52 Ancestors II, Week 66: The Greenlee Brothers

As a general rule, I write about direct-line ancestors only, which does not include aunts and uncles. This week, I am making an exception:  The Greenlee brothers wrote the Greenlee Genealogy and the Stebbins Genealogy, both of which have been invaluable for our family research.  In these books, they included an auto-biography: They were very interesting twin brothers who, together, worked hard and were very successful! Their legacy continues to this day. see the information from Greenlee.com at the very end of this post!

"Robert and Ralph Greenlee were born 13 Apr 1838 in Rundell Corners, PA, (the third and fourth children of eight total). "They began at the age of ten to assist in the active duties of farm life by carrying the milk from the yard into the cheese house, in that way helping their mother with her milking. At the age of twelve each of them milked ten cows night and morning, and became very expert milkers. A year or two afterward they learned to make the cheese and butter, and were able to attend to that while their father was engaged in other duties on the farm. After their father had invented a machine for the manufacture of his cheese boxes and butter firkens, the boys helped him in that department, thus learning the cooper's trade.

Robert Lemuel was left-handed and Ralph Stebbins Greenlee, right-handed. They chopped as one man and did their other work in the same manner. They were given the best educational advantages the common schools afforded, and later attended Allegheny College at Meadville, Pennsylvania, although neither of them completed the college course.

While working for their father their mechanical skill was developed. They became acquainted with Mr. Drake, the first discoverer of oil, and furnished him with barrels. They also manufactured oil barrels for Oil Creek, but this did not prove a successful venture as the price of barrels became very low, and the flow of oil was so great that it became of little value. When they could not sell their barrels they bought oil at twenty-five cents a barrel; but the difficulties were so great in getting it from the field that they lost money on it. At that time Oil Creek was practically a wilderness, except here and there a clearing with a small farm house.

They purchased their father's patents for keg and barrel machinery, giving him their notes for six thousand dollars in payment, and went into the business of manufacturing cooperage (the making of barrels and casks). They met with so much success that they were able to meet the notes at the end of the first year." (1)

(Normally, men born at this time would have served in the Civil War, and their younger brother Michael did serve.  I can surmise that their service to the war effort was to supply the Union army with needed materials.)

"In 1862 the brothers (age 24) decided to go to Chicago and continue the manufacture of cooperage on a larger scale, having their machinery constructed in Erie, Pennsylvania. They made a contract with Samuel M. Nickerson & Company for the manufacture of barrels for the distillery which was then using one hundred and sixty barrels per day. They little expected opposition from the coopers, and were not aware of the existence of a Cooper's Union—probably the first union ever established in Chicago.

It was soon decided by the Union that it was not to their interest to allow the Greenlee machinery to run. At that time none but woodbound barrels would do for high wines, and they were not prepared with machinery for the splitting, shaving, and setting of hickory hoops, as the oil barrels which they had made in Pennsylvania were hooped with iron, for which they had the machinery. Consequently it was necessary for them to employ coopers to do that work. It was one of the rules of the Union that no one but a cooper's son should be allowed to learn the trade.

The Union decided that the only way to drive out the machinery was to finish only as many barrels as they could have made by hand, so it would cost just as much for merely hooping a barrel as it would to shave the staves and heading by hand, joint them, truss them, and finish the barrel. In this way the Greenlees would receive practically nothing for the work done by the machinery. Not only that, but the coopers would make the barrels leak if possible, either by putting hickory chips across the joints under the hoops, or by making holes in the joints from the inside.

It finally became necessary to discharge all the union coopers and hire green men from the street, whom they were able to teach to split, shave and hoop a barrel. In that way they became independent and as a result practically broke up the union, although it required a great deal of money, perseverance, and energy. They were at their place of business from five and six in the morning until eight or nine at night, in that way preparing the material for work the following day. They made a success of the cooperage business, and finally organized a company which was known as the "United States Barrel Machine Company, 'and sold out their patents.'" (1)

Ralph (27) married Elizabeth Brooks (27) (who was also a twin with sister Eleanor) on 15 Feb 1866, and Robert (28) married Elizabeth's other sister, Emily (24) (who was also a twin with brother William) (24) a year later on 11 Apr 1867.  In other words, Mrs Brooks had two sets of twins, born in 1838 and 1842, and went on to have 4 more children (single births).

Ralph and Elizabeth had 1 child: Getrude, and Robert and Emily had three children: Grace, William and Isabel.

"In 1866 they (age 28) formed a co-partnership with their father-in-law, Mr. William Brooks, and under the firm name of Greenlee Brothers & Company, entered business for the general sale of machinery and railway and machinists supplies, in addition to cooperage, which they carried on successfully for a few years. They then purchased Mr. Brooks' interest and engaged in the manufacture of special lines of wood-working machinery for the manufacture of sash, doors and blinds, and special machinery for railroad car building.

They were the first to adopt and make a success of mortising timber by the use of the hollow chisel; or, as it was called, boring a square hole. They have taken out a number of patents on machinery for use in that connection and other special wood-working machinery.

They have been constantly adding new inventions and methods until the Greenlee machines have become famous with manufacturers in wood all over the world. Immediately after the great fire in 1871, they (age 33) removed to their quarters on West Twelfth Street. In 1882, in connection with the wood-working machinery business they (age 44) engaged in the manufacture of repairs for all stoves and ranges, which has grown to such an extent that they now have patterns for the burning out pieces of over 150,000 different stoves and ranges, being the largest concern of the kind in the world. Their trade extends practically over the whole country.

The same year they built a foundry for the manufacture of castings for their wood-working machinery and stove repairs. In 1886 the firm of Greenlee Brothers & Company was incorporated, and they also incorporated the Northwestern Stove Repair Company, which employs 60 to 70 men,

and the Greenlee Foundry Company, which employs 200 men, and in this way were enabled to divide their personal property. They have since added to the manufacture of wood-working machinery, the manufacture of augur bits of every description. In 1903 (at age 65) Greenlee Brothers & Company moved their plant to Rockford, Illinois.

The factory site comprises twenty-two acres of ground, the present buildings covering about eleven acres. They manufacture wood-working machinery, particularly for ear shops, mortising, boring, sawing and tenoning machinery, wood boring tools, square augurs, etc. The buildings are mostly fire-proof and are all steel construction. They give employment to about four hundred men.

When they came to Chicago they had very little money but have never received any financial assistance. They have always been in business together, their interests being equal, and their success can be attributed to their perfect confidence in each other and their unity of action. If one is away the other acts independently, each having full power of attorney from the other, to do anything necessary with their property, both personal and real. Some years after their removal to Chicago, they bought the old homestead in Crawford County, which remains the home of the Greenlee family in Pennsylvania.

They married sisters (both of whom were twins, but not of the same pair), daughters of William Brooks who for many years was a resident of Sherbrooke, Canada, and one of the leading spirits of the conservative government of the Dominion, but later became a resident of Chicago. In 1904 they (age 66) published "The Stebbins Genealogy".  One of the main points being to make it so plain that a child could understand and easily trace his ancestry.

As will be seen by their photographs, the brothers very closely resemble each other, and they are as much alike in character, disposition and thought, as in looks. They have always taken a lively interest in the welfare of the city, and both are members of the Union League Club.

They have been extensive travelers; and, with their families, who always accompany them, have visited most of the foreign countries, making trips around the world, and going into the interior of China, Japan, and other oriental countries.

Their leading characteristics are inbred politeness, kindness and consideration for others, coupled with indomitable will-power, untiring energy, broad liberality and uncompromising honesty. Their fortunes have been fairly gained, and stand proud monuments to their sturdy manhood and genius." (1)

Robert (77) died 30 Sept 1915, and Ralph (79) died 11 Jun 1917.

Fast Forward about one hundred years... and the Greenlee company is still going strong!


In 1862, it started with the Greenlee brothers’ barrel-making machines, then woodworking tools. Today Greenlee is the most respected and trusted source for professional grade tools when it comes to installing wire and cable. From holemaking and bending to test and measurement, you can depend on Greenlee tools to outlast and outperform the competition every time."  (2)

Greenlee.com Company History:

'The "Hollow Chisel Mortiser'

Promising in an early catalog "if a machine we build is equaled by any other make, we either improve it or cease its manufacture", Ralph and Robert achieved another triumph with the invention of the "hollow chisel mortiser" in 1874. Similar in size to a table saw, this revolutionary tool combined the cutting edge of a four-sided chisel with the boring ability of a rotating bit to produce square holes in wood (a design used worldwide to this day and the inspiration behind the Greenlee "Square G" logo), enabling speedier, more accurate and more solid construction of wood products. The mortiser proved so successful that the brothers purchased a lot for the construction of a new factory (ironically, only one block from the site on DeKoven Street where Mrs O'Leary's infamous cow supposedly started the Chicago Fire).

The 'Greenlee Tie Machining Car'

After the Civil War ended, the nation continued expanding westward at an increasing rate, and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad line in 1869 further fueled this migration, helping to bring thousands of settlers west of the Mississippi. This in turn prompted the building of thousands of miles of new railroad track; from 1870 to '80, 40,000 miles of new track was laid, and in the next decade, another 65,000 new miles were added, every one of them requiring several thousand wooden ties to support the track. The Greenlees responded by developing a larger and more complex innovation than any of their previous machines, the "railroad tie machining car", a self-contained rolling tie-milling factory in a boxcar. Fed rough timber on one side, this could produce up to 6 finished ties per minute sliding out the other. (By 1911, Greenlee was building "self-powered tie machining & spike driving cars" and other extra-heavy duty tenoning, mortising and cutting machines for both railroads and railcar builders.) A manager of the Pullman Car Company wrote Greenlee Bros 'They in all respects excel, rather than fall short of, what you claim for them.' " (3)


(1) Greenlee Genealogy, by Ralph Stebbins Greenlee and Robert Lemuel Greenlee, self published in 1908 in Chicago.
(2) http://www.greenlee.com/index.aspx


  1. Robert and Ralph Greenlee truly were the personification of the American dream. Their life long work ethic combined with their inventiveness, innovation and honesty left an amazing living legacy of prosperity still existing today.
    How they found time to write the extensive Greenlee genealogy in the days before Ancestry.com is amazing. I can't help but take note that once they were able to overcome the resistance and sabotage of the Cooper's Union the Greenlees' were able to employ more workers than ever before and grow their business to national prominence.


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