Van Dorn Iron Works

The Van Dorn Iron Works Company is a former factory on 79th Street in the Kinsman neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio.


At the age of 18, James H. Van Dorn was apprenticed to John A. Topliff of Elyria of the blacksmith trade. 2 After serving the apprenticeship, he went to work for Aultman & Miller of Akron for ten years before forming an iron fence fabrication company in 1872. 1 2 Van Dorn relocated his business to Cleveland in 1878 to be closer to supply and shipping facilities 8 and renamed the small company the Cleveland Wrought Iron Fence Company.

While waiting to submit a bid for cemetery fencing in Milwaukee, Van Dorn overheard a mention regarding jail cell construction. 8 He believed that jail cells were nothing more than indoor fences and went to add them to the company product line. Within a few years, Cleveland Wrought Iron Fence was the largest manufacturer of jail cells in the nation. 2 To reflect a broader product offering, the Cleveland Wrought Iron Fence Company was renamed the Van Dorn Iron Works Company in 1884. 1

A one-story machine shop with monitor windows was completed in the early 1890s, 9 followed by a three-story office building in 1894. 3 9

Van Dorn Iron Works expanded into structural steel fabrication in 1898, 2 timed to coincide with the rise of the skyscraper and automobile. One of the company’s early contracts was the erection of the Williamson, a 16-story iron skyscraper downtown, which was erected in just 160 days. 2 A steel structural shop was added in 1899. 9

By the early 20th century, the company had expanded to 1,100 employees, manufacturing automobile frames and fenders for local industries. 1 Van Dorn had pioneered the development of the mechanical dump truck hoist and later produced tanks and armor plates for Jeeps and aircraft during World War I and World War II. 2

By 1908, Van Dorn consisted of four departments: the Structural Iron Department, the Steel Jail Department, the Ornamental and Light Iron Department and the Art Metal and File Department. 2 The company also controlled the Van Dorn & Dutton Company that produced cut gears for shops, trolley cars, and automobiles that employed 150, and the Van Dorn & Elliot Company that employed 50.

In 1916, Van Dorn expanded by constructing a five-story concrete-reinforced building across 79th Street. 6 It featured two floors of offices and three floors of factory space. To the west of the addition was the former Aurora Vapor Stove Company that built gas stoves, and the Standard Foundry Company, now-vacant land that was used for future expansions. An assembling shop was completed along Grand Avenue 9 followed by a three-story reinforced concrete building, designed by Ernest McGeorge, in 1919-20.

Van Dorn diversified from steel fabrication by purchasing the Davies Can Company and the Colonial Plastics Manufacturing Company in the 1940s. 1 By the 1960s, Van Dorn produced drawn aluminum cans for processed foods and plastic injection molding machines. In 1964, the Van Dorn Iron Works became the Van Dorn Company.

In February 1984, Van Dorn acquired 50% of the Reifenhauser-Nabco Inc. of Springfield, Vermont, partnering with Reifenhauser GmbH & Company of Troisdorf, West Germany, to produce and sell plastic extrusion equipment. 5 By 1985, Van Dorn boasted 19 plants in seven states, Puerto Rico and Canada. 1

Van Dorn announced on November 5, 1990, that it was closing its plastic injection molding machinery plant at its 79th Street location and consolidating it with a plant in Strongsville by January 1991. 3 About 110 salaried and hourly workers were employed at the Cleveland facility, and at least 50 were scheduled to lose their jobs out of the move. The move was necessitated by a 94% drop in quarterly earnings that brought about the need for consolidation and modernization. 4 Much of the Cleveland plant was underused and antiquated because of newer manufacturing methods that simplified the assembly process.

The company also announced that it was seeking to relocate its corporate offices from Cleveland to a new building in the region, affecting 26 employees. 3

In January 1992, the Crown Cork & Seal Company attempted to take over Van Dorn with a bid of $18 per share. 10 That offer was rejected by Van Born’s board, as was a $20 per share offer. But Crown Cork & Seal persisted and offered $21 in stock or cash, valued at $175 million, and Van Dorn accepted the offer. The plastics division was sold to German-based Mannesmann AG, which developed the Van Dorn Demag Corporation as its American subsidiary. By 1995, Van Dorn employed 650 in the Cleveland region and maintained five plants in the United States.


The Orlando Baking Company, which had operated on the east side of the city since 1904, had relocated to a vacated five-story Van Dorn building in 1977. 6 It expanded throughout the years but was short of land by the 2010s. Orlando proposed moving its maintenance functions to the east side of 79th Street, and construct new cold storage facilities on the west side of the road at the cost of $6 million to $10 million. It would enable the creation of 15 jobs and the retention of 40 positions. 7

A Phase I and Phase II environmental assessment were conducted in 2011 on the former Van Dorn property on the east side of 79th Street. 6 Based on the findings, several areas of the lots required environmental remediation due to elevated levels of semi-volatile organic compounds. The city and Orlando submitted a Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund application in January 2012 and requested up to $3 million for the demolition of most of the Van Dorn factory. The city received $1.3 million towards the demolition of the Van Dorn facilities in May 2012, and razing of the property began shortly after. 7




  1. “Van Dorn Demag Corp.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. N.p.: Case Western Reserve University, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2013. Article.
  2. Honeyman, Abraham Van Doren. “James H. Van Dorn.” The Van Doorn Family. Plainfield, NJ: Honeyman, 1909. 624-25. Print.
  3. Gerdel, Thomas W. “Van Dorn Co. to close E. 79th St. plant, move to Strongsville operation.” Plain Dealer [Cleveland] 6 Nov. 1990, C1-C8. Print.
  4. Gerdel, Thomas W. “Van Dorn to decide plant fate.” Plain Dealer [Cleveland] 20 Oct. 1990, F1. Print.
  5. “Van Dorn expanding.” Plain Dealer [Cleveland] 3 Feb. 1984, 8C. Print.
  6. “Notice of Public Meeting and Information Repository for an Ohio Department of Development Clean Ohio Fund Grant.” City of Cleveland. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2013. Article.
  7. Schoenberger, Robert. “State grants $5.4 million for job-creating industrial cleanup in Northeast Ohio.” Plain Dealer [Cleveland] 18 May 2012, n.p. Web. 10 Feb. 2013. Article.
  8. Koshar, John Leo. “Van Dorn Co.” Plain Dealer [Cleveland] 10 Aug. 1977, 5E. Print.
  9. Alburn, This Cleveland, 2: 786; Van Dorn Company, One Hundred Years at Van Dorn, (Cleveland, 1972).
  10. “Company News; Crown Cork Succeeds in Van Dorn Purchase.” New York Times 19 Dec. 1992, n.p. Web. 11 Feb. 2013. Article.


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[…] Van Dorn Iron Works began in 1872 as the Cleveland Wrought Iron Fence Co. by James H. Van Dorn. He diversified the company, becoming the largest manufacturer of jail cells in the USA, and renamed the firm in his own name in 1884. The company diversified further in the 1890s to make structural steel for buildings and frames and fenders for automobiles. By 1920, Van Dorn employed more than 1,100 workers. In the 1960s, the company diversified further, adding aluminum and plastics to its offerings so “Iron Works” was dropped from the company’s name. […]

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