This new fence solution was transformational, not only for Sommer, but for his neighbors. At first, the father and son team could produce about 200 feet of fence in a 16-hour day. However, as word of his invention began to spread, Sommer and his sons were forced to improve their methods to keep up with demand. After moving and expanding the facilities several times, the company settled at its current location in Bartonville, Illinois, adjacent to Peoria. The location was a strategic move, as Keystone could take advantage of the newly expanded railroad yards and proximity to the Illinois River.
In the first decade of the new century, Keystone grew tremendously. In fact, the need for steel was so great that the company built its own steel mill in 1902. A wire mill followed three years later in order to meet the demand for high-quality materials. Barbed wire and nails were added to the list of company offerings. With the introduction of steel manufacturing, the company reorganized and adopted its current name, Keystone Steel & Wire in 1907.
World War I resulted in tough economic times that taxed the facilities at Keystone. However, a post-war resurgence and a demand for a steel-starved nation ushered in a new era of unprecedented growth. Now, in addition to the high demand for quality fence products, Keystone was poised to supply the nation with much-needed steel. In 1916, a new electrically-driven rolling mill helped to meet Keystone’s own needs while producing a surplus that the company could then supply to other manufacturers. The plant operated 24 hours a day and shipped products to all four corners of the country via trains and barges.
Keystone wire fence had been manufactured for nearly 35 years when a clever employee dipped the top wires of fence and steel posts in red paint. The ‘red strand wire’ was quickly branded, and Red Brand fence was born. The tradition lives on, as products are still painted red and instantly recognizable on farms and properties all over the America’s countryside.
Quality was always a priority at Keystone, and that’s what helped the company survive the lean years leading up to, and through, the Great Depression. Even though farmers had very little money to spend, they knew that purchasing the best quality fence they could afford was a smart investment. As many other companies laid off workers, Keystone employees dug in their heels and forged ahead. They worked hard, turning out products that could be sold even in the worst of times.
A letter sent to employees on February 15, 1931, displayed the fortitude of a company that would not give up.
Every bit of material that leaves this plant under the Keystone name has a direct bearing on future sales. Every letter we answer…every shipment we route has its part in building up that Keystone standard on which the reputation of the company must depend….Let everyone do his part toward increasing sales and getting the plant on to full production.
Despite the Depression and challenges it brought, Keystone sponsored a number of radio programs, including the famous WLS Red Brand Barn Dance, broadcast live from Chicago. Marketing efforts also included a young George Gobel, who sang for Red Brand fence commercials. As a result of a robust marketing campaign that supported Red Brand dealers nationwide, Keystone continued to grow.
The end of the Depression was met with more bad news, as World War II ramped up. Keystone participated in the wartime efforts by organizing scrap drives and producing steel for the defense industry. As a result of the experience gained from those recycling efforts, Keystone became one of the largest recyclers in Illinois. Eventually, the company started making almost all of its steel from scrap, a practice still in use today.
The determination paid off, and Keystone enjoyed prosperity for almost three decades. Steel use was at an all-time high and the company took advantage of the needs that followed after the war. The demand for new automobiles, houses, appliances, highways and sky-scrapers led to exponential growth in the steel industry. During this period of time, the company added nine plants and eleven businesses throughout the country to help with distribution and to build a broader base of offerings. A dozen major construction projects at the Bartonville location also helped ease the load.
Between 1955 and 1962, Keystone modernized their facilities to brace for a future that would bring competition. It came from all sides: domestic and foreign steel companies, producers of competing materials such as plastic and aluminum, and from the economy itself in the form of inflation. Keystone began to produce more efficiently and serve customers more effectively to hold on to market share. By the mid-sixties, the company turned out more product than ever before.
In 1968, the company restructured and adopted the name Keystone Consolidated Industries, Inc. An aggressive acquisition program brought more and more businesses into the fold, as the company pursued new markets. However, by 1974 it was clear that the country, and Keystone too, was on the wrong side of an impossible equation. Double-digit inflation threatened the company’s livelihood. Even though sales were at an all-time high, net earnings fell to record lows.
Not deterred, Keystone did what it could to weather the economic storm. Strategic decisions led to the closure of several plants outside of Illinois. Other companies were sold to streamline operations. The unique and respectful relationship between management and union leaders proved to be essential for survival during these tough times. Cooperation and a willingness to come together for the good of the company led past the challenges and a return to profitability.
The force behind the resurgence was Harold Simmons, a Dallas, Texas-based investor who acquired controlling interest in Keystone in 1981. Many feared that the plant would simply be closed, but Simmons had other ideas. He was a patient and determined leader who was willing to do what he could to get the company back on track. But the fate was equally in the hands of Keystone workers. Had they not agreed to substantial wage and benefit cuts, the plant would have been forced to shut down. In 1983, the workers helped the company realize the first profit in nearly a decade. Remarkably, the company’s response to adversity had brought about renewed strength. By 1988, profits allowed for expansions and upgrades at the Bartonville plant. Keystone’s capabilities increased by 50%, positioning Keystone as a serious contender in the rod and wire products industries.
Today, Keystone Steel & Wire’s Bartonville, Illinois, campus is one of the largest wire and rod mills in the U.S., with over 2,000,000 square feet of manufacturing space on over 1,000 acres. Over 700,000 tons of steel is produced each year. The ability to manufacture exacting steel and then use it to produce our Red Brand fence means we can monitor every step of the process. We know what’s in every wire of every fence we make, resulting in consistent, high-quality products every time.
A company that has survived for over 125 years is sure to endure the best of times and the worst of times. Throughout all the ups and downs, one thing has remained – reliable, high-quality fence products. Red Brand’s reputation as the most trusted name in farm fence depends on the best materials and workmanship available. By providing superior products and attentive customer service, we honor Peter Sommer and his innovative spirit. His creed in word and deed was to ‘find a better way’. The pride, determination and tenacity of five generations of Keystone Steel & Wire employees have kept that legacy alive and made the company what it is today.