As it were

Famous watchmaker has local ties

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COURTESY COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY
Inside the Gruen watch factory on Thurman Avenue, circa 1890. Part of the factory still stands and is in use as offices.
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By ED LENTZ
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He was not the first watchmaker to come to Columbus. By no means would he be the last. But it is probably fair to say that Dietrich Gruen remains the best-known name in watchmaking to come from Ohio's capital city.

Actually, Dietrich Gruen would call a number of places home. In doing so, he was not unlike many of the young people of a generation that came of age in Europe in the years after the Napoleonic Wars. He was born in 1847 in Osthofen, in what is now Germany. At the time, Germany as we know it today did not exist. Rather than one country, Germany was a region of many different principalities linked by language and culture but not much else.

Born into a family of working people, young Dietrich attended local schools and at the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a watchmaker named Martens. He later worked in the towns of Carlsruhe, Wiesbaden and Lode. But by 1865, he was 18 years old and ready to find a new life in a new land. Three of his brothers had already gone to America. One of them had died fighting in the American Civil War.

On Aug. 1, 1866, he arrived in New York City. He immediately set out for the Midwest and found work as a watchmaker in St. Louis, Cincinnati and Columbus. Along the way, he met Pauline Wittlinger. She was a schoolteacher and the daughter of a watchmaker in Delaware, Ohio. He married Pauline in 1869, moved to Delaware and joined the business of his wife's father. For the next several years, the Gruens stayed in Delaware. Their first son, Frederick, was born in 1872. Four more children would follow.

Dietrich Gruen wanted to be something more than a small-town watchmaker. In 1874, he filed for a patent for an improved "safety pinion" to protect the parts of a watch if its mainspring broke. Because of the importance of this innovation, the Gruen Watch Co. would later remember 1874 as its founding date. This is a bit of stretch, since the Gruen Watch Co. came somewhat later.

In 1876, Dietrich Gruen decided that the time had come to build a larger business in a larger town. He moved his family to nearby Columbus and opened the Columbus Watch Manufacturing Co. in partnership with William Savage, the son of a local watchmaker and gunsmith. The new company was quite small at first and moved from place to place in downtown Columbus. But by the early 1880s, the firm was increasingly successful and simply needed more space.

In 1882, the business was reorganized as the Columbus Watch Co., attracted the support of several local investors and built a spacious factory on Thurman Avenue in the heart of the German community of Columbus. Over the course of the next decade, the Columbus Watch Co. became one of the better-known manufacturers of timepieces in America.

Then hard times came. The Panic of 1893 marked the beginning of the worst economic downturn America would see until the Great Depression of the 1930s. By this time, Dietrich's son Frederick was actively involved in the business as well. In a time of economic turmoil, difficult decisions had to be made to ensure the survival of the business. Disagreeing with their major investment partners as to how the business should be managed, the Gruens left the Columbus Watch Co. in 1894 and formed a new firm called D. Gruen and Son. When Dietrich's son George joined the company, the name was changed to D. Gruen and Sons.

The Columbus Watch Co. survived a bankruptcy during the depression of the 1890s. Incorporated once again as the New Columbus Watch Co., the firm continued to operate until 1903. But by then the Gruens were no longer in Columbus. In 1898, the Gruen family had moved their new company to Cincinnati. And it was there they would stay.

Dietrich Gruen and his sons were tireless in their efforts to build the new company, and their efforts were successful. But success has a price. By 1905, Dietrich Gruen had been diagnosed with a heart problem. Urged by his doctor to slow down, he continued to live what his son Frederick later said was a life with a lot of stress. Traveling with Frederick to visit a spa in Germany, Dietrich Gruen died suddenly and unexpectedly on the steamship Berlin in 1911.

But his legacy lives on. Dietrich's sons Frederick and George kept Gruen a classic name in American timekeeping for many years from their headquarters, which resembled a medieval guild hall, called Time Hill in Cincinnati. After the death of Frederick in 1945 and George in 1952, the family sold its interest in the company in 1953. By 1958, the company had been moved to New York.

The Gruen story is a great American success story. And it began here in central Ohio.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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