Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Republished with permission from Cambridge Historical Commission, today’s guest Did You Know? bloggers.

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A Viscol box and can. (Photo: Cambridge Historical Commission)

At Binney and First streets in East Cambridge, a man named Adolph Sommer lived and died for his business.

Sommer, born and educated as a chemist in Germany, later worked as a druggist in California, where he studied and then taught at the University of California, Berkeley. There he discovered the formula from which he made his principal product, Viscol – trademarked in 1889 as a liquid “leather-grease” made principally from vegetable or animal oils and chloride or sulphur. The preparation was advertised in California as early as 1891 as “Viscol dressing,” used for softening, waterproofing and preserving such things as boots, shoes, harnesses and belting.

By about 1890, Sommer removed to Cambridge and opened a small wooden factory building in the rapidly developing industrial area of East Cambridge, what would now be considered part of Kendall Square. Over more than 40 years, the product was advertised nationwide under the “Viscol” mark in shoe and leather journals and Montgomery Ward catalogs; it was sold in small cans to merchandising outlets for retail distribution, or in 5-gallon cans and 50-gallon drums to tanneries for use in processing leather. The company came to need more manufacturing space and employees, and it grew into a complex of three buildings along First Street.

A 1930 atlas map shows the extent of Viscol property in a blue outline.

Sommer lived alone – in his own manufacturing plant – and had no social relations. He was known as industrious, alert, keen, strong-willed and stubborn, working every day and never taking a vacation nor allowing his employees to take any. He also permitted no conversation or cooperation among his employees, but he was kind when they got into financial difficulties, and many worked for him for decades. In 1922, when he was 71, Sommer married Emmeline Harnden, a widow of 51 who had worked in the factory for more than 20 years. At the time, Sommer was looking for someone to take over his business; he generated a written contract with his new wife that upon his death, the company and all holdings would go to his legal heirs, which apart from his widow were two children of a deceased sister in Germany.

In October 1933, 82-year-old Sommer and his plant superintendent, Hans Bloomberg, picked up more than $1,000 from the Lechmere Bank on Cambridge Street before driving back to the factory to pay the workers. As they arrived at the factory, five robbers with pistols trapped the car and demanded the money. One man pointed a gun at Sommer’s face. When he saw the pistol, Sommer is said to have swung his driver’s-side door open and lunged at the robbers, gathering his own pistol from his pocket. Upon lunging, he was shot three times and died – but not before shooting one of the thieves, who fled in a car over the Prison Point Bridge to Charlestown.

A Boston Daily Globe clipping from Oct. 21, 1933, details the crime scene.

There were few leads, but a witness identified the shooter to Cambridge police as James Deshler. It was soon revealed to the public that the witness was Edward Galvin, of 22 Lambert St., in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood, and within a week of Deshler’s arrest three men attacked Galvin in a parking lot, seemingly as retribution. They were never identified. Two men were eventually imprisoned for Sommer’s robbery and murder: Deshler and Marshall “Hickey” Bowles.

A Boston Daily Globe clipping from Oct. 31, 1933.

Sommers’ company and properties were sold in 1936 to Stamford Rubber Supply of Connecticut, which operated the business as one of its own departments until January 1937. The complex was used for other industrial and storage uses until it was razed in the mid-1980s.

The complex at 185 First St., seen in 1970, was built for Adolph Sommer and Viscol Manufacturing in 1913 and razed in 1986. (Photo: Cambridge Historical Commission)

 

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