When you think of Tempe what comes to mind? Downtown? ASU? Town Lake? A manufacturing city?
Did he say manufacturing?
While never considered a factory town, Tempe has had a modest share of mostly small-scale manufacturers over the years.
One of the most unique and one I will bet you never heard of was the Cactus Manufacturing Company. Before we go further, no they didn’t actually make spiny little succulents ─ they made furniture and novelties from the skeletons of spiny little succulents!
We know the company existed but unfortunately little else.
Here is what I have learned so far ─
The first notice of the C.M.C. appeared in the March 18, 1893 Tempe Daily News:
Fred W. Wood and T.E. White of the Cactus Manufacturing Company were in Tempe yesterday arranging preliminaries for putting in of extensive machinery for the company which has been ordered and is now on the way. It is expected to have the factory in complete running order within the next sixty days.
A brief second article on May 6th reveals:
The machinery for the Tempe Cactus Factory is arriving and work on the large building commenced this morning.
And that’s the last we read about the company except for some tantalizing details that show up on October 21, 1893 when Tempe and the C.M.C. were in the national spotlight. Scientific American ran a feature article about the company’s inaugural display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Apparently because few knew that anything useful could be made from cactus, the business received a medal and diploma “…for the novelty of the material and superiority of the work shown.”
From the Scientific American account we learn “The cholla is regarded as the best for cabinet work; for which the stalks are split, steamed, and flattened into boards.” Apparently confusing the saguaro with the cholla, the writer continues “…a fact more easily understood on remembering that the great size to which certain cactus plants grow in Arizona and Mexico.”
The writer notes that Mexicans knew “…the stems of dead plants (could be used) to make canes (and) sold to tourists as souvenirs.”
We discover that “Among the exhibited articles of cactus ware were canes, napkin rings, pick holders, smoker’s sets, match safes, inkstands and numerous other interesting small articles. But the novel material is by no means limited to such minor objects. Elegant stands, tables, easels, music racks, stools, fire screens, hat racks and mantelpieces were shown as proof of what could be done with the once-despised cactus.”
We believe the factory’s location was east of Mill near 3rd Street in the vicinity of today’s Tempe Mission Palms Hotel.
Although not definitively determined the Cactus Manufacturing Company possibly operated a retail store on Mill Avenue. Where it was, where the company was located in Phoenix, and how long they were in business are intriguing questions yet to be answered.
Given its bit of national prominence it is puzzling that no one seems to have any recollections of this mysterious piece of Tempe history.
And with such diversity of manufactured goods, it is also surprising that we don’t encounter relics from the Cactus Manufacturing Company.
In fact the only known piece attributed to the Cactus Manufacturing Company is on display in a second-floor bedroom at the Peterson House Museum at Priest and Southern.