“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Words to live by; or so thought Alex A. Clarke shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Dallas, Texas. It seems that Clarke was growing tired of the rough spots on his elbows acquired from his frequent visits to his friendly neighborhood tavern. So, in 1916, he invented a sanding machine designed specifically for sanding and restoring wood bar tops. Word spread quickly around the Dallas area about Clarke’s invention and, as a result, so did demand. So, Clarke arranged for the manufacture of these bar top sanders with a friend in Chicago who owned a small foundry and machine shop. Soon schools were ordering the Clarke Sander to restore wood desks, so, in 1922 he moved to Chicago to oversee the manufacturing and sales of his increasingly popular invention.
Through the mid-20’s demand increased, and Clarke added a handle to his sander for use in wood floor restoration. He also added a line of vacuum machines to the existing sander products to make quick work of jobsite clean-up. Demand soon outgrew Clarke’s manufacturing capacity, so, in a bold move, in 1929, Clarke moved the entire operation closer to the raw material of his sand-casted components – sand! Not just any sand, but the fine white sand found on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Clarke moved his company to Muskegon, Michigan, into a new building on McCracken Avenue funded by the Muskegon Industrial Fund.
Financial difficulties fell on the company in the early 1930’s, and Clarke was soon removed as manager of day-to-day operations. In 1940, Ernie Cooper and a business partner purchased the company stock out of liquidation. In 1942, Clarke employed 30 people and its sales reached $400,000.
As World War II drew to a close, Ernie Cooper began designing new products and formulated a sales plan to drastically expand the company’s presence in the cleaning equipment industry. He added floor polishers, vacuums and even small hand tools to the product line and, in 1946, reached an annual sales level of $4,000,000.
The 1950’s saw more growth, expansion and new product development for Clarke. Throughout the decade Clarke introduced the FM Floor Maintainer, the DU-8 Rental Sander and the industry’s first battery powered autoscrubber, the Clarke-A-Matic. Clarke was also active in acquisitions during this period, buying Porter-Cable’s sanding machine division, The Hilger Company, and the Modern Power Sweeper Company. In 1959, Clarke was acquired by the Studebaker Corporation and renamed the Clarke Floor Machine Division. Annual sales reached $9,000,000. Studebaker continue Clarke’s sales and product development expansion for the next twelve years, when, in 1971, Studebaker combined its Gravely division with Clarke to form Clarke-Gravely.
Ownership changes were common for Clarke in the 1980’s beginning with Gravely’s sale of Clarke to McGraw-Edison in 1982, who, in turn, sold Clarke to Cooper Industries in 1985. Under Cooper, Clarke acquired American-Lincoln (Industrial Sweepers and Scrubbers) and Delco (hot/cold water pressure washers) to augment the product line. Cooper also relocated the Clarke operations from Muskegon to Siloam Springs, Arkansas in 1985.
In 1986, Clarke was purchased by a former McGraw-Edison executive, James Mills, who combined Clarke with American-Lincoln and Delco to form Clarke Industries, Inc. In 1988, Mills moved Clarke from Siloam Springs to Springdale, Arkansas and, in 1989, incorporated Clarke Industries with Mills’ Thermadyne Industries, a manufacturer of cutting and welding equipment. Under Thermadyne, Clarke purchased the A.L. Cook Company, out of Greensboro, NC, in 1995 and entered the propane floor care equipment arena. In 1996, Thermadyne sold Clarke Industries to the Incentive Group, from Copenhagen, Denmark, who, two years later, combined Clarke with KEW to form ALTO U.S., Inc. In May 2004, ALTO U.S., Inc. was acquired by Nilfisk-Advance Group, headquarted out of Broenby, Denmark.
In 2014, Nilfisk-Advance sold the American Sanders product line to Pioneer Eclipse, a leader in floor care technology. Manufacturing and operations of of the American Sanders product line was relocated to Sparta, North Carolina.
American Sanders Milestones:
1916 – Alex A. Clarke loves beer, hates rough elbows… And so it all begins.
1929 – Operations move from Chicago to Michigan.
1956 – PS26/PS30 Electric, Gas and Propane Floor Scrubbers and DU-8 Rental Sander.
1959 – Clarke is acquired by Studebaker and introduces the FM Floor Maintainer.
1965 – First Dual Motor Upright Vacuum Cleaner, the Model 550.
1969 – First wide-area vacuum, the 580 SpaceVac.
1970 – First Carpet Extractor, the 903 Super Steamer.
1971 – Clarke produces the 1,000,000th FM Floor Maintainer.
1988 – Clarke relocates to Springdale, Arkansas.
1998 – Clarke and and KEW merge to form ALTO.
2004 – ALTO is acquired by Nilfisk-Advance and returns to the Clarke American Sanders brand.
2014 – Pioneer Eclipse acquires the American Sanders business from Clarke
2015 – American Sanders and Pioneer Eclipse launched the TimberGuard line of water-based hardwood floor products.
2016 – American Sanders formally relaunches the brand as simply, “American Sanders.”