The Interesting Story Behind MARSHALLTOWN

Words: Julie Lynch

Words: Julie Lynch, Marketing Manager at MARSHALLTOWN
Photos: MARSHALLTOWN, MCAA Member Since 1993

MARSHALLTOWN, a globally recognized leader in construction tools and equipment, currently has a catalog spanning 7,000 different products across more than a dozen industries.  Their fascinating history began over 132 years ago when, in 1890, brothers Jesse and Lester Williams started a small machine shop where they repaired bicycles and automobiles and made tools for local contractors.

Cross Country Sales Trip – 1909

During this time, they were approached by John Stine, a local plasterer, who asked them to customize some hand tools.  Jesse and Lester eagerly took on the challenge of improving upon the contemporary trowel design.  Among their most notable improvements was an adjustment of the handle.  They shifted where the handle was set and bettered the grip, resulting in less user strain after a long, hard day’s work.  Additionally, Stein found that he achieved a better finish on plastering projects with this new-improved trowel.  With the brothers’ tools on his belt, Stine returned to work at the site of what we now recognize as the Marshall County Courthouse. Stine was so impressed by the brothers’ work that word of their trowel soon spread across the country. As word spread, demand for more trowels piled in, and the Williams brothers started referring to that part of their local business as Marshalltown Trowel Works, dedicating themselves to making quality tools in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Their small shop quickly grew into a manufacturing and mail order business specializing in trowels.  In 1902 they built a shop on South 8th Avenue in Marshalltown, Iowa, and incorporated “Marshalltown Trowel Company.”

Marshalltown, IA Location – 1927

The Williams brothers worked very hard over the coming years, growing with demand.  Their entrepreneurial spirit fueled additional growth and expansion, and, in 1918, they merged several new endeavors – La Plant Tool Company, Lennox Throatless Shear Company, Light Draft Harrow Company, and Bogardus-Nelson Gauge Company – under one name, Marshalltown Manufacturing Company.  Over the following decades, their product portfolio continued to evolve, but Marshalltown Trowel Company remained separate and continued operations at the facility on South 8th Avenue.  

Rounding Down Brick Trowels – Forging Hammer – 1921

During World War II, Marshalltown Manufacturing built many machines to supply the needs of the American troops.  By then, the company was manufacturing throatless shears and sold them to the U.S. Military in massive quantities for use in navy yards and ordinance installations. Marshalltown Manufacturing would continue to make them for the U.S. Air Force under contract long after World War II. 

Lester Williams served as President of Marshalltown Manufacturing until his death in 1945.  Lester’s sons, George and Robert, both began working a Marshalltown Manufacturing shortly after they graduated from high school, and later, George also served as President from 1964 – 1967.  

After 1920, Marshalltown Trowel had no other acquisitions until 1969, when the company bought the power trowel portion of Construction Machinery Company (CMC) from Waterloo, Iowa. These were the first powered machines MARSHALLTOWN added to its line. 

Through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, MARSHALLTOWN focused internally and saw a significant amount of organic growth. Steadfast leadership ultimately resulted in demand exceeding the company’s production capabilities, and after much discussion, it built an additional manufacturing facility in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1981.  MARSHALLTOWN has continued expanding its operations at both locations and now has nearly 650,000 square feet of office, manufacturing, and distribution space (2022). 

Another 34 years would pass after the acquisition of CMC’s power trowel business before MARSHALLTOWN added another company to its portfolio – EMBEE.  EMBEE—originally founded in 1885—was a well-known manufacturer of painter and paperhanger tools as well as putty knives and scrapers. Then, just a little over a year later, MARSHALLTOWN worked out a deal with Custom Building Products (CBP) to buy the concrete tool line formerly owned by Superior Featherweight Tools. With all these changes and a catalog of well over 5,000 products, the company had become much more than just a “trowel” supplier and changed its name in 2003.  To its customers and others in the industry, the company is known for the best tools, and it is known by one name—MARSHALLTOWN.

Fayetteville, AR Facility – Present

In 2010 came another acquisition – Cleform Tool Corporation.  Cleform had been manufacturing tools for the construction industry since 1902 and brought several new lines of tools and equipment to the MARSHALLTOWN catalog.  These items included several popular asphalt and seal coating tools, quality Gilson Mixers, as well as a broad line of shovels, and long-handled tools.  Following this came several more acquisitions from 2018 to today.  Namely, Spin Screed – the world’s first lightweight power roller screed; Thrifty Trowel-Clark Tile – plastic notch trowels, putty knives, and notch spreaders; Bullet Tools – flooring, siding, and insulation cutters; Barco – tampers/edgers/groovers; Avalanche! – snow removal tools; Gatorback –mortar boards and pans; and Frederick Tool Corp – masonry tools/customization; and most recently has partnered with Superior Innovations – bull float vibration technology.

Today, MARSHALLTOWN is one of the largest tool manufacturers in its space with products for asphalt, brick & stone, concrete, paint, drywall, plaster, stucco, tiling/flooring, carpet, archaeology, snow and related construction and home improvement applications.  Despite its growth and innovation, the company has stayed true to its roots. It still manufactures tools with superior quality, and it still uses honesty and square dealing.  However, staying true to its roots does not mean it hasn’t changed – the company continues to expand.  The most recent change to the Iowa facility added 60,000 square feet of additional manufacturing space in February 2022.  When including Fayetteville, Arkansas, MARSHALLTOWN now has nearly 650,000 square feet of building space.  They continue making major improvements to its infrastructure, manufacturing, and distribution processes to ensure that it can continue to serve its customers well for the next 132 years and beyond.

MARSHALLTOWN is still family owned and headquartered at the same location on South 8th Avenue in Marshalltown, Iowa.

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