For nearly a century, Stockham Valves and Fittings, a family-owned and -operated corporation, was an important component of Birmingham's heavy industry complex. With modest resources, consisting of borrowed capital, five employees, and a car barn, the founder, William H. Stockham, and his successors nurtured a business that eventually became one of the world's largest producers of valves and fittings. With about 2,500 employees and 950,000 square feet in three modern plants, Stockham, by its 75th anniversary, was Birmingham's third-largest private employer.
Called 'Big Boss' by his workers, William Stockham was born in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1861, son of Gabriel H. and Alice Bunker Stockham, both of whom were physicians, noted authors, and social reformers. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1885, William worked in iron manufacturing and fabrication at various Chicago factories. As an expert foundry man, Stockham was attracted to the Birmingham area because of the special suitability of its pig iron for conversion into cast iron, a corrosion-resistant alloy ideal for the molding of intricate shapes. He came to Jones Valley in 1903, a year after Sloss Furnaces began specializing in foundry pig iron, and established Stockham Pipe and Fittings Company, which manufactured brake shoes, sash weights, meter boxes, streetcar wheels, manhole covers, and iron pipes. Though hampered by fires in 1908 and 1914, the company grew quickly and increased its profits by converting all of the manufacturing effort to fittings production and by introducing electric machinery. In 1918, the company constructed a modern factory with 176,300 square feet of floor space on a new 16-acre site. Complementing the American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO), founded in 1905, Stockham helped make Alabama the nation's foremost foundry state and the leading producer of iron pipes and fittings, surpassing even Pennsylvania.
When the founder died in 1923, he was succeeded as president by his eldest son, Herbert, but the power behind the scenes was his widow, Kate Clark Stockham, who chaired the board of directors. For the next 24 years, the company served as an exemplar of welfare capitalism, and a leading contributor to Birmingham's civic life. Stockham provided not only housing and health care for its workers but an on-site YMCA, a night school, annual picnics, a Christmas banquet, sponsorship of baseball, basketball, and bowling teams, and even food, clothing, and coal during the 1930s. These benevolent acts also had the self-serving effect of bonding the workers to the company and thereby discouraging union and Communist activity. Kate Stockham was socially progressive and an advocate of philanthropy, serving on the boards of the Community Chest, Mercy House, the Children's Aid Society, the Girls' Vocational School, and the First Methodist Church. Keenly interested in education, she was a major benefactor of Birmingham-Southern College and served on (and later chaired) its board of trustees. A supporter of education, Stockham provided funding for promising children of employees (both white and black) to attend college. Although facilities were segregated, as they were at every other city iron mill, scholarly research demonstrates that Stockham used a significantly higher proportion of blacks in skilled positions. As a result, there was a notable degree of camaraderie in the corporation.
The Depression years brought hardship to most Birmingham residents. In an attempt to boost production and profits, Stockham's management introduced a new product, the bronze valve, and the Bedeaux (piecework) system, whereby employees were paid by the number of pieces completed in a set amount of time, which in turn determined the workers' pay rates. The new system brought charges of unfair labor practices and an increase in union and even Communist activity, although largely by outside forces. The outbreak of World War II brought a quick recovery, but the company had to retool and unionize after being awarded government contracts. Its manufacture of shell casings, armor-plate castings for tanks, grenades, and practice bombs resulted in three Army-Navy "E" production awards, a civilian honor of high esteem. The post-war years brought a return to normal production, along with an all-out program of reconditioning, modernizing, and expanding. By this time the company had warehouses in Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston. The most important technological innovation was the replacement of 14 gas-fired crucible furnaces with five electric furnaces for melting brass and bronze. Kate Stockham died in 1947, and the company changed its name to Stockham Valves and Fittings the following year.
In 1953, Richard J. Stockham, the youngest son of the founder, became president, and he was succeeded in 1975 by Herbert Stockham Jr. During these decades, the company's physical plant, number of employees, and product lines experienced rapid growth. Stockham's valves and fittings were being used in every phase of liquid and gas extraction and transport in oil fields, industry, agriculture, heating, air conditioning, and domestic use. By 1975, the company was manufacturing 19,000 different products. Profits became increasingly difficult to sustain, however, as Stockham encountered expanding competition from foreign companies (with lower labor and operating costs) that were producing valves and fittings that approached American quality and selection. Labor relations also consumed more attention. A seven-week strike by local 3036 of the United Steelworkers of America in 1959 resulted in hourly wage increases, more vacation pay, and changes in seniority rules. Similar disputes over contracts and pay fueled more walkouts and tense negotiations in 1970, 1976, and 1987. Although Stockham received a hiring award from the Urban League in 1973, a racial discrimination suit was filed by three black employees for back pay, an end to segregated facilities, and a ban on discriminatory hiring, advancement, and promotion practices. In 1982, a court settlement that superseded a 1975 ruling favorable to the company awarded $1.65 million to 5,600 black employees, retirees, and beneficiaries. In the early 1980s, after a series of layoffs, advisers from the University of Alabama helped Stockham cut costs, but its sagging profits typified the serious job losses and downsizing occurring in Birmingham.
Non-family members took charge in the 1990s and sold Stockham's pipe-fitting, pattern, and tooling operations to its rival,
Grinnell Corporation, in 1993 and 1994. In 1997, Crane Valves of Stamford, Connecticut, acquired units in Tarrant and Aliceville and subsidiaries in Texas, Tennessee, Great Britain, and Australia. Stockham closed its two remaining plants,
with 400 workers, the following spring. Crane still sells products bearing the Stockham name, but one of the Magic City's
industrial mainstays, known popularly in the state as Big Mules, had fallen victim to a global economy moving from machinery to microchip.
Links to Better Living, 1903-1953, The Story of Stockham 50 Golden Years. Birmingham: n.p., 1953.
Lewis, W. David. Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
McKiven, Henry M., Jr. Iron and Steel, Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Stockham File, Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama.
Stockham Surname File, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
White, Marjorie Longenecker. The Birmingham District, An Industrial History and Guide. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Publishing, 1981.
John D. Fair
University of Texas
Published November 28, 2007
Last updated February 12, 2013