When the news broke last week that the old Freed Glass facility in Perkasie would get new life, some deserved attention was focused on a key leader in Perkasie’s growth as a modern town: John Melvin Freed.
Mel Freed started his company in 1920 in his family’s basement in Perkasie on Callowhill Street. The J. Melvin Freed Inc. firm was one of Perkasie’s key employers for decades, and it was one of the critical businesses, along with Snyder Cigars, the Beidler and Royal Pants clothing factories, and the U.S. Gauge plant in Sellersville, that helped Perkasie survive losing its cigar trade and the Great Depression.
Freed was born in East Rockhill Township in 1888. He graduated from Perkasie High School in 1906 as one of six senior class members. By 1910, Freed was living with his parents on Callowhill Street. He then attended and graduated from Muhlenberg College and studied for a year at Cornell University. Over the next few years, Freed moved to Allentown to teach high school biology, but his life would change forever after his brief service overseas in World War I.
Freed’s Army enlistment lasted from December 1917 to July 1919, and included duties at a mobile laboratory unit, the ambulance service, Army medical school, and a field hospital. Freed spent seven months in Europe, which as the hub of the microscopic slide business.
On his discharge, Freed moved briefly to Iowa to teach at a college. He later said the poor quality of the students at the profit-seeking school ended his interest in teaching. Freed moved to Philadelphia and worked as a clerk while he spent his spare time on a hobby of creating American-made microscopic slides with a special cutting machine. Happy with his progress, Freed moved back home to Perkasie and made a small set of slides in his parents’ basement.
Mel Freed then got his career break on a sales call at a laboratory. At the time, the world’s slides came from Germany or Belgium, and Germany had stopped exporting slides after the war. On seeing his sample slides, an executive thanked Freed for bringing him German slides. His response was they were “made in Perkasie by a Pennsylvania Dutchmen.”
Freed went back to Perkasie, and with the help of his parents and sister, he fulfilled a large order of slides in two weeks. By 1922, Freed started building his factory facility at Firth and Callowhill streets and he also married Laura Crouthamel. The Freed business focused on slides but also sold glass windshields for cars and commercial glass for buildings. In 1923, Freed began his civic career by winning election as Perkasie Borough’s auditor.
In 1925, Freed partnered with Titus Haring of Quakertown on another critical project for his business: plate-glass switch plates. Within three years, Freed had 28 full-time employees at his plant, as the business steadily expanded. A decade later Freed had 66 employees. In late 1939, Perkasie Central News editor John Sprenkel wrote about Freed’s special relationship with his workers. At the annual Christmas Party, Freed handed out $3,000 in bonuses to workers. He also was providing health insurance and paid sick time to employees.
In October 1940, Freed partnered with a glass manufacturer in Pittsburgh to break Germany’s near monopoly on micro-thin cover glass for slides, and about 50 percent of glass covers were now made in Perkasie. During the war, Freed employed five of the six workers trained in the United States to cut cover glass for slides.
The Freeds were also known for their civic involvement in Perkasie Borough. They maintained a large plot of land between Fourth and Fifth streets as a flower garden for the community. Mel Freed served twice on Perkasie Borough Council. He also was entrusted with leading the public effort to survey local businesses to see how returning veterans from the Perkasie-Sellersville community would affect the economy.
In the early 1950s, the Freed business was producing than 1 million glass-switch plates and was the largest glass-slide maker in the country. But perhaps Freed’s most important work came in 1952, when he received a personal call from Dr. Jonas Salk. The Freed company in Perkasie accepted the task of making 10,000 micro-thin slide covers for Salk’s polio vaccine project. In April 1955 came the stunning announcement of the vaccine’s success.
However, in August 1955, Freed was hospitalized for nearly 13 weeks for heart problems and after his release in November, he told the News-Herald that “Perkasie in particular, never looked better than it did on Saturday morning. Thanks again for every good wish and prayer.” He was again hospitalized in 1956 and then passed away in July 1956 at the age of 67 while on a fishing trip in Pike County from heart issues. Days earlier, another important local leader, Walter Emerson Baum, had died. The News-Herald wrote an editorial about both men, marking the importance of their lives.
Freed, it said, had “relieved his country from dependence on a foreign-made product in a very important field of scientific work. The lives and accomplishments of these two men should be an inspiration to youth of today, and an answer to those who at times appear to have lost faith in the American way. There is still opportunity for those with talent and ideas when they, are followed up with ambition, hard work and perseverance.”
In 1959, J. Melvin Freed Inc. was still Perkasie’s third-largest employer, with 120 employees. In 1985, the facility had grown to 11 buildings and still employed more than 100 people. However, in March 1988 the business was sold to a firm based in New Hampshire that also controlled the supply of glass materials for Freed and other manufactures. The building site was sold at auction to the Perkasie Borough Authority that year.