Most of the places we tour at Tennessee History for Kids are purely historic, like museums and battlefields. But this tour is different. Today we’re taking you to a real-live factory, where people turn raw materials into something sold to the public. We’re taking you to Shelbyville’s Musgrave Pencil Company.
Why Musgrave? Because there’s an interesting story behind it. And because a pencil is a simple product that every student, no matter how young, can understand.
Pencil City, U.S.A.
The first thing you should know is that there are a lot of juniper trees in south central Tennessee. Juniper trees grow slowly and have wood that is harder than most other trees. They are also a perfect wood from which to make pencils.
(Parts of Bedford and Wilson counties still contain large numbers of juniper trees. The best place to see them is Cedars of Lebanon State Park in Wilson County).
The second thing to remember is that in the early 1900s, Shelbyville was an important stop on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. That being the case, it was a better place to have a factory than other towns in south central Tennessee.
When originally started by Colonel James Musgrave in the early 1900s, Musgrave was a sawmill. Its main business was sending cedar trees, cut into small slats of wood, to German pencil manufacturers. But when the United States entered World War I, it was no longer possible for a Tennessee company to send raw materials to Germany. At that point Colonel Musgrave began manufacturing pencils. The success of his venture led to the creation of other Shelbyville pencil companies.
By the 1950s, when Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington declared Shelbyville “Pencil City, U.S.A.,” there were half a dozen pencil factories in or near that part of Bedford County. As the years went by, the business became more complicated. Pencils went from being one color (yellow) to being many colors. Companies began to special order pencils, or to use pencils as advertising mediums. Pencils began being sold in back-to-school kits.
Meanwhile, the supply of cedar trees in Bedford County was being depleted. For several years Musgrave was able to make pencils out of recycled cedar fence posts, which at that time were very common. But in the 1930s factories such as Musgrave began using wood from other places (such as California). Eventually the production of pencils also began moving overseas.
Today there are only two places in Bedford County that still make pencils: Musgrave and Sanford (a division of Newell Rubbermaid). Both of them get practically all of their raw materials from far away (the wood Musgrave uses to make pencils comes from China).
How to make a pencil
You may have stared at your pencil many times and wondered “how did they get the black part in the middle?” We wondered that too.
You start with a little piece of wood. You run the piece of wood through a milling machine that cuts a groove down it. Once you’ve done this to two pieces of wood, if you hold them side by side like a sandwich, it creates a little “tunnel.”
In this picture, which shows wood being made into a carpenter’s pencil, you can see the “tunnel” made by the two grooves.
The black stuff in the middle of the pencil is a mixture of graphite (an element that is mined) and clay. Like the wood used to make pencils, the graphite and clay mixture comes from another factory. It comes in long strips, ready to be used in the pencil-making process.
After the wood is cut, the long piece of graphite and clay gets placed in the rivet, and another piece of wood is glued on top. The glue that holds the pieces of wood together is pressed together and allowed to dry overnight.
Next the pencils are run through a machine that covers them with a thin layer of paint.
These pencils (shown here) are being painted red, but the day we were there, we saw pencils being painted blue, orange, yellow and green.
Then the pencils are fed through another machine that sticks a metal ferrule on them and an eraser on them (the ferrule is the metal ring holding the eraser).
As you can see, there are a lot of erasers being put on pencils at the Musgrave Pencil Company. In fact, the Musgrave Pencil Company makes up to two million pencils PER WEEK!
Many of them are then fed into a machine that stamps something on the side of the pencil.
The pencils are then boxed so that they’ll ready to be shipped out.
You’ve learned a lot. Now you know how pencils are made, why so many of them are made in Shelbyville, and even how World War I led to the emergence of Tennessee’s pencil industry. I’ll bet you didn’t know you could learn so much at Musgrave, did you?
Pencil factories can be dangerous places, which is why Musgrave does not host field trips. But if you would like to learn more about Musgrave and its history, click here.