley Ladders Company.