John R. Morris was the rare man who possessed both a brilliant mind and a powerful work ethic. With little if any formal education and no inheritance to build on, he created a legacy as an early industrialist.
The eldest son of Captain John Morris of Washington, Pennsylvania, John Roseberry Morris was born in Center Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania, on May 17, 1863. Morris spent his early years there. On April 19, 1884, at age 21, he married Mary Elizabeth Graham. The couple’s first child, a daughter, was born Dec. 15, 1885. The next year, the young family moved to a farm in Kansas in Prairie Township near Jewell City.
Nothing is known of Morris’ education but he was known to work as a farmer and veterinarian. Because no records of attendance in a school of veterinary medicine have been found, he is believed to have been self-taught. That did little to slow him down.
Invention funds unique barn
The first patent issued to Morris was for a portable fence (patent no. 591,000), granted Oct. 5, 1897. On July 19, 1898, he was granted a patent for a combination tool (patent no. 607,448). The tool consisted of a hatchet, hammer, leather punch and nail puller. He received his third patent on March 7, 1899 for pliers (patent no. 620,662). Next came a patent for another combination tool (patent no. 784,959) on March 14, 1905. This tool was similar to the one he patented in 1898 but featured removable attachments for tasks such as hoof trimming and pruning.
The combination hatchet/pincers/wire cutter/screwdriver and hammer was known as the John Morris tool; he was said to have been paid $25,000 ($683,000 today) for it. The source of money is unclear but in 1905-’06, he had funds to invest. He envisioned a large Quonset-hut style building for Jewell City. The design was unique. The ground floor was to serve as a livery barn and veterinary hospital. The second floor was to be used for hay storage; the third floor was intended to house a roller-skating rink, opera house and dance floor.
There was no building like it in Kansas. One of the questions debated locally was whether a self-supporting curved roof could be built of lumber. Morris hired Dale Grafmeyer, a local contractor, to construct the building. As a warm-up job, Grafmeyer built a small carpenter shop with a curved roof. It is doubtful if any architect drew plans or specifications for what would come to be known as “the big barn.” It was an engineering feat accomplished entirely by local craftsmen.
Dream becomes reality
When it came to constructing the Morris building, Grafmeyer’s method was to build the big supporting arches on the ground and raise them into position, one at a time, using horses and block and tackle.
By March the big barn was completed. It measured 47 feet wide, 120 feet long and 40 feet tall. The exterior and roof were sheathed in corrugated iron over wood siding. Big sliding doors were installed at the front and rear. Ground floor windows ranged along the front and sides. The stage on the third floor measured 20 feet by 47 feet (but it was never finished). A hard maple floor (17 by 100 feet) was constructed on the third floor. Over the course of 20 years it was used as a roller-skating rink, dance floor and basketball court. Eventually the wood floor was removed and the valuable maple was salvaged.
Two wide stairways led to the third floor: one on the west side of the building and one on the east. The east stairway was entirely interior; the west stairway — the most used of the two — was partially open to the exterior.
In the spring of 1906, Morris took a partner in the veterinary business. H.R. Groome had just graduated from veterinary college in Manhattan, Kansas. The two men opened an office and veterinary hospital in the new building.
The community’s “Old Settlers Days” in 1907 was held Aug. 8-9. During the celebration, Morris initiated his new three-story hall with a public dance. The Reeves Orchestra performed at the event.
Forging a new career
In 1907-’08, Morris left Jewell City and became associated with Marshalltown Drop Forge Co., Marshalltown, Iowa, where he was hired as the secretary/manager. Among other products, the company produced the John Morris Tool and a cane and buggy whip (patent no. 815,458) of Morris’ design. The latter was patented March 20, 1906. Marshalltown Drop Forge had a work force of 25 in 1908-’10; it appears to have gone out of business after 1912.
Two patents awarded to Morris show his residence as Marshalltown. The first is for a wrench (patent no. 895,285, granted Aug. 4, 1908); the second is a pipe wrench (patent no. 947,081, granted Jan. 18, 1910). Morris appears to have left the Marshalltown company in about 1911, when he was identified as president of Waterloo Drop Forge Co., said to be the largest drop forge west of the Mississippi at that time. Two Morris patents were awarded during his years at Waterloo: a railroad spike (patent no. 994,330, granted June 6, 1911) and a trowel (patent no. 1,005,279, granted Oct. 10, 1911).
Perhaps the most famed Morris patent is that for the Morris wrench (patent no. 986,419), a combination tool containing a monkey wrench, pipe wrench, screwdriver and a set of thread-cutting dies. Awarded March 7, 1911, the patent shows Morris’ residence as Jewell City. He was of course long gone from Kansas at that point but the award of patents in that era was a slow process. Indeed, Morris applied for the patent on Sept. 26, 1905.
Rising from the ashes
The Waterloo Drop Forge Co. plant was destroyed by a 1911 fire. A group of Kansas City, Mo., businessmen persuaded Morris to relocate to Independence, Mo. The site was the home of Kansas City Drop Forge Co. and Morris-Blodgett Drop Forge Co. There, many of the tools Morris had patented were produced.
On Sept. 22, 1914, Morris walked from his home to the plant, following rail tracks of the Missouri-Pacific Railway. As he walked, a string of freight cars pushed by a switch engine approached from behind.
A brakeman on the car nearest Morris shouted to him to get off the track but, being hard of hearing, Morris did not heed the warning. Before the cars could be stopped, the inventor was struck and killed at age 51, ending a brilliant career as an inventor and manufacturer. FC
Mrs. Roger Smith, Garwin, Iowa, the granddaughter of John R. Morris, assisted author Ron Baird in compiling this article, which was brought to our attention by Howard Jehle, Baldwin City, Kansas. We gratefully acknowledge The Gristmill, a publication of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn., where the article was first published.