Our company history, as told by Henry Hulan,
grandson of James “the Colonel” Raford Musgrave
Our company history, as told by Henry Hulan, grandson of James “the Colonel” Raford Musgrave
Our grandfather, James Raford Musgrave, founded Musgrave Pencil Company in 1916. He somehow knew that Middle Tennessee had an abundant supply of Tennessee red cedar, a wood that had proven perfect for a pencil. So he cut it into slats and started selling the wood to German pencil makers.
The mill was the first step to becoming a pencil manufacturer. Colonel Musgrave sold these processed cedar slats to pencil manufacturers in Europe by way of ships leaving the New Orleans port. The pencil slats were tied in bundles and then wrapped and stored in burlap bags for shipping.
In addition to harvesting trees, he also engaged in a recycling scheme with local farmers. He’d exchange cedar rail fences for modern wire equivalents, updating the local farmers’ boundaries while also claiming perfectly weathered wood. Already dry, weathered, and pristine for the purpose, the cedar rails were ideal for cutting into pencil slats at the Shelbyville mill.
There must have been a lot of cedar rail fences because Colonel Musgrave made and processed cedar pencil slats from 1916 to 1923. He would go to a farm and barter with the owner, swapping a wire fence for his cedar rail fence. I have pictures of our mill yard full of rolls of wire fence. We even had a fencing crew just for that purpose and trucks to haul the cedar rails back to the mill for processing. People also brought wagons and trucks full of cedar rails. He would weigh the logs and pay for them by the pound.
My grandfather even took the knots and bad parts from the rails as they were being processed and distilled them into cedar oil and sold the oil as a base for perfumes. I remember seeing parts of the copper stills around the mill when I was growing up. I always wondered if he had a hand in distilling anything stronger than cedar oil.
A SHIFT TO PRODUCTION
A SHIFT TO PRODUCTION
When the impact of World War I interfered with the exchange of goods with Europe, Colonel Musgrave turned to the close-knit American pencil manufacturers to market his slats. In 1919 the Pencil Makers Association organized to represent and unify the industry. This action promoted an exchange of raw material and technology within the domestic market, and it was during this time that Musgrave turned his attention to production.
For production he needed the correct machinery for each step of manufacturing — mainly grooving, shaping, painting, and tipping (putting the ferrule and eraser on the end of the pencil). So on one of his slat-selling trips to Europe, he again bartered pencil slats for pencil machinery. He returned this machinery to Shelbyville and set up shop. He somehow found a German mechanic in St. Louis and hired him to help him start the pencil manufacturing process.
The pivot to production from milling in 1919 was timely because toward the mid-1920s, Tennessee sources of red cedar logs and rail fences slowly started to dwindle. It was then the California incense cedar — a fast-growing, plentiful wood with similar characteristics to the Tennessee variety — replaced it.
This wood was shipped to us from California in rail cars and stacked in our lumber yard. The lumber was about 20 to 25 feet long, 18 to 24 inches wide, and three inches thick. We stacked it crisscrossed so it could air-dry, a process that took about a month or so. There were always large gaps in the stacking process, and as a child you could crawl down in those gaps and play hide and seek — what fun!
“THE PENCIL CITY”
“THE PENCIL CITY”
By the time of the Great Depression in 1929, the Shelbyville company not only made its own pencils, but Colonel Musgrave had the vision and investment in the manufacturing industry to support and nurture the establishment of other local pencil manufacturers as well as the specialty advertising imprinting industry. Even today, advertising and specialty imprinting remains a critical part of our business.
During World War II, many women went to work in the pencil factory. Situated in a designated industrial neighborhood near the original Bedford County Fairgrounds, Musgrave Pencil Company became the workplace of generations of factory workers. In fact, in recognition of its exceptional contributions to the pencil industry and the economic growth of the community and state, Governor Buford Ellington named Shelbyville “The Pencil City” in the late 1950s.
In the late ’50s or early ’60s, lumber prices spiked due to increased demand, largely from furniture manufacturers, and we couldn’t afford to keep enough log inventory to have time to air-dry and cut and process pencil slats. During that time, two slat manufacturers were formed on the West Coast that only cut pencil slats for pencil manufacturers in the United States and Europe.
Shortly after this happened, we closed our slat operations and concentrated on our pencil manufacturing process starting with the pencil slat instead of the log. Our manufacturing process today begins with exactly the same process starting with the pencil slat.
GROWTH & CHALLENGES
In the ’90s, we began to see imported pencils flooding our market. This drove most pencil manufacturing overseas. It was then that most pencil factories closed. This was a hard time for Musgrave, as we saw layoffs and salary cuts for everyone.
This manufacturing shift also meant that there were no remaining mills making pencil slats in the United States, although we were seeing some factories slowly opening back up that could produce some small-volume orders. This meant that our slats originated from China, although the wood may have been shipped there from the U.S.
Musgrave Pencil Company can continue to grow as an American Manufacturer, but the U.S. has to slow the imports coming in at very low tariff rates. You can walk into any big box store and see that most pencils are now made in China. Custom imports also find their way into government contracts and large lottery runs too, and we hope that more companies will commit to purchasing American and that more customers will demand it.
For us to continue to thrive and keep U.S. manufacturing strong, we encourage every consumer to do their part and buy American made when possible.