In 1853, One Hundred and Forty years ago, Joseph Stelwagon, (born 1822-died 1885), one of the few pioneers in the manufacture of coal tar pitch in the United States started a business which today is known as the Stelwagon Manufacturing Company.
At that time there were only a handful of manufacturers in the country making coal tar pitch, some of which were Barrett, Arnold and Kimball of Chicago who founded the Barrett Division of Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation, Michael Ehert, Jr. of Philadelphia and the Warren Brothers of Cincinnati one of whom in later years started the rise of the asphalt roofing industry.
A few years later, the application of bituminous built-up roofing was meeting with success in the area around Chicago and Cincinnati which encouraged Joseph Stelwagon to start the manufacture of coal tar saturated felt.
He then took his three sons, William H., John W., and Robert P. into business with him, operating under the company name of Joseph Stelwagon & Sons with offices in Philadelphia.
At that time coal tar was in plentiful supply from the Philadelphia Gas Works, so a factory was established at Christian Street Wharf and the Schuylkill River, in Philadelphia, where the coal tar could be received by company-owned barges and rail tank cars.
The quality of felt desired was not readily available, the company purchased a paper mill, which was located on Leverington Avenue and the Schuylkill Canal, Manayunk, Philadelphia, where water power was used to operate the mill. Here the company manufactured their dry felt and in addition made building papers of various grades for a great many years.
The manufacture of coal tar saturated felt was a slow and tedious process being done entirely by hand. Later as the demand increased production was increased with the invention of power machinery.
As there was no source of trained labor to apply such composition roofs, it became necessary to form a subsidiary company to apply them and to train men to do this work. Accordingly, the Keystone Roofing & Paving Company was established and for a number of years it did a considerable amount of this type of roofing in Philadelphia and the surrounding territory.
Many of the men trained by this company and others eventually started in the built-up roofing business and when Joseph Stelwagon felt that a sufficient number were established as prospective customers the Keystone Roofing & Paving Company was discontinued. Joseph Stelwagon did not think it proper for a manufacturer to compete with his customers.
Joseph Stelwagon died in 1885. Robert P. Stelwagon then withdrew and the two remaining brothers continued the business changing its name to The Joseph Stelwagon Company and in 1894 incorporated under the laws of the State of New Jersey; John W. Stelwagon as President, William H. Stelwagon as Vice President and Treasurer, and Charles P. Glasgow, Secretary.
This company in conjunction with other manufacturers helped to develop the first prepared roll roofing on the market. This 2- and 3-ply tar paper, which had coal tar pitch between layers, was 108 sq. ft. and weighed 40 and 60 pounds respectively. The Joseph Stelwagon Company was one of the largest producers of these two products in the Eastern United States.
It was sold under the “AJAX” brand which was copyrighted during the year 1886. A quantity of Stelwagon’s “AJAX” 2-ply tar paper even traveled as far as the North Pole. Admiral Robert E. Peary lined his igloos with “AJAX” to and from his discovery of the North Pole on April 6, 1909.
These were the only prepared roll roofing products on the market for many years. Roofers preferred coal tar felt after asphalt prepared roll roofing came into prominence. This new product was called “Rubber Roofing”.
In 1904, the company started to manufacture a roof coating that was applied cold with a brush. It contained coal tar and slate flour as a filler. Although this product had wonderful results, the public sentiment against coal tar products caused it to be discontinued. There was a need for a product like this. Stelwagon replaced the coal tar coating with an encapsulated asbestos fiber as a filler. This product is called “Kure-A-Leke” and is still in production today. At the same time Stelwagon produced other cements and coatings. The most recognizable product is the roof cement in the green can “Stelco”.
In 1914, the company was notified that it would be obliged to give up its factory location at Christian Street Wharf and Schuylkill River as the land was needed for municipal improvement.
Stelwagon decided to discontinue the manufacture of coal tar pitch, tar saturated felt and 2- and 3-ply tar paper due to fire regulations at the location of the new property. One felt saturating machine was moved to 19th & Washington Avenue and felt was saturated on this machine, as well as waterproof building papers for a number of years thereafter. This machine was sold years later so that the only products then manufactured by the company were roof cements, coatings and other bituminous paints.
In 1914 the name of the company was changed to Stelwagon Manufacturing Company and was incorporated under the laws of the State of Pennsylvania, with John W. Stelwagon, President, William H. Stelwagon, Vice President and Treasurer, and William W. Watt, Secretary.
At this time a 10-year contract was made with a Philadelphia manufacturer of similar products, The Barrett Company, to manufacture materials for the company to which were applied Stelwagon registered trademark brands, AJAX, STORMTITE, PENNOID, and QUAKER CITY. These products had become well-established throughout the eastern part of the United States. The Barrett Company also purchased most of the company’s manufacturing equipment under the terms of this agreement.
At a later date additional products were added for distribution such as a general line of all types of roofing materials and accessories, sheet metals, warm air furnaces, and supplies as well as insulating materials which today are still carried by Stelwagon’s warehouses.
John W. Stelwagon died in 1925. William H. Stelwagon died in 1929. Joseph Selwagon 3rd died in 1940. Through established purchase agreements this left Henry W. Stelwagon as sole owner of Stelwagon Manufacturing Company. Henry became President, Walter S. McCallion, Vice President, A. J. Alexy, Jr., Treasurer, and Harry C. Wilkinson, Secretary.
In 1942 John E. Phillips, who had considerable previous experience in the same line of business, was employed by the company and was elected Treasurer, A. J. Alexy having resigned.
Harry C. Wilkinson retired from active duty with the company in 1949 but continued to act as Secretary until 1952 at which time Robert K. Studenmund was elected Secretary.
The Stelwagon Manufacturing Company has shown a continued expansion to its facilities since its incorporation in 1914.
During 1918 a new Philadelphia branch warehouse was built on Second Street North of York. And in 1922 another Philadelphia branch warehouse was built at 4736-38 Market Street. However, with the increasing use of motor trucks by the company and its customers, both were eventually sold due to their close proximity to the main warehouse and factory. In 1924 a new warehouse was built at 16th & Louden Streets in Philadelphia and, during 1935 a large modern warehouse was purchased at 1900 Harrison Street, Frankford.
In 1936 to further service the trade in South Jersey, a suitable warehouse was leased at 16th and Carmen Streets in Camden. The company soon outgrew the property and purchased another location at 2840 Mt. Ephraim Avenue, which served the South Jersey Area until 2002.
In 1940, in order to properly service established upstate Eastern Pennsylvania trade, a stock of company materials were handled out of the Wertz Company warehouse in Reading. After several years this was discontinued and a branch warehouse was opened in leased property at 2nd and Chestnut Streets in Reading.
With the increased volume of business, these premises became inadequate and in 1950 a property was purchased at 2nd Avenue and Spruce Streets in West Reading. After construction of an additional building it opened for business in July, 1951.
Expansion continued and in 1948 a branch warehouse opened on leased property at 200 Maryland Avenue in the city of Wilmington, Delaware. As business increased this became inadequate, so in 1952 a tract of land was purchased at 2418 West Sixth Street, in Wilmington, for the construction of a new and modern warehouse. This was completed in August of 1953 and opened for business on September 1st of that year. At that time it was the most modern warehouse the company owned, with up-to-date facilities for loading and unloading with power truck equipment.
The idea of modernization continued as Stelwagon continued its growth pattern. Capitalizing on the baby boom and the migration to the suburbs, Stelwagon leased a location on heavily-traveled West Chester Pike in the late 1950’s. At this time eight full-time salesmen were employed, a total of 50 employees and a fleet of several owned and operated trucks were being utilized.
The growing phase slowed down as the Frankford warehouse was condemned by the city, and sales fell dramatically in the Wilmington, Delaware location. To regenerate sales, Harry Stelwagon hired from the Barrett Company, their sales manager, Charles H. Ringwalt as the new general manager of Stelwagon. Charles brought with him a style conducive to successfully operating a small business. With this new-found leadership, Stelwagon again became “The Delaware Valley’s largest roofing distributor.”
With the death of Harry Stelwagon in 1968 Charles H. Ringwalt, Jr. gained full ownership of Stelwagon and the aggressiveness he showed as general manager was further enhanced by his ownership.
In 1970 Charlie brought his son, Charles H. Ringwalt, III (Chuck) into the business. The success story continued into the late 1970’s with another expansion into the suburbs. This time, it was Bucks County. At this time, the 2nd and Spruce Street warehouse in Reading became too small for the volume of sales and was moved to a new location approximately six times as large at 2nd and Walnut Streets, Reading.
In 1982 Charles H. Ringwalt, Jr. retired and appointed Chuck Ringwalt, President. With this new blood Stelwagon was off and running again with the opening of an Asphalt Packaging Plant located at 19th & Washington Avenue, known as Economy Asphalt Company. This plant was opened to enable the company to provide quality asphalt at a reasonable price.
In late 1983, with the retirement of Bob Studenmund, Vice President, having 44 years of service, Chuck Ringwalt appointed Jack Keenan Vice President.
In 1984 it was decided to renovate the 19th & Washington Avenue location and also to relocate the Trevose warehouse to Comly and Dutton Roads in the far Northeast Section of Philadelphia.
In 1985 a warehouse was opened at Salmon and Butler Streets to service the River Wards in the Port Richmond Area. The company had planned to open more warehouses but, by the year 1992, was unable to do so for reasons of economy.
For over 140 years Stelwagon survived competition, depression, recession and inflation. Because it listened to and catered to the family-owned business Stelwagon Manufacturing Company has remained one of the Leading Roofing Distributions in the Delaware Valley. The pattern of success can only breed further success in the future.