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1920s manhole covers still can be found in S.A.

Jan 19, 2024

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William H. Winterborne, seated at left, and his wife, Minnie, pose for an undated family photo with their children. Charles, standing at left, and Arthur, far right, both worked with their father in the family business, W.H. Winterborne & Sons, founded in 1913.

Born in England, machinist William H. Winterborne emigrated at age 28 and lived in Houston and Waco before settling in San Antonio around the turn of the last century.

A reader spotted a Winterborne & Sons manhole cover outside La Frite Belgian Bistro, 728 S. Alamo St. Many more still survive in the city's older neighborhoods.

Tricentennial manhole covers, commemorating San Antonio's 300th birthday in 2018, were installed in areas with pedestrian traffic. The ones they replaced were set aside to be reused in other locations.

I am looking for any information you can find about the location and possible history of an old metal foundry by the name of (I believe) C.H. Winterborn that made manhole covers that are still found around town. I found one that is right outside of the building that houses La Frite restaurant just south of downtown, and there used to be many in and around the downtown area before the revitalization of the area. I would appreciate anything you can find about him and his company, as he is one of my forebears.

— Bobby Douglass

The object of interest here has several different names. "Manhole cover" is probably the most common, but they’re also known as "sewer covers" or even "maintenance hole covers." We’re going to go with "manhole" covers here anyway, since that's the word used most often in city bid notices, such as the one to which the Winterbornes (note spelling) would have responded.

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The family's surname also varies. It has been spelled at least three different ways — Winterbourne, Winterborn and Winterborne. We’ll go with the last one here because it seems to have been their government name, used by the U.S. Army and on death certificates, other official documents and on the manhole covers they produced for the city.

Professionally, the Winterbornes often are referred to as "founders," in the sense of operating a foundry (a cast-metal factory), and they also founded a business that lasted for two generations.

The founding founder was William Henry Winterborne (1861-1940), born in Lambeth, England. The son of a wheelwright and engineer, according to the 1881 England census, young Winterbourne (then spelled with a u) was already an "improver engineer." He emigrated to the United States in 1889 and seems to have streamlined his surname at that time.

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Winterborne got to Texas as soon as he could. It's not known where he first arrived, but he was working as a machinist in Houston as of that city's 1890 and 1891 city directories. He moved to Waco and was proprietor of his own business, Waco City Iron Works, as listed in the 1892 and 1893 city directories. Later newspaper stories say he came to San Antonio in 1900. The U.S. census that year shows him back in Houston as a machinist with his wife, Minnie (also English), daughters Lydia and Gertrude and sons Arthur (1890-1963) and Charles (1891-1974).

The family made its way to San Antonio in time for the 1910 census, by which time another daughter, Evelyn, had been born. William had become a naturalized U.S. citizen and was working as a superintendent in a machine shop — probably San Antonio Machinery and Supply Co., or SAMSCO, a longtime powerhouse in the field of street hardware, including manhole covers and the rings on which they’re seated.

As noted in San Antonio city directories, all three male Winterbornes worked at SAMSCO for a few years in the early 1910s before setting up their own company in 1914, having bought out a fully equipped machine shop at 315 (later 321-23) Austin St. near Ninth Street.

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William, who went by "W.H.," was listed as company president and treasurer through the ’30s; Arthur was vice president into the ‘20s; and Charles, or "C.H.," was secretary, with time out to serve in the Army's Ordnance Corps during World War I.

During the 1920s, the business flourished, growing from a single small shop into a complex that took up the length of nearly a whole block and employed a dozen workers besides the family members.

The two-story machine shop faced Austin Street in the front, and the foundry was in the rear, according to a story in the San Antonio Light, Oct. 4, 1924. The company made everything that could be fashioned from metal — axles, sash weights, grate bars, printing presses, grinding mills and machinery parts to order, with a specialty in manufacturing gears of all sizes in steel, cast iron and bronze, all from wood patterns handmade on the premises.

The manhole cover you saw probably was made between 1923 and 1925, when the firm produced a total of more than 500 covers and rings for the city, having been awarded contracts for "several thousand dollars" each. The first bid notice the Winterbornes responded to was probably the one published in the San Antonio Evening News, June 14, 1922, for 200 manhole rings and covers, "heavy type," and 600 manhole steps. A similar order came two years later.

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The 1924 Light story indicates the company also received orders for them from "other places."

Arthur left the family business in the mid-1930s to go to college and retrain as a teacher. He became an instructor in manual training who taught at Main Avenue (later Fox Tech) High School except during World War II when he did war work in electrical engineering for the Motor Transport School at Normoyle Quartermaster Motor Base.

Charles took over as head of the Winterborne company when his father retired, a few years before William's death in 1940.

"The foundry burned in the 1960s, but the machine shop continued," said Ed Gaida, author of "Sidewalks of San Antonio," a book about city street features, and a friend of Charles Winterborne, who gave him some of the shop's wooden patterns after his own retirement.

Many of the Winterborne manhole covers "still exist all over the city," Gaida said.

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