Columbia Pedaling Into the New Year

Columbia Bicycle…ooops, Columbia Manufacturing…pedals its way into the New Year and its 125th year in business next week.

To celebrate, the company will be coming out with a spectacular new bike, a collector’s item of course. Just like the re-release of the 1941 Columbia Superb.

The assembly line is in place and employees will soon start the machinery to create the bike for the same company that Colonel Albert Pope founded in 1877.

But the Colonel wouldn’t recognize the plant today. It’s spread over several acres and equipped with the latest technology and machinery to ensure high quality.

In fact, the machinery is so high tech and environmentally friendly that Columbia recently won an award from the state.

That technology helps make Columbia the second largest manufacturer of school furniture. Yes, school furniture. Desks and chairs and computer tables in an astounding number of styles, colors and finishes. Folding chairs as well.

If you think about it, bikes and school desks both start with metal, tubular steel that is bent and molded and welded and plated.

Plated. That’s the tough part, because it involves dipping that steel in nickel and then chrome. And nickel and chrome aren’t particularly environmentally friendly. Further, the dipping process also involves a huge amount of water.

Columbia, last spring, installed a new system to recycle the chrome and nickel that normally would have been compacted and shipped away to a safe disposal place in another state. At, I might add, great cost to the company.

In addition, the water is recycled. It is recycled to a condition so clean that you can drink it–after being used to clean and rinse the newly-chromed metal furniture.

There’s another huge savings. Because, in the first six months in use, the new system saved 25-million gallons of water, water that the city of Westfield can keep in its reservoir supply and keep out of the water treatment plant. The meter reading declined so steeply that the water department didn’t believe it was correct.

Columbia’s President Ken Howard gave me a tour of the plant. I was impressed with the environmentally sound equipment, of course, but I was equally impressed with the employees and the products.

The employees obviously take the company’s reputation for durability and quality seriously. Columbia’s standards are second to none and today’s employees are as proud of their products as Colonel Pope’s were 125 years ago.

Those products--from the earliest bikes and trikes to today’s collectors items and the bikes used for trick riding, from the first bike for ladies to chainless bikes, from the chairs and tables and desks used by students across the country to the covers of every catalog Columbia produced–are on display in Columbia’s own museum.

If you ever had a Columbia bicycle, or one of the bikes they made for other companies under other brand names, you’ll probably find it in the museum. Motorbikes. Bicycles built for four. Even the paratrooper bikes used in World War II. (But contrary to popular opinion, the soldiers didn’t pack the bikes on their backs when they leapt from the plane. The bikes were airdropped separately.)

The Westfield plant was completed in 1897, when Columbia still had facilities in Boston and Hartford. That was the same year Columbia created the gasoline powered tricycle. A year before they invented the chainless bike. The history is fascinating, and you’ll find more about Columbia on their website columbiabikes.com .

Columbia–part of Westfield’s history. And, thanks to Ken Howard and a group of hard-working employees at 1 Cycle Street, a part of Westfield’s future.

Happy New Year, Columbia. And, Happy New Year to You, as well.

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