The first version of the Wickes company was founded by brothers Henry Dunn Wickes and Edward Noyes Wickes, in Flint, Michigan. The Wickes family had left New York state and settled in Flint in 1854, and were soon modestly established in the area's burgeoning lumber business. Michigan possessed some of the thickest and choicest pine forests in the United States, and land could be purchased at the bargain price of only $1.25 per acre. The Wickes brothers, along with H.W. Wood, established the Genesee Iron Works, a foundry and machine shop specializing in repair work and the casting of odd metal parts for equipment used in the logging and lumber business. Yet the pig iron the company used had to be hauled in from Saginaw, Michigan, by ship and wagon; conversely, the equipment the foundry manufactured was being hauled back to Saginaw for shipment. As the company's business increased, it became obvious that the closer the foundry was to Saginaw--a boom town at the time--the more efficient and profitable the operation would be.
Life in Saginaw did not appeal to H.W. Wood, however--the landscape was composed mostly of the swampland and mosquito-infested marshes adjacent to Lake Huron--so in 1864 he sold out to the Wickes brothers. That same year, the company's name was changed to the Wickes Bros. Iron Works. During these years, Henry Wickes developed and marketed the Wickes gang saw, a steam-powered mill saw capable of ripping two or three logs into boards simultaneously. In 1869 the company made some basic improvements to the gang saw's design, which revolutionized the lumber milling business. The new saw had an oscillating motion, allowing the teeth of the machine's parallel saw blades to cut evenly. In addition, the saw's speed was increased and thinner-gauge steel blades were used to cut down on waste. The new design's success created a national market for Wickes Bros. And international saw sales enabled the company to survive as Michigan's lumber business slowly dried up. By 1887 there were more than 300 Wickes saws in operation.
In another move towards diversification, Wickes bought equipment from troubled sawmills, reconditioned it, and resold it to mills in other parts of the country. Wickes also expanded its repair and resale business to include all kinds of machinery. As the new business grew, the Wickes brothers noticed industrial boilers were one of the most frequently bought and resold items. After developing the machinery necessary to manufacture new boilers, the Wickes Boiler Company was founded. At this time, two of Henry's sons, Harry and William, took over management of the family's enterprises. Harry headed Wickes Bros. Foundry, and William led the boiler business.
In 1901 the original founders of the burgeoning Wickes empire died: Edward died first and was followed just a month and a day later by older brother Henry. Henry died in Guadalajara, Mexico, where both brothers had traditionally gone to spend their winters. It was on just such a trip to Guadalajara that the third Wickes business, the United States Graphite Company (U.S. Graphite), had been born.
While vacationing in Mexico, Henry and Edward had heard of a huge graphite deposit not far from where they were staying. Upon further exploration, they discovered an enormous workable vein of about 85 percent pure graphite in the desert mountains below La Colorada, Mexico. They passed the information on to Henry's sons, who incorporated U.S. Graphite in 1891. After acquiring an abandoned shed next to a railroad depot back in Saginaw, and having some luck--both the Mexican government and the Southern Pacific Railroad were in the process of building rail lines that permitted easy and inexpensive shipment of the raw graphite back to Michigan--U.S. Graphite began to mine, import, and sell the black powder as paint coloring, a lead substitute for pencils, and an industrial lubricant. At one point, U.S. Graphite supplied the graphite-based lead substitute for at least 90 percent of the world's pencils; it achieved even greater success in the years preceding World War I as the demand for electricity grew. Graphite was the major component in the manufacture of carbon brushes, or contacts, necessary in the operation of electric motors.