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A Lesson in History: Remembering the Power of a Simple Pencil

Written By: Brenda (B.K.) Walker

Although Tennessee may best be known for its profound roots in music, beneath all of the hustle and bustle of the entertainment industry lies an interesting lesson in history. Long before technology took over how we communicate, there was a simple, yet powerful device used to craft the lyrics of songs, poems, and love notes…the Pencil.

Still used across the world, the mighty pencil holds its eraser head high, as a standard tool that remains within reaching distance of many a songwriter, even today. Its humble beginnings often sighted in the smallest of hands, the joy on every child's face is easy to see when they hold the very first pencil they can call their very own. Taking that grand step from crayon to pencil is a rite of passage, one few think about over time, but when put to the test, most of us can easily recall their own excitement of that profound day.

In early May 2014, representing Back In The USA, I had the opportunity to sit down and visit with Henry Hulan, III, President of Musgrave Pencil Company, Inc. located in the quiet town of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Mr. Hulan and his two brothers own and operate the long established pencil factory, which began in 1914, with Henry's grandfather, Colonel Musgrave.

The Colonel, as he was called by those who had come to know and respect this brilliant and somewhat adventurous creator, delved deep into the bartering and trading of goods. Rich in red cedar, the Colonel, James Raford Musgrave, armed with the land and crews to work the Tennessee timber, would barter/trade/exchange new pole and wire fencing for the old cedar rails that the farmers had been using. The old cedar rails were perfect for making pencil slats because they were already weathered and dried.

Photo of Byron Bay - one of Australia's best beaches!

The Colonel in 1918 (above)

Once the old rails had made their way to the Colonel's Shelbyville mill, they were cut into slats, perfect for making pencils, and sold to manufacturers in Germany. What is so unique about the Colonel is that he had the foresight and desire to recognize a growing need to manufacture the pencil itself, right here in America. So off the industrious Colonel went to Europe where he bought, bartered, and even did a little trading/purchasing for what he needed to start with…one machine. He also brought back a German machinist to assist him in seeing his dreams to fruition by building more machines to manufacture his products. And so the journey of the Musgrave Pencil Company, Inc. began its journey as what we now commonly referred to as "The Shelbyville Pencil Factory."

As is the case with any company that wishes to withstand the test of time, the Musgrave Pencil Company, Inc. receives most of its wood for slats from California based companies that offer a similar product since the depletion of Tennessee's red cedar.

Henry explained, "…that despite the change, it is the quality that his grandfather before him sought to maintain and it remains at the heart of everything the company strives to provide in its products."

Today, Musgrave Pencil Company, Inc. averages around 85 employees, mostly positions passed from generation to generation, working a 40-hour workweek in 4 1/2 days. The company remains deeply engrained in the Shelbyville community, believing it is the community that has kept the company thriving under the worst of economic conditions.

The company ships its products all over the world now, providing pencils from your favorite standard #2 pencil to custom designed, logo stamped, even glitzy fat pencils. So the next time you reach for your trusty pencil, give a nod to the Colonel, put a smile on your face, and remember that you are writing with a piece of history, perhaps from one of the longest established pencil factories in America.

Photo of Byron Bay - one of Australia's best beaches!

The Company Today (above)

If you are interested in purchasing products from the Musgrave Pencil Company, Inc., you can visit their website, or call them at 1-800-736-2450.

"Of course the economy can make things difficult, last year it started getting better again for us. We're still learning, always trying to make it better for us and our customers," Henry Hulan, III.


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