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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Kerckhaert Acquires Diamond Brand Tools and Horseshoes from Apex

Today Royal Kerckhaert Horseshoe Factory of The Netherlands, the world’s largest independent horseshoe manufacturer, announced that it had "acquired the Diamond® Farrier division of Apex Tool Group". Kerckhaert's US distributor, Farrier Product Distribution of Shelbyville, Kentucky will begin distributing Diamond tools and horseshoes in less than three weeks, on August 1, 2015.

Diamond was the brainchild of Swedish blacksmith Otto Swanstrom, who arrived in the United States when he was 15 years old and began making horseshoes and horse harness in northern Minnesota.

When I write about farrier industry history, I always say that Capewell gets all the credit for history, but Diamond made history the hard way. You'll see what I mean.

Swanstrom formed his company around 1908 to make drive-in calks, which were about to sweep the nation.
Diamond was famous for its drop-forged horseshoes. 
This is the Diamond calk-ready draft shoe in 1922 in
an ad from the journal of the International Union of
Journeyman Horseshoers. The IUJH had chapters in
308 US cities representing employee shoers that year.

There was much more to it than that, of course: this was the time steel manufacturing was exploding in the United States, much of it thanks to tariffs on foreign-made goods.

It was up to the Never Slip Company of New Brunswick, New Jersey to petition Congress for protection in 1908 on the American calk manufacturers' behalf after German exports flooded the market at $15 a ton, while American products cost $26 a ton. Later, the Tariff Act of 1922 would go into great detail of horseshoes, drilled and tapped horseshoes, and horse nails protected from exports, and duties levied on imports.

On another level, a major court decision in 1901 had declared that a horseshoe calk was not eligible for a patent because items that are not in view cannot be patented; the same was held to be true of tire treads. So, anyone would be able to manufacture the successful designs of the day, or alter them to suit a given shoe. (Legal eagles: look up Rowe v. Blodgett & Clapp Co., 112 F. 61 2d Cir. 1901.)

Otto and other manufacturers had a way to mass-produce a patent-free product that would make horses safer and better able to pull heavy loads on city streets. However, these calks made obsolete the labor-intensive but profitable activity in the forge for horses to be repeatedly "sharp shod" as needed in winter.

With Otto's drive-in calks, which grooms or drivers could insert and remove themselves with a wrench (which Diamond also made, and which are highly collectible today), there might be no reason for a horse to go to the forge all winter. Owners could buy the calks in hardware stores.

Otto Swanstrom, founder of Diamond Calk and Horseshoe Company in Duluth, Minnesota, with a shoe made to hold his removable calks. (Duluth Public Library illustration)
How could calk manufacturers convince the master horseshoers to equip the horses with shoes like Otto's with the pre-drilled holes if the masters were opposed to calks, in principle, because they would be losing income? Their solution was simple: the calks would be sold only by the horseshoers, bypassing hardware or harness stores. The powerful master horseshoers and unions "blacklisted" the calk and horseshoe companies that did sell to hardware stores.

A 1922 ad showed a horseshoer shaving
with a sharp Diamond horseshoe calk.
What the companies weren't banking on is that this plan was illegal. They were sued by the US government on December 12, 1912 for "engaging in a combination and conspiracy in restraint of trade and commerce in drilled horseshoes, adjustable calks and rubber hoof pads."

Hello, Supreme Court. It would be a fiery test in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act era and one that still is quoted and referenced often in commerce law. Just ask a law professor or a business historian. Calks are a footnote of American history that is still discussed.

Part of the Diamond factory complex, the largest employer in Duluth. It was all torn down in 1995.

Otto Swanstrom, the Swedish immigrant, learned about American history, business law and government on the job. There was more to learn as American industry struggled in the Great Depression. Chicago had always been given an unfair advantage from US Steel, and the famous litigator of the Scopes monkey trial and champion of labor, Clarence Darrow, used Otto Swanstrom and Diamond Calks as his example before the National Recovery Review Board of how small companies in America were penalized in favor of larger ones.

Horseshoes became a poster child for FDR's New Deal and especially his landmark National Industrial Recovery Act, under which a report was made, special rules devised and a booklet was even published  for conducting business as a horseshoe or nail manufacturer. Wages were set. A horseshoe industry board was established by Congress.

Even the New York Times championed Otto Swanstrom's success in the light of unfair competition. For the first 30 years his company did business, Swanstrom had paid higher prices to the Pittsburgh magnates because of his location--more than $6 penalty on each ton of steel he had delivered--but he refused to leave Duluth. In fact, he never left Duluth.

Horses disappeared from the US landscape after the depression, but that meant that Diamond, as the surviving "keg" horseshoe company, was in a position to reap the benefits of the revival of interest in pleasure horses in the 1950s. The factory in Duluth was the city's largest employer, with as many as 800 hands at work, and they just kept making horseshoes. In 1931, Otto Swanstrom even patented the hooked-heel pitching shoe, which revolutionized the sport. He proudly brought the world championship of horseshoes to Duluth in 1927.

A memorial to the workers sits on the site of the once-vibrant Diamond plant in Duluth. Since 1994, manufacturing was centered in South Carolina.

Diamond had a loyal workforce in Duluth, and when Jack Swanstrom sold the company to the Triangle Tool Group in the 1980s, it was time to go back to court again, and to make more national news. Triangle received a $10 million local development grant and claimed it was keeping jobs in Duluth, but then shifted jobs elsewhere. Triangle laid off 450 people, so the city sued them, and won.

Diamond flaunted its all-breed
dominance in the US shoe
market with color full page ads
in Western Horseman, the top
US horse magazine of the day.
This one is from 1974, the year
competing Nature Plates hit
the market and the modern era
of farrier fads was born.
Triangle was prevented from closing the factory completely. The court ruled that equipment financed with money provided by the state must be used in the state and instructed Triangle to move the machines back to Duluth.

The surviving former employees of Diamond Tool and Horseshoe Company in Duluth still get together; they even have their own Facebook page. But eventually, the factory did close and the shoes and tools were made in Triangle's Orangeburg, South Carolina factory.

One understated thing that Diamond gave the horseshoeing world was its salesmen. They were classic. Dick Reid and Jack Wrigley were two people who lived on the road, going from horseshoeing event to horseshoeing event in the 1980s. In recent years, the company had Don McGinn (who now works for Delta Mustad Hoofcare Center), Herb Buecher and Danny Ward.

In this 1968 ad in Western
Horseman, you can see that
Diamond was still selling a
removable calk shoe--and
running full page ads. It was
the only horseshoe company
advertising in a hefty 228-pg
magazine, which is more
than the AQHA Journal today.
 Triangle, and later its successor, Cooper Tools, and then its most recent adopted parent, Apex, kept the Diamond name and brand alive.

In 2013, Apex Tool Group was "acquired" by the famed Bain Capital Group, made famous by its association with 2012 US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. At the time, Apex was held by Danaher Corporation and Eaton and valued at approximately $1.6 billion. Apex manufactures 36 brands of tools and 40,000 individual types of tools, according to its website. Jobox and Crescent wrenches are among Apex's brands.

For much of my life, almost every horse that wasn't on the racetrack or a specialist show horse was shod with some type of Diamond horseshoe. There were no imports, whether from Asia or Europe. There were very few aluminum shoes except raceplates. There were Diamonds. They were everywhere there were horses.

Their name, their brand and their history should not be forgotten. Most of us probably learned to ride on a horse wearing Diamond shoes. Think of it that way.

It looks like Kerckhaert will be the latest keeper of the Diamond flame. Long may it blaze.

To learn more:

Morgan Park: Duluth, U.S. Steel, and the Forging of a Company Town by Arnold Robert Alane (Clarence Darrow story)

"Court Rules Triangle Plant Cannot Move From Duluth" New York Times, June 28, 1988

Illustrated history of Diamond's Canadian manufacturing plant in Toronto

History of Diamond's leadership in the sport of horseshoes

Newspaper article about the 20th anniversary of the Duluth factory closing, with employee memories of what it was like to work in heat, making 3,500 wrenches (and horseshoes) a day.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is the news service for Hoofcare and Lameness Publishing. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a headlines-link email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to  
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