Henry Marcus Quackenbush, of Herkimer NY. Inventor, entrepreneur, husband, father, uncle. A “good man” archetype, if he was a character in a book, he would be boring due to his strength of personality. He was born to two old Herkimer families, one of which was perhaps some of the original Palatine settlers of the Mohawk Valley. Henry was born April 27th, 1847 to Isaac and Mary Ann Quackenbush (nee Rasbach) of Herkimer NY as the middle child of three children. Both of his other siblings would later achieve high amounts of success, and Henry was no different in that regard. What was different was the method by which he did so. His siblings achieved financial success and remembrance as a child’s author through their dedication to education and learning. Henry, on the other hand, was a tinkerer by nature, someone who worked with his hands, a trial-and-error it comes as no surprise in hindsight that he would become an inventor in time. H.M’s mother noticed his natural inclination to tinkering and thus got him apprenticed out to Remington Arms at an early age to hone his skills. This is not to say that H.M. was not a model student, he did his work and did well, but he had a much different calling from his siblings. He was not a militantly devout Christian, but he was one who attended religious services regularly, and this is despite his adoption of his first wife’s religion over his childhood religion, for he was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, but went over to Methodism because of his wife (Bronson Quackenbush).
While an apprentice an old Quackenbush family anecdote has it that Mr. Remington was passing by dirty window after dirty window, until he came upon the impeccably clean and neat workspace of a young Henry, and thus praised the young man for his cleanliness. Over the course of his tenure as an apprentice, he kept on tinkering and tinkering to the point where he invented a certain model of bicycle. Eventually, H.M. voiced his thoughts to his father about leaving Remington and starting his own business. However, his father urged him to stay because it was a nice steady job (after his time as an unpaid apprentice). It would seem that Henry Marcus was made of a bolder mold than his father was, as instead of keeping his nice and steady job for Remington he decided to pursue inventing and his own businesses full-time. At the same time, he quit Remington, he took another bold move: he got married (Bronson Quackenbush). A 23- or 24-year-old Henry with nearly nothing but an entrepreneurial drive and energy got married and decided to put the financial security of himself and his family in the hands of his invention and business skills.
It would seem that Henry would have been a young man comfortable and confident in his own abilities to succeed by his own means. Multiple inventions and patents sold as well as firsthand mechanical skills were perhaps some of the best trainings and preparation, he could have got for being an innovator. He was driven to succeed on his own terms not that of others. One of his earliest successes was the Eureka air pistol (a Quasi-pistol of sorts that could be used to teach proper marksmanship), which was praised by a certain William Tecumseh Sherman. Pioneering the .22 air rifle was also one of his groundbreaking achievements. As a gunsmith, Henry strived to make high-quality air guns that were so much more than some which were barely more than toys. Eventually, Quackenbush’s inventing skills brought him upon the most famous of his inventions and innovations: the spring-jointed nutcracker, which was still being produced by H.M. Quackenbush until the company was bought out and absorbed by others (Bronson Quackenbush). Family anecdotes suggest that the idea first came to him as a result of a dental pick. A Dr. Chesterfield requested for Quackenbush to design and manufacture dental picks for him, and Henry thought that they would make good nutpicks as well, so he decided to design, innovate, and manufacture nutcrackers in order to provide someone with a complete set.
Over the course of Quackenbush’s life he never lost sight of the bicycle and kept a notebook full of bicycle ideas and sketches. In 1895 Henry experienced the loss of his first wife, two years later in 1897 he would marry his second wife, Flora Franks (Bronson Quackenbush). One could safely assume that Quackenbush was the kind of gentleman who like many of his day took “Until death do us part” as seriously as it should. There is no proof, evidence, or even rumors of any mistresses at all of H.M. Quackenbush, and one can assume the opportunity presented itself, but there are no accounts whatsoever of illegitimate children or adulterous affairs. Overall, Henry Marcus was not distant, aloof, or a loner, in fact he was the farthest thing from it. He cared for his family, was active in the community (he was President of the Herkimer YMCA for a time), and was involved in a fire brigade which as Bronson Hager, a living relative of Quackenbush noted, could have contributed to his motivation for an improved extension ladder (Bronson Quackenbush).
Henry was not even neglectful of keeping up with his siblings in fact, one time he got so worried about his sister he literally sent a messenger over to her house to check up on her, this was done in the wake of her husband’s death, and her subsequent move back to Herkimer. It would seem that he had a deep love for all of his family, not just his siblings, children, but even for his cousins, nieces, nephews, and everyone else he was involved with would attest to him being this decent, well-mannered gentleman. H.M. Quackenbush died in 1933, passing down control of his business to his son, Paul, but his name is still legendary today as a local icon in the history of Herkimer County. Up until the company ceased operations and bought out it was operational until 2005 in Herkimer NY, making various products, most noticeably and famously so, the nutcracker. During the second world war the company switched over to wartime production of gun-related products. Over the years, from the end of the Second World War to being bought out, The H.M. Quackenbush company steered away from gun manufacturing and bike designing and focused more on nutcrackers and nutcracker-related products.
Now Quackenbush nutcrackers are rare, antique, expensive, and family heirlooms. Every time one sees a Quackenbush nutcracker on their shelves one should appreciate the man, the innovator, the legend who greatly innovated the design of the nutcracker, but one should not fail to acknowledge that he was a deeply caring and compassionate person. Thanks to the H.M. Quackenbush Company and a few other famous businesses (such as Remington Arms), the Mohawk Valley is known for more than its odd weather patterns, but also for its entrepreneurial spirit. Being a reminder, a shining example of the small, influential, successful American business. Showing that the “little guy,” the small town, the obscure place that people mispronounce can make itself essential and is.
Written for the Honors Program, Second Course (HP 302)
Advisor: Jeffrey Steele
Honors Program Advisor: Jennifer Herzog
Note: The student would also like to thank a Mr. Bronson Hager, a descendant of Quackenbush himself for discussing his ancestor and elaborating on the nuances.
Bronson Quackenbush, Margaret. Henry Marcus Quackenbush.. Herkimer, NY: Herkimer County Historical Society.
Elizabeth, Mary. “The Adventures of M.E.Q. Quackenbush, Author.” Herkimer County Historical Society Legacy Files, n.d.
Various. Herkimer County at 200. 1992. Reprint, Herkimer County Historical Society, 1992.