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  Miracle on Third Creek

A revived Fulton Bellows breathes new life into Knoxville industry.

by Jack Neely

You can hear it from the Third Creek Bike Trail, a low roar and sometimes the sound of huffing, like a panting giant. Inside the old building it's only louder, as hundreds of men and women tend large machines that pull and shape and stamp and spit.

Reach into one of the dozens of bins and pick up the final product, shiny and still warm from the forge, a metal cylinder with accordion-like pleated sides. If you found one rolling around on the sidewalk, chances are you wouldn't know what to do with it or what to call it. It probably wouldn't help much to learn that the weatherman who invented it called it a sylphon.

Still, chances are you used one today, without ever seeing it or knowing it. You depended on it when you stood naked in the shower, when you got some milk out of the refrigerator, when you accelerated as you drove to work. The sylphon, better if less poetically known in the industry today as a seamless metal bellows, is used in machinery all over the world and in outer space, and this homely factory on Third Creek has been one of the world's main producers of them since the days of the Model T.

Randy Greaves is a boyish, sandy-haired man of 45 who doesn't like to sit still for long. He has owned the company only since March. He keeps one of those old 1920s Ford thermostats in his office, and seems tickled to show it off. But he's not in the relic business. Last week, his factory produced 125,000 parts for GM cars alone.

The same basic metal bellows that used to keep Model T's from overheating is now used to make the near-perfect vacuum necessary for producing computer chips. By expanding and contracting, Sylphons measure and react to changes in temperature and air pressure, making possible a wide variety of thermostats, switches, and other control devices.

He pulls out something that looks like a cigarette lighter with a metal hose. "Here's a fuel control for an afterburner on a jet fighter." He shows still another bellows designed for the space shuttle. NASA is a client. So is Chrysler, Cummins Engines, Borg-Warner, Allied Signal, Arctic Fox, and the entire refrigerator business.

They're pretty big in the medical business, too. "We make life-and-death products that have to be incredibly accurate," Greaves says. "Look at this oxygen regulator: it's nothing but three bellows. And here's a blood warmer to maintain a constant flow of temperature-controlled blood."

Here in this one factory, they make a total of 4,000 different products. "You name it, we'll make it," he says. "We're the largest stamping and machining factory on this side of the Mississippi River."

And all that's based on one device invented in Knoxville almost a century ago, for gauging the depth of the Tennessee River.

A couple of other businesses make metal bellows, but no one else manufactures them to be seamless. That's the secret of the product's success, and a secret they're keeping.

The fact that all this has been going on right under our noses is surprising to many. The fact that we very nearly lost it, when the international parent company seemed to lose interest in the Knoxville plant, is even more so.

Industrial names are sometimes significant; usually they're not. Many modern manufacturing businesses go by seemingly random alignments of consonants; some sound like extraterrestrial villains on Saturday-morning cartoons. The name Siebe belonged to a British auto-parts manufacturer and never meant much in Knoxville's business history. The name Robertshaw meant more, but it was just the name of an out-of-state manufacturer that ran a plant here.

But now the company that went by both of those names has caught its second wind. Dramatically increasing its production and its contracts, the old plant is going by a new name, now painted on a sign out front in non-corporate cursive: Fulton.

It's not a name picked out of the air. It's the original name of this factory. It's the name of the bald man whose portrait hangs in the lobby, near where his old office was. He died more than half a century ago, but he invented the product that this factory produces.

The guy in the portrait wears a dark three-piece suit with a collar pin and looks like he'd rather be anywhere than in a photographer's studio. His name is Weston Fulton. While the Wright Brothers were working on the first airplane, Fulton invented a simpler and more immediately practical device, one with a greater variety of applications: the sylphon. Though it rarely goes by that name these days, it's still the main product here at the newly renamed Fulton plant. They're now making more of them than at any time in recent history, and they're still as important to American industry as they were for most of the 20th century.

The man who revived Fulton's name and perhaps saved his factory is an unlikely hero. Randy Greaves is former Chief Financial Officer for Wagner & Brown, a leveraged-buyout specialist from West Texas who came to Knoxville in 1994, just to help disassemble Whittle Communications, the meteoric TV and magazine company. It was just a short-term gig, but Greaves brought his family here to visit. "My family lived in West Texas, in the desert," Greaves says. "It's a very harsh environment out there. I told my wife to bring the kids to Knoxville." The Greaveses were all impressed with the lush mountains and the rivers. "They said, 'We'd really like to live here.'"

Moving to Knoxville was no problem for Greaves's business. "I do leveraged buyouts," he says. "If I have a phone and access to an airport, I can go to work." So he moved here. (He also owns another local company, Shamrock Organic Products, Inc.) Not long after Whittle Communications was dead and buried, Greaves, who seems to have a feral instinct for spotting large, wounded businesses, noticed another one floundering in the weeds of Third Creek.

The former Robertshaw Controls was then owned by the British auto-parts manufacturer Siebe, which in 1998 was in the throes of a major corporate merger. Siebe and some other British manufacturers became Invensys, which began divesting itself of many of its operations in America and Britain and moving many lesser-skilled jobs to lower-paying environments in Mexico and Malaysia, focusing on the global bottom line. For a time it appeared that the old factory on Third Creek would be a casualty.

The history of the old plant was part of what caught Greaves' attention. In the lobby of the Fulton plant is a rare trophy Fulton employees are still proud of, more than half a century on. It's the Army-Navy E (for excellence) Award, granted to Fulton by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the war, Fulton employed 4,000 workers, making war material ranging from hand-grenade fuses (50 million of them) to tail-fin assemblies for mortar shells. You get the impression that if there'd been a bad stomach bug going around the Fulton plant one day in 1943, the Allies might have lost the war. Fulton even manufactured components for the top-secret Norden bomb sight, which mixed speed with altitude for better accuracy. The technology was so closely guarded that bombing crews were ordered, in case their plane went down, to destroy the device with an explosive before bailing out. An airman who allowed one to fall into enemy hands, even in a crashed bomber, was liable to face charges of treason. One of the secrets of the Norden bomb sight was that its function depended on Fulton sylphons.

However, history doesn't always count for much in the global industrial marketplace. This factory's local heritage seemed to fade with the years. First, Fulton merged with Maryland-based thermostat manufacturer Robertshaw, which eventually dropped the Fulton name. Then, in 1986, British auto-parts manufacturer Siebe bought Robertshaw and, for a time, used the Fulton plant to make all sorts of car parts. A decade later, when Siebe cut back on the work force and eventually chose to concentrate on the non-bellows jobs (which required less skill), move them to Mexico, and get out of Knoxville altogether, the old Fulton Company, manufacturer of sylphons, seemed a distant memory. In 1998, Knoxville was worried about hanging onto jobs and the last vestiges of the city's old manufacturing base; some industry promoters were already eulogizing Fulton as the earliest origin of our high-tech industry. Knoxville officials were also worrying about how to clean up this vacant brownfield site adjacent to the UT campus.

What astonished Greaves, the canny investor who'd made a reputation among Texas billionaires for evaluating the economic viability of businesses, was that Siebe seemed least interested in the high-precision products left over from Robertshaw, including the original bellows works. To Greaves, that was the most interesting part of the company, the highest-precision part, and the most promising part.

Greaves bought our most historic factory. Not as a good deed, but because it looked like it might have a few more decades of profitable life in it. "We'll build a business from what they left behind," he said. He had such faith in it that he put up all the equity personally. After looking into the company's history and conferring with members of the family of the man who started the company in 1904, he renamed it Fulton Bellows.

Greaves is not necessarily a sentimental sort of guy. "It was a natural, to me, to name it after the industry's founder," Greaves says. "He didn't found just this company. He founded the industry."

"Actually, he still has some weight in the industry," Greaves says of Fulton. "People who use bellows have always recognized that name." The Knoxville plant obviously has the strongest claim to it.

When he chose the old name, Greaves picked a longtime employee, plant manager Roger Sikes, to be in charge. A former Marine, Sikes forms a contrast to the tall, highly caffeinated owner. Cool and compact, Sikes has the no-nonsense demeanor of a fighter pilot. He had worked at Robertshaw/Siebe for 27 years when Greaves gave him a new assignment as president of the company. "He had tremendous leadership and a thorough knowledge of the product," Greaves says. "He knew where to take this business."

Walking around the plant, it seems much, much bigger than it looks from the street—the size of several airplane hangars linked together, almost half a million square feet of presses, automatic screws, molding machines, furnaces, run by almost 400 engineers and technicians. It's hard to believe it could have closed.

Sikes speaks matter-of-factly about the function of each work station. As Sikes cites statistics and industrial jargon in even tones, Greaves runs laps around the machines, looking them up and down like a teenager with a new Carrera. He plucks up metal bellows from the hopper, drops them quickly if they're still too hot. Sikes has had time to get used to what they do here every day. Greaves still seems awed by it.

The machinery is modern, but in the older parts of the plant, much of it rests on thick, dark, hardwood floors which may date from the company's World War I origins. History and high technology coexist at Fulton as they do at few other places.

"Look at that," Sikes says, showing you a strip of metal that's thinner than any paper. "That's one eight-thousandth of an inch. We could make it even thinner." In some applications, thinness is key. Some metal bellows have such a thin wall thickness they feel just like especially delicate rubber.

"What makes us different from everybody else is that we're the only seamless technology," says Sikes, picking up a small cylinder. He points to a shiny new bellows and speaks with an emphasis that doesn't allow for doubt. "Every place on this bellows is as strong as every other place."

"The uniformity is what makes it work," adds Greaves. "That's the magic."

Each bellows starts out as a steel cylinder; with heat, they stretch it to three times its length or more. "The trick is to move metal without tearing it," says Sikes. Then, machines roll pleats into them.

The great thing about this mechanical technology, says Greaves, is that "it doesn't fail like electricity." If there's a short circuit, if a computer crashes, if there's a power outage, the Fulton bellows, which is based on expansion, keeps working. He says the bellows also works in hostile environments. "And most environments are hostile."

Greaves supplies a handy example: "Every valve on the Alaska oil pipeline was made where you're standing."

Fulton does also dabble in electronics, though; in a lab downstairs, they're working on a new electronic brake for automobiles. It may be a tough sell for a generation or two at least, a brake that doesn't require actual pressure from a foot. The bellows, Greaves says, will come into play in the foot pedal "to imitate the feeling of a master cylinder."

A sign says, "Remember: the next inspector is the customer." Fulton has its own inspectors, of course, but four times a year they're audited by the industry to determine their standards. Fulton earns a QS 9000; in gymnastics, that would be something like a 10.00. "There's no one in the world we can't sell to," says Greaves.

Unlike some modern enclosed air-conditioned factories, Fulton keeps its windows and doors wide open on a sunny day, as old-fashioned electric fans keep the air circulating. A few doors say Authorized Personnel Only, but Greaves and Sikes don't seem nervous about letting a stray reporter see nearly anything. They even show off the subterranean bomb shelters readied during World War II, when Fulton had a reputation as one of the nation's most dependable war-materials factories, and was surely on the Luftwaffe's bombing charts. (A little disappointing, today the subterranean shelters look like any industrial basement, now full of pipes and cables.)

"We could hand over the keys to the competition," Greaves says, "and they still couldn't figure out how we do what we do." It's ideas, not secret equipment, that make the seamless bellows possible. Even Fulton's salesmen are engineers.

For decades after Fulton's death, Robert-shaw promotional literature held that the name sylphon was derived from the word Sylph, the Norse goddess of air. Or weather. Or the atmosphere. As it happens, there's no such lady, at least not in Norway. A sylph is actually a soulless, airborne being first theorized by the influential German-Swiss alchemist Phillippus Aureolus Paracelsus in the early 16th century. Later the word came to represent more attractive sprites, portrayed in fairy tales and Victorian-era ballets.

It's the sort of name that would have occurred only to the unfettered mind of Weston Fulton.

He was born the son of a Confederate veteran, during the Reconstruction, in rural Alabama. His grandfather had been a wealthy planter before the war, but Weston Fulton and his brothers grew up picking cotton by hand. Unlike most Alabama cotton pickers, he got to go to college, at Ole Miss, where he was elected valedictorian. In the 1890s he worked as a meteorologist in New Orleans and Vicksburg, before an opening came up in Knoxville.

Fulton was 27 years old when he arrived on Christmas Day, 1898, a meteorologist here to man the national weather station, then located, depending on various sources, on UT's Hill, in the Custom House, or in the Van Deventer Building on Wall Avenue, the solid concrete building that later became the St. James Hotel. (Maybe it was in all three.) He spent a lot of time outside, too, flying box kites high into the atmosphere, measuring the air at altitudes where no man had ever flown.

While he was here, Fulton decided to take some science classes; he earned a masters of science at UT in 1902, and taught some, as well. In 1903, when he was 32, he fashioned the device on which he would build his career, and an American industry. Some have claimed he invented the sylphon in the Van Deventer Building (it was torn down to make room for TVA's headquarters in the early '70s). Daughter Jean Talley and her husband Jim think it was at UT, on the Hill. Jim Talley, who still calls him "Daddy Fulton," recalls, "he told me he started being an inventor because he was lazy! He was tired of walking from the top of the Hill down to the river to register the height of the water," so he came up with a way to do so automatically: the metal bellows.

Although he invented it to automatically measure the depths of the Tennessee River for his weather reporting, he found it had a variety of other applications as well, especially in thermostats. The burgeoning automobile industry created a sudden and huge market for such a compact, efficient device. With help from investor John Scruggs Brown, Fulton opened a factory at the east end of White Avenue in 1904 and began mass-producing sylphons. The sylphon spawned dozens of other inventions, some of them Fulton's own. It's said that he had 125 patents at one time, that the U.S. Patent Office once filled an entire room with Fulton inventions. It's one of many legends that are hard to prove. However, in short order, he was a wealthy young man.

He married a Scottish-born woman named Barbara Murrian in 1910 and started a large family. The Fultons lived on Temple (now Volunteer Boulevard) when it was just west of the university. They had five children, the oldest named Weston Jr. Known in the family as "Buddy," he shared his father's fascination with technology.

By World War I, the Fulton Company had outgrown its factory on the fringe of the residential Fort Sanders neighborhood, and Fulton opened a new plant on Third Creek at what had been Knoxville's western city limits. Suddenly there was yet another urgent use for the Fulton sylphon.

Even before the United States entered the war, the navy was having to cope with the U-boat threat. The German submarines sank the Lusitania in 1915; ships had not yet discovered any defense against submarines and their torpedoes. Using his sylphon, Fulton produced a device that would trigger a submersible bomb at a given depth in the ocean. The device that Fulton made possible would be known as the depth charge. When the U.S. entered the war, the sylphon-assisted bomb was the allies' only defense against the U-boat.

Fulton was a quiet man, never a backslapping self-promoter. His family believes it was out of a sense of civic duty that Fulton served two terms on City Council. He supported the progressive city-manager style of government in the politically turbulent '20s, and became vice-mayor. He never got used to the personal attacks. He later warned his son-in-law, "Don't get into politics. I was nailed to the wall."

By the time he quit politics, Fulton was a millionaire. In the late '20s, he built his Xanadu—a huge castle-like mansion of peculiar design with three stories, plus a couple of towers—on a hill above Lyons View Drive. Designed by Charles Barber under the direction of Fulton—who changed the design as it was being built, adding, for example, a third-floor ballroom accessible by elevator—the house ended up with an exotic look, a fanciful combination of Mediterranean styles. Visible for miles around, Westcliff, as it was known, was such a fantastic-looking place that kids, and sometimes even their parents, would trespass on the property just to get a closer look at it.

The greatest tragedy of Fulton's life came just before they moved into the house, in 1929—and it wasn't the stock-market crash. The inventor's bright, energetic son, Weston "Buddy" Fulton Jr., had entered UT shortly after he turned 17. "He was more like Daddy than anybody else," recalls his little sister, Jean. "Kind, gentle, soft-spoken."

Many of his friends didn't have the access to cars and speedboats that he did, and young Fulton was known for letting other, less experienced drivers take a turn. The freshman was between classes one day in January when he and some friends found the cafeteria at Strong Hall wasn't open yet, so he invited them to take a spin out Kingston Pike in his large family Packard. Fulton sat in the back seat with several other students as a pal from New York drove out the Pike at around 40 mph. Impatient with a slow-moving truck, they passed, but the young man lost control of the car and skidded into a telephone pole. The only one seriously hurt was young Weston Fulton, who suffered a serious head injury.

For the next 12 days, the boy's 58-year-old father sat at the comatose patient's bedside at Fort Sanders Hospital. A News-Sentinel reporter found it remarkable that "a few blocks from the hospital the vast Fulton plant continues to turn out by the thousands the Fulton products which virtually every civilized country will use. But Mr. Fulton is oblivious to all that humming activity as he sits by the beside to catch the slightest move of his injured son."

Then Weston Fulton Jr. died. He was buried at Highland Memorial Cemetery. The Fultons moved out of their house on Temple and donated it to UT as a memorial to Buddy. A story long told and retold was that Weston Fulton could stand in his tower of his new mansion and see his son's grave, across Kingston Pike, almost a mile away. Fulton was said to mount a huge spotlight atop his mansion to shine a beam of light all the way to the plot. His daughter and son-in-law say none of that's true. "You couldn't even see Highland Memorial from up there," says Jim Talley, who lived in the house briefly in the '40s. He says there have been other fables about the place, such as the tale that it had a private observatory with a powerful telescope.

The grounds and the elaborate landscaping, which included a long reflecting pool, cost more than a half-million dollars, a fortune in the late '20s. Perhaps to help pay for it, Fulton, approaching 60, sold his company. He kept a strong interest in several other local factories, especially the W.J. Savage industrial equipment plant and Royal Manufacturing, a furniture factory.

Jean Talley says Fulton "didn't do much talking about what he was doing. He was quiet and meditative, but he had a twinkle in his eye." He kept a workshop in a remote part of the second floor of Westcliff; she remembers a drawing board and a closet full of equipment.

The Fultons kept a second home in St. Petersburg, Florida, and did a good deal of traveling. In 1934, Fulton took his family on a European vacation which included a trip into young Nazi Germany. He returned to describe the repeated searches and interrogations he endured with understatement and an odd relish; he seemed to enjoy keeping the secret of his role in developing the allies' weapons in the previous war. Jean Talley says her Ole-Miss-alum father became a "rabid" Vol fan during the Neyland years; he took his family to UT's first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 1940. His family still has his 50-yard-line box seats at Neyland Stadium.

He spent much of his later years entertaining at Westcliff, but he never retired. Just after World War II, at 75, the still-energetic inventor announced his latest innovation, another godsend to the lazy: a cleaner-burning coal furnace you could stoke without messing with the clinkers. He never finished it to his satisfaction.

A few months after that announcement, in 1946, Weston Fulton died suddenly, at Westcliff. He was buried at Highland Memorial, near his son. In the postwar age of modernist efficiency, Westcliff came to seem a white elephant; the family sold it for a fraction of its cost. In 1967, the mansion Fulton called Westcliff, not yet 40 years old, was torn down by a Nashville developer who built an apartment complex called Westcliff. The stone Fulton gatehouse at Lyons View survives, as does part of the first floor of the mansion, as a clubhouse for the apartment complex.

Fulton High was named for Weston Fulton in 1951; today, the high school boasts a display of Weston Fulton memorabilia.

His name didn't fare quite as well at the factory. When the company merged with Robertshaw in 1947, the national company was called Robertshaw-Fulton Controls, but it was simplified to Robertshaw in 1963. Though the local company was still known within Robertshaw as the "Fulton Sylphon Division" for a while, it seemed as if the Fulton name was bound to go the way of Studebaker. By the time of the Siebe era, "Fulton" was no longer part of the mix.

The factory seems to have revived with the name. Greaves recently gave Fulton's surviving son, Robert, a tour of his dad's old factory. Now about 80, he prefers to leave his sister in charge of reminiscing, but he's enthusiastic about Randy Greaves' work with Fulton Co.

Since he bought the company in March, Greaves says, he's greatly increased production. By December, the plant's output will be fully 50 percent more than what it was last spring. Despite the jobs that Siebe has moved to Mexico, Fulton now employs 388, a few dozen more now at that plant than Siebe did. Greaves expects to expand further. The Fulton Company is now making a profit for the first time in five years.

"I'm elated," says the laconic Robert Fulton. "I think the new owner is a marvel of some sort." His sister Jean seems to agree.

Maybe Randy Greaves has to be a marvel. After all, whenever he walks into his office, he has to see the old bald man whose portrait hangs in the lobby, and look him right in the eye.

October 5, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 40
© 2000 Metro Pulse