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Reconnection Down to a Tee: Blackmer Reestablishes Link with Founder

by PSG | Oct 18, 2021

Company merchandise serves as the catalyst for grandson to connect with his grandfather’s legacy

Connecting with a celebrated past is a precious thing.

For businesses that have existed for over a century, it can be difficult – even rare – to maintain a direct association to their founders.

Having originally set their foundations in the late 19th century, Blackmer® Pump Co. has enjoyed a long and storied history. But unbeknownst to them, a link to the original founder and inventor of the sliding vane pump, Robert Blackmer, was just down the road.Steve Cox-Bill Blackmer-Josh Pepper

In April of this year, Bill Blackmer, grandson of Robert, sent an email to the company, looking for some Blackmer t-shirts and other giftable items. That single message led to Bill meeting with Steve Cox and Josh Pepper from Blackmer while touring the Voigt-Abernathy facility in Cumming, GA, on May 4.

The meeting not only reconnected the company with its founding family, but also unveiled some fascinating stories about Robert Blackmer and his life, his invention, and his legacy.

Robert Blackmer was born in Saginaw, MI, in 1861, but headed to the old west of California circa 1873, experiencing quite the adventure along the way.

One night on his westward excursion, he purportedly ran into a lone Native American tribesman, who was suffering from multiple stab wounds. Not a man of medicine but certainly one of ingenuity, Robert heated his own saber over a campfire, with which he used to cauterize the man’s wounds before moving on.

Somewhere around 1881, the wiry craftsman stopped briefly in New Mexico. While there, according to family legend, he was with Pat Garrett the night he murdered Henry McCarty – more popularly known as Billy the Kid.

He eventually reached the golden state and worked for a while as a scout for the U.S. Army.

Some years later, he returned to the Midwest and launched an early version of his company in 1892. He married Nellie Gilman in 1900 and, after inventing the first rotary vane pump, founded the Blackmer Pump, Power and Manufacturing Company in Detroit 1901.

Blackmer moved the company to Petoskey, MI, in 1903, and briefly owned a plant in Pennsylvania in 1907 before coming back to Petoskey in 1912. He sold his interest in the company and moved over to Detroit later that year, where he began a new career as a consulting engineer.

Despite Robert’s departure, the business continued to be successful, maintaining several nationwide clients and tapping into some global markets. Allied Armies even used Blackmer pumps to prevent flooding in the European trenches during the first World War.

In 1923, the Petoskey plant was sold at auction and the company relocated to Grand Rapids, MI, where it remains today.

Robert Blackmer maintained his handy skills throughout retirement by building furniture and tending to his large vegetable garden, well into his eighties. He had a personal plan to live to be 100, but sixty days after his wife Nellie’s death, Robert Blackmer passed away on July 13, 1957, at the age of 95.

In the spring of 2021, Bill Blackmer, now 86, was visiting with his granddaughter who had returned home on break from the University of Georgia. He couldn’t help but notice she was wearing a Blackmer t-shirt.

Intrigued, he began searching online for similar Blackmer memorabilia.

“I thought how neat it would be to give them as gifts to my children and grandchildren,” Bill Blackmer said.

Although having never worked for the company his grandfather founded – in fact he never heard of it until discovering a Blackmer pump while cleaning out his grandmother’s house after her death – he thought it would be nice to share some family history with his grandkids.

That was when he sent the email to the company, not knowing where things would lead.

In his message, he explained that he was not only looking for some merchandise, but also that he is the grandson of the company’s founder. Upon reading the email, Steve Cox reached out to Bill immediately. As the two chatted, Cox offered him the chance to see today’s version of his grandfather’s invention, the sliding vane pump, at a local Blackmer distributor.

Luckily, one such Blackmer distributor, Voigt-Abernathy, had a facility located close to where Bill and his wife live.

“We were lucky that Voigt-Abernathy had a facility in Cumming, which was so close to Bill,” said Regional Sales Director at Blackmer, Josh Pepper. “VA is an amazing partner of Blackmer. They do a great job selling and servicing our pumps in the field, and they always have some new and interesting Blackmer pump skids and configurations ready to be installed at customer sites.”

Since Cox and Pepper were already planning a southward business trip, they thought it would be the perfect opportunity to meet Bill and show him what his grandfather’s invention has become over the last 129 years.

“I received a nice note from Steve Cox,” Blackmer said. “I met with Steve, Josh and others at the Voigt-Abernathy facility in Cumming, GA, where I was shown some extremely interesting and impressive pieces of Blackmer equipment – much more complicated than the original vane pump.”

“It was great to see Bill examining Blackmer pumps at the VA facility,” said Steve Cox, regional sales manager at Blackmer® Pump Co. “You could just tell how excited he was to be seeing his grandfather’s legacy, up close for the first time.”

Bill Blackmer enjoyed a long and successful career in advertising sales, but he does have some regrets about not working in the pump business, especially one with his own name.

“I often wondered what it would be like to work for a company whose name was the same as mine and who I was related to,” Blackmer added. “If I were younger, I might even consider it now, who knows?”

There is some hope that one or more of his grandchildren may be interested in getting into the business, no doubt inspired by the Blackmer® merchandise they received, and their great-great grandfather’s legacy.

Nobody knows what the future holds, but not unlike how a solitary email reconnected Blackmer® to its founder, a new generation of Blackmers in the industry would bring things full-circle for Bill – and his grandfather.

For now, though, Bill Blackmer seems content with his familial ties to such an important invention and the profound impact it’s had on the world for 129 years and counting.

“Every time I drive down the road and see a tank truck with a pump attached, I think of Grandpa,” Blackmer continues. “If he had any idea what became of his pump, his company, his dream over 100 years later, I think he would be wowed!”

To learn more about the Blackmer legacy, click here.