Founder’s grandson reconnects with Blackmer

Bill Blackmer tours distributor facility after years of yearning to know more of his grandfather’s legacy.
Blackmer Pump has been based on Century Avenue SW in Grand Rapids since 1925 and currently is undergoing a $7 million expansion. Courtesy Blackmer

At age 22, Bill Blackmer stumbled across his grandfather’s most famous invention while cleaning house, but another 64 years passed before he reached out to the business that bears his family name.

Inventor of the sliding vane, or rotary, pump, Robert Blackmer founded Blackmer Pump, Power and Manufacturing Company in Detroit at the turn of the 20th century. He moved the company to Petoskey in 1903, then sold his interest in the business and moved back to Detroit somewhere between 1908 and 1912 — records are fuzzy on the exact dates — where he launched his next career as a consulting engineer.

Today, Blackmer is a global provider of sliding vane, centrifugal, screw and regenerative turbine pumps and reciprocating gas compressor technologies primarily for the safe transfer of liquids and gases. It was acquired by the Dover Corporation in 1964 and became a founding operating company within Dover’s Pump Solutions Group (PSG) in 2008. 

The company has been based at 1809 Century Ave. SW in Grand Rapids since 1925 and is currently undergoing a $7 million expansion, as the Business Journal previously reported. The campus houses design, engineering, manufacturing, testing, customer service and administrative functions for Blackmer.

The founder’s grandson, Bill Blackmer — originally from Southfield but a resident of Cumming, Georgia, for the past 10 years — never worked for the company his forebear founded. In fact, he never heard of it until discovering a Blackmer pump while cleaning out his grandparents’ house after their death, when he was 22. His grandfather was 74 when he was born and had sold the company long before, so no one in the family mentioned it to Bill Blackmer, now 86, when he was growing up. In 1957, at the age of 96, Robert Blackmer died.

This spring, Bill Blackmer was visiting with his granddaughter, who had returned home on break from the University of Georgia, and he noticed she was wearing a Blackmer T-shirt, bringing back to mind his grandfather’s business. Intrigued, he began searching online for similar Blackmer memorabilia.

“I thought how neat it would be to give them as gifts to my children and grandchildren,” Bill Blackmer said.

He sent an email to the company mentioning his familial connection and requesting merchandise to purchase, and Steve Cox, a regional sales manager at Blackmer, replied. Since Cox and Josh Pepper, a regional sales director, already were planning a business trip to the South, they offered Bill Blackmer the opportunity to see today’s version of his grandfather’s invention at the Blackmer distributor Voigt-Abernathy in Cumming, Georgia. Cox and Pepper took Bill Blackmer on a tour of the facility on May 4.

“I met with Steve, Josh and others at the Voigt-Abernathy facility in Cumming, Georgia, where I was shown some extremely interesting and impressive pieces of Blackmer equipment — much more complicated than the original vane pump,” Bill Blackmer said.

Since then, he has been thinking back on how he had many opportunities to stop into the Grand Rapids headquarters over the years when he was working in advertising sales across Michigan, but he never did.

“I often thought, ‘Gee, I ought to stop there,’” he said. “And then I would think, ‘Well, that’s all they need, is somebody walking in, purporting to be a relative and interrupting somebody’s day when they’ve got work to do.’”

Now, in his old age, Bill Blackmer is determined to change that.

“I have a brother-in-law who lives in Muskegon, and his wife is originally from Grand Rapids, so I’m sure that I will now,” he said. “The next time we’re going, I will call them and see if I can’t set up a meeting and a tour to go see it. It would be really fun.”

Bob Lauson, general manager of Blackmer Grand Rapids, said the company would welcome a visit from its founder’s grandson, to show him the legacy his relative left behind.

“We service the world,” Lauson said. “We have 60%, 65% of our business in North America, another 15% to 20% in South America, and the rest is Europe, the Middle East, Africa (and) Asia Pacific. It’s amazing what one guy’s idea for a pump, what that becomes after 100 years.”

Although most of Blackmer’s pumps today are used in the fossil fuel industry, the products are also used to pump hazardous substances; chemicals, such as liquid ammonia; carbon dioxide; and foods, including molasses.

The pump has a long history of use in the defense industry, having been used to remove water from trenches in World War I and in the belly of Naval ships in World War II. Bill Blackmer doesn’t know for sure, but he believes his grandfather got the idea for the pump as a young man living in California during the heyday of the mining industry.

“In the stuff that we went through after his death, there were telegrams from mining companies extolling the benefits of the Blackmer pump and how they had opened mine passages that had been under water until the invention of his pump,” Bill Blackmer said.

Robert Blackmer lived an incredible life, his grandson said. Born in Saginaw in 1861, he left home at the age of 12 to head west, experiencing adventures along the way.

One night on his westward excursion, as Blackmer family lore has it, he ran into a lone Native American who was suffering from multiple stab wounds. Not a man of medicine but certainly one of ingenuity, Robert Blackmer heated his saber over a campfire and cauterized the man’s wounds before moving on.

Around 1881, he stopped in New Mexico. While there, according to family legend, he was with Pat Garrett the night he murdered Henry McCarty — aka “Billy the Kid.”

Whether the tales above are true or fables, Blackmer did eventually reach the Golden State and worked as a scout for the U.S. Army for a while. Some years later, he returned to the Midwest and married Nellie Gilman in 1900, founding Blackmer while starting a family.

After selling Blackmer Pump, Robert Blackmer had his second career as an engineer, then maintained his skills after retirement by building furniture without the use of power tools and tending to his large vegetable garden well into his 80s.

“He was multitalented — the most remarkable man you could imagine,” his grandson said. “He was his own person. … I have so many fond memories of him.

“Every time I drive down the road and see a 50-gallon drum with a pump attached, I think of Granddad. If he had any idea what became of his pump, his company (and) his dream over 100 years later, I think he would be wowed.”

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