This week, Explore Buffalo docent Kathleen Brown delves deeper into a story covered on our Ohio Street Resurgence tour. The E & B Holmes Company, located at 59 Chicago Street, was a company that was revolutionary in more ways than one! You can still catch our Ohio Street Resurgence Tour on Sunday October 25, 2020 and Thursday October 29, 2020. Tickets are available at Explore Buffalo’s website.
If you’ve ever tried to get to, or from, Buffalo on Route 5 and found the Father Baker Bridge closed, then you’ve probably used Ohio Street as the alternative route. Until recently, this was a four lane commercial street meant for truck and car traffic, not bicycles or pedestrians, and for the most part, not a destination.
As the fortunes of Buffalo faded, so did its industries and, along with those, the conditions of the roadway that served them. Fortunately, the reimagining of Buffalo’s Outer Harbor and Canalside has spread to the corridor that connects them and laid the groundwork for the Ohio Street Resurgence Tour.
The starting point for this walking tour, and the inspiration for its name, is the Resurgence Brewery, located at Chicago Street on the site of the former E & B Holmes Machinery Company, a.k.a. the “Cooperage.”
Founded by 2 brothers, Edward and Britain Holmes, E & B Holmes is said to have revolutionized what was traditionally a handmade process by designing and manufacturing machinery for the mass production of barrels. Before plastic and metal container technologies were available, barrels were THE shipping container of the day.
This intelligent and creative duo held over 60 patents for their barrel marking machinery. In fact, by 1888, Holmes machines, or their imitation, were performing all cooperage in the United States. The brothers were prominent local citizens and were also very close. They shared a residence on East Swan Street and continued to do so even after each had married, started families and could afford houses of their own. Given their close personal and professional ties, it’s not really surprising that they died within one year of each other, Britain in 1905 followed by Edward in 1906.
Their deaths left Edward’s son, Edward Britain Holmes, as president of the company. Following in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps, Edward B. was also prominent in local business, serving as director of Claude-Neon Displays, Inc., Marine Safe Deposit Company and the Simonds-Hite Tool, as well as Pratt & Lambert, Inc. Sadly, at the age of 62, Edward died in his home after a brief bout of pneumonia.
Upon her husband’s death in 1934, Maud Holmes took over as president of E & B Holmes. To put this in perspective, approximately 25% of American working age women (age 14 and over) in the 1930s worked outside the home. Of this number, the majority were employed in traditionally “female” occupations such as domestic service, teaching and clerical work. Obviously, a woman as president of a company, let alone an industrial company, was rare at that time. No mere figurehead, Maud had a shrewd and intelligent business sense in her own right, successfully guiding the company through the Great Depression and beyond. Reports noted that “each day she is at her desk in her company’s plant at 59 Chicago Street.” Under her leadership, E & B Holmes shifted away from the waning cooperage industry toward more lucrative applications including woodworking and specialty machinery.
With no children to inherit, the company was sold to two long time employees in 1950, ending over 100 years of family ownership. The business continued in that location until 2002, making it one of Buffalo’s oldest companies operating in the same location and under the same name.
The story of Maud Holmes does not end with her sale of E & B Holmes Machinery company. It picks up again on the opposite side of the city. Aside from being an astute businesswoman, Maud was also an accomplished gardener won numerous awards for gardening and service. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Edna M. Lindemann, who also founded the Burchfield Art Center, a living memorial to Maud Holmes was established at Buffalo State College in the form of an arboretum. A botanical garden of mostly woody plants, an arboretum is a curated collection of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Since 1962, the Maud Gordon Holmes Arboretum has been an integral part of the aesthetics of the campus as well as a source of scientific study for students.
While it’s too far off the route to add as a stop on the Ohio Street Resurgence tour, the MGH Arboretum is a fitting tribute to an accomplished woman and, I think, her story is an important chapter in the history of E & B Holmes.
National Register Nomination
You can discover more local architecture and history by joining an Explore Buffalo tour (tickets can be purchased here), signing up for the weekly email newsletter, which is filled with local history content every Monday, and by following Explore Buffalo on Facebook. In a typical year, more than 80% of Explore Buffalo’s revenue comes from tours, events, and other public programs, all of which were suspended until July 2020. You can help Explore Buffalo to continue its mission of promoting Buffalo architecture and history during this time by:
- Donating online at explorebuffalo.org/donate
- Buying a gift certificate at explorebuffalo.org/gift-shop
- Purchasing an annual Explorer Pass at explorebuffalo.org/explorer-pass
- Registering for our virtual Episodes in Buffalo History Course at explorebuffalo.org/fall-2020-history-course-episodes-in-buffalo-history