Three businesses in Uptown-Pinch are keeping manufacturing alive with the latest technologies

Uptown and The Pinch District have a long and complex history with industry – producing, warehousing, distributing. In the mid-1800s, the area was the city’s first industrial district and center of small business. A hundred years later it was a booming working class community until its largest factories closed up shop and left Uptown-Pinch devastated.

But industry could never fully abandon Uptown-Pinch. Today the neighborhoods are rebounding and a handful of diverse business. An active cement factory, a printing company, food manufacturer and a roofing manufacturer represent the legacy of the neighborhood’s industrial past.

Three such companies – Kruger Product’s KTG USA, Southern Steel, and Edge Biologicals  – aren’t just keeping tradition alive, they’re using the newest technologies to connect the city’s oldest centers of commerce to today’s changing industrial landscape.

The Capital of Industry

In 1850, Memphis was the world’s largest inland cotton market. In the 1870s the city began establishing itself as the hardwood capital of the U.S., a title it would hold through the 1930s. By the 1880s it was the world’s leading producer of cottonseed oil.

The only known photo of the Fisher Airplane Plant, circa 1945, shows workers assembling wings for B-25 bombers.

The Pinch was the city’s first commercial district and was established in the mid-1800s by immigrants primarily from Poland, Germany, and Ireland, as well as former slaves post-Civil War. At the time, The Pinch encompassed everything north of Adams Street.

Much of what was once considered The Pinch is now known as Uptown. Uptown was the name given to the area north of A.W. Willis Avenue to Marble Avenue and from the Mississippi River to Manassas Street by the city and developers looking to revitalize the neighborhood in the late 1990s.
 

Related: "Uptown & The Pinch: How Memphis’ oldest subdivision became its newest boom town"

 

One block north of A.W. Willis sits Mill Avenue. According to a history of the area compiled by MIFA in the 1970s, Mill Avenue is one of the city’s oldest roads. It predates The Pinch and the 1849 Greenlaw Addition, that city’s first subdivision that would also be absorbed into Uptown. The city’s first mills and industrial enterprises were sited on and near Mill Avenue.

A worker lifts a stack of material with an overhead crane at Southern Steel. (Brandon Dahlberg)

According to local historian Wayne Dowdy, Uptown-Pinch was home to the city’s first cotton gin, a brewery, a livestock yard and Memphis’ first saloon. There was large industry like timber mills and smaller industry like blacksmiths.

Uptown-Pinch experienced big shifts starting in the 1930s, mostly notably the loss of the large Jewish population.  Many smaller businesses closed, but new industrial powerhouses like International Harvester and Firestone supported a thriving Black middle class into the 1970s.

Firestone opened its tire operation in 1937 and employed 7,000 at peak production in 1945. It closed in 1983 on the heels of Harvester’s closure. Together, those factories represented a loss of almost 4,000 jobs and marked the end of the neighborhood’s most prosperous era.

 

Related: "This place in history: Abandoned buildings and forgotten Memphis"

 

Today, there are fewer industries in Uptown-Pinch and the ones that remain are far smaller, but they’re proud to call the area home and are looking forward to the future for both their businesses and their neighborhood.

Kruger Product’s KTG USA

The Kruger Product’s KTG USA plant at 400 Mahannah Avenue has a long connection to Memphis’ historic timber industry. It’s also one of the largest employers in Uptown-Pinch, with 480 to 500 employees.

According to a history compiled by former owner, Kimberly Clark, the original factory was constructed in 1910 by Kelsey Wheel Company to produce wooden car wheels. When wooden wheels were replaced by metal, they produced wooden refrigerator parts. When those parts were also replaced by metal, the factory closed, but it was soon reopened and expanded as Fisher Airplane Plant in support of World War II efforts. In 1945, it employed 5,000 people making parts for B-25 and B-29 bombers.

A recent fire in the plant unearthed an old floor made of wooden blocks, and embedded in the blocks were discarded rivets from the building’s time spent serving its country.

In 1948, Kimberly Clark purchased the building to manufacture paper goods, specifically facial tissue, toilet paper and sanitary napkins. The factory expanded from the 1940s through the 1960s, but like Firestone and International Harvester, Kimberly Clark saw a decline in business in the 1980s. The plant all but closed in 1994.

Paper particulates can be seen in a shaft of light in this portion of the KTG USA facility. (Brandon Dahlberg)

According to a KTG USA representative, the company changed hands a few times until they purchased it in 2002. At the time it had only one production line, one product line, and one customer.

Today the company has dozens of major customers from Walgreens to Home Depot, ten production lines, and nearly 500 employees. In 2011 they began a $350 million expansion that doubled the size of the plant and added 100 new jobs. KTG USA now produces paper towels, bath tissue, and facial tissues for dozens of brands.

They’ve also added new technologies like a revolutionary paper pulp dryer drier that produces massive parent rolls which are then converted into smaller rolls ready for purchase. A traditional parent roll, created through pressing rather than drying, weights around three tons and is roughly forty-six miles of paper. The new dryer’s rolls are easily twice that.   

 

Related: “In photos: The Uptown "tissue factory" shows a lesser-known side of consumer products"

 

To support the increased capacity, KTG USA added production lines and high tech robots that can package the rolls then stack a pallet of those packages, shrink wrap it, and hold the pallet for the forklift drive to move to the warehouse all at the touch of a button. They’ve also added new strategies and technologies to reduce water consumption by four million gallons of water per day and reduce employee injuries by well over 50 percent.

“Our goal here is to safely produce,” said mill manager Fred Ceruti.

A KTG employee prepares a parent roll for the next stage of manufacturing. (Brandon Dahlberg)

Despite increasing automation, KTG USA is committed to its workforce. They’ve retained and added jobs and have many second-generation employees. They even have a member of the maintenance crew whose mother drilled rivets into bombers at the old Fisher Airplane Plant.

It’s also committed to the neighborhood. The company has cleared dilapidated houses from the area around its property to create a beautiful open area for company and neighborhood gatherings. It’s partnered with the city on street cleanups around and paid for new street lights. They help support their Pinch neighbor, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, as well as the Memphis Food Bank, Boys and Girls Club, and hold food drives for a church food pantry.

KTG USA shows no signs of slowing production anytime soon. Their representative says their sales are healthy, the customers and team members are happy, and they have several new and exciting relationships in the works.

Southern Steel

Southern Steel is located at the far southeastern tip of Uptown-Pinch at 475 North Dunlap Street. Its president, Neil Cohen, describes the business as “a lumber yard for steel.”

They purchase steel from mills and other sources, warehouse it, do basic processing like cutting or forming, then ship it to the client on their fleet of 14 trucks. Construction fabricators are their largest market, and their customers range from multinational corporations to mom and pop operations.

A Southern Steel employee programs a plasma cutter where a two inch thick steel plate is placed. (Brandon Dahlberg)


“The steel doesn’t get shipped from here to the job site, it gets shipped to a fabricator who’s going to cut it and put connections in and do a lot of work to it and then they’ll take it to the job site and erect it,” explained Cohen.

Cohen’s father-in-law, Frank Pearlman, founded Southern Steel in 1966 and still works three days a week. Pearlman’s grandfather founded F. Pearlman and Co. scrap metal business on the same location in 1914, which was sold in the early 1990s.

Over the years they’ve added more space for storage and production with a major expansion nine years ago. The purchased the rest of their block, cleared a blighted junkyard, and removed 100 truck loads of contaminated soil surrounded an abandoned railroad track.

Today they have 25 employees and four massive bays for housing and shipping their steel, complete with cranes capable of lifting twenty thousand pounds. They also have a building for processing where steel receives treatments like shaving or forming.

While the business has longevity, Southern Steel has added new technologies to keep it relevant and growing. Previously steel was cut with fire, but now they have fire cutters and laser cutters that give a much more precise slice. Similarly, the weight capacity of the cranes is constantly improving, and they’re computer operated now for added safety and precision.

Frank Pearlman, the founder of Southern Steel Supply, works in his office.

Cohen’s thinks it’s a shame there’s less business in the area.

“I find it interesting as you drive up [Highway] 51-Thomas. You see all those buildings, a lot of the area vacant. It’s kind of like a bygone era. If you cleaned it up, it would look like the 1950s,” he said.

He did note that there’s a rise in biomedical manufacturing, which is a new kind of industry in Uptown-Pinch.

“Obviously the hospitals have grown and there’s been a focus into the medical-biotechnology industry not too far from us. I mean, we’re [almost] halfway between St. Jude and LeBonheur,” he noted.

He hopes that the soon-to-begin St. Jude expansion and Pinch redevelopment will also usher in a new era of private development.

Edge Biologicals

Steel and paper are industries as old as Memphis itself, but one of the first companies to recognize Uptown-Pinch as an ideal location for the biomedical industry was Edge Biologicals.

Walter Edge started the company in 1979 after an unorthodox educational path.

“Skipping school paid off,” he joked.

His high school principal, fed up with his absenteeism, asked him what he wanted to do with his life. He said he wanted to be a veterinarian so the principal got him a job on a farm bleeding sheep. A curious Edge learned the blood was being shipped to a company that made testing kits for bacteria and decided to teach himself how to make the kits.
 

Related: “A pinch of transformation: Institutions work together to reimagine the historic Pinch District"
 

He started his own farm in 1979 and in 1983 began looking for space to produce kits. Today he owns two buildings – 598 North Second Street and 635 North Third Street  – and serves clients from all over the country, including Tyson Foods and Buckman Laboratories International. His 25 employees produce and sell over 1,000 different products.

It takes a bit of a science lesson to understand exactly what those products are, but Edge has an easy analogy.

A fiber optic laser makes precision cuts on a steel plate at Southern Steel. (Brandon Dahlberg)

“We’re basically a soup kitchen. The customer calls and says, ‘I need [this] amount in this volume,’ and that’s what I do. We take the order, put it on the menu, and cook it,” he said.

What comes out on the other end is a bag of broth to rejuvenate nearly dead bacteria or a petri dish with a concoction that identifies a specific bacteria. This is how doctors test for strep throat, how drug companies decide if medicines are effective, how food manufacturers test for E. coli and salmonella, and how water companies protect against waterborne diseases.

Edge moved to the neighborhood for the cheap rent and easy access to Downtown as well as the rest of the city, but he had a bad experience in the early years. There were near-weekly break ins, the building was damaged by a pipe bomb, and he was robbed at gunpoint.

But Edge said that crime all but vanished with the redevelopment of Uptown in the early 2000 and the replacement of area’s two public housing projects with new, mixed-income apartments.

“Now it’s about as safe as it can get,” he said.

Like the neighborhood, the business is doing well. They’ve recently added a new machine that mixes and cooks the different products’ ingredients faster, which drastically increases their effectiveness. There’s also a new machine that can produce 8,000 petri dishes in a single day.

And after 40 years, Edge is looking towards the future and passing the business down to his son, who just graduated from the University of Arkansas and started a job on the production line last week. Once he learns the ins and outs, Edge hopes he’ll look towards new markets and new innovations to expand the business.

 

The Benefit and Growth of Uptown

While the neighborhood may have struggled in the past, these companies describe Uptown-Pinch now as being safe, quaint, and convenient.

“This is as good a place as there is,” said Cohen, who loves the multiple interstate connections nearby to quickly get his trucks to their destinations and his employees to and from work.

A nameless stray cat has been a member of the Southern Steel Supply family for years. (Brandon Dahlberg)
 

Edge, once a frequent victim of crime, now enjoys walking to The Office @ Uptown for coffee and lunch. He has employees who live in the area and employs a neighbor’s son to cut the company’s grass.

“You’re living in a big city, but when you move to The Pinch, you’re in a small town,” Edge said with a smile.

Since the redevelopment began in the early 2000s, Uptown-Pinch has added new homes and families and a few small businesses, crime has declined dramatically, and buzz about the neighborhood has increased.

“I’d be interested to see if some activity comes back to The Pinch,” Cohen said of the recently announced St. Jude expansion and Pinch redevelopment.

They say the biggest challenges they face now are from outside of the neighborhood. Both steel and paper are industries sensitive to economics and politics.

“We’re a primary industry, we tend to be a leading indicator ... so we just hope that our economy stays strong. If the economy stays strong, our business stays strong,” said Cohen.

KTG USA’s representative said there’s a shortage of truckers and the price of shipping has gone up, as has the price of pulp. They’re also dealing with extra cost shipping to Canada and Mexico because of recent political instability, including sanctions and tariffs.

Cohen says it’s good the city and Uptown-Pinch are investing in the biomedical industry because it’s less economically sensitive than commodities industries. And it’s certainly good for Edge’s expansion plan.

Regardless of the outside world, what’s clear to these businesses is that Uptown-Pinch is an ideal place to grow on the good days and tough out the bad. They’re carrying on a tradition that’s as old as the city itself using technologies the founders never could have imagined, and for these growing companies and community, it seems to be a winning combination.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and applied anthropologist. Since 2011, Cole has worked as a researcher, strategist, and community engagement specialist across the city's private, public, and non-profit sectors. Passionate about storytelling, they began contributing to High Ground News in 2017.
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