SIDNEY — In Sidney, the Copeland name seems almost ubiquitous.
Emerson Climate Technologies’ brand name for its best-selling refrigeration compressor scroll was the name of the company itself, for decades. Area residents see it on the Copeland-Emerson Family Birth Center at Wilson Health. They read it in newspaper obituaries of long-time employees. They know that the Emerson name they see in the lists of donors to every important local nonprofit organization is a Copeland derivative. And thousands of Shelby Countians — along with tens of thousands of others — see the name on the Campbell Road plant from the interstate every day.
But what do you think if you’re driving by and Copeland is your name? What if you’re traveling from Michigan to Florida on I-75, year after year, and you sort of, kind of, know that the big “Copeland” sign on that building a quarter of the way along the route has something to do with your family, but you’re not sure what?
Long after she grew up and had established herself as a documentary filmmaker in New York City, Kristina Leigh Copeland, of Greenwich, Connecticut and New York City, decided to find out. She made her first trip to Sidney 20 years ago specifically to learn about the company that was started by her great-grandfather.
Now she has a son about to start high school.
“It’s time for him to know what’s up,” she said, Friday. So she and her son, Jaden McKean; her father, James Copeland, and his wife, Mary Westfall, of Bradenton, Florida, and her brother, Jimmy Copeland, and his son, Chase, of Warren, Michigan, met here for a plant tour and a lesson about their family’s history. The idea had come to Kristina only three weeks before.
“I just blindly called Emerson,” she said. The receptionist put the call through to Tom Sheehan, Emerson vice president of human resources. He arranged their visit.
Sidney historian Rich Wallace and Shelby County Historical Society Director Tilda Phlipot joined Sheehan and Emerson Marketing Communications Manager Cathy Billing to greet the family.
Wallace discussed how Copeland came to be located in Sidney:
Edmund Copeland, the grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather of the Sidney visitors, invented mechanical refrigeration and founded a company in Detroit in 1921. The Depression, however, put the company out of business. A business liquidator, Dallas Winslow, put the equipment and machinery up for sale.
A group of Copeland engineers, who came to be known as the “four horsemen,” wanted to buy them. But Winslow insisted that in addition to the cost of the goods, the men also pay $10,000 to move them to Sidney. The engineers didn’t have $10,000. But the Commercial Club of Sidney, a forerunner to today’s Chamber of Commerce, collected donations from prominent businessmen in town and provided the money to make the move possible.
“By investing $10,000 in moving the company here in 1937, the community displayed its trust in the four young businessmen who had a vision for success but not the means. The trust was well placed,” Wallace told the group. “The Four Horsemen divided up key responsibilities: Harry Thompson-president, Frank Gleason-sales, Oskar Buschmann-chief engineer, Charles Curtis-production. Harry Thompson was the real leader and the glue that held the fledgling operation together. The reality was that, as owners, they did it all in the early years. Frank Gleason Jr., who grew up seeing the struggles of the early days, recently remembered, ‘My father and the others worked all the time. They went out, obtained product orders, came back and helped build them. They also washed the windows and did everything else that needed to be accomplished.’”
And they kept the inventor’s name on the business. When the corporation became a subsidiary of Emerson Electric Co. in 1986, the name stayed. Now, Emerson Climate Technologies produces the Copeland scroll, and the brand is known globally in the HVACR industry, a name synoymous with what it produces.
“It’s like Kleenex or Coke,” said Emerson Group Vice President Brent Schroeder, after the family’s plant tour.
“I’m really touched by the loyalty to Edmund,” Kristina said, in thinking about the great-grandfather she never knew. “It’s a strange feeling, like we’re walking back into our history.”
“And the name is so respected worldwide,” said Westfall.
This was James’s first view of what his grandfather’s invention has become. Although James was 13 when Edmund died of leukemia, the two were never close. A falling-out between James’ dad and Edmund had prevented that.
“This would have been my dad’s world,” James said. “He was here 25 or 30 years ago. I’ve been by here a million times. I’ve always been curious. I had no idea of how big it all was here. My grandfather blew up the basement in his house in developing what’s here.”
One of Edmund’s experiments exploded and blew out the basement windows, James said. Emerson’s Sidney operation and others across the country and around the world are Edmund’s legacy.
“I wonder if he knew what it would become,” Kristina said.
“It’s been an interesting ride — what this business has become,” Schroeder said. “It’s a very different business today from what your grandfather started.”
Great-grandson Jimmy was in the company for the first time, too.
“I always knew it had some kind of history (connected to us),” he said. “(Being here) was an excellent experience. I definitely learned a lot about what started out as an idea and then seeing what it’s been turned into.”
The group was impressed by the assembly lines they saw, the work ethic of the employees.
“It’s above and beyond anything you’d expect it to be,” Kristina said. “The essence of the message is that the idea in your mind can become a reality and your idea can change the global community. We’re here to instill those values in our kids.”
Emerson Climate Technologies will celebrate Copeland’s 100th anniversary in five years. Edmund’s descendents hope to return to Sidney then with other family members who couldn’t make it this time. They’ll remember again their grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather’s contribution to modern existence.
“We would see my grandfather on the occasion, but he wasn’t really a part of our lives,” James said quietly. But James wasn’t exactly right about that: every time anyone, anywhere in the world, opens a refrigerator door, he is.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.