Biography of James H. Van Dorn
Cuyahoga County, OH Biographies

JAMES H. VAN DORN, founder of the Van Dorn Iron Works at Cleveland, was an inventor and manufacturer, who contributed in notable measure to Cleveland's supremacy as an industrial center during the last half century.

His ancestry was pure Dutch in name and blood, the name being variously spelled, Van Doorn, and in other forms. The nobility of Holland to which many of the early Van Doorms belonged, always recognized as the true name, Van Doorn and Van der Doorn. The earliest of whom there is record was Stephen Van Doorn high sheriff of the Margravate of Antwerp in 1088 under the famous Godfrey de Bouillon. Many later Van Doorms were persons of note in Holland. The family was established in New York as early as 1642. The ancestor of James H. Van Dorn was Didlof Doorn, the first record of whom is of his marriage at Brooklyn in 1680. His son Cornelius Doorn was born probably on Long Island about 1683 and died in 1755, and was a weaver by trade. He moved to Middletown, New Jersey. His son, Nicholas Dom, was born at Middletown about 1724, and died in 1796. He was a farmer and weaver, and probably was the Nicholas Dorn who served as a private in the Monmouth County Militia in the Revolutionary war. His son, Nicholas Dorn, was born in New Jersey, April 4, 1762.

His son, Isaac Van Dorn, grandfather of James H. Van Dorn, was born at Middletown, New Jersey, October 30, 1791, and died about 1872 in Fulton County, Illinois. He married Mary Chapman, who was born at Saratoga, New York, December 23, 1791, and died September 8, 1828. Their son, Peter Van Dorn, was born in Onondaga County, New York, March 28, 1812, and as a youth moved to Ohio. Between the years 1830 and 1850 he had the reputation of being the "greatest barn builder in Northern Ohio." When he was fifteen years of age, he apprenticed himself to a barn builder near Syracuse, New York, and when twenty years of age, began to erect barns in Northern Ohio. It is said of him that "he could spot more timber, lay out and raise a barn quicker than any man in that part of the country." He finally settled on a farm in Lorain County, and stood well in the community. "He was arbitrary in the management of the premises and allowed no swearing, tobacco chewing, smoking or drinking. His strongest trait was the raising of boys. He knew what to do with a boy from the very start up and the boy generally knew what to do every hour. He was anxious to raise a president of the United States."

Peter Van Dorn died May 13, 1881. He married Keziah Gardner of Connecticut, born December 8, 1812, and died July 12, 1864. They were the parents of ten children.

Fifth of these children was the late James H. Van Dorn, who was born at the home farm in York, Union County, Ohio, in 1841. His boyhood was spent on a farm and in attending district schooL Cleveland Van Dorn, his older brother, had become a school teacher and his in fluence was exerted to have the Van Dorn children receive a good education, James H. availing himself of every opportunity his brother offered or made possible. Cleveland Van Dorn served as a captain of the Union Army all through the Civil war, and later became a minister of the Gospel in the Baptist Church. He died in Fenton, Michigan, two months before his brother James H., a brotherly affection and warm friendship always existing between the two men.

School years ended for James H. Van Dorn in about 1860. He then became a blacksmith's apprentice, going to Elyria, Ohio. and placing himself under the instruction of John A. Topliff. Later he spent two years as a journeyman blacksmith in the firm of Aultman & Miller of Akron, Ohio. During that period, he bought a small home in Akron, where he fitted up a room in the cellar, spending months in perfecting an iron fence of attractive type, which, when erected in front of his own property, proved such an interesting exhibit that it became town talk. That fence was the foundation of his fortune and later business prominence,. for it attracted capital and led to its manufacture in Akron. His first partner was a man named Goodrich who advanced part of the needed capital for patents and manufacturing plant, and together they prospered for two years. When Mr. Goodrich was called to Minneapolis by other business engagements, the partners then made a division, Mr. Goodrich retaining the factory building and Mr. Van Dorn taking the machinery patents and good will of the business. With those assets he came to Cleveland, Ohio, and securing financial aid through legitimate channels, received a site from the city at the intersection of the Pennsylvania and Nickel Plate railroads, there erected a plant, and began manufacturing his patent iron fence.

In 1898, the Van Dorn Iron Works Company was incorporated, a large addition was made to the plant and the manufacture of a structural iron work begun. Many additions have since been made to the factory and to the list of products, art metal furniture for offices becoming an important line. The Williamson Building in Cleveland, long rated the city's largest and best, was constructed by the Van Dorn Iron Works Company, as were several other large buildings in Cleveland and elsewhere. The steel crib in Lake Erie, just five miles outside the Cleveland breakwater, was built by the company and during the World war the Van Dorn Iron Works Company made a good percentage of all steel tanks used by the allies, its war work being rated 100 per cent. This plant 'was Mr. Van Dorn's contribution to Cleveland's industrial greatness, and until the day of his passing, he was the capable and energetic head of the business he founded. That business has been vigorously prosecuted by his successors, his sons, and with the years greater usefulness and prosperity have followed under the present officials: Thomas Burton Van Dorn, president; H. A. Rock, first vice president; James P. Van Dorn, second vice president; sons and son-in-law of the of the founder. James H. Van Dorn was also president of the Van Dorn & Dutton Company, and president of the Van Dorn Electric Tool Company.

The following is a partial list of contracts completed by the Van Dorn Iron Works Company during his lifetime, and indicates the magnitude and variety of its operations under his leadership: Metallic furniture Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, New York; Paris, Bourbon County, Kentucky; Orange City, Sioux County, Louisiana; Monticello, Piatt County, Illinois; Jefferson, Fayette County, Mississippi; Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio; St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota; Belton, Bell County, Texas; Hudson, St. Croix County, Wisconsin; Mayersville, Issaquena County, Mississippi; Union Bank & Trust Company, Helena, Montana; Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.; Post Office Department, Washington, D. C.; Treasury Department, Comptroller of Currency, offices in State Capitol Building, Columbus, Ohio; Kings Hall, Brooklyn, New York; Cook County Court House, Chicago, Illinois; State Capitol Building, St. Paul; Larkin Company, Buffalo, New York. The company built the first 130 voting booths for casting the Australian ballot for the City of Cleveland in twenty-eight days. These lasted eleven years with slight repairs. Later the company manufactured 150 more for Cleveland, 100 for Boston and a number for several different cities.

Fencing contracts: Illinois Railway Company, to be used in the vicinity of Chicago, five miles; New York, New Haven & Hartford Railway Company, two miles; New York Central & St. Louis Railroad Company, two miles; New York Central & St. Louis Railroad Company, one mile; City of Cleveland, three miles; City of Pittsburgh, three miles, and a large amount for the City of Boston.

The company shipped 2,500 tons of timber hangers in three years, the Van Dorn iron Works Timber Hanger having been adopted and used by the Boston School of Technology, the school's order given July 3, 1902. Cell work for various penal institutions was completed as follows: Jail at Washington, D. C., 116 cells; Connecticut State Prison, 187 cells; Tombs Prison, New York, 352 cells; Nebraska State Prison, 240 cells; West Virginia State Prison, 360 cells; Maryland State Penitentiary, 820 cells; Hartford County Jail, 120 cells; New Haven County Jail, 116 cells; miscellaneous jail contracts, 8,750 cells.

Mr. Van Dorn was a member of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, an attendant of the Second Presbyterian Church, member of the Cleveland Athletic Club, and until the election of President McKinley affiliated with the democratic party. He then became a republican and thereafter acted with that party.

James H. Van Dorn married at Canton, Ohio, September 10, 1865, Sarah Ann Getridge, daughter of David and Elizabeth Getridge of an old Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, family. Her brothers, William and David Getridge, were soldiers of the Union and William a color bearer at the fight on Lookout Mountain during the Civil war. Mr. and Mrs. Van Dorn had five children, the oldest being Mrs. Margaret A. Baer of Cleveland. Thomas Burton, president of the Van Dorn Iron Works Company, has four children: Winifred, wife of Howard D. Mills of Cleveland; Isabelle, who married Arthur R. McKinstry; Martha Early; and James Thomas. Elizabeth Van Dorn, deceased, was the wife of H. A. Rock, one of the officials of the Van Dorn Iron Works Company, and they have a son, Van Dorn Rock. James P., second vice president of the company, married Edith King Sterrett. Sarah L. is the wife of Chester D. Blong of Cleveland.

The beautiful home of the Van Dorns, the Woodhill estate, was greatly prized by Mr. Van Dorn, who there found relaxation from the burdens of business, and reveled in his books, in art, music, nature and the companionship of his family. He was interested in the work of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Since his passing, Mrs. Van Dorn has sold the home and lived until her death, August 23, 1924, at 2256 Delaware Road, Cleveland Heights, with her widowed daughter, Mrs. Margaret A. Baer.

In the death of James H. Van Dorn on August 31, 1914, the City of Cleveland, Ohio, lost one of its most substantial citizens. Among the large manufacturing enterprises that have made Cleveland famous throughout the world as an enterprising city of great commercial and manufacturing importance, the Van Dorn Iron Works stand as a mute witness to the value of one man's life. James H. Van Dorn was a man who was most widely known, highly respected by all who knew him, and whose influence for the good of his adopted city was felt in many ways. He was a man of noble heart and purpose, genial and light hearted, a lover of his fellow men, of children especially, delighted in the works of nature; he was an absolutely just man in all his dealings, unvaryingly kind and generous. In contemplation of Mr. Van Dorn's career, it is worthy to. remark that great cities are built up and prosper, institutions are founded and natural progress is furthered by men of his type.

A History of Cuyahoga County
and the City of Cleveland
By: William R. Coates
The American Historical Society
Chicago and New York, 1924

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