PenInHand - Musings on the Hobby

Trip To Mecca - Part 1

by Jim Mamoulides, October 31, 2004

I first saw the announcement for the Sheaffer factory tour when it was posted on the Zoss Pen List by Sam Fiorella on Monday, September 13 2004:

Sheaffer Pen has agreed to one last tour of the factory here in Fort Madison. One day only, Friday, October 8, 2004! I had hoped for a Saturday, but if you're going to tour one of the last American pen factories, then best to see it in operation and that means a weekday. The tour is $20 and includes a Thursday evening reception at Pendemonium, Dinner Friday Night at The Ivy, other receptions to be announced, special offers from Pendemonium as well as other Fort Madison merchants and admission to Oktoberfest in Fort Madison on Saturday night. For those of you who have not been to Fort Madison before, The Ivy is a nationally acclaimed restaurant and they have been the ones who have catered each of our events in Fort Madison. I guarantee you won't walk away hungry, nor will you walk away a stranger! W.A. Sheaffer had humble beginnings in this very building on the floor above The Ivy.

I had long been hoping to go to Fort Madison, Iowa and visit the Sheaffer factory, especially because of the announcement that it would close in 2006. This is the Mecca of Sheaffer pens and one of only two remaining major pen factories in the USA. Of all the major original US brands, only Sheaffer and Cross still have US manufacturing operations.

Mecca For Sheaffer Collectors

I signed up for the tour the next day after it was announced. Sam did a great job coordinating the event, including a great web page with all the necessary details needed to plan a trip, where to stay, what to see in the area, and directions.

A Good Time To Be Had By All

The tour plan was emailed out and posted on the website and was set to cover all the major areas of the factory. Tour groups would be hosted by a Sheaffer employee and would cover stops at each department. Sam Fiorella had arranged space for about 150 people, including local Fort Madison residents and Sheaffer fans from near and far. Each tour group would take about an hour to walk through the factory and see how Sheaffer pens are developed, made and serviced, finishing with a stop in the Sheaffer archives.

Sam and Frank Fiorella had made the tour into a weekend event, coupled with the Fort Madison Oktoberfest. Thursday night would be a reception at Pendemonium, Friday would have tours plus Sherrell Tyree of Ink-Pen doing repairs at the shop, Friday night would have a reception for the tour members and Sheaffer employees, followed by dinner at the Ivy, and Saturday would again have Sherrell at the shop along with Oktoberfest events in town. A full weekend slate.

Pendemonium - The Hub For All The Weekend's Action

The tour would take small guided groups through the factory with stops on three floors (from the tour email from Sam Fiorella):

First Floor:
The tour will start in the Sheaffer Lobby and proceed to Metal Fab,
Plating, 3 different Assembly areas, Packaging and Shipping

Second Floor:
Past Maintenance (no stop), Refills, Plastics Molding, Quality
Assurance, Pen Point, Service (Repair Dept)

Fourth Floor:
Technically, the fourth floor is now closed, but Sheaffer has agreed to
take people on the tour to their 4th floor Archives!

The employees were arranging displays at each work area to show what their department did, and give a perspective on each phase of pen development and production.

Planes, Trains, And Automobiles

Fort Madison, Iowa is a small, heartland town of 11,316 people right on the mighty Mississippi river. The largest employer is not Sheaffer Pen, but the State Pen. Although parts of Iowa can be brutally cold in the winter, Fort Madison has an average winter temperature of 30 degrees and an average summer temperature of 70 degrees. It's not Bermuda, but it's not Minnesota, either. Because the town hugs the Mississippi it layers up from the river banks, like a coastal town, rather than having a central square, as seen in movie towns like River City in the Music Man.

The Dana Bushong Jewelry Store

Because of its small size, air travel would have to be to a nearby city, followed by a drive in a rental car. I checked all the local airports and priced out all the scenarios, only to discover that it would be cheaper and not much slower to fly to Chicago and drive 236 miles, a four hour trip across Illinois to Fort Madison. Since I wanted to walk the town rather than drive in from a motel on the outskirts, I booked a room at the Kingsley Inn, a short walk to Pendemonium, and a ten minute walk to the Sheaffer Factory.

I got up early Thursday, October 7 and headed out to the airport. The flight to Chicago was uneventful and I used my time to plan how the day on Friday would be spent, since I would have limited time at the factory. I also went over the maps and directions so I could be sure I could get to Fort Madison in time for the reception at Pendemonium Thursday evening. Basically, after escaping southwest from Chicagoland, the drive would cut straight across northern Illinois on I80 and then a turn southwest on I74 before Rock Island and a run to the river on US 34, crossing at Burlington, Iowa. Once across the nifty new Great River bridge, a hard left on US 61 south following the river to Fort Madison. I did a little pen hunting on the way, as there were a number of antique malls en route, and was able to make a few interesting catches.

The rain that threatened all day finally hit near the Illinois side of the Mississippi river, and it was alternating between drizzle and pouring all the way in to Fort Madison. This dreary setting was perfect as I passed the first real Fort Madison landmark, the Fort Madison State Penitentiary, the maximum security home to about 500 inmates, built in 1839, the year after Iowa became a territory and seven years before it became a state. The original prison building is still there and still in use and has a forbidding look that only old prisons can convey.

The Santa Fe Swing Span Bridge - Once The Longest In The World

Immediately after the prison, the road takes a turn on Avenue H, where to the left is the double decker bridge across the Mississippi, and to the right is the Sheaffer Pen factory. The Santa Fe Swing Span Bridge was built in 1927 and when built, at 525 feet long, the bridge was the longest double decker swing span bridge in the world. Automobile traffic flows over the upper level and the lower level is a double train track for the main line between Iowa and Illinois.

Welcome To River City

After arriving at Fort Madison, I decided to go straight to the Kingsley Inn, a small 18 room hotel right on Avenue H, overlooking the Mississippi river and across the street from the main railroad line. The inn didn't begin life as a hotel, but has been completely renovated into a three floor Victorian theme inn, complete with atrium entrance, large parlor and game room, and a nice restaurant next door. The rooms all have names recalling local history and are filled with restored antiques. They are decked out with the busy patterned draperies and wall coverings used in the 19th century. It's a nice combination of a small hotel and a bed and breakfast. The Kingsley Inn is named for Lt. Alpha Kingsley, who staked out the site for Fort Madison and a reconstruction of the original fort is across the street and railroad tracks.

The Kingsley Inn - Right On The Tracks

The Inn is also a place that welcomes rail fans, as dozens of trains rumble and clank by all day and night, calling with long, short, short horn blasts at the town crossings. Some hours may see six to eight trains at a time, as they run up from St. Louis and cross the Mississippi on the double decker bridge just north of the Inn where they run past Nauvoo, Illinois, the birthplace of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, on their run up to Chicago. There is a place in the first floor parlor set up with chairs, magazines, and a scanner radio set to the railroad frequencies so rail fans can relax indoors and watch the trains go by through the large picture windows. The rooms in the Kingsley Inn are well insulated from all the racket, and I found no problem getting a good night's sleep.

Fort Madison Is A Railfan's Dream, With Trains Passing Many Times Every Hour

I checked in at the quaint lobby window, and was escorted up the elevator and settled into room 304, the Black Hawk room, named for Black Hawk, a Native American warrior who lived in Fort Madison in his later years and died there in 1838. The room was large, with a gable window overlooking the railroad tracks, and complete with all the modern amenities, including a full bath. Interestingly, the sink was inside the room. A nice room at a very reasonable $85.00, and even nicer with the Sheaffer Tour 10% discount.

The Display At The Dana Bushong Jewelry Store

After settling in, I decided to take a short walk around downtown, just a street up from the Inn. On the side of the street facing toward the river is the Dana Bushong jewelry shop, where the entire outside displays had been decorated with Sheaffer memorabilia, including articles showing how the jeweler had been responsible for thousands of autograph reproductions on the bands of Sheaffer pens. The displays were very well done and very informative. I would have the opportunity Friday to meet and talk with the owners and learn more about the shop's history with Sheaffer.

The Crowded, But Friendly Interior Of Pendemonium

After walking the street, I headed back north to Pendemonium, where the reception would be. The crowd hadn't yet started forming, so I had the opportunity to meet one on one with Sam and Frank. They were calm, warm and friendly. It was like being at home with good friends. Their shop is a pen lover's paradise.

But the storm of people had not yet set upon the place.

Next month, we go inside!

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