History of LaBelle Nail Factory Explored, Remembered

Artifacts from the former LaBelle Nail Factory, shown above, are featured in a new display at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling.

WHEELING — A presentation on Wheeling’s historic LaBelle Nail Factory last week drew a large crowd, including several former workers and a descendant of the company’s founder.

The LaBelle program was presented Tuesday at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library. Wheeling Heritage historian Bekah Karelis and library archivist Laura Carroll discussed preservation of the company’s records and showed items from the LaBelle Nail Factory Collection that is now housed in the library’s archives. A new display of LaBelle artifacts is on exhibit on the library’s main level.

Dave DelGuzzo, who worked at LaBelle from 1982-93, also spoke and explained the process of making the firm’s signature cut nails. He introduced several other former employees in attendance.

Also in the audience was Wheeling resident Dorothy Freese Ward, whose great-great-grandfather, Isaac Freese, founded LaBelle with his brother, Daniel Freese, in the mid-1800s. Ward said old documents describe a perilous journey over the mountains that the Freese brothers and their families made from Phoenixville, Pa., to Wheeling.

The LaBelle plant produced its signature cut nails for nearly 160 years. In 2015, when much of the interior equipment was up for auction, Wheeling Heritage representatives wanted to save as much of the factory’s industrial history as possible. Karelis said Wheeling Heritage, the only bidder, bought the entire paper records in the office building for $5.

The factory, which was the city’s leading nail producer, used “19th-century technology well into the 20th century,” Karelis said. Until the company’s closure in 2010, cut nails were still being made with virtually the same machinery as in 1852, she added.

With Wheeling known as the “nail city” by 1875, LaBelle became a nationally significant company. At the final auction, many machines and equipment were sold for scrap, but museums bought some of the machines, Karelis said.

One of the nail-making machines is earmarked for display at West Virginia Independence Hall, where LaBelle’s cannon, “Old Garibaldi,” now rests on the lawn of the Wheeling museum.

In 2016, AmeriCorps volunteer Beth Patsche helped Wheeling Heritage obtain a federal grant of $24,750 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the collection of LaBelle’s paper documents, Karelis said. Carroll was hired as the project archivist.

Carroll, who noted that an archivist’s role “is to make sense and order out of chaos,” said she worked on LaBelle’s files – which were “in all sorts of disarray” — on the empty third floor of the Stone Center for about a month. “The dust was incredible,” she recalled.

Her first task was to take inventory. “Archivists go through and start to see a pattern and make sense of that pattern,” Carroll said.

The plant superintendent’s records were labeled and stored in filing cabinets. There were “close to 200 boxes of all sorts of records,” but most of the boxes weren’t labeled, Carroll said.

In the project’s middle phase, the archivist placed the material in acid-free boxes with better labels. The new boxes were transported to the Professional Building where Carroll continued work. In the next step, she looked at each file and decided how to arrange everything.

The final product, donated by Wheeling Heritage, is now stored in the library’s archives. Carroll, who later joined the library’s archives and special collections department, said the records are very well-organized and filed in specialized sections targeted for research.

Carroll said the mid-size collection occupies about 100 linear feet of storage space. Material dates from 1897 to 2010. A lot of earlier documents are missing or too badly damaged to process, she said.

The collection includes early advertising booklets, photographs of the Wheeling plant and Steubenville works, records of the company’s labor union agreements all through the years and minutes of grievance committee meetings dating from 1942. One of the exciting finds, Carroll said, is a series of 40 architectural drawings of the factory done in 1897-98.

Another treasure is a notebook of memories written by an employee who started work at age 12 in 1903 and retired in 1959. Also found were hundreds of employee cards from 1920-24. “The story that they tell is amazing,” she said.

In addition to the library’s display, an exhibition of photographs — taken in the LaBelle Nail Factory by Sergey Zlotnikov of Pittsburgh — may be viewed at Artworks Around Town in the Centre Market through Feb. 26.