From Forge to Field: Defense Production in Auburn

The industry of war is nothing new to the United States. As far back as the Civil War, the industrial might of New York played a key role in supporting the eventual success of the armies we fed.

You have likely heard a great deal about the invocation of the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law born from the early needs of the Cold War that allows the Federal Government to entice private industry into the production of products and materials with a national interest (in 2020 the desperate need for face masks and ventilators). The impetus of this act came from the highly successful mobilization of the industry in service to the needs of the two World Wars. Auburn, her citizens, and her factories were key contributors to these efforts.

Take a look at some of Auburn’s past industries and how they stepped up for the country’s production needs:

Ivanhoe Mayonnaise and Onion Jars (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Ivanhoe Foods Inc.

Ivanhoe Foods was a major mayonnaise producer in Auburn from 1929 to WWII. 

After war broke out, trade was cut off and there were shortages of many products and essential foods. Mayonnaise was not considered an essential food, but onions were, so the factory produced dehydrated onions during the war years to send to troops overseas.

To make Auburnians aware of the importance of the onion business (and subsequent smell in the city), Meaker placed ads in the local paper stating: “Our onions are for field rations for our fighting men. When you smell onions, pray for peace.

Columbian Rope Company

Founded in 1903, the Columbian Rope Company significantly contributed to the war effort, producing rope for the Armed Forces in both World War I and World War II in the 1,000,000 sq. ft. factory on Auburn’s west end.

In World War II, production at the factory increased 300%!

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Columbian Rope, 1904 (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Coil of rope (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Coil of rope (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Columbian Rope Factory, Aug. 6, 1918 (National Archives and Records Administration)


Auburn’s American Locomotive Company (ALCO) was an important production center in WWII. 

The factory began in 1886 as the MacIntosh & Seymour Company, which produced large steam and internal combustion engines. By the 1920s they were building diesel engines for railroad locomotives, which led to ALCO’s purchase of the factory in 1929.

Congress authorized the Navy to undertake an industrial plant expansion program in June, 1940, for facilities for the production of ships, aircraft, ordnance, and ammunition. The act authorized the Secretary of the Navy “to modify existing contracts” and “to negotiate contracts for the acquisition, construction, repair, or alteration of complete naval vessels or aircraft, or any portion thereof, including plans, spare parts, and equipment therefore that have been or may be authorized; also for machine tools and other similar equipment, with or without advertising or competitive bidding.”

The act further authorized the Secretary of the Navy, whenever he found it impossible to obtain facilities to effectuate the purposes of the act, to provide the necessary building, facilities, utilities, and appurtenances thereto on government-owned land or elsewhere, and to operate them, either by means of government personnel or otherwise.

McIntosh & Seymour Co. factory, c. 1920s (Cayuga Museum Collection); American Locomotive Company Plant, Auburn, N.Y.
Machine shop and office building, diesel engine division. From Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II

In February 1942, expansion of ALCO plant facilities was begun, to accommodate the production of diesel engines and turbochargers.

A machine-shop building, 202 by 627 feet, was built of steel-frame construction on reinforced-concrete foundations. Two 80-foot crane bays and one 40-foot low bay extended the length of the building. A two-story office building of reinforced concrete and brick was erected adjacent to the machine shop. A new 5600-horsepower water-tube boiler was installed in an extension to the existing boiler house.

The plant was equipped with cranes, compressed-air facilities, and shot-blast equipment. Work was completed by December 1, 1942.

In the 1930s the U.S. Navy began using their engines. By the onset of WWII, the Navy turned to the Auburn factory for an expansion of the facility for wartime production. Learn More from Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II:History of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps 1940-1946, Navy Department Library

Women working at ALCO, WWII (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Early signaling system; Alice Gertrude Eldred disclosure form, December 13, 1917 (Case Research Lab Collection)

Case Research Laboratory

When Theodore Case set up his laboratory on Genesee St. in 1916, he and his small staff began with experiments in photoelectric principles. When WWI broke out, Case turned his attention to finding wartime applications for his experiments. During his early explorations, Case had discovered minerals which were extremely sensitive to infrared rays. Taking these minerals, Case developed a special light cell which he used to build an infrared signaling system. 

Case imagined possible uses for the system could include communication between ships which would be undetectable by enemy submarines and ships, and as a way for ships along the British coast to navigate the coastline without lighthouses, which were darkened to avoid detection by the enemy.

Case applied for patents for his system, but received a letter stating that the patents would be withheld during the war and ordered him to keep the technology secret. Case took this seriously, and required all of his office and lab employees to sign forms binding them to maintain complete secrecy about experiments being developed in the lab.

Case’s system soon attracted the attention of the U.S. Military, and in February 1918, Case Lab employees formally tested the system for the Coast Defense Board in Virginia. Tests were successful, and Case was sent to the Naval Experimental Station in New London, CT. For the remainder of the war Case and his lab partner Earl Sponable served as civilian associates at New London.

Learn More About the Case Research Lab