Once We Made Bowling Balls and Pocket Combs

Borough of Butler

Butler, N.J., is a middle class residential community in Northern New Jersey. Nearly 8,000 people live in its two square miles, a population that has increased modestly over the last couple decades. I worked for a local newspaper in Butler in the 70’s. The town has just undergone the shock of having the Amerace plant, the centerpiece of the local economy and the primary employer in town, shut down. This was a company town, a place where at one time the rubber company rented housing to its workers and donated the land for schools and churches. Once a small industrial center, Butler is a post-industrial, post-company town. But it’s a place that never lost its character.

American Hard Rubber Company sign

Butler rubber plants c. 1900

The rubber plant c. 1900

Butler rubber plant site

The plant site now.

The town is named after Richard Butler, a 19th century entrepreneur who played a large part in bringing industry to the town. He was president of the Butler Hard Rubber Company. In 1898 that company merged with two others to form the American Hard Rubber Company which some 60 years later became a division of Amerace. The Ace Comb Company was a division of Amerace. The rubber business started to come under pressure in the mid-20th century with the widespread use of plastics. Amerace moved its rubber operations to the south in 1974, leaving behind 400 unemployed workers and a massive plant in the center of town.

The building, like the town itself, has refused to die. A new post office was built at the front of the plant. Much of the space has been leased to small manufacturers. There is a brewery, Ramstein (a personal favorite) and some retail stores, Butler Place.

Butler Museum drum

New home of Butler Museum

Butler train station

Two years after the plant closed, the last train left Butler downtown station, ending train service that had begun in 1872. The station has since been renovated and is now the Butler Museum. Many of the images in this post were taken at the museum. Some of its exhibits are Butler specific like the municipal band base drum above and press clippings of a 60’s Butler High football star. But it is also a museum of historical reminders of small town industrial America.

Soda fountain from The Nugget

What small American town main street didn’t have a soda fountain that looked like this?

Butler Museum

Western Electric switchboard

Western Electric switchboard

Butler Museum fire alarms

The fire alarm system

Butler Museum adding machine

The predecessor of the pocket calculator

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15 Responses to Once We Made Bowling Balls and Pocket Combs

  1. Butler sounds like a town with a rich and interesting town. It is always sad when big companies shut down and abandon these little towns. Nice to hear about the resilience of Butler and how they are remaking themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. BroadBlogs says:

    You always have such interesting historical stories.


  3. inesephoto says:

    Love the museum, great job preserving history.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rich Decker says:

    I Grew up in nearby Wanaque and always new the Mill as the Butler Rubber Mill. Often had Pizza from the pizza place across from the mill. My Dad Graduated from Butler High School in the early 30’s. I was trying to research A hard rubber bowling ball that I believe came from the Butler Rubber Mill in the late 50’s. Currently a resident of Kingsport TN.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. michelle j chalupt says:

    i live in butler since 1980 love it very much

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tim O'Sullivan says:

    My family was mostly fortunate and escaped the mill but worked in other local businesses that were supported by the mill. I can remember the “lovely” smell that came out of the mill, I always hated it, but when you think about it, that was the smell of prosperity that allowed people to work and buy houses in the area. We would be better off as a country to have a little of that smell so people could find work.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Carol Smith Pouy says:

    Grew up in Butler in the 50’s. Great place.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. paulinnj says:

    The recently-renovated museum is crammed full of interesting artifacts. You could spend a day there!

    Did you know that Butler has ties to French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty, and legendary NJ-based inventor Thomas Edison? You’ll find info on that at the Butler Museum. http://butlermuseumnj.org/

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Paula R. Hero says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful retrospect of Butler. I was born and raised in Butler. Left/moved out of state to be married in 1967. My Dad worked at the “hard” rubber mill and I have fond memories of growing up in that wonderful small town. It warms my heart that so many people have kept the town alive. God Bless Small Town America. I recently came back for a visit to see the Butler Mission Project and visited the Butler Museum. So many good people and good memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ken Montanye, Co-Chair says:

    The Butler Museum is a treasure trove of Butler artifacts. We have a large display of American Hard Rubber Mill items on display. Including the mold for the bowling balls and a vast collection of “ACE” Brand combs. We also have military related items, fire department, home life, school (including a collection of yearbooks from 1921 to the present) A Thomas Alva Edison collection (Edison stayed across the street from the museum at the Park Hotel – 234 Main St). Roy Rogers also stayed at the Park Hotel and had his horse Trigger in the stable behind the hotel (now Peerless Products). Richard Butler was friends with Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue Of Liberty. Butler was involved with fund raising for the base of the Statue Of Liberty. There are far too many artifact to mention her, only a visit will give you the whole picture of life in Butler through the decade’s .The museum is open on Saturdays from 10 am – 2 pm. Please call before your visit. 973-838-7222.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Tom McNulty says:

    I was the first controller for the new plant built in Piney Flats, TN near the tri-cities area but went back to NJ to be the last controller for the Butler plant before it shutdown. So many stories live on. I was in a living museum with people that loved being a part of it. I remember a senior foreman training workers in TN showing how to start a complicated mill and asked one of them to approach the machine and start it. As the worker approached the machine the foreman grabbed him and pulled him away to everyone’s surprise. He then explained in a stern voice “Don’t ever go near a machine unless you know HOW TO STOP IT!” I’ll never forget that lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Patricia Garrett says:

    I worked for Amerace Corp in NYC at 245 Park Avenue from 1970 to 1974 as a secretary to Arthur Larson. It was my one and only job in New York City and I enjoyed the experience greatly. I am a native New Yorker born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1946 and as a teen often took the bus into the Port Authority with a friend or friends and would go to the Museum of Natural History or Hayden’s Planetarium and also would wander down to the Village and then head home. My parents were native New Yorkers…Mom from the Bronx and Dad from Brooklyn. I left the east coast in 1974 and ended up on the West Coast in Los Angeles in 1976 where I still reside today. Still love NYC and my memories of it. There was no place like it as far as I was concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. robert wimberly says:

    I worked at the Amerace plant in Piney Flats, TN from 1989 to 2008. The operation is still going strong and has made many improvements and expansions including a plant in Austria. It was the first manufacturing plant in the new industrial park opened in 1970 and Amerace was the first plant to enter and get started in 1971; so they are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year in 2021! We weren’t produce bowling balls or combs when I got there but there are plenty “out back” that will probably remain buried there forever! Would like to visit the museum sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

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