The company that became synonymous with the windshield wiper, Tri-Continental Corporation, better known as Trico, was founded in Buffalo in 1917 and grew to be Buffalo’s largest employer before leaving town 85 years later when it finally closed its “Plant #1” at the corner of Goodell and Ellicott in 2002. Trico had a significant impact on both the automotive industry and on Buffalo while it was here. It is still having an impact on WNY today, as the new Children’s Hospital named for the company’s founder demonstrates.
Trico had its origins in a 1916 accident on Delaware near Virginia Street, when then-theatre-owner John R. Oishei in a National Roadster hit a bicyclist on a rainy day.* The bicyclist was apparently unharmed, but Oishei was unnerved. Attributing the accident to his inability to see through his windshield in the rain, Oishei vowed to solve the problem.
Oishei and Trico did not invent the windshield wiper, various hand-operated wipers had been designed and patented since at least 1903, but they were the first to commercialize it and elevate it to “standard equipment” in cars and trucks. By 1920, the company was providing wipers to Pierce-Arrow, Packard, Cadillac and Lincoln. Following WWI and the introduction of Ford’s Model-T, the automobile took off and so did Trico, introducing a parade of improvements and innovations including a vacuum-operated wiper motor (1921), the first automatic windshield wipers (1922), a patented “Five Ply” wiper blade (1928) that dominated the market, the first blade for a curved windshield (1934), the first twin blade systems, the first windshield washer system (1936) and ultimately the intermittent wiper (1963).* Throughout those years as Trico grew, Buffalo also thrived as an important automotive center, home to Pierce-Arrow, Thomas Flyer, Harrison Radiator and various Ford and General Motors operations.
Oishei was famous for his loyalty to Buffalo and his employees, resisting attempts by General Motors and Ford to force Trico to relocate to Detroit and even turning down an offer to run General Motors from its Chairman, Alfred P. Sloan.* But in 1968, John R. Oishei passed away and his son, R. John Oishei, succeeded him and ultimately decided to relocate Trico to Texas and Mexico to reduce costs beginning in the 1980s. The improvements were short-lived and Trico was acquired by Stant Corporation in 1994 and is now owned by Crowne Group, LLC and headquartered in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
However, Trico lives on in WNY in many forms, including the John R. Oishei Foundation which uses its $300+ million in assets to fund grants for education, health care, the arts and other worthy causes. The old “Plant #1” is slated for renovation and a portion already houses 43North at the Innovation Center on the Medical Campus. Trico’s Plant #2 on Main Street, previously a manufacturing plant for Ford Motors (Model-T) and Bell Aerospace (which built America’s first jet, the P-59 Airacomet, there on the top floor) is now known as the Tri-Main Building and houses Aspire of WNY, the Buffalo City Ballet and numerous small businesses.1 Buffalo may have lost Trico, Pierce-Arrow and other parts of its automotive legacy, but its importance remains as GM’s Tonawanda Engine Plant, the Ford Stamping Plant, GM Components (Delphi), Goodyear Dunlop Tire (now Sumitomo Rubber) and many other automotive suppliers can attest.
*Source: The Oishei Foundation website at http://www.oishei.org/docs/jro_history.pdf
1 Source: The Tri-Main Center website at http://trimaincenter.com/
Check out some of our previous “Made in WNY” blog posts: