Setting the Pace

Digger Magazine, October 2008

Some people in the nursery business believe Gordon Gleason is a genius. But Gleason, who invented a series of machines that revolutionized the industry, says his success is simply a product of laziness.

“Even as a kid, I was lazy and looking for a quick way to do things,” said Gleason, 81, who designed, fabricated, and marketed a series of machines during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that reduced overhead  and streamlined production for nurserymen.

Learning the Ropes

After seeing the machines Gordon had designed and built, people sometimes asked if he was a mechanical engineer. “I tell them that they didn’t teach mechanical engineering in the first eight grades of school,” Gleason said. “That was the extent of my formal education.”

Gordon grew up in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. Although he never attended high school, he was an avid reader of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. “I always had a keen interest in any kind of machine,” he said. “I used to drop by the lumber mills in Milton-Freewater and observe the process. I’d watch for hours.”

Gordon Gleason - Photo courtesy of Heather Leyrer
Gordon Gleason - Photo courtesy of Heather Leyrer

He went to work in 1943 in the Swan Island Shipyard in Portland where he helped build deck sections for ships. Even at age sixteen, his mechanical talent was evident. “One day the foreman came to me and said, ‘Gordon, I want you to go up and make a cut in the bow section.’ It was a complicated burn, and none of the older, more experienced guys could do it. I just seemed to have a natural insight when it came to mechanics.”

 

 

When World War II ended, Gordon found part-time work with Glenn Savage of Rhododendron Nursery in Portland before joining the Air Force in 1951. He picked up knowledge of electronics and hydraulics during a four-year stint that included maintenance work on B-36 bombers.

When he returned from the service in 1955, Gordon reconnected with Savage, who had purchased 10 acres just off Sunnyside Road in Clackamas and started a growing operation.

One-Man Shop Produced Custom Equipment

Gordon bought one acre from Savage and converted an existing barn into a shop that would later become the home of Gleason Industries. He worked for Rhododendron Nursery during the day and began fabricating machinery in his shop at night.

His initial equipment consisted of a cutting torch, drill press, hacksaw, and welder.

“The barn was small, but the one good thing was that you could stand in one place and reach just about all the tools,” Gordon said.

The time was right for a technical revolution. There were very few large nurseries in existence; most nursery plants were raised at small mom-and-pop operations. Containerization was just beginning to take hold, and a booming housing market was creating demand for ornamentals. And there was virtually no mechanization. This was the perfect playing field for Gordon Gleason.

The nursery industry relied on metal containers during the 1950s. Known as “Plantainers,” they came in tightly nested stacks of 30. Before potting began, the containers had to be knocked apart with a pipe. At Rhododendron Nursery, Gordon’s job was to separate the containers.

“I could see that there had to be a better way,” Gleason said. He began welding scrap metal together to create a machine he had formulated in his mind. Using a car jack, the crank mechanism from a water pump, bicycle sprockets, washing machine components, and used B-36 parts, he built a machine that successfully pried the pots apart and set them on a conveyor that led to the potting table. Gleason still has the original pot separator – the prototype for the machine that would eventually become known as the “Stripmatic” – stored at his shop in Clackamas.

At about that time, he also built a small hopper with a half-round cutout. The hopper, which was filled with potting soil, was raised six inches off the potting table. Instead of lifting the potting soil into the pots, workers could fill them by opening the hopper.

Mechanization Increased Production, Reduced Costs

Gordon soon learned that the Stripmatic and the soil hopper worked well in combination. Other nurseries were potting 600 plants per day; at Rhododendron Nurseries, Gordon was potting 600 an hour!

“Mechanization not only makes things easier,” Gleason said.”It also sets the pace for the work.” His system was set for 10 to 12 pots per minute, a rate workers were able to handle if they stayed focused.

Gleason invented machines that worked together - Photo courtesy of Heather Leyrer
Gleason invented machines that worked together - Photo courtesy of Heather Leyrer

Once word got out, Gordon was swamped with requests. He designed a new machine that was able to handle various sizes of metal pots and the new plastic pots that were becoming available. The first machine was sold to Joe Klupenger at Klupenger’s Nursery & Greenhouses in Aurora, Oregon; the second to Bruce Briggs of Briggs Nursery in Olympia, Washington.

 

 

After observing a potting system designed by Lowell Hall at Lowell Hall Nursery, Gordon next created the “Carousel” potting machine, which moved the pots in a circle around the potting table. It was capable of outputting 42 pots per minute, depending on the size of the crew.

Gleason Industries Continued to Deliver

Gordon started Gleason Industries in 1973. During the next two decades, as the company grew, Gordon built a shop on the Clackamas property that included an office, loading dock, storage building, and paint booth. In its heyday, Gleason Industries employed 35 people, including Gordon’s brothers Art and Larry. Gordon’s equipment quickly earned a reputation for simplicity and easy maintenance.

“I designed many more machines for the nursery and greenhouse industries during those years,” Gleason said. They included flat-fillers, self-loading soil feed bins, dibblers, soil returns, fertilizer dispensers, nursery carts, rotating tables, and more. A pre-wired control panel that easily connected to the machinery was also produced.

Another of Gordon’s inventions was the continuous mixing system. Batch mixers, which were prevalent at the time, pulverized and compressed the soil. The continuous mixing system not only combined a specified formula of ingredients, but also left the mix light and fluffy.

“This resulted in more volume out of the same amount of ingredients,” Gleason said. “Glenn Walters (of Glenn Walters Nursery in Forest Grove, Oregon) told me that the continuous mixing system was the best thing I ever came up with.”

The Stripmatic and Carousel established the baseline; the other pieces of equipment added even more convenience and savings. Most customers purchased systems that combined several of Gleason’s inventions. “They could see how all the pieces worked together efficiently,” Gordon said.

He also built a vacuum seeder that was sold to the forestry industry. The device rapidly placed seeds in tubes held in a rack. A top dresser then added the soil.

Jack McConkey of McLean Bulb Farms initially distributed Gordon’s products. Gleason later expanded and picked up other distributors who marketed his equipment east of the Rockies and in England, Canada, Japan, Australia, and South America.

“One thing that became clear as the years went by,” Gleason said, “was that if you were going to be in the nursery business, you were going to have to mechanize in order to compete.”

Phasing Out

Gordon sold Gleason Industries to Jack McConkey – who had changed the name of his business to McConkey Company – in 1990. “It wasn’t until I sold the business that I made any money,” Gordon said. “While I was working, most everything I made went back into Gleason Industries. Most months, my bookkeeper would write me a check, and I’d just put it in my desk drawer.”

Gordon was glad he sold when he did. “It finally got to be too much,” he said. “I was involved in design, fabrication, sales, and management.” He even handled the photography for the company’s catalogs. “I look back now and wonder how I did it for as long as I did.”

McConkey Company sold the Gleason brand to a Chicago company. “They didn’t live up to the Gleason name and ended up going out of business,” Gordon said.

Greg Gilliham now operates out of Gordon’s old shop under the name “Gleason Equipment Parts & Service.” Gilliham produces custom machines for growers and services equipment that Gordon manufactured.

Retrospect

An ad run by McConkey Company during the 1980s referred to Gleason as “a genius.” George Anderson of Anderson Die & Manufacturing Company, who pioneered the use of plastic pots in the Pacific Northwest, said, “When it came to technological advances in the nursery industry, Gordon Gleason was The Man.”

Gleason believes his success was partly a result of working on the ground in the very industry for which he was designing equipment. “Because I’d actually done the jobs by hand, I knew what kind of equipment was needed and what would work.”

 

 

The other part of the equation is harder to explain. “I think a large part of it was just natural ability,” he said. “I’d be talking to somebody about a problem they were having, and by the time I got home I’d have mentally designed the piece of equipment that was needed to solve the problem.”

Gordon joined the Oregon Association of Nurseries while working at Rhododendron Nursery and later became president of the Clackamas chapter. He is an Honorary Life Member of OAN. He was inducted into the Oregon Nurserymen’s Hall of Fame in 1995 and received the first-ever Pat Richardson Memorial Award from OAN in 1996.

Today, he manages two rentals; handles his auto, yard, and home maintenance; experiments with new programs on the computer; and plays the Hawaiian steel guitar.

Gordon is proud of his accomplishments and the contributions he made to the industry. “The need was there,” he said, “and we filled it.”

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