The Storied History of the Bird Corporation

1948 Bird Building Materials Metal Sign

The Bird Corporation and the various products it created and offered forever changed roofing.  This article touches on but a few of the historical milestones achieved by Bird which forever changed the industry.

1795-1900: The First One-Hundred Years

The history of the Bird Corporation is one that parallels the development of this country. Almost 20 years after the Revolutionary War, the United States was growing and developing. Indeed, in the 1790s, the population was close to four million. George Washington was serving his second term as President; The Bill of Rights became part of the Constitution, and Daniel Boone created the Wilderness Road through Kentucky. In New England, General George Bird traveled from Union, Maine where he was born and worked as an apprentice at a paper mill to Needham, Massachusetts where he obtained a license to build waterwheels on the Charles River. He set up a small brick paper mill on the bank of the river just a few miles outside Boston where he turned out four to five reams of handmade printing paper each day. Machinery for making paper would not be invented until 1798.   

In 1803, George Bird moved his business about five miles away to Dedham, Massachusetts. His new mill was situated on Mother Brook—the very first man-made canal in the country. In 1809, George’s first son was born and named Francis William Bird. By 1810, George established a reputation as a maker of quality paper, and his business was chosen to produce the high-quality paper on which U.S currency was printed. Unfortunately, the Dedham Plant was destroyed by a fire in the War of 1812, but in 1817 a new plant would be built on the neighboring Neponset River in East Walpole, Massachusetts to replace it.  

George’s son Francis would be considered a radical reformer and antislavery politician, taking an active interest in the welfare of his hometown of East Walpole. He graduated from Brown in 1831 and ultimately joined the family business in 1833. In 1838, George formed a partnership with Francis and operations were subsequently run under the name of George Bird & Son. In that same year, the company purchased the Neponset Paper Company on the “Upper Privilege” of the Neponset River in East Walpole, which became the long-time site of the East Walpole Plant and offices.

George Bird died in 1854 leaving Francis as the sole owner and operator of the business. Francis took control of the two paper mills and successfully ran them for many years. In 1855, less than a year after his father passed, Francis’s son was born and named Charles Sumner Bird. In 1877, Charles graduated from Harvard and joined the family business. In 1882, Francis and Charles entered into a partnership and changed the name of the firm again, this time to F.W. Bird & Son. 

Charles would be the guiding innovative force at the company for the next 50 years. He was an eccentric character, spending the first half of his days in overalls laboring in the mill and the second half in a starched shirt learning the details of running the family business. In the evenings, Charles would experiment in his kitchen with new products. He deeply believed in the possibility of making other paper products through research, and championed the value of plowing profits back into the business in order to purchase improved equipment and build bigger, more efficient plants. 

Tragedy struck in the 1880s when the company’s primary mill was destroyed by a fire which was closely followed by the worst flood in Massachusetts state history. The only equipment still usable following the fire and flood could produce only coarse paper rather than the fine writing paper on which Bird’s reputation had been built.  Charles retreated to his kitchen table to find a solution. In one of the first American recycling activities, Charles salvaged wood resins and discarded ropes from ships in the Boston Harbor to create three revolutionary products that were on the market by 1885.

The first of these products was the Neponset Black Waterproofing Paper which immediately became popular for building New England barns. Next came the Neponset Red Rope Roofing Paper, which at the time was specified by architects as the highest grade of waterproof sheathing paper on the market. Third, was Neponset Paroid Roofing Paper which became a standard product for over 60 years. Having been driven by disaster to manufacture the first felt-based asphalt roofing product on the market, Charles made this product a mainstay of the company

Ultimately, Charles’ dedication and innovation allowed the company to emerge from crisis stronger than before, and enter the 20th century as a major force in the industry. Francis Bird died in 1894, just a year shy of celebrating the company’s first one hundred years in business. Charles assumed ownership of the business and carried on as sole owner for 19 years, where his groundbreaking innovations would continue. 

1900-1998: The Second One-Hundred Years

At the turn of the 20th century, F.W. Bird & Son set its sights outside of rural New England, which made up the company’s primary customer base up until that point. Expansions were made to the Midwest, the South and Canada, and resulted in an explosion of new facilities and products. 

In 1904, the first Bird roofing plant was built in East Walpole along the Neponset River. This plant would ultimately serve as the company’s headquarters for 75 years. The plant housed a machine invented by Charles himself that could heat and dry rag material more quickly. Charles’ machine was the first to employ a heated drum in connection with a suturing pan, allowing for a more thorough drying of the felt and at higher speeds. The idea was copied extensively. 

In 1905, another roofing plant was built in Ontario, Canada, and in 1907, another in Phillipsdale, Road Island.  In 1908, a felt mill in Pont Rouge, Canada is acquired by the company. In the 1920s, Bird’s two Canadian facilities merged with another Canadian roofing manufacturer to create Building Products, Ltd. F.W. Bird & Son retained a controlling interest in Building Products, Ltd until 1937, and in 1955 sold the last of its shares in the company.  

In 1906, a fourth generation, Charles Sumner, Jr.  joined the company. He was born in 1884 and was the second son in his family. He graduated from Harvard like his father before him. In 1913, Charles, Sr. formed a partnership with his son, Charles, Jr. and Phillip R. Allen, a long-time employee of the company. The name Bird & Son was adopted following this partnership. Charles, Jr. began working in the manufacturing departments, and ultimately became superintendent of the paper mills and general manufacturing manager. 

Around 1907, Charles, Jr. and Charles, Sr. became interested in a new type of papermaking screen that was being produced in Germany by the father of a chemist that was employed with Bird & Son named Otto Wandel. One of the papermaking screens was shipped to the United States, and it worked so well that Charles, Jr. quickly formed a partnership with Wandel and began manufacturing Wandel screens at the East Walpole Plant. In 1909, the Wandel Screen Manufacturing Company was incorporated under the laws of Massachusetts. But a few years later in 1912, Charles, Jr. bought out Wandel’s interest in the company and renamed it The Bird Machine Company.  In 1920, operations were moved to a permanent location in South Walpole. The plant garnered international repute for its equipment that could separate solids and liquids. Such equipment was essential for required processes in the coal, chemical and municipal waste treatment industries. 

With improved machinery and processes, even more Bird products were introduced such as pro-slate roofing, granitized roofing, coated building paper, waterproof flowerpots, cuspidors, suitcases, and lunchboxes, all fashioned from Bird’s waterproof products. The first experiments regarding how to manufacture shingles on a large scale were conducted by Bird between 1911 and 1914, and by 1916 shingles and Slate Surfaced Roll Roofing were standard Bird products. Through these initial experiments, a great deal was learned about saturating felt, and the company applied this knowledge to create processes for treating felt to create floor coverings, In 1911, a Floor Covering Plant was established in Norwood, MA (and ultimately sold in 1963). 

In 1918, Bird & Son was incorporated under the laws of Massachusetts and became Bird & Son, Inc. Prior to this, ownership had been series of partnerships. 

Along with the technological innovations Charles, Sr. instituted during the first quarter of the 20th century, he was also a pioneer in the area of employee relations. In 1902, decades before it became an industry standard, Bird & Son, Inc. was one of the first American companies to offer an eight-hour workday to its employees (as opposed to the twelve-hour workday which was customary at the time). Charles, Sr. also established an employee credit union which was the first credit union in the U.S. that exclusively serviced a domestic manufacturing group. In 1912, he created a Personnel Department (i.e. a Human Resource Department), which was also well before its time. Charles, Sr. instituted other pro-labor policies such as paid employee vacations, an employee publication, and a mutual benefit association to provide income for sick or disabled workers. While many of these things may seem customary to the employee of today, such measures were considered extremely progressive in the early 1900s. 

The great guiding figure of the company passed away in October of 1927, concluding his fifty year stretch of managing the company right as the country was on the brink of the Great Depression; a time when his creative approach to crisis would have come in handy. With the death of Charles, Sr., Phillip Allen became president. Ultimately, Bird & Son, Inc was able to weather the Great Depression because of the diversity of its product line, and its ability to regularly introduce new products into the market.

Just before the Great depression of the 1930s, Bird & Son, Inc. pioneered in the siding field with the introduction of ArtBri Siding, a product which would remain popular for years. The company managed to stay financially sound through the 1930s by acquiring several faltering asphalt production companies, and in 1934, building a granule plant in Norwood. 

In 1935, Phillip Allen was made chairman of the board and Benjamin H. Roberts, who had been general manufacturing manager, assumed the presidency. In 1937, the company further extended its reach by acquiring facilities in Arkansas and Louisiana.  

When World War II began in the mid-1940s, Bird & Son, Inc. was once again flexible enough to adapt its roofing and paper technology to create new products. Plagued by war time shortages, the company changed manufacturing formulas to keep production lines rolling by producing shell casing for the Army and weatherproof shipping containers to the U.S government. The shipping containers would ultimately carry tons of military supplies to war areas overseas. 

The 1940s brought the inception of Bird operations in Lewiston, Maine for shoe cartons, in Glenwood, Arkansas for producing roofing granules and in Shreveport, Louisiana for manufacturing felt. Adjustment from war time to peace time production was accomplished and Bird & Son, Inc. continued to grow after the war, in large part due to the postwar housing boom which allowed the company to continue to expand its line of building materials and products.

In 1946, Benjamin Roberts was forced to retire from the presidency due to ill health. Axel H. Anderson, who was treasurer of the company at the time, took over his place as president and served in that role until his retirement in 1960

The 1950s saw continued growth for Bird & Son. In 1954, the company built new facilities in Charleston, South Carolina which included a new roofing plant and a plant for crushing and coloring granules; the two plants were built directly adjacent from one another. Two years later, the company acquired a plant in St. Louis, Missouri, and in 1958 the company’s corporate headquarters was moved to a new building in East Walpole that sat on the bank of the Neponset River opposite of where the original paper mill was situated. 

In 1964, Robert F. Jenkins became the sixth president of the company, as well as CEO. He joined Bird & Son in 1939 in the sales department and served as general manager of the Southwest Division and executive vice president. Another highlight of 1964 was the company’s introduction of vinyl siding at the New York World’s Fair. The product became extremely popular, and in 1967, a new plant was opened in Bardstown, Kentucky for the exclusive purpose of manufacturing solid vinyl building products such as gutters and downspouts, soffit and fascia systems, decorative shutters and storm doors. As a result of this product, the company earned record profits throughout the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s. 

1968 was a tumultuous year in American history with the shocking assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., spurring civil unrest in many of the country’s major urban areas. Despite this, Bird & Son continued to expand west, acquiring the Pabco Roofing Division of the Fibreboard Corporation of California. This acquisition provided the company coast-to-coast distribution capabilities for its roofing and vinyl building products, and resulted in the addition of facilities in Martinez, Wilmington, Fair Oaks and San Mateo, California and Portland, Oregon. By 1969, Bird & Son employed nearly 2,500 people. 

In 1974, Bird & Son acquired the Logan-Long Company, a roofing manufacturing firm based in Chicago with plants located in Chicago, Illinois, Franklin, Ohio and St. Matthews, Kentucky. That year, the company’s economic expansion of the previous thirty years unfortunately came to a crashing halt with one unforeseen event: an oil embargo. Suddenly, the price of asphalt, the essential ingredient for shingle production, rose dramatically in price. The embargo, along with a subsidence in the national housing boom put the company in a more strained economic position than it had been since its creation. Indeed, as the 1970s came to an end, Bird & Son had to report that it earned no profit in 1980, a first-time occurrence in the company’s 186-year history. To make matters worse, the first 550 asbestos-related liability cases were filed against the company in 1980. In order to survive, Bird & Son had to reexamine its entire approach to business and move away from production that was so heavily dependent on asphalt and felt-based products. 

Throughout the 1980s, the company experimented with a number of new business operations. In 1983, the company invested $15 million in a state-of-the-art computerized facility that was designed to produce shingles with refinements such as fiberglass matting and improved coatings. The new plant was built around the existing facility near the site of the original papermill built in 1904. That same year, the company changed its name to Bird, Inc., dropping the “& Son” in an effort to demonstrate that it had become a modernized company. In 1985, the company sold five of its roofing plants, three granule plants, two felt mills and a glassmat operation to Genstar Roofing Products Company, with Bird retaining its roofing interests in the New England area only. The company’s other experimental business operations included an environmental services company based in Texas. Originally these operations were promising with the company quadrupling profits between 1989 and 1992. In connection with this venture, Bird, Inc. was selected to clean up a dumping area behind a refinery in Texas. 

In 1990, the company changed its name a final time to The Bird Corporation. Despite efforts throughout the 1980s to diversify business, the company entered the 1990s with serious financial difficulties brewing. Although its sales continued to grow, its earnings dropped each year, from earning a $5.18 million profit in 1991 to the company’s lowest point in 1993 with a net loss of over $28 million. To combat the $28 million loss, the CEO at the time, George Haufler, sold many of the company’s peripheral operations in order to focus on more promising operations. In spite of this, Bird Corporation was ultimately required to enter into a $64 million refinancing agreement at the end of 1993, and the company was restructured in order focus efforts on the housing products division.   

In 1994, major Bird operations were jettisoned in an attempt to regain financial footing. The company sold its distribution businesses (located in New England, New York, Kentucky, Texas, Louisiana, and Arizona) to Cameron Ashley Inc., which allowed Bird to pay off $23 million of its debt. The company still ended 1994 with a net loss of $3.68 million, however, this represented a significant improvement from the $28 million deficit of the year prior. 

In 1995, Bird celebrated its 200th anniversary, proudly announcing that it was one of the ten oldest existing companies in the United States. However, in March of 1995, the company sold its vinyl building products manufacturing operation to Jannock, Inc. for $47.5 million, using the sale proceeds, again, to reduce the company’s overall debt. That November, Bird also sold all holdings in its Texas hydrocarbon waste recycling center, signaling the final withdrawal of Bird from the environmental services sector. As a result of Bird’s many divestitures in the early 1990s, by 1995, the company’s manufacturing operations were reduced to the Housing Group only which manufactured and sold asphalt roofing products in Norwell, Massachusetts. The facilities in Norwell included a roofing manufacturing facility, granule plant, a quarry, an asphalt plant and a private landfill. Bird ultimately concluded 1995 with a net loss of just over $12 million. As a result, it was determined by the Board of Directors that the best course of action would be for the company to participate in merger with another manufacturing company. As such, Bird entered into an agreement to be acquired by CertainTeed Corporation, another manufacturer of roofing materials and a subsidiary of the French company Saint-Corporation. 

In March of 1996, the CertainTeed merger was announced to the public. This announcement, however, set an unexpected chain of event in motion. Because Bird was one of three companies that already controlled over half of the national market for asphalt shingles, the United Staes Justice Department viewed the planned merger as having potential anti-competitive results. The Department of Justice immediately launch an investigation of the industry’s leading companies, including Bird. Within two months of the investigation being launched, CertainTeed terminated its agreement with Bird. Though CertainTeed did not explicitly cite the DOJ investigation of Bird as the underlying reason for canceling the $50 million transaction, it is likely that the negative publicity surrounding the investigation was influenced CertainTeed’s decision to merge with Bird. Bird’s stock dropped a staggering 32% as soon as the termination was publicly announced. Shortly after, the Justice Department dropped its investigation without taking action against anyone in the roofing industry. Unfortunately the merger with CertainTeed was not revived. 

Surprisingly, Bird was able to weather this rather chaotic storm and reported it first profitable year since 1992 with a net earning of $2.3 million in 1996. This success, however, was short-lived. Two years later in 1998, Bird agreed to be acquired by CertainTeed for $40 million.