26 September 2012

Clement Clawson "Capitalist", Part Two

When his father and business partner, Henry T. Clawson, passed away on August 15, 1897, Newark based inventor Clement Clawson might have had better luck consulting one of his own coin operated fortune-telling machines than relying on the promises made by first his father, and then his stepmother Aurelia.

Clawson Fortune Telling Machine, circa 1890


"Business partner" might be too kind an attribution for the senior Clawson, as it was later proved in court that by the mid 1890s he had little to do with the running of the business.  The profitable factory where the Clawson Slot Machine Company could barely keep up with the demand for its coin operated vending and gambling machines was in Henry Clawson's name, as was the Newark home that he and his second wife shared with Clement and his young family and nanny Ella Hood - but all of the success of the business was due to the inventions and business acumen of his son.

The Clawson home, 79 Halsey Street, Newark, NJ

On several occasions during the last decade of his life, Henry acknowledged this - promising to leave the factory, all of the equipment, and the Clawson homestead to Clement.  Imagine the son's surprise then to find that his father had made a will in 1893, four years before his death, leaving all to Clement's stepmother - with the provision that Clement would be allowed to occupy the factory at a rent she determined.

The "Three Jack Pot" -
one of the Clawson Slot Machine Company's huge early successes 


Foreshadowing what would happen upon his stepmother's death five years later, the young Mr. Clawson demanded satisfaction, refusing to leave the attorney's office where the will was read until all agreed that he had been done wrong.  He threatened to contest the will and bring immediate legal action to prevent the dissemination of any property, and to recover other monies owed to him by his father through their business dealings - a not inconsiderable sum of perhaps $7,000 or more.

The widow Clawson assured Clement that in exchange for his not pressing the matter, she would make a will leaving everything to him upon her death - which she did in March 1898.

Part of the patent application for Clawson's "Three Jack Pot"

All was well for about a year.  The family was joined by Aurelia Clawson's grandniece, Aurelia Lee, and by all accounts everyone got on well at their Halsey Street residence, and at the recently purchased country house in Flagtown - even after the death of  Clement's wife Lillie on March 10, 1900.

It was around this time that Clement moved permanently to Flagtown, and Aurelia Clawson suspected that he had taken up with the children's nanny, Ella.  Mrs. Clawson disapproved very strongly of this relationship - so strongly that she secretly changed her will on July 17, 1900, including the new provision stating that if Clement and Ella should marry, all the property promised to Clement by his father would instead go to her niece!


to be concluded tomorrow.....

25 September 2012

Clement Clawson, "Capitalist", Part One

Although the 1900 United States Federal Census for Newark's Second Ward boldly lists Aurelia Clawson's occupation as "Capitalist",  the irony of this declaration wouldn't be made clear until after her death less than two years later. 

Clement Coleridge Clawson

It was in February 1902, in an attorney's office in Newark for the reading of the will, that prolific inventor and entrepreneur Clement Coleridge Clawson first learned how his widowed stepmother Aurelia had "capitalised" on his good nature, reaching out from the beyond to cheat him out of his father's inheritance.

Henry T. Clawson and his only child Clement began their business partnership in their native North Carolina in the 1870s.  The elder Clawson had manufactured tools and implements for the Confederacy during the Civil War - but it was his son's inventive prowess that brought the business to a whole new level.

15 March 1872 Raleigh News

One of his first inventions was a mechanical device to automatically measure and cut paper in one step.  He followed this up with a machine to shave ice.  Things really started to take off when he delved into solving more complicated problems with more complex contraptions.

1883 Ad for the Clawson Automatic Weighing and Filling Machine Co.
The launch of their Automatic Weighing and Filling Machine Company in the early 1880s necessitated a move to New York City, and their most successful venture, The Clawson Slot Machine Company, found the family - Henry, second wife Aurelia, Clement and wife Lillie - living and working near their new factory in Newark.

In a later interview with the New York Evening Telegram, Clawson told the paper that the key to his financial success was to first invent and then manufacture his own machines - to not rely on outside investors who invariably reap most of the rewards.  He certainly took his own advice, being the first to invent coin operated vending machines for items such as pencils or gum, a fortune telling machine, and most notably the gambling slot machine.  Machines were manufactured in Newark at a plant ostensibly owned and managed by Henry Clawson, and then sold at a set price to Clement.

Sounds like a good setup - until you realize that father Henry had practically no role in any part of the business other than having his name on the books. 

More tomorrow....

20 September 2012

The Clement Clawson, Jr. Building, Part Two

When Hillsborough Township's first municipal building opened in 1931, there was no special dedication ceremony or any formal acknowledgement of the man without whose help the project would have never gotten off the ground.  Perhaps it's time to rectify that.


Hillsborough Township's first municipal building, photographed in the first decades after opening in 1931.

It was earlier that year that township resident Clement Clawson, Jr. realized he could use his connections as the local administrator for the WPA to get the federal government to pay for the construction of a municipal building for Hillsborough - the first in its history.  This was just the type of "shovel ready" project the WPA was looking for to combat depression-era unemployment, and the Township Committee readily agreed to the plan.

When interviewed by the Somerset Messenger Gazette in 1971, Clawson remembered what he told the committee when he showed up at a subsequent meeting and learned that they hadn't fulfilled their commitment to the project - acquiring the land and hiring an architect.  In fact, they had done nothing at all for two months:

"Now look, today is Monday, and come Friday morning I will receive a wire appropriating the necessary funds.  And I must reply immediately to confirm we will begin the following Monday morning!"
Some fruitless discussion followed concerning a location for the building with the committee favoring the site of the old Poor Farm - the only available property owned by the township.  Clawson insisted that the feds would never approve a location so far from the center of the township, and set out, committee in tow, to look at more centrally located sites.

Their first and last stop was the Mikula farm on the original Amwell Rd. - now renamed East Mountain Rd. - near the intersection with South Branch Rd.  Coincidentally, or maybe not considering its prime location, this was very near the old Jacob Flagg tavern, one of the town fathers' favored meeting places of the 18th century.

After some explanation at Mrs. Mikula's front door and a visit to the Johns-Manville plant to see her husband - who thought he was headed to the boss's office to be fired when he was called off the line - the site was secured.

The original architect's plan was cut by about 50% by a frugal township committee - who were responsible for materials cost - a move that was regretted within a year or two when they ran out of space for records storage and a larger garage had to be added.


Despite reducing the overall size of the building, an engineer's error put ten feet of the building over the property line (!), necessitating a property swap with the cooperative Mikulas, who gave up the ten foot strip in exchange for regaining some acreage at the rear of the property.

The humble building, which now serves as the home of Hillsborough's Department of Public Works, has served Hillsborough well for over 80 years.  And it was mostly due to the vision of one young man, Clement Clawson, who prodded and pushed until it was done.

19 September 2012

The Clement Clawson, Jr. Building, Part One

Maybe it's time to rename Hillsborough's first Municipal Building, the seat of our township government for six decades, in memory of the young man whose singular effort made the building possible.


Hillsborough Township's first Municipal Building photographed in 2012.
 It was near the beginning of the Great Depression in 1931 that twenty-eight-year-old Clement Clawson, Jr. - son of the mechanical genius vending machine pioneer and a successful businessman in his own right - found himself in the enviable position of being able to do a great good for Hillsborough Township. 

As Somerset County supervisor of emergency relief, he was also the federal administrator for local Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects.  The WPA was a depression era federal program designed to fund "shovel-ready" projects, and put the unemployed to work.  It occurred to Clawson that there was a project right here in Hillsborough - the construction of a much needed municipal building.

From the time of Hillsborough's charter in 1771 - and indeed since the first settlement in the area decades earlier - the town's governing body met wherever it was convenient.  For most of the early period, that meant an annual meeting at the home of a township committeeman, or at a local tavern or inn.  In the later years, space was rented as needed at the Neshanic Hotel or elsewhere.

Full and part time employees, such as the tax collecter and township clerk, simply worked out of their homes.  Township owned road equipment was stored anywhere space could be found.

Clawson realized that the WPA would pay all of the labor costs for a town hall.  All the township had to do, he explained at the next monthly committee meeting, was provide the land and building materials, and hire an engineer and architect.  Clawson would file the paperwork and wait for the funds to come in.  The three-person Township Committee readily agreed to the plan.

But after a couple of months had passed with no update from the township committee on their progress, Clawson went to the next public meeting to find out what was going on.  Incredibly, the committee had completely forgotten about the plan, and hadn't done a thing!

To be continued.....



18 September 2012

"Who Was Peter J. Biondi?"

In a 1988 feature story in the Somerset Messenger Gazette, Pete Biondi listed his favorite television program as Jeopardy.  With Saturday's dedication ceremony in his honor, the title of this blog post now becomes the answer, in the form of a question, to this clue: Hillsborough's Municipal Building, opened in 1991, was renamed for this former mayor on September 15, 2012.

The plaque will be placed at the entrance to the building.
But there is nothing trivial about Pete's longstanding commitment to the residents of Hillsborough and the town he loved.

Mayor Carl Suraci


It has often been said that Hillsborough is a big town with a small town feel.  That is something that Pete always believed.  Although many of the planning decisions that have shaped Hillsborough were already decided before the Biondi's moved to town in 1976, and certainly before Pete was elected to the Township Committee in 1983, Pete remained committed to that small town feel.

Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno


Hillsborough acquired the property for the municipal complex in the mid 80s as part of the development project that brought the Rohill Estates development and the paving of Beekman Lane. 

Congressman Leonard Lance

By all accounts, it was Pete who pushed to have the new municipal building - just the second in Hillsborough's 200 year history - house not just township offices, but to also provide facilities for the police and courts, the school district offices, a modern library, and a senior citizens center.

State Senator Christopher "Kip" Bateman


While other townships, Branchburg for instance, were creating palaces for their municipal departments, Hillsborough built an efficient, workable complex to serve the residents first.  And nothing says "small town feel" better than the general store that doubles as the post office and ticket agent, or the local tavern that serves as the town meeting hall.

Former mayor Anthony Ferrera reads the proclamation.

Pete was duly proud of this accomplishment, stating at the 1989 groundbreaking ceremony, "This building symbolizes an era of cooperation in Hillsborough Township which results in diverse township functions being centrally located for the benefit of our residents." At the grand opening ceremony on May 19, 1991 he said of the $10.7 million, 82,000-square-foot complex, "I believe it marks the coming of age for our community. It's truly a 21st century facility."

Pete's grandchildren cut the ribbon as family and dignitaries look on.


About 200 of Pete's friends, family, and Hillsborough neighbors came out on Saturday to witness the dedication ceremony, which included guest speakers, the reading of the proclamation, and the unveiling of a plaque and a new sign over the main entrance to the building.

The new sign over the main entrance

At the close of ceremonies, Mrs. Joan Biondi spoke eloquently about her husband, who is missed by all.
Mrs. Joan Biondi