Aurora Metals - Celebrating 100 Years

1898 - 1948

We offer the following notes on the history of the Aurora Metal Company. The information on this page covers the first fifty years of the company's existence.

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1898, August 8 -

The Aurora Metal Company is founded by Russell Colby, President; Dr. (Doc) Gustauv Thurnauer, secretary; and Isaac Furguson, member of the board of directors. Each man invests $2000. each, buying 20 shares at a cost of $100. per share. (click for menu)

1898 -

Dr. Gustauv Thurnauer -

Gustauv Thurnauer was born in San Francisco, California, in 1867. He was educated at the Realschule, Bayreuth, Germany, and at the University of Berlin, where he earned a Master's and Ph.D. in chemistry in 1890. His first position was with the Gewerbemuseum at Nuerenberg. He came back to the United States in 1893, joining the Fairfield Chemical Works in Connecticut, and then to Aurora in 1894. A tinkerer and explorer by nature, Thurnauer had an inventive mind and spent a lot of time in chemistry labs working with metals and alloys and other chemical processes. His method for refining lead that he employed at the beginning of the Aurora Metal Company was probably developed over a period of time and no doubt borrowed from existing technology and from his experience in Germany and the Aurora Smelting and Refining Co. He was called a chemist, the common term in those days, although today he would be known as a metallurgist.

Thurnauer eventually became a leading citizen of burgeoning Aurora. He and his wife, Theresa, whom he married in 1907, lived on Downer Place in a Victorian style, red brick home. At 5'6" tall, Thurnauer was some four inches shorter than his wife. He spoke with a pronounced German accent. The couple entertained in formal, European fashion and lived, by the standards of the day, a proper life and were active in community affairs. Thurnauer was the founder and first president of the Aurora Social Services Federation, which later became the Aurora Community Chest and eventually part of today's United Way Foundation. He was on the board of the Aurora Public Library for 35 years and from 1911 to 1939 was treasurer of the Anti-Tuberculosis Society. Thus began a tradition of public service and volunteerism that all top executives, as well as many other employees, of the Aurora Metal Company would carry on throughout its history.

Thurnauer was recognized as one of the country's most eminent chemists as a result of his inventions and his frequent contributions to professional journals. He served as vice president of the Chicago section of the American Chemical Society in 1901 and 1909.

A kind and gentle man, Thurnauer was called "Doc" by most people, especially as he grew older and the company grew larger. Throughout his life, Doc Thurnauer was a fixture at the company he helped to start, working in the small lab attired in his ever present white lab coat and spectacles. "He was constantly stinking up the place," recalls George Peters, who joined the company in 1941 and later became its president. Peters remembers once convincing Doc to purchase a device that could determine the copper content of material using the new technology of electrolysis, thereby phasing out Doc's more primitive method and eliminating the attendant noxious odor. The device cost about $150, a fair sum at the time, and Doc naturally scoffed at the idea at first. He soon was amazed by the accuracy and efficiency of the new gadget, however. Elderly now and semi-retired, it just took Doc a little while to warm up to the new science. Still, he ran duplicate tests for a time using his old method just to make sure. He wasn't about to give up that easily.

As often happens, the rapid advance of technology at some point begins to out pace those who broke new ground using older methods. In his later years, Doc played a reduced role in the running of his company. But he showed up every day, walking over from his home on Downer Place. He stepped down as chairman of the company's board of directors in 1946. Less than a year later, on January 27, 1947, he died, three days short of his 80th birthday.

One of Doc's last wishes was to have his ashes spread in the Fox River, near where the refinery he once worked for was located - the place where he got his start. The task was left to Peters, who in addition to all his regular duties at Aurora Metal Company would become a sort of caretaker and liaison to Doc's widow, Theresa. Peters drove his car with the urn to the Oak Street Bridge, got our of the car, and cast the remains into the Fox River, lifeblood of Aurora and its growing industrial base.

Goodbye Doc, Peters whispered. God bless you. (click for menu)

1899 -

Russell Colby -

Russell Colby was born in 1855 in Boston and educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the Aurora Smelting and Refining Company in 1890 as superintendent. He and his wife, Winifred, whom he married in 1905, had no children, but they did buy one of the first electric cars in Aurora.

Like Doc Thurnauer, Colby was very active in the Aurora Community and was fondly remembered as a kind, quiet, and gentle man. He served as director of the Merchants National Bank in Aurora, and was active within the Aurora Community Chest and other civic affairs. Doc always said the reason the Community Chest did so well was because of the wise counsel of his financially astute friend and business partner.

Both Colby and his wife were avid golfers and could often be seen tramping the fairways of the Aurora Country Club - which he helped found - even on the coldest and windiest of days. He was revered by the people who worked for him at the Aurora Metal Company. (click for menu)

1899, October 18 -

Aurora Metal Company has its first official board meeting. The board officially incorporates the company, adopts a set of by-laws. settles some matters relating to stock and certificates, and establishes a business address. (click for menu)

1899 -

Map - click for larger image At the first board meeting, the company address was established at 614 W. Park Avenue where it intersects with Highland Avenue. This land was purchased from the Flush Tank Co. of Aurora for $450. The property consists only of a small one story house. The property is bounded on the west by a Burlington Railroad spur. A 30-foot by 80-foot building is built adjacent to the railroad spur and fronting on Park Avenue. This is where the ore and dross are unloaded. The sweat furnace is located in a smaller building erected just to the south of the bigger building. An office building, containing a laboratory and offices and the second floor and bathroom facilities on the first floor, is built adjacent to the unloading building on its east side. This building also fronts Park Avenue and is the main entrance for the company.
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1899 -

The original purpose of the founders of the Aurora Metal Company was to reclaim metallic lead from large waste piles left over by the Aurora Smelting and Refining Company. and to use that recovered lead to manufacture hardware and decorative items, such as picture frames and casket moldings. Colby and Thurnauer had both worked for Aurora Smelting and Refining Company and when its parent company shut down, they decided to go into business together. Thurnauer was the one with the technical background. Colby was the one with the management and financial skills. (click for menu)

1900 -

The lead was extracted from the refinery waste by a rather primitive but effective "sweat furnace" method that was developed primarily by Thurnauer. The waste material was hand fed into a channel furnace that had a sieve at its bottom. A coal-fired burner heated the material and the lead would be released, dripping, into ingots. (click for menu)

1900, May 15 -

Ferguson resigns from the board. Not much is known about him or his role in the company. (click for menu)

May 29, 1900 -

Dr. George Morgenthau elected to the board.
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1905 -

Aurora Metal Company began producing a piston rod packing material that could be used for steam powered train engines. Aurora Metal improved its ability to refine lead more purely and make a material out of it for the piston rod packing used in the steam chest of saturated steam locomotives. It was also used for various types of steam-powered industrial engines. (click for menu)

1905 (approx.) -

Flora Thomas - hired as a secretary and office worker. She retired at end of World War II and was the first person to receive a pension from Aurora Metal Company. (click for menu)

1905 -

Virtually all locomotive builders used Aurora Metal packing as original equipment in their engines.
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1912 -

Anton Christianson - served primarily as secretary and purchasing agent. He was also a key liaison for the railroad packing industry. He retired soon after World War II. (click for menu)

1912 -

The locomotive industry began introducing engines that ran on superheated steam and the original Aurora Metal Company packing material could not hold up under those conditions. Doc Thurnauer developed a mixture of lead, copper, and a small amount of nickel for a new packing material, and John LeMay developed new permanent mold methods to cast this alloy which were more efficient and resulted in higher quality and greater consistency. Aurora Metal Company's existing reputation with the locomotive companies gave Aurora Metal access and leeway to make refinements to the packing.

The new piston rod packing for superheated engines and component parts developed by Aurora Metal became internationally known as locomotive manufacturers all over the world used it for their engines. In addition to the packing, Aurora Metal produced adjoining iron parts for the steam locomotives and Babbitt-metal, a soft alloy used in journal bearings and such to help reduce friction.

The diesel engine started to replace steam engines in the early 1930s, and the market for Aurora Metal's piston rod packing and steam locomotive parts dried up. (click for menu)

1914 -

John LeMay -

An erudite and dignified man, John LeMay was educated at the University of Chicago, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1895. He had studied mathematics, physics, Latin, and English, a truly classical education. A consummate gentleman, he smoked a pipe and spoke in a precise manner. He was philosophical by nature and loved the pursuit of knowledge.

LeMay was also a born teacher and had taught physics courses at a college in Indiana. As the company grew, he would conduct "clinics" for the young engineers that joined the Aurora Metal Company. The young men loved these learning sessions. LeMay eventually wrote a manual on die casting and design fundamentals. It is interesting to note that the principles he outlined in that manual are still in use today.
LeMay and his wife had two children, a son and a daughter. His son, Alan LeMay, became a successful novelist and screenplay writer, authoring such classic westerns as The Searchers and The Unforgiven. Among his screenplays made into movies were The Story of Mark Twain and Reap the Wild Wind.
LeMay would retire from Aurora Metal Company in 1944 and move out east to live with his daughter. He came back for a visit many years later, and one can assume it was a pleasurable reunion among those who had worked with him during his tenure at the company for he was well liked and respected. LeMay marveled at the things his former company was doing. Even in his advanced age, he was still curious, still probing, still excited by the intricacies of his profession. (click for menu)

1914 (approx.) -

Centrifugal casting - From the day John LeMay started with the company, he experimented with different methods of casting, primarily with centrifugal casting, which he had worked on earlier in Indiana with a dentist named Dr. Milus M. House. (click for menu)

1914 (approx.) -

Vacuum die casting - click for larger image Vacuum die casting - Another method which LeMay experimented with was vacuum die casting. Actually, the term vacuum die casting is a slight misnomer in that the process doesn't actually function as a pure vacuum, only partially so. Yet vacuum die casting is what it was (and is) called, and it would revolutionize the metal industry. Aurora Metal moved to the forefront of that revolution and has remained there ever since. (click for menu)

1920 (approx) -

With the success of the vacuum die casting process, a new building was erected at the south end of the West Park Avenue property, with a floor level different from the other buildings. This building housed two centrifugal casting units and six twin furnaces for vacuum casting. When Aurora Metal began producing parts for the automotive industry, another steel building was erected, this one running parallel to the packing and finishing building on the south side and of the exact size. (click for menu)

1920 -

Thurnauer and LeMay were focusing their new casting methods on aluminum bronze, a beautiful new and important alloy made of aluminum and copper that had many promising properties, among them high tensile strength , and which demanded a new approach to casting. There were difficulties with it as well. When exposed to the atmosphere, it tended to develop aluminum oxide, which was hard and difficult to machine. The vacuum die casting process alleviated this problem. The sprue was submerged in the molten metal, vacuum applied to the die cavity, and the molten metal was sucked into the die, avoiding atmospheric contamination. It was simple and ingenious, and it worked. (click for menu)

1929 -

The Great Depression took its toll on the Aurora Metal Company just as it did on all businesses. With the rapidly declining railroad business, Aurora Metal was struggling. The company's creditor, Merchants Bank, sent a business consultant, Alfred Lauder, to the company to review its condition. Lauder, being first and foremost a businessman, assessed the company's strengths and weaknesses, its potential or, in some respects, its lack thereof, and he assessed its management and personnel. (click for menu)

Lauder did not exactly paint a rosy picture and informed Doc Thurnauer and John LeMay that the company would have to turn things around to regain the confidence of Merchants Bank and to remain in business. Doc and LeMay were somewhat put off by Lauder's report, though they knew he was more or less correct. They suggested to Lauder that if he was so smart, why didn't he run the company? Lauder replied that maybe he should, and serious discussions ensued, resulting in his employment by the Aurora Metal Company on February 12, 1935 as general manager. (click for menu)

1933, November 24 -

Russell Colby, co-founder, president and business manager, dies of a brain hemorrhage. On January 15, 1934, the minutes of the Aurora Metal Company board meeting contained this entry: "We miss in him an able executive and a good friend of all the officers and workers of the company and we all shall greatly feel his absence." (click for menu)

1935 -

Alfred W. Lauder -

Alfred Lauder was a Scot. His family had come first to Canada from Scotland sometime in the mid-1800s and eventually settled in the United States. His uncle was Sir Harry Lauder, a renowned Scottish singer in his day. His father was a lecturer. This family penchant for singing and mellifluous speaking was passed on to Alfred. He too was an accomplished singer and an opera buff. One year, while attending a Ziegfield Follies show, Lauder had the opportunity to meet one of its popular singers, the alluring Elba Woods. They got to know each other and began dating while she traveled the country. They eventually married and raised two sons, both of whom would work for Aurora Metal Company. She was a beautiful person with a kind and warm personality, quite the counterpart to her stern Scottish husband.

The stories passed on down the years among the employees of Aurora Metal about Alfred Lauder describe a talented but difficult man. In many ways, he was just what the place needed at the time and indeed he would lead the company out of the Depression and steer it to unprecedented heights during the 26 years he worked for Aurora Metal. But he would also wreak some havoc in the lives of several key employees over the years, including the brilliant John LeMay. He was aloof, tough, relentlessly penurious, distrustful of others, and often very cold in his decision making. But he was good at running the company and he made it work. Aurora Metal Company and Alfred W. Lauder met at just the right time, and each would profit by the relationship. (click for menu)

1935 -

Aden Swinehammer starts work for Aurora Metal as an office clerical worker. He is assigned to Charlie Krause, who at the time is the head clerk and office manager. Aden Swinehammer will serve 41 years with Aurora Metal, primarily as purchasing agent. (click for menu)

1935 -

Aurora Metals manufactures parts for a device which made teeth inlays - manufactured for Dr. House using centrifugal casting, the casting technique which John LeMay had developed with Dr. House.
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1935 -

Hinge - click to see larger image Aurora Metals produces a tumbler, or pawl, used in the door lock inside the door frame of a car. Another automotive part, a hinge for the front vent window, was produced using manufacturing techniques unique to Aurora Metal. The customer was the body division of one of the big automobile manufacturers. (click for menu)

1935-1936 -

Customers include farm equipment manufacturers, tool companies, oil companies, and other manufacturing companies. (click for menu)

1936, May -

Lauder is made treasurer of company, a position formerly held by Doc Thurnauer. Throughout the late 1930s, Lauder solidifies his position with the company, purchasing more stock, and is named president in 1938. (click for menu)

1936, November 17 -

The company again shows a profit. Though the last half of the 1930s had its ups and downs, overall the company continued to grow. (click for menu)

1937 -

Lauder puts an emphasis on sales and marketing. He strengthens, and forms, relationships with sales representatives in Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis. He also has two small brochures developed to aid in this effort. (click for menu)

1938 (approx) -

The little house that stood on the site when it was first purchased is converted to the engineering department. Later, an addition is built on to the original office building to house the engineering department. At that point, the house is moved a few blocks north on Highland Avenue, where it still stands today as a private residence. (click for menu)

1938 -

Ralph Keck starts with Aurora Metal Company in a temporary position making corrections on various mechanical drawings. His career at Aurora Metal would span 40 years. (click for menu)

1939 (approx.) -

Murray Hobart is hired by Alfred Lauder to be Lauder's eyes and ears in the company. Murray proves to be a good guy, and things go well. (click for menu)

1941-1945 -

The World War II war effort relies on every form of transportation available. Steam locomotives are taken out of mothballs and the Aurora Metal Company is back in the piston packing material business. This business lasts only until the end of the war, when the steam locomotives are either scrapped or put back into mothballs. After the war, the company sells small amounts of the steam locomotive materials for a few years, but the hassle of storing the materials, patterns and molds for these parts is not worth the business, and the entire lot of it is sold to a firm in Pennsylvania for a couple of hundred dollars.
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1941 -

The term "Aur-O-Met" is coined. It is basically an informal trademark, the letters being placed inside a diamond as a way to identify alloys. It is stamped on the engineering drawings, or on the metal itself, and includes a number that identifies the alloy mixture. At times over the years, it would also be used to identify the foundry division, as in "Aur-O-Met Foundry Division" of the Aurora Metal Company. The diamond logo is still in place today. (click for menu)

1941 -

George Peters -

George Peters graduated from Michigan State University in 1936 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He began his working career with the Sutton Tool Co. Of Detroit. Peters received an invaluable apprenticeship at Sutton Tool Co. during his five years there. He was successful, and he did a little of everything. He became the plant superintendent in 1938.

Shortly thereafter, the owner of Sutton Tool Co. purchased the Detroit Die Set & Manufacturing Co. and asked Peters to run it as vice-president and general manager. He accepted the offer, even though Detroit Die Set was in deep financial trouble. Peters changed the work shift times to begin at 3 p.m. so he could spend the early part of the day securing business for Detroit Die Set, then drive to the plant to supervise production. They were long, hard days, but after two years, the company was running three shifts and was on solid financial ground.

Clarence Sutton, a tough, penurious and demanding boss, called George Peters to his office on Christmas Eve of 1940. After giving him a brief pep talk about what a good worker he was, how much he was appreciated and how it was nice to be able to give him a bonus, he presented Peters with a check for the grand sum of $25. Peters was hurt and insulted, but he also knew his own worth, and that it was worth much more than $25. He told Mr. Sutton to keep the $25 bonus and signed it back over to him, and left to tell his wife how he had quit his job, in a difficult economic climate, and with no immediate prospects for a new job.

Aurora Metal came to George Peters attention through one of his contacts from his days at Sutton. He had other opportunities, but the location was good and his interview with Alfred Lauder at Aurora Metal interested Peters in the company. What clinched it for Peters, however, was his meeting with LeMay and Doc. LeMay impressed Peters just like he impressed everyone, and Peters wanted to work with him. He began his new job on March 3, 1941, just months before the outbreak of World War II. (click for menu)

1941 -

Another steel building built north of and parallel to the packing / finishing building and the automotive products building. This building was 36-feet wide rather than 24-feet wide like the other buildings. It housed machining operations. (click for menu)

1941-1945 -

During the war years the Aurora Metal Company produces many parts. Among them are gun mounts, parts for aircraft landing gear, parts for aircraft cannon, parts for industrial sized waste disposals, parts for mine sweeping devices, parts for a new refueling system which allowed aircraft to be refueled eight times faster than before, an elevating arm for a 75 millimeter howitzer, a gun mount sight, formerly fabricated from 64 different parts now made as one piece, despite the fact that many said it wasn't possible, and parts for a top secret radar system which required Aurora Metal to install extra security and to be cleared by the FBI.

Another top secret part is revealed, after the war, to have been used in the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for the development of the atomic bomb. (click for menu)

1943 -

The International Association of Machinists gets permission from the National Labor Relations Board to stage a consent election at the Aurora Metal plant. The vote is in favor of organizing the union at Aurora Metal. Bargaining begins but is "stuck" on the issue of a closed shop. The matter is submitted to the National War Labor Board which decides that "maintenance of membership" does not have to be part of the Machinists Union status at Aurora Metal. Employees still join the union, but at their own discretion, and they are not obligated to maintain their membership. (click for menu)

1944, October 19 -

Aurora Metal Company receives the Army-Navy "E" award for outstanding production of war materials. The honor is presented from Navy Secretary James Forrestal in a letter to George Peters. The Aurora Metal Company is the smallest firm in the United States west of the Alleghenies to receive the prestigious Army-Navy "E" award. (click for menu)

1944 -

Aurora Metal employees begin to organize a union to represent them. Several reasons bring this about, but one of the main reasons is that many Aurora Metal employees realize that the Machinists Union is not doing all that much for them. The new local union is called the Metal Workers Union and it challenges the International Association of Machinists union to a vote of Aurora Metal Company employees to determine which will represent them. The night before the vote, I.A.M. representatives, seeing the futility of their position, pull out. The vote them comes down to representation by the new Metal Workers Union or no union. The vote is in favor of the union.
The Metal Workers Union, a grass roots body formed by the Aurora Metal Company employees, still represents its plant employees to this day. (click for menu)

1945 (approx) -

Dale Shillinger hired as an office clerk. He works his way up to plant manager and is instrumental in helping Jack Lauder and George Peters develop the Faskure operation from scratch. (click for menu)

1945 -

George Peters is made vice president and a member of the board of directors. (click for menu)

1946 (approx.) -

Warren Bachman hired to head up the sales department. (click for menu)

1946 -

After World War II, the company has to face the loss of the war material business. It, like many other businesses at the time, is forced to lay off workers and re-orient their business approach. Shortly after the war, the automotive door lock and vent windows are redesigned and the parts produced by Aurora Metal become obsolete. (click for menu)

  The First 50 YearsOur First 50 Years - 1898 to 1948 Our Second 50 YearsOur Second 50 Years - 1948 to 1998  
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  These pages are derived from the information in the book, "Forever a Foundry," commissioned by Aurora Metals and written by Mr. Bob Emory in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Aurora Metals Division, L.L.C. We wish to thank Mr. Emory, Aurora Metals employees, past and present, and all others who were instrumental in gathering this information.
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