The Mercury Aircraft Story: How a signature Steuben County company got off the ground

by 24USATVMay 11, 2024, 10:01 a.m. 20

Hammondsport’s economy got a one-two punch when the Curtiss plant closed as World War I ended in 1918, and Prohibition started soon afterward. But in 1920 some “old Curtiss boys,” led by Henry Kleckler and Bill Chadeayne, started the Aerial Service Corporation in an old cask factory.

Their first business was parts for Curtiss Jennys. But they soon offered airplane overhaul and refurbishing, besides responding to emergencies -- often by air. Their flying field offered pilots “gasoline, oil … spares, and an expert mechanic.”

Kleckler worked old Curtiss contacts, and Aerial Service was soon building airships for the army, custom-made airplanes, and its own new designs, none of which caught on.

Kleckler, in 1929, left the firm he’d started so as to concentrate on plumbing and heating in Bath. Two years later Harvey Mummert and Joe Meade, Sr. -- also former colleagues of Glenn Curtiss -- pooled resources to buy the company, then down to just four employees. Mummert and Meade had come to Hammondsport and Aerial Service in 1924, energizing the company, but the Great Depression soon took its toll.

Mummert and Meade’s first important project was the 1925 Aerial Mercury, a prototype mail plane that they flew to Long Island in just over two hours. With its thousand-pound capacity it easily beat out competitors in a Post Office trial. The smaller Mercury Junior also got a good response -- but neither got production contracts. They did, however, pioneer what would become the company’s new name: Mercury Aircraft.

Commercially, their most successful aircraft was the Model T-2 “Chic,” a very good, very modern geodetic monoplane introduced in the very bad year of 1929. Trying to stimulate business in the Depression, Mummert designed and flew two racers, built almost single-handedly by Otto Kohl. Curtiss Museum has a Chic, and one of the Mercury-Mummert racers.

Harvey’s death at 47 after a short illness ended those projects. Mercury was down to four or five employees, doing odd-job metal work.

Had Mummert lived just a little longer he would have been in on the World War II boom. Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo was getting orders for thousands of airplanes, and Joe Meade, Sr. snagged a major subcontract, at first making main fuselage fuel tanks for the Curtiss P-40. The army sponsored rapid plant expansion -- orders rolled in for tanks, fins, control surfaces, and more, used on numerous aircraft types -- and Mercury was suddenly employing over 800.

Besides airplane parts, they made film dryers, map plotting tables, bombardier practice towers, wind tunnel models, and airfield wind indicators. Nearly 200 of the Mercury crew went into uniform, and at least four of them never came home.

On V-J Day, the company pink-slipped everyone; military orders were all cancelled. But Mercury reopened within a month, albeit with a smaller workforce. No longer competitive in aeronautics, no longer needed for total war, Mercury aimed unerringly at the new growth areas of suburbia and the Baby Boom. They now made school buses, lawn furniture, baby strollers, stepstools, camp trailers, refrigerator shelves, lawn sprinklers, and barbecue grills.

More:Alstom misses Brightline West high speed rail bid. What it means for Hornell workforce.

The company took advantage of its wartime facilities (on Davis Street in Hammondsport) and its freshly-learned wartime specialties of plastics and aluminum -- both quite rare in prewar manufacturing.

With Joe Meade Sr.'s passing in 1950, Joe Jr. took the helm, repositioning the company as what would become the largest sheet-metal job shop in the world. Recent years have been painful as the company’s market share has shrunk in a volatile globalizing economy.

And yet Mercury is still at work in Hammondsport – more than a century after Henry Kleckler figured folks could use some help with their aging Curtiss Jennys.

-- Kirk House, of the Steuben County Historical Society, writes a local history column appearing in The Leader and The Spectator.


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