The morning of February 17, 1986, dawned cool and rainy in Franklin, Pennsylvania. Despite the chill in the air and the fog hovering over French Creek, there was an undercurrent of excitement. After months of intense pressure, tight deadlines, and hundreds of man-hours of work, Liberty Electronics, the town’s newest business, was set to open in a gala event. Liberty offered Franklin and the nation a new solution to an old problem: manufacturing wiring components for military and commercial aerospace industries at the highest level of innovation and workmanship. An entire community came together to put this forward-thinking company on its feet. And now it was time to celebrate .
The journey began less than a year previously with Larry Snow, a veteran of the aerospace industry. A Northwest Pennsylvania native, Snow graduated from Oil City High School in 1961, then served in the U.S. Navy before taking a job with McDonnell Douglas. Working his way from foreman to engineer, by 1985, Snow was a supervisor with Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, California. [i] His 20 years of experience taught him that many aerospace and defense contractors needed help in creating cable assemblies and wiring harnesses. At first, the idea for a specialized business was only on paper, the subject of a senior research project at LaVerne University.[ii] But, when Snow visited his family back in Oil City in the spring of 1985, he saw opportunity in the midst of economic stagnation: old manufacturing sites stood empty, an unemployed population yearned for decent jobs, and community leaders were committed to bringing in new industry. It seemed a perfect chance to launch his pioneering idea. Snow went to fellow Hughes employee, Brian Barnett, with his plan, and the offer to join him when he made his pitch to local investors in one month’s time. “I reminded Larry he was crazy,” recalls Barnett.[iii] Pulling together a sales presentation for a non-existent company in such a short time seemed “impossible.”[iv] But the whirlwind schedule of investor meetings and site tours paid off. Barnett signed on as Liberty’s Vice President of Manufacturing, and a corporation was formed.
After two months of negotiations, the former Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company site in Franklin became Liberty’s home. Touted as an industrial incubator for burgeoning area businesses, the reality was far bleaker. Barnett remembers “blown out glass windows… water pipes…dripping inside…oil-soaked wood block floors…bats and birds flying around.”[v] Turning such a disaster into the high-tech cleanroom environment that was envisioned was going to take cash. Lots of it. Local businessmen and government agencies quickly rallied to the task. Liberty secured funding for start-up costs and the building site from a variety of city, county, and state redevelopment authorities.[vi] Further financing was possible through private security sales, turning locals into company shareholders. Barnett argues that, “All the CEOs in this town rose up to save Franklin.”[vii] The fundraising campaign took time and determination. With 12 minutes to spare before the midnight deadline on December 31, 1985, Snow submitted the final funding to the bank.[viii] Work could finally begin.
Liberty’s mission to be “the finest, most technically competent wire manufacturing organization ever assembled” was demonstrated in its gala opening two months later.[ix] Over one hundred individuals and businesses were invited, as well as Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh and President Ronald Reagan.[x] George Washington’s birthday was deliberately chosen as the date of the celebration, a reminder of Liberty’s patriotic character and Franklin’s colonial heritage. Area performer Linda Leisher opened the event singing “God Bless America,” and closed with the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”[xi] But while much of the festivities celebrated the area’s history, Liberty was looking to the future, not the past. Tours of the facility showed how an abandoned site could be transformed to a technical masterpiece, qualified to meet the high expectations of military and aerospace manufacturing. The venture was emblematic of a national tipping point, as the U.S. moved from making steel and iron to computers and telecommunications. Liberty wanted to take Northwest Pennsylvania into the future, and in the months and years to come, it would do just that.
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[i] Larry Snow, “Letter from the President,” Liberty Electronics prospectus, c. 1986, Liberty Electronics archives.
[ii] Judith Etzel, “Native Son Finds Challenge Here,” The Derrick (Oil City, Pa.), 30 September 1985.
[iii] Brian Barnett, “Liberty Electronics—The Early Years,” unpublished memo, 21 May 2018.
[vi] See the following: “Electronics firm seeks start-up funds,” The News-Herald (Franklin, Pa.), 5 September 1985; “Factory Loan Pushed,” The Derrick, 7 September 1985; “Franklin Board Approves Incubator Funding Pact,” The Derrick, 10 September 1985.
[vii] Brian Barnett (Programs Director, retired, Liberty Electronics), interview with author , 21 May 2018.
[viii] “Liberty Electronics financing completed,” The News-Herald, 7 January 1986.
[ix] Larry Snow, “Letter from the President.”
[x] Gala invitations list, c. 1986, Liberty Electronics archives.
[xi] Gala program, 17 February 1986, Liberty Electronics archives.