DANSVILLE — For several decades it was the largest employer in the Dansville area before shutting its doors for good in 2003.
Foster Wheeler was formed in 1927 when two companies merged together. The Power Specialty Company (which replaced Water Works Supply Company, created by the Foster family in 1884) and the Wheeler Condenser & Engineering Company, whose roots go back to 1891.
In its early years, the company’s main business was the design and manufacture of boilers and related equipment. Over the years, the company grew internationally through acquisitions, and it entered the engineering and construction business in the 1920s.
Foster Wheeler was acquired by AMEC plc in the second half of 2014.
The Dansville Historical Society will have a Foster-Wheeler Exhibit open to the public starting Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. This room will be dedicated to the memorabilia, and stories of those who put their love, sweat, and tears into a company that powered Western New York.
Long-time Foster Wheeler employee George Weidman had a hand in making this exhibit possible.
Weidman began like many did in those days, working at Foster Wheeler when he was still in high school. He worked the summers of 1943 and 1944.
“I worked there a couple of summers when I was in school, and went back to work in autumn,” he said. “After school let out I could start working there again.”
Weidman left school during his senior year to join the U.S. Coast Guard in WWII. He did odd jobs here and there after the war, but eventually made it back to Foster-Wheeler.
“I worked for area farmers and at Stony Brook,” he said. “I did general labor, cut down trees, did maintenance.”
Weidman was married in 1952, but had gone back to Foster-Wheeler in 1947.
“I didn’t have a lot of skill,” he said. “I was considered a laborer. I liked it a lot, because I got to move around. I acquired a lot of skill.”
Eventually Weidman would become the Union Agent until he retired. He would become the president of the IAM from 1962 to 1967 and again from 1971 to 1975.
“I traveled around a lot,” he said. “I went to Arcade, Pennsylvania, Wellsville, Buffalo, Rochester, and Mount Morris. I liked that job, because I could travel.”
There are many files hidden away in dusty drawers of workers comp cases Weidman worked on with Foster-Wheeler employees over the decades.
Weidman’s entire career life centered around the Foster-Wheeler company, even when he went to war.
“I had asked them to put in a Foster-Wheeler room since they already had a Macfadden room,”he said. “When Gerri became president we got a lot from Foster-Wheeler.”
Weidman is excited to have people see the Foster-Wheeler room, and to share his stories with everyone.
“We had a big strike there,” he said. “We had to negotiate an increase in wages for employees there, so no one could go to work. They wouldn’t let them in. This lasted two months. We got the increase in the end. I was the union leader, so I had to fill out the contract.”
The 1972 flood from Hurricane Agnes caused a lot of grief to the company too.
“There is a stream that flows next to Foster-Wheeler,” Weidman said. “They had one hell of a flood one summer. It destroyed a lot of equipment. Our government had to help us with new equipment, and there was three-feet of water on the first floor.”
Weidman added Foster-Wheeler was a great company to work for. His son, Jesse, worked there with him right up until the place shut down.
“It makes me feel good getting the exhibit up,” he said.
Dansville Public Library Director, Terry Dearing mentioned how important this company was to so many locals.
“It was a major employer for a very long time,” she said. “It changed a lot of lives, and was a huge part of the fabric of this community.”
“George knew how important this was to the community,” Dearing added. “We wanted the history museum to reflect the history of this community. George was the employer and the employee, so he got to be part of both worlds.”
The exhibit will showcase items donated from many people, including Weidman.
“George worked there for many many years and saw the company grow,” Dearing said. “He worked for the workers as the president of the union, and was always an honest man. He has always been an advocate for the workers. It was so important what he did.”
The Dansville Historical Museum is located on 14 Church St. Dansville, opened every first and third Saturday of the month or by appointment, and can be reached at 585-335-8090.