Saturday, April 20, 2013

Peden Iron and Steel, R.I.P.


Someone I trust has reliably informed me that a dead man cannot sue for libel.  Harry has just recently passed away, so I guess I’m free to tell the story.

There used to be a grand old Texas landmark:  Peden Iron and Steel of Houston, Texas.  Peden sold everything—or at least everything useful.  The name hints about the massive steelyards and fabrication shops.  Peden sold structural steel such as H-beams, channel iron, angle iron, and steel plating.  It also sold mechanical tubing, copper plate, and drill stem pipe.  I can remember walking through a valve so tall I could not reach up and touch the opposite wall of the valve.  Peden sold this steel to companies all over the world, and bought steel products from mills all over the United States.

But that was only part of what Peden sold.  The multiple enormous warehouses of the wholesaler stocked everything from lion repellent to guns, kitchen utensils to blue jeans, and from baseballs to nails.  If a hardware store or a department store anywhere in Texas had it for sale, it came from the warehouses of Peden.  Peden could sell you all the material needed to construct a house, supply the tools to build it, and then fill it with everything you needed to live in it.  Peden had been doing this since 1905.  The drawing at right dates to 1924, by the time I worked there, Peden had grown much larger.

Among all my other jobs during college, I sold structural steel at Peden.  It was a great place to work, if for no other reason than employees could buy anything Peden sold at wholesale less 10%.  It they had sold food, it would have been the only place I would have shopped.  (I remember buying my wife—The Doc—a Christmas present: a Remington Nylon 66 .22 rifle.  I paid $36 for it, and it still shoots wonderfully.) 

Selling steel was a great education for an engineering student.  I had to learn the difference between steel grades and got to talk to a lot of working engineers and architects.  I could go down in the yards and watch the steel being fabricated, as well as talk to mills about future production runs.  Eventually, I worked up a clientele that called me regularly to negotiate purchases.

One afternoon, I got a call from Brown and Root looking for bridge beams.  They needed huge beams in an unusual length.  There weren’t a dozen places in the world that would have such big beams, but Peden had them in stock.  What they finally picked were 6 beams, 36”x 652# at 60’ for $18.97 CWT.  For those of you who have never sold steel for a living, I’ll translate.  They wanted 6 beams, 60 feet long, each 36” wide, and weighing 652 pounds per foot.  CWT means hundred weight, so the beams cost slightly less than nineteen cents a pound--a fairly stiff price since steel normally sold for about fourteen cents a pound.  I negotiated the higher price because (a) they were desperate and (b) they needed them delivered the next day.  As Brown and Root knew only too well, in chaos there is profit.  (After all, Brown and Root was a subsidiary of Halliburton.)

Peden was one of the few steel service centers that had a fleet of trucks large enough to handle such an oversized load.  Each one of those beams weighed twenty tons and would require its own individual truck.  In total, this was almost a quarter million pounds of steel.  Even Brown and Root didn’t have the ability to move those beams to the construction site.

There was only one small problem in completing the order.  By the time the negotiations were over, it was 4:15 in the afternoon.  About six months earlier, Peden had been purchased by a new owner.  Harry Surrenderstein (a fine old family name that comes from a region of France located close to the German border) had recently sold the chain of department stores that his family had run for 40 years.  With the profits, he had purchased Peden Iron and Steel.  Since his family had sold shirts—I guess he was a self-taught expert on selling steel.

Harry came up with a lot of silly changes, and one of the more obnoxious (in his case ox-noxious) changes was that he had to personally approve any next-day delivery written up after 4:00.  I wrote up the order, and took it to Harry for approval.

“Is it a big order?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “And it is for material we really want to move and it is for one of our best customers.”

I handed him the order slip, which below the billing and delivery information simply said:

6 36”x 652# H-Beam @ $18.97 CWT

Harry looked at the order for a few seconds and said, “I thought you said it was a big order.  There are only 6 of them for $19 each.”

There are lots of reasons given for why Peden went out of business about a year later.  Most of the reasons talk about cash flow, financing, or foreign imports.  If you ask me, I think it was because the president of one of the largest steel service centers in the world ran the place for over six months before he learned from a 20 year old employee that steel was sold by the pound.

27 comments:

  1. I worked for Peden from 1966-1969, starting out in the will call department filling orders, then I got transferred to sporting goods as the inventory cardex guy. Sometime later I worked my way "up" to City Sales. I became a wiz at knowing about everything in the 1,000+ page sales catalog. My downfall came when I placed a special order for 300 wheelbarrow wheels from Schulemburg Wheelbarrow Co. --- without getting prior approval from my boss Mr. Whitney. Lots of wonderful memories from that place.
    bwilliams@nps.cc

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  2. My grandfather worked for Peden.... not sure when, prior to 1973...I have copies of old checks he wrote to Peden for house payments I'm the late 1950's. His honorary pallbearers were the inside and outside industrial salesmen from Peden. The place sounded awesome. .. wish I could have seen it. His name was BB Browning..

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  3. It was a special place. Peden sold everything. And every single time I walked through one of those warehouses, I discovered something new. In a lot of ways, it was like working in a museum.

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  4. I worked at Peden in the 1972-1974 time frame. It was indeed a great place to work. So many really wonderful people! And so many great stories! In Hardware there was Bob, Sandy, and Gene; Steel....Harry, Willie, Archie, and Calvin; Warehousing....Wayne, Donnie, Ed, Opal, and Ernie; upstairs in the office....Jim, Gene, Jerry, Barry, Daine, and the list goes on and on! I totally enjoyed my short time there.

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  5. It would be wonderful to be able to browse through one of their 1960's sales catalogs. I remember them being over 1,000 pages and 8" thick. Bwilliams@nps.cc

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  6. Yes, they were huge. I wonder if the Houston Library has them.

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  7. I have a Peden Catalog (# 53). I'm cleaning my office and need to get rid of it. If anybody is interested drop me an e-mail to rvcollins@gmail.com. I'm in League City.

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  8. I worked in a small town hardware store in the late 60s and early 70s, part time in high school and college. Part of my job was updating the Peden catalogue when the new pages came in, usually each week as I remember. That's when I learned they had it all. No one could come in and ask for anything that the boss couldn't say "I'll get it from Peden, it'll be in in a few days."

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  9. Frederick M. GoldingSeptember 23, 2014 at 3:09 PM

    Frederick M. Golding Jr. September 20, 2014 at 1:30 PM

    My father was Fred M. Golding Sr. who was one of the VPs of Peden for many, many years until his death in 1962. He actually started driving a truck for Peden when he was twelve years old in 1905 and he met my mother there who was one of the secretaries. I have wonderful childhood memories of going to the office with him and of filling orders in the warehouse when I was in high school as a summer job. It is truly a historical landmark and important legacy to Houston and the state of Texas.

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    1. My parents knew your parents! My dad, Tom White, purchasing agent, worked for Peden from 1920-1969, when he reached the mandatory retirement age. I wish they would have let him work until his 50th!

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  10. The last name was Battelstein / not Surrenderstein(or is this a play on words) Jerry Battelstein was nicknamed stump because of his stature and I think his dad was Harry. One time I wore a new dress and mentioned I had a new empire waist dress and Jerry corrected me, said it was pronounced ahm-pe-ire, whatever. Remember Randy Braxton ?

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  11. Wink F. Miller, Jr.
    My dad, Wink Miller, worked in inside sales for 35 yrs until they closed the doors. I loved to go to work with dad when I was a kid running around Peden. At 59, I still enjoy pulling out the old catalogs and seeing the variety of merchandise Peden sold.

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  12. My grandfather Eugene Bullington, worked there until his death in 1976. He was salesman of the month - I remember the cool desk top award/trophies.

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  13. Mrs. E. D. Peden's grandparents, John W. and Louise Brown Baker, are my great great grandparents. I have often wondered if I have relatives, however distant, who might have knowledge of this side of my family.
    Linda Jewell, Iowa

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  14. It is great to see all of the kind words about Peden Iron and Steel and a wonderful trip down memory lane. My dad was A. G. "Tex" Peden. I never knew there were sites about the company until tonight. I was still in jr high when the company was sold and remember the sadness caused by the event. My wife had jury duty in April and saw that most of the old buildings had been torn down. I remember playing in the warehouse at a young age and later getting lessons on the proper way to handle a broom later in life. Hopefully my children and grandchildren can read these post and remember the values that make life special. I recognize a lot of the names mentioned in earlier post. Knowing that group, I bet they started a new company in heaven and having a ball.

    Tom Peden, Houston TX

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  15. I worked at Peden From May of 1969 Til November of 71 as an inside salesman. It was a great place to work. I have a desk catalog (with prices of that day)that came from the Brown & Root warehouse at 4100 Clinton. B B Browning taught me the ropes.

    Mike Galland

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  16. I had an uncle whose last name was Birkman, who managed the catalog. i also did some business in the mid 70s with Peden and dealt with a Aggie salesman, WD, " Woody" Hayes.

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  17. My grandfather Robert "Bob" Ferguson use to work here and so did his father, anyone know them? Thanks!

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  18. My uncle Ed Holt started working at Peden prior to WWII. Upon his discharge from his war service Peden rehired him. He remained until it closed. He spoke highly of the company and employees. Does anyone remember him?

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  19. I still have a leather shotgun case with the sew on "Peden Iron & Steel" logo patch still on it. He believed it was given to him 1930-32,???

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  20. I love reading all of this! Peden is my Great Great Grandfather, my Grandmother was Jane Peden Stewart. I named my son after our family, Orin Peden Cantwell. Thank you all for sharing!

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  21. My grandfather Gene Bullington worked for Peden for many years. I remember when he won salesman of the month, he got this cool desk set, with pen and his name engraved on it. My father still has it. My grandfather died in 1976.

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  22. Sandy Powell StokleyOctober 15, 2018 at 7:51 PM

    My dad, Luther Powell, worked at Peden from the 1940s until 1976. He will be 100 yrs. old on November 2 and is still very active. He loves to reminisce about his days at Peden. I even worked there in the shipping department during the summer of 1965!

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  23. Ha, this so fun to read and is circulating around our family inboxes. Peden Iron & Steel closed long before I was born, but I do love hearing the stories and looking through the catalogs that we still have in Houston. Sincerely, Nancy Peden Aubry

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  24. My family was the Godfrey family and I have a copier of a lease agreement between EA Peden and my family where this iron and steel co once was located . My family own that property

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  25. My father was Floyd “Blackie” Rouquette. Mr. Ed Peden hired him in 1946 to mange the Peden Hunting and Fishing Lodge on Rockport Texas. Mr. Peden bought 40 acres from my grandfather’s ranch to build the lodge and leased 1800 acres from my grandfather for hunting and fishing. My grandfather told Mr Peden that he could have the lease for the cost of the property taxes if he would hire one of my grandfathers sons which he did.

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