02) Birth of the Onan Company

One of the many difficult problems facing D.W. Onan during his 13 years at the Reinhard Brothers Co. was the lack of specialized tools and testing equipment to make the repairs on the electric parts of early Twentieth Century motor cars.

He neatly solved most of these problems by inventing the tools and equipment he needed, and building them in the basement of his house during his spare time.

Having already decided that sometime in the future he would be in business for himself, Onan made it clear to the owners of Reinhard that his tools could be used by the mechanics there, but the rights to manufacture the tools for others would be retained by Onan.

Although it was his idea originally for Reinhard to start a repair shop, Onan realized that as motor cars became more popular, the practice of removing a faulty part and shipping it, sometimes hundreds of miles, to a repair shop was not the most efficient method. His theory was that eventually there would be motor car mechanics in every city and town, and people would just drive their autos to a nearby service center and have the repairs made there.

There were only two things preventing that from happening. One was the lack of trained mechanics, and this already was being solved. With more and more motor cars being produced, the demand for mechanics was growing, and schools for them were being established. The second problem was the lack of tools for mechanics.
Onan thought he had the solution for that problem with the many inventions he already had made and ideas for several others.

In 1918, while still working days at Reinhard, Onan began experimenting with marketing some of the tools he had invented to mechanics in other parts of the country. He contacted motor car repair shops by mail and through small, one-column, one-inch advertisements in Popular Mechanics magazine. The response was encouraging.

Onan worked nights and weekends in his basement shop at his Penn Avenue home, and when orders for tools exceeded what he could produce, he hired some of the better mechanics at Reinhard to work with him in his basement shop during their off-hours.

One of the first tools Onan invented and produced was an armature stand. It consisted of a 24-inch length of two-inch pipe with two metal castings that would slide back and forth to fit the length of any armature. The pipe was mounted on a stand. The castings could be locked in place to hold an armature, and a large screw with a pin was used by the operator to apply the exact amount of pressure he needed in order to work on the armature. The tool was designed to enable a mechanic to work on the armature without having to lay it on a bench where the winding of the armature might be damaged.

Probably the most successful of his early tools were his spring spreader. This device enabled a mechanic to easily spread the springs of a motor car so grease could be applied between the leaves for a smoother, less noisy ride. The spring spreader consisted of a “C” clamp with hardened steel points on one end. A pipe was fastened to -the “C” clamp that had a handle that forced the steel points between the leaves of the spring, spreading them so grease could be inserted. Later, when sticks of graphite, about the size of a stick of chewing gum, became available, they were used instead of grease.

He also designed a device called the Onan Test Rack, on which a part could be mounted and then run just as if it were on a motor car. The rack contained a sliding track with a metal pulley and belt. The part, an armature or starter, for instance, would be attached, and it could be operated at variable speeds as if it actually were on a car.

Onan added to his collection of tools and equipment as the need arose for them and he could dream up a device that would work. He invented a growler for testing the winding of armatures, cutting tools, a third-brush wrench, and an armature lathe.

Of all his early inventions, he was proudest of what he called the Onan Wrist Meter. An advertisement, which he wrote himself, says of the Wrist Meter: “It is to the mechanic what a thermometer is to the doctor. Worn like a watch just as well made.”

The Wrist Meter consisted of the meter itself, which was strapped to the mechanic’s wrist with a leather band. Two long, insulated wires were connected to the meter, There were small metal clamps attached to the loose ends, and these clamps fastened to an electrical part of the car. In a detailed instruction book that was included with the Wrist Meter, Onan wrote: “Anytime you have trouble, start from the source, in other words, the battery, and then work from there until you find the trouble.”

Onan’s writing was hardly polished, but it was in easy-to-understand language and it was designed to instruct mechanics who weren’t concerned with good grammar as much as with clear details.

Onan invented his Wrist Meter in 1918, and it was about this time he had decided he had enough self-designed tools to go into business for himself. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough money to leave his job at Reinhard and devote full time to his business. So, for the next four years, he worked at Reinhard, at $200 a month, during the days and devoted his spare time to his own business.

He had no full-time employees, but there was a constant parade of workmen in and out of the Onan home people who also worked in their spare time on the Onan business.

His first full-time employee, Julius P. “Dyke” Grabow, joined Onan in January 1920. Dyke was a student at North High School in Minneapolis at the time, and for the first several months worked after school hours and weekends.

He was hired not for work in the shop, but to set up an office in a room on the first floor of the Onan home. He handled Onan’s mail, wrote letters dictated by Onan, kept the books, ran errands, helped design the ads that ran in Popular Mechanics, and performed a wide variety of duties.

Grabow, who stayed with D.W. Onan and the Onan Corporation until he retired a few years back, fondly remembers those early days working in his small office in the Onan home. He recalls, “Mrs. Onan used to entertain her women friends in the living room just off the office. They sat around and talked and played cards. In the afternoon, lunch was served, and thanks to Mrs. Onan, I was always included. I especially remember the lemon meringue pie, which she had baked in the morning. It was out of this world.”

The volume of business was growing steadily as mechanics found Onan’s tools invaluable in repairing motor cars, and it soon became obvious the space available in the Onan home was inadequate.

In November 1920 Onan rented a nearby building on Oliver Avenue and 14th Avenue North and moved his operations there. Owned by a Mr. Pratt, who formerly had been a mayor of Minneapolis, the building originally was a solidly constructed barn. The front part had been converted into a one-story, two-car garage with a pair of large doors facing the street. The back part of the building, where horses had been kept when it was a barn, had two stories. The top floor, which had been a hayloft, was ideal for storing equipment. The main floor was used by Onan for assembling his tools and equipment.

The front of the building, about 30 by 40 feet in size, was the main work area and also contained Onan’s office. The new location of the David W. Onan Co. was not a fancy place, but it was a big improvement over the basement shop in his home. Although he continued to work full-time at the Reinhard Co., Onan had one permanent employee in Dyke Grabow and now was able to increase the number of part-time workers with the additional space available.

Onan developed a close working relationship with Oscar Dahlen, who operated the 0. H. Dahlen Printing Co. in Minneapolis, during his two years in the converted barn. Dahlen printed the instruction books that went with all the tools, and he printed the advertising folders and other promotional material Onan used in his direct mail campaign.

Onan assembled the parts for his tools in his building, but many of the parts were built by outside suppliers. Ralph Hitchcock and his sons, who operated the Modern Pattern Co. in Minneapolis, made all the patterns for the tools. Modern Pattern later became Hitchcock Industries, which is still operating in the Twin Cities.

Charlie Carlson, another friend of Onan, operated a tool and die business in a shop on Main Street, just off Hennepin Avenue, and he provided most of the dies for Onan’s tools.

Most of the parts for Onan’s tools were produced by his friends in Minneapolis, but some had to be obtained from out-of-town suppliers. For instance, he bought the pulleys for his Test Rack from Superior Spinning Co. in Superior, Wis.

In his early years, it was the generosity of his many suppliers that allowed Onan to stay in business. They extended credit to their friend far in excess of normal business practices, because they had faith in Onan and knew they eventually would get their money. When Onan decided to leave Reinhard and devote full time to his own business, it was these same friends and suppliers, along with some other friends, who came up with the necessary financing in cold cash.

Oscar Dahlen, Charlie Carlson, Ralph Hitchcock, all suppliers, and Harry Atwood, a friend who owned Atwood Coffee Co., together loaned Onan $5,000 in late 1922 so he could quit his job at Reinhard and further expand.

The owners at Reinhard were sad to see Onan leave their company, and they offered him a full year’s pay, $2,400, if he would stop in at the Reinhard shop once or twice a week to see how things were going and to offer advice. This was an unexpected bonus for Onan.

For the first time since he started his own business, Onan had extra cash available. With some of this extra cash, He decided to buy a larger building for his growing business. He purchased a large, three-story house at 39 Royalston Avenue, a few blocks from downtown Minneapolis.

Onan moved into his new location in December 1922. He was now 36 years old, was operating his own business, and he felt on top of the world.

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