Original publication in Nostalgia Magazine, October 2009.
Jefferson Elementary School, on Spokane’s Grand Boulevard, was built in 1908. Along with the typical businesses like a grocery markets and gas stations, the Jefferson community had a unique neighbor–that neighbor was the Pohl Spring Works.
Only a few people these days understand the huge impact that Pohl Spring Works had on Spokane in the early 1900s… and to the present day. Brother and sister, Art Pohl and Anita Pohl-Roberts, and Jim Thosath are amongst these people. In the early days of the automobile, the company manufactured auto and truck suspension springs. Not only were these springs manufactured and used right here in Spokane, but they also permeated much of the nation. With competitors in Seattle and Michigan, Pohl Spring was a thriving operation.
Pohl Spring Works, Circa 1917.
As kids, Art and Anita lived at 3430 South Grand Boulevard. In an interview, they recalled the Pohl Spring operation and also helping out after school and on weekends. Jim Thosath, now 84, was a general helper at the plant while he awaited military enlistment.
Until just recently, the old Pohl Spring building resided at 3725 South Grand Boulevard across the street from what is now Albertsons Grocery Store. The business left this location in 1962, but a faded building sign which read, “Pohl Guaranteed Springs” was a distant reminder. Although the company relocated to the Spokane Valley many years ago, the early facility sat kitty corner and down from Jefferson School. A strip mall now resides on the property.
Born in Germany in 1861, Joseph Pohl immigrated to America, first arriving in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. As a young man, like his father before him, Joseph received valuable training as a steel worker at the Krupp Steel Works in Essen, Germany.
Joseph and Anna Pohl, Circa 1890s.
From Sheboygan, Joseph and his bride, Anna, and their three children, made their way west to Spokane in 1904. During his early days in Spokane, Joseph worked for the railroad making springs for the coach cars. Equipped with knowledge of steel fabrication and heat tempering, Joseph wanted his own business. So, nestled in the Jefferson neighborhood, Joseph started a business manufacturing straight razors and surgical supplies in 1915.
Spokane was a rough and tumble place in the early 1900s and Anna Pohl took no chances with the prospects of riffraff. Railroad workers spending long hours in saloons and transients along the tracks and streets were a crusty and a belligerent bunch. For this reason, Anna resourcefully kept a single shot, 22 caliber pistol buried in her hair bun or hand muffs.
Single shot pistol belonging to Anna Pohl.
Pohl Razor Company would only last two years. With the influx of automobiles, inferior roadways (nothing has changed), and the advent of the safety razors, business prospects were changing, but not in favor of straight razors. Joseph’s friends and acquaintances were asking him to repair their auto springs with more and more frequency. In short order, the demand for springs and repairs exceeded those for old-style straight razors and Pohl was thrust in a different direction.
Business continued to grow as new spring applications were needed. Besides auto springs, farmers and farm equipment dealers were in need of pea springs for their pea harvesting equipment. In fact, Art Jr. and Anita recalled working at the punching machine putting holes in the springs for a penny each. Fertilizer springs were also a hot item. Fertilizer was delivered into the soil by way of a spring and tube assembly and Pohl made these as well. Anita, Art, and Jim recall the huge furnaces, lathe, and mandrels used in the operation. They also recall some of the other workers like Lindsey Williams, Ernie McConnell and John Fallig. The construction of Grand Coolee Dam provided huge amounts of work at the plant as did projects from logging and railroad companies. At one point, during the dam’s construction, the business ran seven days a week to keep up with the demand. To the benefit of their patrons, Pohl engineered, designed, and fabricated springs of every variety under one roof. Besides springs, repairs of heavy equipment were common.
Mostly a family run operation, Joseph Pohl partnered with his three sons at the plant. Each one brought talents to the operation seemingly through their common steel-manufacturing bloodline.
Workers at the Pohl Spring plant. Art Pohl, Sr on left; Albert Pohl in middle; unknown worker on right.
The oldest brother Bruno was the machinist; Albert ran the furnace; and Arthur Sr. managed the sales. Hired helpers assisted in between. After Arthur Sr. married, his wife Rowena worked in the office. They had two children, Art Jr. and Anita, who like their father, attended Jefferson School and spent time at the plant.
This picture of a Jefferson classroom was taken circa 1908 shortly after the building was completed. Arthur Pohl, Sr. is the boy on the right, third from the front. Note the double barrel wood stove. Last year (2008), the school celebrated its 100th birthday.
Besides normal growing pains, work at Pohl Spring was not always smooth and calm. At one point, non-family workers wanted the shop to become a union one. Adamant that the shop would steer clear of unions, Joseph told his workers in broken English, “If ya go union, ya be locked out in da mornin.” Fortunately, the Pohl employees thought better of the idea and returned to unlocked doors the next day. During WWII, as a racist gesture, someone painted a Nazi swastika on the shop door. Joseph became so outraged, that he threatened to close down the facility for good. Of course this did not happen and Pohl Spring lives on to this day.
English did not come easy to Joseph and the telephone was his nemesis. When the company got one, it was a big deal. Business had grown to the point where significant communication needed to be carried out over the phone. Eventually, Grandpa Joseph had to be kicked out of the office because he refused to answer the phone. Instead, he would screech, “I vill not ansa dat phone, that #@!* damn ting!”
Numerous newspaper articles spanning the years highlighted the innovations at Pohl Spring. Ultra high-temperature furnaces, unlike others, were used to nearly liquefy selected Pittsburgh steel for fabrication. A special metal-hardening solution was also formulated for use at the plant. Additionally, overload springs were invented for Ford and other trucks and used extensively in this region. The work at the facility was not merely dedicated to heavy springs either. Tiny springs used for eye glasses were also in the mix of jobs. Clearly, no part was too big or small, and with a warranty and good people standing behind their products, the business flourished.
As Grandpa Joseph became older, the operation was left more and more to the children. Arthur Sr. was the primary manager of the plant. When he suddenly died in 1949 at age 51 of a heart attack, some business changes occurred. His wife Rowena later sold the operation marking the first change in ownership. To date, the company has changed hands three times with Bob Williams as the current owner. Even so, memories of Joseph, and Anna, Arthur Sr., Bruno, and Albert, live on. The family bible lists the births of the children, and the single shot pistol belonging to Anna’s hair bun still exists. Photographs and newspaper articles are relic reminders of the early Pohl Spring days and times in the Jefferson community-kitty corner from the school.
Jefferson School children headed for home, 1957. Taken from Jefferson School’s front steps. Pohl Spring Works is on the far right. When this photo is magnified, many of these students are looking at the photographer.
As a remarkable sidebar, Anita recalls that her father brought figure skating to Spokane. Starting off as a barrel racer he later developed interests in figure skating. He fabricated his own blades in the shop and bolted them onto his work boots. Before too long, Arthur Pohl headed up a Spokane Figure Skating Club on 29th Avenue. Besides a backyard rink behind their home on Grand Boulevard, a frozen pond and clubhouse where the Waterford now stands served as an early venue for skating and winter fun.
Arthur Pohl, Sr. and daughter Anita pose at a skating rink, circa 1939. Arthur was heavily involved in bringing figure skating to Spokane. An outdoor skating rink and clubhouse once resided where the Waterford retirement facility is now located.
A newspaper article from yesteryear discussed how Art Pohl was specially manufacturing skates for others. One such person was Claude Malone, “Spokane’s Skating Fireman of Station No. 9.” Art was also involved in the Artic and Hiks skating clubs. In fact, skating clubs from around the country sent their best skaters to compete here in Spokane.
Arthur Jr. tells of another Pohl memory. Young Art’s first car was a 1953 Ford Mainliner. As many young men of the day knew, the car demanded dual exhaust for more power, speed, and sound. In the wee hours, Arthur Jr. smuggled the rig into the spring shop to install the modified exhaust system. Much to the surprise of everyone, the police were summoned on a break-in call and Art had to explain his presence. Perhaps this is the reason why Arthur Jr. has had a long, successful career in law enforcement!
Art Pohl, Jr. and Anita Pohl-Roberts.
As for Jim Thosath, he too was a Jefferson school kid. His father owed a garage and service station to the south of Pohl Spring which is how Jim became acquainted with the Pohl family. He recalled that Joseph owned a camel-colored Model A Ford. Commonly, Joseph would get a dollar of gas, get the windshield and headlights washed, get air in the tires, and beep the horn as he drove off-a ritual that is burned in Jim’s memory. After Jim’s time at Pohl Spring, he entered the service. Afterwards, he became a successful machinist and contractor. He married his sixth grade Jefferson sweetheart, Lucy. Lucy recalled that she and a girlfriend walked by the place “hoping to get a look” at Jim.
Lucy and Jim Thosath
Located at 6415 East Nixon in the Spokane Valley, Pohl Spring is still manufacturing springs of every description. Art and Anita expressed that they are proud of Pohl Spring and the business that associates their name. Art Pohl Jr. lives in Newberg, Oregon; and both Anita Pohl-Roberts and Jim and Lucy Thosath live in Spokane. Thanks to Joseph Pohl and his family nearly a century ago, the company still enjoys deep roots here in Spokane.
Original publication in Nostalgia Magazine, October 2009.