World War II established markets for hundreds of products that are now household names. At least one such product became a standard component of every farmer’s toolbox and was manufactured in a small rural town in Nebraska.
The product was the Vise Grip locking pliers. The small town was, and is Dewitt, Nebraska. The agricultural innovator was an immigrant Danish blacksmith named William Petersen.
Petersen came to the U.S. just after the turn of the century. He tried his hand at farming, but he was in incurable inventor. At one time, he even tried to build and sell early motorcars. Each of those enterprises failed. In the early 1920s, he arrived in Nebraska and opened a blacksmith shop.
At some point, he realized his job would be a lot easier if he had a set of pliers that would clamp down and hold the piece of metal he was working on “in a vise-like grip.” He undoubtedly had sets of pliers and at least one vise in his shop. But the pliers couldn’t be locked and the vise was hard to set up. Somehow, he came up with the idea of combining the function of the two tools.
He figured out that a screw mechanism in the handle could adjust the opening of the pliers. Later, he figured out a way for the other handle to lock it in place. He built several prototypes, first out of cardboard and then wood. Finally, he hammered one out of metal on his forge. It worked.
He got his first patent for a primitive version in 1921. The patent for the locking lever was issued in 1924. He built an inventory and starting selling the Vise-Grip Pliers out of the trunk of his car to farmers and mechanics in the surrounding towns. Gradually, he built a business, but the Depression slowed its growth.
In spite of hard times, the tool was popular. In 1934, the Petersen Manufacturing Company was formed, but it wasn’t until 1938 that they opened their first official manufacturing plant in a defunct drug store in “downtown” Dewitt. That first plant had a staff of 37.
When the war started, Bill Petersen was still working on refining the product, two of his sons, Chris and Ralph, handled manufacturing, and another son, Richard, was struggling to put together a network of sales agents. One of them sold the government on the advantages of the Vise-Grip.
By 1941, the little plant was operating at capacity to fulfill government contracts. Defense industries used thousands of Vise-Grips. Thousands more were shipped to England for their aircraft industry. Builders of the Liberty cargo ships found them so useful – and the time pressures to finish ships so great – that welders simply welded the Vise-Grips into the hulls rather than removing them from the pieces they were holding together. At the time, the tool sold for $1.25.
The war saved Petersen Manufacturing because 1941 was the same year that their original patent ran out. Without government contracts, competition could have destroyed the fledgling company.
Bill Petersen kept inventing and expanding the market. Right after the war in 1945, the first National Hardware Show was organized tapping into the huge interest that returning soldiers and their families had in building their dream homes. Vise-Grip tools were there.
In 1957, the easy release lever was added to the pliers. In the 1950s, the company incorporated. In the 60s, they opened a second manufacturing plant in Wisconsin. In recent years, the company has gone through several ownership changes and mergers. They are now known as Irwin Industrial Tools and are now a division of Newell Rubbermaid, Inc.
In 2008, the original Vise-Grip manufacturing plant in Dewitt, Nebraska, closed when the parent company moved production to China. Over 330 people from Dewitt (population 600) and surrounding communities were out of work. But the local historical museum still has displays chronicling the development of the Vise-Grip and the Petersen family.