Fred R. Coats Co.

Fred R. Coats Co. employees, circa early 1900s, probably in front of building at Yale and Ash. (Because of their precision skills, women made up much of the workforce in early watch factories.) Woman seventh from right, front row, is Lora Yates Coats; her husband, Merwin Coats, is seventh from right in the third row.  (Photo courtesy Don Culver, great-grandson of Lora and Merwin Coats)

This entry has been updated and expanded.

Fred R. Coats deserves to be ranked with Robert Lanphier, John W. Hobbs and the Weaver brothers among Springfield’s top industrialists and innovators.

Coats (1865-1951), born in Bennington, N.Y., came to Springfield with his family at age eight. His first job was as a watchmaker for the Illinois Watch Co., but within a few years he moved to other jobs, and more responsibility, with watch-making businesses in Aurora, Peoria, and Columbus, Ohio. In about 1894, he returned to Springfield and, with a partner, S.M. Clarke, set up a business making balance staffs for watches.

Fred R. Coats (Findagrave)

Coats bought out Clarke a few months later and in 1895 built the first factory of the Fred R. Coats Co. at 15th and Washington streets. The company added new products, and in 1906, Coats transferred operations to Yale Boulevard and Ash Street, on the northern edge of the Harvard Park neighborhood. Much of the equipment in the new location was designed by Coats himself.

When the Fred R. Coats Co. moved to another new building at 2220 Yale Blvd. in 1936, the firm had 170 employees and what was, for then, a high-tech operation. In an article when the building opened, the Illinois State Journal reported the Fred R. Coats Co. was producing a daily average of “75,000 small parts for watches, clocks, band and electrical instruments and for other purposes to all parts of the United States.”

The Coats factory specializes in the manufacture of points or arbors, some of which are used in instruments found on the instrument boards of automobiles and airplanes, or in different types of electrical instruments including meters for air-conditioned buildings. Many of the arbors are so tiny and demand such accurate measurements and finish that it is necessary to inspect them under microscopes.

A wide variety of small screws, so small that a thimble would hold 1,500 or more of them, is another of the many items manufactured. Some of the screws are made of brass, others of steel. They are used in the manufacture of orchestra and band instruments as well as in the manufacture of numerous electrical gadgets.

Former Fred R. Coats Co., 2019 (SCHS photo)

Coats remained active with his namesake company until he sold the business to the John W. Hobbs Corp. in 1943. Even after that, he remained a Hobbs vice president, consultant and member of the board of directors.

Coats died in 1951. His obituary said Coats was “known nationwide as a maker of fine watch materials.”

“He designed machines used in his own plant and held numerous patents on inventions used throughout the world,” the obituary said. “During the war his plant was heavily engaged in making precision instruments for the government.”

The Coats Co.’s Yale Boulevard building is occupied by Davis Painting today, but the nameplate above the entrance still says “Fred R. Coats.”

Coats is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

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3 Responses to Fred R. Coats Co.

  1. Don Culver says:

    I recently visited Springfield (September 2020) on a family fact finding mission with my brother. In my Grandfather’s things were many old photos of his family, surname Coats, including a photo of the Fred Coats Watch Co. with the employees posing on the front lawn. My Grandfather told me stories of the family watch company in Springfield that many of our family members had worked in. I would love to share this photo with you for your archives. Please instruct me on how I might accomplish this. We visited the building and since I have been in contact with a very nice Mr Davis who owned the Paintings company that occupies the building now. He has been a wonderful caretaker and I hope the building can be put on the historical rolls of Ssngamon County.

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