Alamo Iron Works’ (AIW) operations span three centuries. AIW has grown from a small, modest blacksmith shop, started on the banks of the San Antonio River in 1875 into a thriving, dynamic, and diversified industrial company. According to courthouse records the organization was originally formed between William Hopson, Jacob Schuhle and Camille Licardis, but shortly thereafter dissolved and in September 1876, a co-partnership was formed between Jacob Schuhle and Richard G. Nixon.
In 1878, Nixon’s interest in Alamo Iron Works was purchased by George F. Holmgreen who soon became the sole owner. In 1881, only ten men were employed at the company. George’s son Eugene joined the business that year and two years later another son, Julius, arrived from Michigan. Both men brought experience and knowledge that assisted in the future development of the company.
Operating from early in the morning until late at night, Alamo Iron Works was a noisy business. Soon San Antonio’s city leaders began receiving complaints about the constant disturbance. The Holmgreens were given notice to move out of town, preferably out of hearing distance. AIW packed up and relocated from their original spot on the San Antonio River to a one-acre plot of land in the mesquite brush, one-half mile southeast of the Alamo. This property housed the office, machine shop, pattern shop and small foundry.
While the trade name Alamo Iron Works had been used in directories and advertising for many years, the legal name of the company was George Holmgreen and Sons until 1898, at which time the company incorporated as The Alamo Iron Works
Sadly, George F. Holmgreen passed away that same year. His son Julius had already assumed the post of president and Alamo Iron Works remained in the family under their leadership and continued on its path of success for many years.
Early 20th Century Growth
During the early part of the 20th century, Alamo Iron Works’ business expanded greatly. Local deliveries were made with a wagon pulled by a mule named Beck.
But demand for AIW products also extended to cities like San Diego and New York City and cross-country deliveries were started. AIW even arranged international shipments between manufacturers and customers to such places as Great Britain, Mexico and Argentina.
Due to AIW’s extensive delivery network, the company became an intermediary between suppliers and customers, leading the company to become a stocking distributor of industrial products and supplies. This diversification into industrial supplies proved to be a profitable and safe business strategy in the boom-and-bust economy to come. The products AIW sold would continue to expand and the company would continue to grow, allowing the legacy of George F. Holmgreen to endure.
The War Years
The city of San Antonio made significant contributions to the United States’ effort in World War I. Fort Sam Houston was an important military installation for the United States Army, and Kelly and Brooks Air Fields were built to train pilots for the up and coming Air Corps. During this time, AIW worked on various government projects relating to the war effort, contracted by the government to construct and fabricate pipe rail. The United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation also purchased products and services from Alamo Iron Works.
By 1921, San Antonio had experienced six major floods. On the evening of September 9, 1921, a storm dumped 18 inches of torrential rain on northern Bexar County that left parts of downtown San Antonio under 12 feet of water. A wall of water surged down Olmos and Apache creeks into the San Antonio River. People caught in buildings downtown tried to evacuate to upper floors, but unfortunately many failed, perishing as the flood peaked in the early morning hours. The flood left 50 dead in its wake and millions of dollars in damage.
City leaders considered paving over the flood-prone river. However, the public’s passion for the river downtown caused leaders to reconsider the idea and to look for a reasonable flood control solution. Ultimately, the City of San Antonio built the Olmos Dam, which was completed in 1927.
AIW played a large part in the construction of this huge project.
The 1920s continued to be a time of growth for the company. The company opened several plants throughout Texas. In 1922, a branch known as Alamo Steel and Supply opened in Houston to accommodate the fabrication of steel, and was initially formed as a subsidiary of Alamo Iron Works. This location gave AIW access to Houston’s numerous ports and facilitated the shipment of their heavier products in a more efficient manner.
Starting in 1925, Alamo Iron Works sold property to the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway Company. Railroads continued to play an important role for San Antonio and Alamo Iron Works, not only for the shipment of products from their suppliers but, also shipments between AIW’s various plants and for the shipment of AIW’s manufactured goods to their customers.
AIW’s Brownsville plant opened in 1924 to serve the needs of South Texas and Mexico especially, the burgeoning commercial and agriculture industry in the Rio Grande Valley that specialized in fruits and vegetables. This branch handled a complete stock of machinery, mill supplies, hardware and pipe as well as other products. The Brownsville site experienced unforeseen and unprecedented growth that soon necessitated the purchase of two additional properties.
The Corpus Christi branch opened in 1928 with a foundry and machine shop being added two years later. This location mainly stocked industrial supplies, operated a steel fabrication facility and a machine shop to facilitate the needs of the ranching, farming and petrochemical industry. The Corpus Christi plant served as a distribution point for merchandise to the San Antonio and Brownsville plants.
Surviving the Great Depression
By 1929, the San Antonio plant now covered six acres with fireproof buildings and new machinery and employed 550 men and women. But the onset of the Great Depression slowed Alamo Iron Works’ production practically to a standstill between 1931 and 1933 and times were tough for the next decade.
Numerous state and local public works projects, funded under the New Deal, were an important source of business for AIW during 1930s. In the San Antonio area, federal funds were used to restore LaVillita and the River Walk and provided low-income housing for families. Federal funding also made it possible for several counties in South Texas to contract with AIW for reinforcing steel for the construction of roads and highways.
One of Alamo Iron Works’ most visible projects during the Depression was providing the structural steel for the San Jacinto Monument. Completed by The Public Works Administration in 1936, the monument was dedicated to the heroes who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto and the men and women who contributed to Texas’ independence.
In 1939, The City of Corpus Christi contracted with Alamo Iron Works for the construction of a seawall after suffering devastating property damage from several hurricanes.
World War II
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 prompted the federal government to take renewed interest in national defense. The government contracted with AIW to provide 28 tons of reinforcing bars to pave Fort Sam Houston in 1941. The company also helped in the construction of an airfield in Laredo, Texas. Purchase orders show the application of AIW’s products in the construction of barracks, mess halls, school buildings, the commissary, the chapel and storehouses at the airfield. The company devoted at least 90 percent of its production to manufacturing parts for naval ships and the maritime commission. This war effort was difficult at times, due to the shortage of labor from 1941 to 1945.
As the economy recovered, Alamo Iron Works decided to expand into West Texas. The San Angelo plant was opened in 1940 to accommodate the industrial supply needs of West Texas. San Angelo was rich in industrial growth, farming, ranching and oil development.
By 1945 AIW employed more than 500 workers and Melrose Holmgreen, Eugene’s son, was now the president. The company’s areas of specialty were the brass, pipe and pattern shops, a foundry, welding, steel fabrication and reinforcing steel shop. Steel and concrete had become important components of its construction business, while it continued to offer specialized machinery to businesses, farms and ranches. The new facilities in Houston and South and West Texas allowed the company to mirror Texas’ growth as World War II drew to a close.
Post War Recovery
Alamo Iron Works continued on its path of prosperity in the aftermath of World War II. The first decade after the war set a new benchmark for growth, and the company set modernization as one of its goals. New processes in production led to increased sales, while the company began employing new technology to improve productivity and efficiency.
During this period, AIW operated five full-service plants in San Antonio, Houston, Brownsville, Corpus Christi and San Angelo. The company invested more than a million dollars in new equipment and technology such as cranes, hoists, elevators, conveyors and lift trucks to accomplish their goals of rapid and dependable service. The purchase of this new equipment allowed orders to be filled faster and reduced inventories. In 1949, the company purchased 60 diesel trucks to ensure prompt and dependable delivery service to customers anywhere in Texas.
In 1950 the company celebrated its 75th anniversary. Progress and dependability were the key initiatives of the organization. AIW was able to consolidate its holdings due to ease of transportation and the economic conditions. The company closed the San Angelo and Brownsville warehouses, though the sales offices remained open at all branches. In 1963 AIW president, Eugene Holmgreen, Jr., announced AIW would close the Houston plant, which was sold to the Gibraltar Fence Company the following year. He passed later that year and John C. Holmgreen, Julius’s grandson, became president of the company.
Holmgreen Ownership Comes to an End
Alamo Iron Works employed approximately 500 men and women in 1970. The distribution of heavy hardware, supplies, machinery and steel remained its primary business. AIW had an active foundry, fabricated steel, offered machine shop services, distributed and manufactured industrial products. The company stayed in touch with thousands of customers through its forty-six outside sales people.
But high taxes and a shortage of materials shook Alamo Iron Works during the late 1970s. Rising inflation, and the stress caused by the Vietnam War became a major concern of the company. Sales dropped and material shortages began to adversely affect the ability of the company to effectively bid for orders, because it did not have the products in stock and there was no readily available supply.
In 1975 Alamo Iron Works commemorated its 100th year in business, although it did not officially celebrate the occasion until 1978, the 100th anniversary of the company’s acquisition by the Holmgreen family.
By 1985, there were no more Holmgreen progeny to take over, and John’s son-in-law, Carl Schenken, Jr. was named president. The company was experiencing some financial and operational setbacks and AIW management began to entertain offers to buy the company.
In 1987, San Antonio city leaders announced their intent to build the Alamodome and designated the AIW campus as their chosen site. They promptly began negotiations to purchase the property where the company had operated for 110 years. The sale was finalized in July 1989 and AIW was given one year to move to a new location.
A New Beginning
In December 1989, just five months after AIW’s 17 acres of land were sold to the city of San Antonio, Alamo Iron Works was sold to Koch, Fisher, Herbert Koch (Anthony’s father) and Larry Smith. The investors faced an immediate challenge—they had to acquire land, construct or remodel buildings to accommodate its operations and move in a matter of six months. They immediately found and bought an inactive foundry on East Houston Street and a warehouse on Coliseum Road. They defied the odds and surprised everyone with their break-neck effort to relocate the offices, foundry, all shops, inventory, equipment and machinery. They moved into their new home over the Fourth of July weekend of the following year and did not miss a single day of serving their customers.