homepage logo

Levi Houston established world-class factory in Montgomery

By Staff | May 22, 2019

Levi Houston was one of Montgomery's most prominent businessmen. He came from New England in 1873 and with two partners purchased the Montgomery Machine Shop and changed it to The Levi Houston Company. (Photo courtesy of Montgomery Area Historical Society).

MONTGOMERY – Montgomery was officially founded in 1887, and one the town’s earliest successful businessmen was New England native, Levi Houston (pronounced “HOUSE-ton”). In the 1892 publication “The History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania” it was written, “The present borough of Montgomery owes its growth and prosperity to Mr. Houston, as he started his business in that place when there was scarcely any town at all.”

According to the book, Houston was born on August 21, 1835 in Enfield, New Hampshire. In his early years he moved around New England to a few different locations and received a public school education. He was trained as a machinist and worked for different companies as a foreman and superintendent.

In 1858 Houston married Celia Fredericks and they had one son named Harry Frederick Houston born on April 22, 1866. Unfortunately Celia passed away on May 29, about five weeks after the birth of their son. She was twenty-eight years old.

The following year Houston married Miss Louisa Mirrick, and the couple went on two have two daughters, Celia Mirrick Houston and Pauline Mirrick Houston. Pauline was born in 1876 (no information about Celia’s birth was available).

Levi Houston and his family came to Montgomery in 1873 when he and two business partners named ‘Smith and Hall’ bought the Montgomery Machine Company.

This surviving piece of Levi Houston Company stationary is from the late 1890s which shows when the company had long distance telephone service along the Philadelphia & Erie and Philadelphia & Reading Railroads. It also mentions that the company made moulders, mortisers, and tenoners. The Levi Houston Company building still stands on Montgomery's Bower St. Extension.

Sadly, tragedy struck the Houston family shortly after arriving. On April 7, 1873, six-year-old Harry drowned in Montgomery. He was buried in Massachusetts in the family plot with his mother.

The partnership in the Montgomery Machine Company didn’t last very long, and Houston ended up buying out the interest of his partners. He renamed his company The Levi Houston Company. The factory manufactured wood working equipment and sold their machines internationally. As the company grew, he had the building enlarged with new additions. Less than twenty years later, the Levi Houston Company was reported to be the largest of its kind in the world. The building still stands along the railroad tracks in Montgomery on what is now the Bower Street Extension. The building most recently housed the Ceraln Corp. and Footprints of Montgomery food bank.

Like many factories in the late nineteenth century, his employees worked a six-day, sixty hour work week. According to Joan Wheal-Blank’s book “Around Montgomery” Houston made a revolutionary move for the time and gave his employees a half day off on Saturday, cutting their work week to fifty-five hours but still paying them for sixty hours. This practice was not well-received by other business owners in town and ended up being short-lived.

Houston was sharp when it came to business, and he went on to open planing mills near the machine shop. He also established a store called Houston & Co. and opened the Houston Hotel on the corner of Houston Avenue and Main Street in 1890. The site of the hotel is currently the Richard Stackhouse Memorial Park. Houston Avenue is named in his honor.

He had a large home in Montgomery on the corner of Kinsey and Houston Avenue which stands diagonally from the Methodist Church. Levi spent the summers in Montgomery and the winters in Williamsport. He also had other businesses and properties in Williamsport and Milton.

Houston passed away in Montgomery on July 27, 1892 at the age of 57, after complications from gastritis. The July 29, 1892 edition of the Montgomery Mirror ran a story entitled, “LEVI HOUSTON DEAD!” The article said, “The news of his sudden demise fell like a thunderbolt upon the ears of the populace, and many could hardly be convinced of the truth of the statement. The extensive machine shops and mill of Mr. Houston with their hundreds of employees commenced to work at their usual hour. But at 8 o’clock the machinery in the shop and mills were stopped, the engines ceased to run, and the men were notified that their employer, whom they all held in the highest esteem and regard, had departed this life. They silently left for their respective homes, realizing as they did, that the hives of industry which he has built up, and which will remain as monuments to his life of tireless and energetic labor, would know his face no more.”

It was reported that many of his employees attended his funeral wearing ribbons on their lapels, and many cried when they saw him for the last time. Levi Houston was remembered for being a hardworking man with a kind heart. His funeral was held in the Grace Presbyterian Church and as per his wishes, he was buried in Massachusetts with his son and first wife. His widow, Louisa, was eventually buried there, too.

By 1892, between the Levi Houston Company and the planing mills, the companies brought in a combined $300,000 a year equal to $8,464,514.34 in today’s money. The two companies paid about $90,000 a year in salaries to the employees, $2,539,354.30 in today’s money. At the time, the population of Montgomery was about 700, and Houston employed around 250.

According to the terms of Levi Houston’s will, his daughter, Celia Houston was named the Executrix. She ran the Levi Houston Company for a time. According to www.vintagemachinery.org, the Levi Houston Company was sold in 1897, and was one of several companies that were merged to create the American Woodworking Machine Company which continued operations in Montgomery. It was bought out in 1925, and different factories have continued to use the building since that time.