Jim Gartland had a choice whether or not to work for Atlas Foundry, a company started by his great-grandfather in the 1890s. But the rich tradition of family and the company’s constant success has kept him there.
Matthew F. Gartland, Jim’s great-grandfather, came to Marion, Ind. in the 1880s from the Cleveland, Ohio area to work at Marion Malleable Factory. There, he made iron castings for the country.
After a few years working at Marion Malleables, Matthew left to start his own foundry with a couple of associates. They created Marion Gray Iron Foundry in 1893 on the corner of Henderson and Factory avenues.
Jim says Marion Gray gained success as a foundry, and then when World War I began, the country needed more iron, which increased the profit and work of Marion Gray. This success led Matthew to invest in a dozen of other foundries in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. One in particular was Atlas Foundry located at 26th and Adams streets, which is the present-day location of Splash House.
That Atlas Foundry worked closely with Oldsmobile, making small iron parts for the cars. During the depression, however, Jim says Oldsmobile needed the work for its own foundries so they pulled away from Atlas. In time, the family owners closed Atlas because of losing the car company as a main client, and merged with Marion Gray.
Since Atlas was bigger and more well known at the time, Jim says the owners changed the name of Matthew’s foundry to Atlas Foundry and operated as a larger foundry in the same location on Henderson Ave in western Marion.
“So if you walk into the office and walk by the safe there and [see] Marion Gray on top of that safe, that’s as close as we come to Marion Gray,” Jim says.
Atlas Foundry makes gray iron castings, which is the most common type of cast iron. Jim explains the process of making the iron best.
“It’s the quickest way to make a finished product. We take sand. We have some bentonite in it and we have some water in it to provide a bonding agent. You make a mold and you pour iron in it. And you have a product that you can form almost any shape.”
Some of these shapes include: wheel hubs, roof drains, bearing blocks and even stadium seat parts. Atlas has made the seat frame for major league baseball stadiums in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cincinnati, Washington and Miami.
Jim started working for the company in 1974. When he went to college, he and most of the men in the family worked in the foundry for the summer. However, it was totally up to them to continue.
“[There] was a policy that you had to be 18 years old to work at the foundry,” Gartland says. “As a result, it really didn’t affect your life too much. It’s just like having your father work anywhere else.”
Back when Jim began at the company, workers would form a mold for iron castings by hand. “A man working hard would make a good days wages if he could 200 molds a day. We have machines out there today that will make 300 molds an hour,” Jim says. “So you can see where the automation is the key to keeping you in business.”
At age 34, Jim became president of Atlas Foundry. His grandfather, Francis X Gartland, retired in 1982 and his youngest son ran the company until he passed away at age 59.
Instead, China grew as the largest maker of iron in the world and has about 15,000 foundries.
“As the world’s changed, you have to change with it,” Jim says. “And we’ve focused on certain markets; we’ve focused on our specialties. And we’ve spent a lot of money on automating the foundry.”
Because of this, Atlas was able to avoid falling to the likes of Thompson, SCM Office Supplies and Ball-Foster glass in Marion. It also helps they made it through other tough times.
“People talk about how severe that was, well we lived through the depression here. And that would be a lot harder time for the country than that,” Jim says.
Atlas’ biggest customer, American Seating out of Grand Rapids, Mich., is the reason they make stadium seat parts. It was just a chance occasion that led Atlas to acquire this seven-figure customer.
“I can remember when I got in the car 30 years ago to go up and meet [American Seating]. The guy that was taking me had his own foundry that was going up for some work and he thought that maybe some of their work would fit me. I had no idea what where I was going. To think that I went up there, just got in the car with a friend, he took me up there. And today they’re a million-dollar customer.”
Jim says all of Atlas’ products serve people outside of Grant County, but all the revenue comes back the county through the jobs. The company also has a foundation set up in 1956 by his family to serve Grant County. The foundry sets aside part of the profit they make during a year into the fund, and that goes to serve organizations in the community. This includes the United Way, YMCA, Grant County Economic Growth Council and Family Services.
“We all grew up here. We all live here. We try to support the local merchants,” Jim says.
“Grant County will blossom one of these days. The college is a great sign for the community. I would like to have it back to where it was in 1950 where the city was double the size and local shopping was better and all that, but that will take time and it will take jobs. People will come to Grant County for jobs.”
Jim is now the foundry’s chairman after retiring as president at age 60 and his cousin Bill assumed the presidency. Jim says there are no fifth-generation Gartlands who are interested in working for the foundry, and that’s OK. Bill is in his 40s, and Jim says there’s plenty of time to figure what’s next. For right now, he’s living out the dream set 101 years ago.
“As I get older, and I’m now in the fading lights of being here, I just think how wonderful it was and what an honor it was to run a company that my great-grandfather, who obviously I never met, but who he had started, I hope that we’ve kind of followed the path that he’d wanted. It’s just have been a wonderful privilege to be able to do that.”