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Our Rich History: The greatest watch works in the world: Newport’s lost industrial opportunity

By Alan F. Garratt
Special to NKyTribune

Part 69 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

In the 1880s, Newport, Kentucky was on the cusp of being the watchmaking capital of the world. It already boasted the “Largest Watch Case Factories on the Globe,” according to its founder John C. Dueber. The story of what caused him to move away from Newport and build the “Greatest Watch Works in the World” elsewhere is one of acrimony and lost opportunities.

John Carl Dueber was born in Öbernetphen, Prussia in 1841 and immigrated to the United States at the age of 12, together with his father Johannes, his mother Katharina and his sister Pauline. The Duebers arrived on October 20, 1853 aboard the steamer SS Herder, having sailed from the city state of Bremen. John was listed on the ship’s records as Johannes (John) Dueber, the same name as his father. According to John Dueber’s grandson Robert Joliet, in his 1976 article in the Akron Beacon Journal, the Dueber family became somewhat stranded in Cincinnati following the death of the father, Johannes Dueber. 

John Carl Dueber became a naturalized US citizen on the 21st of July 1871. He was an assertive man, noted for his pugnacity and tenacity. His demeanor, according to his great-grandson Robert Vail, was typically “Prussian.” In his sixties, Dueber described himself, in his passport application, as 5′ 10½” tall, with a high and round forehead, greenish brown eyes, a slightly aquiline nose, a round face, and a medium sized mouth.

John C. Dueber. Courtesy of Alan F. Garratt

After leaving school, John Dueber took up a five-year apprenticeship with Francis Doll, a Cincinnati watch case maker who was active between 1857 and 1872. Sometime in the 1860’s, according to a National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors report, Dueber set up his own business in partnership with Francis Doll and rented a one-room office/workshop on the third floor of the Carlisle Building (on the southwest corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets) in Cincinnati. Doll left the business after about a year, but Dueber continued at the same location for at least another two years.

Dueber moved his business back and forth between several locations in Newport and Cincinnati. By 1874 he had raised enough capital, with help from his father-in-law John Daller, to enable him to build a substantial watch case factory in Newport. The operations moved into a new brick building at Washington and Jefferson (now Sixth) Streets. This new factory employed 60 workers who produced gold and silver watch cases. These were some of the most elegant watch cases of the time, with elaborate detailing.

By 1880, the factory needed to be expanded, so Dueber kept the original building to produce gold watch cases and built a new factory on the opposite corner of Washington and Jefferson Streets to produce silver watch cases. The two plants were joined by a tunnel. By then, 300 to 600 men and women were employed there.
While he was a successful businessman, there was also a ruthless side to John Dueber who became embroiled in underhand dealings involving a competitor. The following extract has been compiled from a report published in The Trader & Canadian Jeweller of March 1883:

The Keystone Watch Case company of Philadelphia utilised their Jas. Boss patent to manufacture gold watch cases in one piece, a technique they were later able to apply to silver cases. Their cases had many advantages over Duebers and began to hurt his sales to such an extent that he sent spies to either find out what was behind the process, or poach away some key workers. Dueber chose Dick Clarke for the job and authorised him to spend as much money on wining and dining Keystone staff as was necessary. However, Clarke encountered a loyal workforce who ate and drank with him and then reported the situation back to Hagstoz & Thorpe, the Keystone owners. The matter was brought to a head when Dueber and Clarke travelled to Philadelphia and tried to entice key apprentices to come and work for him, with the offer of higher wages. This practice contravened State Law and gave Hagstoz & Thorpe the opportunity to have John Dueber & Dick Clarke arrested and charged. The men were apprehended at the Wall Street Theatre (which the report insinuated was a venue for the enjoyment of “Forbidden Fruits”) and later bailed in the amount of $8,000 per man. Hagstoz & Thorpe claimed $85,000 in compensation for lost business.

The Dueber Watch Case factory complex in Newport, Kentucky occupied two full city blocks at Washington and Jefferson (later renamed Sixth) Streets. Courtesy of Alan F. Garratt

The report does not state what the outcome of the legal procedure was. However, it did reproduce a damning letter (that was in Keystone’s possession) sent from the Dueber company’s office instructing Dick Clarke upon his spying missions—not only with regard to Keystone but with other companies such as Waltham.

Ever self-sufficient, Dueber built a gas works to supply the necessary gas to his Newport factories. Later he tried to sell excess gas production to other entities and to Newport’s citizens. Gas mains were laid down, but Newport city officials halted the operations and litigations ensued to stop Dueber. As early as 1880, Newport had already erected 227 gas street lights. The gas was supplied by the Newport Light Company on a 25-year contract, so it is not difficult to imagine why the dispute erupted.

A growing feeling of hostility toward Dueber and his company, added to hard feelings over the taxes being imposed by city administrators, convinced Dueber he needed to leave Newport. But probably the deciding factor was that the Dueber company was stretched beyond its capacity, and although investments and profits could provide for expansion, Dueber felt that city administrators were purposely denying him opportunities to buy and develop more land for expansion.

In the earliest days of watch making, companies made both cases and watch movements, but in the post-Civil War period companies specialized in either movements, or cases. Because cases could be made faster than the movements, there was a surplus of cases. This led to the industry organizing the Watch Case Manufacturer Trust. Dueber was ideologically opposed to trusts and refused to join. In retaliation they boycotted both Dueber and his products. As a consequence he alienated his three best and biggest customers, Elgin, Waltham and Illinois, significantly hampering his growing business. Dueber’s choice, in the face of these difficulties, was either to surrender to the watch case trust and make peace in Newport, or to buy a movement company to enable complete watches to be made. The latter would require a new location large enough to accommodate operations of all phases of the movement and watch case manufacturing processes.
True to his character, in 1885 Dueber bought a controlling interest in one of his customers, the Hampden Watch Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He let it be known around the Northern Kentucky and Ohio areas that if a city or town could raise $100,000 in “gift money,” he would move the combined Dueber Hampden companies, employing some 1,500 to 2,000 employees. Along with their family members, this would add 7,500-10,000 people to a city’s population. 

Not surprisingly, many cities and towns seeking to grow bent over backwards to attract John Dueber. In the end the winning city was Canton, Ohio. Sidney, Ohio and Mansfield, Ohio, came in second and third, respectively.
Between 1886 and 1888, while John Dueber constructed his factories, Canton busily built houses to provide homes for the thousands of expected workers and their families, who were to come from Springfield and Newport.

John and his family were devout Catholics and the clergy were regular visitors to the Dueber household. He was, however, not austere and lived well when his companies prospered. While still working in Newport he kept a “party boat” on the Ohio River, called the Olivet. He used this to take up to a hundred employees at a time out for excursions, once as far as the Upper Ohio.

John Dueber’s party boat, the Olivet. (Courtesy of Robert Vail)

John had married Mary A. Daller, on May 23, 1865, at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, Cincinnati. She was the daughter of John and Teresa Daller. The couple would have four surviving children, Joseph, Albert, Estella and Pauline.

Mary Daller Dueber resented their move to Canton, which she saw as a backwards and unsophisticated town. She claimed that Canton had pigs running through the streets, and refused to leave the house, ordering everything to be delivered from Cincinnati. One of the family’s most enduring stories tells of the day when Mary answered the door for a man asking to see Mr. Dueber. She nonchalantly turned and walked back into the house shouting “John, there’s a man at the door for you.” The man, left standing in the doorway, was another prominent Cantonian, and personal friend of Dueber, United States president William McKinley.

John Dueber died suddenly on November 6, 1907. His companies lasted until bankruptcy in 1927 and the factories until 1958, when they were demolished to make way for the new Interstate Highway I-77 from Columbia, South Carolina to Cleveland, Ohio.

Alan F. Garratt is a retired Englishman living with his wife on their 3-acre homestead in rural Lincolnshire. He researches the social history of Hampden & Russian watch factories. He is also a vintage tractor enthusiast and likes nothing more than to “get oily and bang metal with a big hammer.” You can study his work and find his contact details at www.hampdenwatches.com

Portions of this article originally appeared in Alan F. Garratt’s “Hampden Works” website.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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