Crunden-Martin was a manufacturer of wooden and metal household goods in downtown St. Louis for nearly 100 years, but sadly, the old complex has been sitting mostly or entirely empty since late 1990. Since there’s very little information online about the company, I thought I’d research it.
The imposing complex stands about a block south of the Poplar Street Bridge in downtown St. Louis, between I-55/I-44 and the Mississippi River. The painted signs on the building are still easy to see from the interstate.
The seven-building complex, which is on the national register of historic places, was built between 1904 and 1920. It totals more than 500,000 square feet of space. Building 5, which burned in 2011, was designed and built in 1912 by the firm of Mauran, Russell & Crowell. A large bridge connected it to building 2. Skip Gatermann captured this image of a train passing under the bridge on the Crunden-Martin complex about five months before the company closed. I believe building 5 is the one of the left.
According to the application to the national register of historic places, as of 2004 the buildings were still in good condition, with most of the damage confined to two of the buildings. Unfortunately, there just aren’t many candidates in the St. Louis area to operate a facility of that size, which is why it’s been sitting empty since 1990. The buildings had changed very little from the time of their construction, and featured intricate brick arches and rich, dark wood floors.
Crunden-Martin Manufacturing Co. history
Crunden-Martin formed in 1891 as a result of the merger of Udell & Crunden (founded in 1876 as Udell, Schmieding and Company) and the Martin Wooden Ware Company (founded in 1890). At the time, St. Louis dominated the wooden and willow ware market, a category of consumer goods that included buckets, casks, tubs, ladles, bread bowls, and baskets. Crunden-Martin quickly became the second largest supplier in this category, second to the Samuel Cupples Woodenware Co.
Soon Crunden-Martin expanded into metal stamping and began manufacturing toys, furniture specialties, baby carriages, go karts, Christmas tree stands, canning jar supplies, and even refrigerators in its factories as well.
In the 1930s, Crunden-Martin management pushed for construction of the flood wall on the Mississippi River, to protect industries and homes along the riverfront from flooding.
At mid-century, Crunden-Martin employed about 500 people. During World War II, they made helmets, stoves, buckets and five-gallon gasoline cans for the U.S. military. Like many companies, Crunden-Martin shifted most of its production from consumer goods to items for the war effort.
In the 1950s, it shifted from production of wooden utensils to metal, and grew into one of the country’s largest producers of paper kites, selling them under the Top Flite brand name. In 1977, it was still billing itself as the largest kite maker in the world.
St. Louis was a hotbed for manufacturing paper kites and other inexpensive household products. Two it its three top rivals, Alox Manufacturing and Wilder Manufacturing, were also in St. Louis. Likely the city’s location near the geographic the center of the country, with ready access to railroads and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, contributed to this.
Into the 1990s and today
A 1986 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that much of the industrial capacity on the riverfront was underutilized and cited Crunden-Martin as an example. In the mid 1980s, it employed 200 people.
In July 1987, James P. Flynn bought Crunden-Martin from descendants of the founder. At the time it was selling $16-$20 million worth of product per year.
But by 1990, Crunden-Martin was running out of steam. Reduced to 70 employees manufacturing lunch and freezer bags, galvanized ware, paper kites (among the last companies to make them), and paper school supplies, it filed for bankruptcy in June 1990. An attempt at reorganization failed, and Crunden-Martin closed its doors in November 1990. The complex sold at auction in 1992 for $90,000. That’s a mere 18 cents per square foot. Although they’ve been adorned with for-lease signs for years, to my knowledge there have been no takers. Unlike the nearby Welsh Baby Carriage factory, the Crunden-Martin complex hasn’t been redeveloped and repurposed.
Crunden-Martin building #5 burned in downtown St. Louis in December 2011. The building still stands, but it’s possible to see the damage to the roof and top floors from the nearby interstate.
Today, Crunden-Martin is one of many formerly great St. Louis companies like Central Hardware and Velvet Freeze that is little more than a memory. The difference for Crunden-Martin is the presence of a highly visible memorial in the form of a factory complex that still bears its name, right next to a busy highway.