Jul 11, 2023
Marker to note role of Victor Insulators
VICTOR – For Nelson McKee, Victor Insulators is "somewhat of a family affair." He and his brother Bill are the third generation of McKees to work at the 119-year-old company that put Victor on the map
VICTOR – For Nelson McKee, Victor Insulators is "somewhat of a family affair."
He and his brother Bill are the third generation of McKees to work at the 119-year-old company that put Victor on the map in the 20th century as the first manufacturing company of its kind in the nation. Now the company's history will be accessible to everyone when Victor erects a historical marker Thursday outside the current facility.
Victor Insulators was the "Kodak of Victor" in its heyday, said Victor town historian Babette Huber. The village of Victor started an initiative in 2007 to label sites and structures within village limits that "have importance for being part of the cultural, economic or social history of Victor," Huber said. This marker, which will be a free-standing sign outside the site, is being jointly awarded by the town and the village.
The company makes porcelain insulators, invented by company founder Fred Locke in 1895. The insulators keep the electrical current in outdoor power lines from "leaking" into telephone poles or electrical control panels.
Victor Insulators employed over 400 people from the immediate area during its peak production in the 1940s, said Huber. "People out of high school here would say, 'I'm going to work for Victor Insulators,' " she said. "The inventions and the growth gave Victor a huge economic boost."
McKee's family is from the Victor area, and his father James and grandfather Melvin both held positions at Victor Insulators in the 1920s.
"At the time, this was the manufacturing place to work in this area," he said.
Melvin McKee replaced his son James at the company in 1923 after James left for the Navy, and Melvin stayed for seven years. His job involved dipping the insulators in various vats of protective coatings. James came back to the plant in 1936, and eventually worked as a maintenance foreman who oversaw equipment repair.
Nelson McKee was a year out of college in 1969 when his brother suggested he apply for a quality control position at the plant. McKee has worked at the company since then and will retire in July from his current position as sales manager.
McKee said he chose to stay at Victor Insulators because he was offered a variety of different jobs within the company and he didn't have to work in downtown Rochester.
"I'm only one story of many families who have worked here," McKee said. "It's been a source of income that's allowed people to raise their families locally instead of having to drive into the city."
Fred Locke was born in Honeoye Falls in 1861, and realized while working as a telegraph operator in Canandaigua in 1883 that messages were dropped during rainstorms because the electric current in overhead power lines was cut off. He then developed the porcelain insulator, which maintained a seamless current. He distributed his invention under the name Locke Insulator Manufacturing Company.
"It's important that the people of Victor know about the history of the area and the people who made the town what it is today," Huber said.
Part of the company's current facility is housed in the original factory buildings, said Human Resource Manager Tom Tschorke. The company currently employs just over 100 people and is the only plant in the U.S. to still make "pin-type" porcelain insulators, which sit on metal pins atop telephone poles or transmission towers, he said.
Clay is imported from the southern U.S. and is cut, shaped, glazed and fired in kilns to make insulators which can range from a few inches to several yards in length, Tschorke said. They are tested for durability using a machine that shocks them with up to 300,000 volts of electricity — if there's even one scratch or impurity in an insulator, it could fail and cause an electrical fire, Tschorke said.
Once tested, insulators will last for years unless the porcelain gets cracked or damaged, McKee said. Most of the company's products are made to order, and are shipped to utility and distribution firms nationally and internationally.
The company's first facility was a warehouse next to the Fishers sawmill on Mill Street in Victor. In 1898, the company opened a factory in its current location on Maple Avenue. General Electric bought the company in 1928 and shipped most of its operations to Baltimore, Md., but a group of Victor businessmen reinstated the company in its current location seven years later as Victor Insulators, Inc.
The company went bankrupt in 2010 but recovered, and now operates as one of only three porcelain insulator companies in the U.S., Tschorke said. Power lines all over the U.S. need insulators, but they come in different materials and sizes, and are often ordered from international companies, said McKee. About 70 percent of Victor Insulator products are made at the Victor facility while the rest are imported, he said.
Huber reached out to the company three months ago about the marker, Tschorke said, and he said he feels "very honored" to be receiving this recognition for a company that has "been in this area for a very long time."
Both the village and the town of Victor have historical labeling programs — over 100 sites have been labeled with plaques by the village or the town since 2003, Huber said. Only one historical marker has been awarded in the area so far — it was erected by the town at Victor Insulators founder Fred Locke's home and laboratory site on Lynaugh Road in Victor in 2008.
Pinpointing local historical sites with plaques and markers highlights the people and ideas that helped form the area's economy, Huber said.
"Without Locke's porcelain insulator, someone else would have invented it," she said. "But instead [Victor Insulators] became one of the most important insulator companies in the country and the world."
If you go
The historical presentation on Victor Insulators will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall, 60 E. Main St. in Victor, and is open to the public.
The marker will be unveiled at Victor Insulators' Maple Avenue site at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.If you go