Sunday, October 12, 2003

Tennessee's Pencil City still makes its mark with flair

By Bush Bernard
Gannett News Service

[IMAGE] Letha Holbert checks iridescent design pencils coming off the erasure line at the Musgrave Pencil Co. in Shelbyville, Tenn.
(Gannett News Service photo)
| ZOOM |
SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. - They're still making pencils in Pencil Town.

While mergers, acquisitions, downsizing and plant closures have taken a toll on the manufacturing sector, between 500,000 and 750,000 pencils roll off the assembly line each day at Musgrave Pencil Co.

Musgrave, a family-owned business that's been around since 1916, has continued to produce pencils in the face of stiff competition from foreign imports thanks to loyal employees and customers, Musgrave president Henry Hulan said.

"It's tough," said Hulan, the third generation of the Musgrave and Hulan family to run the business.

The company can't compete on price with pencil imports from China and India. "Our advantage is customer service," Hulan said. "If someone comes in here and wants 10 gross of pencils, or if they want 100 gross, we can do that. We can react faster."

Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington dubbed the city Pencil Town in the 1950s when more than a half-dozen pencil manufacturers were based in town. Mergers and acquisitions have whittled the number down somewhat, but the city is still home to several companies that imprint specialty pencils and a few operations that assemble ink pens. Musgrave, however, is the only company still manufacturing pencils there.

The first pencil company came to central Tennessee in 1894 when American Pencil Co. opened shop in Lewisburg, which continues to be the home of pencil manufacturing operations for Moon Pencil Co. and Sanford Inc.

James Raford Musgrave, Hulan's grandfather, opened the first pencil-related operation in Shelbyville in 1916.

The company initially produced cedar slats that are used to make pencils. His primary customers were in Germany until World War I disrupted trade. So Musgrave imported pencil-making machinery to town and started producing pencils in 1923.

The company, which made cedar slats until the 1950s, encouraged other pencil companies to open shop here as customers of Musgrave's cedar slats.

Hulan said much of the company's cedar didn't come from the forests but from fence posts and barns, which cured by exposure to the sun. "We needed dried cedar to make pencils," he said.

His grandfather would barter with farmers, trading them a wire fence for the cedar rail fence. Hulan said he can remember seeing stacks of fence wire at the plant. Musgrave crews would install the new fence and dismantle the old and bring it back to the factory to be turned into pencils.

Tennessee cedar was gone by the 1950s, and the industry turned to a California variety called incense cedar, which grows fast and tall. One tree can make between 50,000 and 75,000 pencils, Hulan said.

While Tennessee cedar was the initial magnet for the industry, the area's central location to major markets was the reason companies stayed after the cedar forests were gone.

"We had the infrastructure, the equipment and trained people here," said William Hackemann, former manufacturing vice president for Empire Pencil Co. He spent more than 30 years in the business before retiring in 1989. "It was easier to just import the wood."

Musgrave produces pencils on equipment the company has used for more than 50 years. Some of the machines that Musgrave brought from Germany in 1923 are still in operation. Much of the work, such as sorting and packaging, is done by hand.

"They probably are the last ones that use the older equipment," Hackemann said.

Musgrave sells to distributors who sell to school systems and has branched out into the specialty market. The company offers more than 400 different designs including carpenter pencils that are sold nationwide by the Home Depot chain.

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