All Fired Up

The Daniels family has worked for generations to build the Sam Daniels Co. in Montpelier into a household name in heat

by Larissa K. Vigue

You can't find a cozier warmth than wood heat," says David Grant. Grant purchased a Sam Daniels wood-oil combination furnace in 1988 when he and his wife, Heidrun, moved into a "big old farmhouse" in Johnson. The existing system "had two separate oil-hot air furnaces -- the ducts weren't connected -- and they didn't make it through the winter." The couple was told repeatedly that one reliable unit was impossible for the size of their house until neighbors with a Sam Daniels unit suggested contacting the 92-year-old Montpelier company. "They surveyed the house and said, 'No problem,'" marvels David.

Jim and Donna Daniels are the fourth generation of their family to own the Sam Daniels Co. The metal fabrication company was founded by Jim's great-grandfather (inset) in Hardwick in 1908, and is now located on U.S. 2 in Montpelier. (Inset: Courtesy Sam Daniels Co.)

Other than yearly preventive maintenance, the Grants haven't given a second thought to their heating system since. "The machine is wonderful," says Heidrun. "God willing, we'll have it another 40 years." She credits the workmanship and the company's integrity. "They have the Vermont value: You do the right thing and people respond in kind."

"They," says her husband, "are a fantastic family firm."

Located on U.S. 2, the Sam Daniels Co. is run by president James E. Daniels, great-grandson of the company's founder, and his wife, Donna. Jim is the fourth direct descendent to run the business which, in addition to manufacturing furnaces, makes commercial dumpsters and does sheet metal work. The latter accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the business. The company's green, 10,000-square-foot building houses a manufacturing plant, offices, and a showroom.

Jim and Donna bought the company in 1988 from Jim's father, Elwyn J. "Bob" Daniels Jr., and his wife, Lorraine, who had revived the business after a shutdown from 1970 to '73. According to a history called "The Sam Daniels Company," written by Lorraine in the early 1980s, the popularity of oil and gas heat had all but extinguished the market for wood furnaces. The trend forced Sam's two sons and daughter, who took over when their father died in 1950, to auction off the equipment and close the doors.

A surge in oil prices in the early '70s inspired Bob and Lorraine to start from scratch. "We had a firm belief in a great product," reads the history, "that had been tested and proven for over 60 years." Young Jim, then a high school junior, helped assemble the first new furnace, displayed at the 1975 Champlain Valley Fair. Sales soon soared and the business outgrew two shops before the current plant was built in 1980.

Today, Jim's duties include scheduling, house surveys and installations. He's been working at the company full-time since 1978, when he returned to Vermont after a cross-country road trip. "I kind of fell into this -- I didn't have a job. But I started doing it and enjoyed it." Given his years in the business, it's no surprise Donna says he can pretty much work up an estimate in his head just by walking into someone's house.

For Jim, who says his interest in drafting might have led him to architectural engineering if he'd gone to college, a house is his workshop. "Half the time I won't remember (a former customer's) name or how to get to his house, but I can see the guy's basement."

As vice president, Donna oversees the finances and takes orders from customers. She's well-qualified to balance the books. After graduating in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Vermont, she worked as a risk manager in the controller's department of National Life of Vermont. Although Donna and Jim thought she should hold onto that job after purchasing the company, she remembers that "when push came to shove, we decided that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it." She admits she didn't have a clue about the business when she took over Lorraine's office duties, but she learned quickly. "We only do hot air systems, but when I first started I sent Jimmy on quite a few calls to do hot water furnaces. My first question now is: Hot air or hot water?"

Donna and Jim grew up in Montpelier, graduated from Montpelier High School in 1977, the year they started dating, and married in 1982. They lived in Montpelier until six years ago, when they built a house (complete with a Daniels wood-oil unit) just a couple of miles away in Berlin. Mixing family and business so closely extends beyond the two owners. Billy Collins, one of two full-time employees who work in the shop and install heating systems, is married to Jim's sister, Jayne. Collins and the other full-timer, Scott Smith, have been with the company since Jim's father was president. A couple of subcontractors Jim sends on service calls -- and who also have been affiliated with the company for years -- round out the staff.

Even the company mascot has a long tenure. Sam the cat, a stray adopted 14 years ago, lives in the office. She replaced the first Sam, who, according to Donna, "looked just the same, except that Sam Number 1 was male."

Jim Daniels explains the company's furnaces "are built one at a time. They're completely assembled on the floor and then torn apart so when it's taken to the home, every nut and bolt lines up." Billy Collins (foreground) works with Scott Smith.

Born in 1875 in Woodbury, Sam Daniels was a master carpenter, sheet metal worker, plumber, and sometime inventor. Dissatisfied with the line of products he used, he set about designing his own. He patented furnaces, as well as a maple syrup evaporator, milking machines and tanks. "Guys like him, they thought down the road," reflects Jim about the great-grandfather he never knew, but whose legacy is Jim's livelihood. "They knew what was coming and built things accordingly."

The company was incorporated in 1908 in Hardwick. Starting with a handful of employees, it grew to upwards of 100 workers in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s while Sam's ingenuity extended to finding creative ways to manage them. As an example, Jim tells how his great-grandfather built a walkway suspended by cables over the Lamoille River to allow employees from the other side of the river to get to the shop.

Using his talent for invention to make life easier was Sam's mission; it's apparent in the development of the furnaces. "They weren't always built in the design and shape they are today," explains Jim. "I have pictures from the 1910-20 era and you can see the design changed. He built something that was good to start and then he could see where it could be improved. A lot of old timers were like that: They weren't afraid to ... (keep making improvements) until they got to a point where they said, 'This is what I want; this works really good.'"

Daniels furnaces, which generally run for 30 to 50 years on original parts (and then, on new parts, go another generation), are made almost entirely in-house and painstakingly by hand. "Our units are built one at a time," says Jim. "They're completely assembled on the floor and then torn apart so when it's taken to the home, every nut and bolt lines up. It takes longer to do it that way, but that's something we'll always do because that's what Sam Daniels is all about."

Workers start with flat steel bought from Capitol Steel and Supply Co. in Montpelier: a business relationship that goes back to Jim's father's presidency. They mold and weld it into what becomes the outer casing insulating the firebox, and part of the firebox itself. Cast iron parts are manufactured in Hamburg, Pa. In Sam's day, a foundry on-site in Hardwick meant that even the cast iron work was manufactured in-house. They build all their own duct work and oversee installation from start to finish.

Today, the company is the only manufacturer in the country of the pipeless furnace, which uses a single, large register for the exchange of air. One of two "flowing heat" or "gravity" furnaces, which employ the physics of convection to push heat up and out without relying on electricity to power a network of blowers, the pipeless version was engineered for economy and accessibility. Another gravity-based version uses a pipe system for the exchange of hot and cold air to any number of room registers.

Sam Daniels, circa 1906, with an early wood furnace outside his Hardwick home. (Courtesy: Sam Daniels Co.)

By far the most popular model is the forced warm-air furnace with a blower system. Its benefits include a large, low-velocity fan for increased circulation, automatic thermostat control, and, for power outages, an emergency feature that turns it into a gravity furnace when the side panels are removed. Regardless of the model, all the fireboxes have large openings for easy loading and are built deep to hold enough wood to burn eight to 12 hours.

Depending on the season, the company sells 60 to 80 furnaces per year. Systems cost $2,160 to $4,990, plus labor to install, depending on size and style: wood, wood-oil, or wood-gas. On average, it takes two to three days for a crew of three to install a system in a new house, which means the company can schedule two or three installations a week during the furnace season. "It's like a wave," explains Donna. "You get your first wave after July 4th. Then when it gets cold, you get another wave." Changing an oil-only unit to wood or to a wood-oil combination using the same duct work often takes a day, if the job's within a 50-mile radius.

Approximately 15 years ago, the company decided to complement furnace manufacturing with a new line: dumpsters. The shop already had the necessary equipment, and since "it's predominantly a summer business, it's a good mix," explains Jim. It sells 400 to 500 a year.

Keith Austin, who used to own Austin Rubbish Removal, bought a number of the dumpsters, because "they're well-built and the company's been around a long time. And they'd go out of their way for you." He passed the relationship onto his son, whose business, Pat Austin Rubbish Removal, has purchased 50 or 60 of the dumpsters.

Furnaces and dumpsters keep the shop humming year-round. With additional projects such as building kitchen shelving for Montpelier's Capitol Plaza and trail gates for the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, Jim isn't rushing to expand the company's marketing efforts. "We stay plenty busy doing the things the way they are," he says. In addition to word-of-mouth, the company replies on seasonal ads in weekly papers and spots on radio stations like WDEV-AM/FM in Waterbury, which caters to mostly older, rural Vermonters.

"Those people sell the furnaces for us. We'll go into an area and put a furnace in an old farmhouse that's always been cold -- that's the house that everybody comes to on Saturdays to play pinochle and they're all bundled up," says Jim. "But then we put our furnace in and the next Saturday they're taking their sweaters off and everybody has to go downstairs and see what's down there. And then we start getting calls."

Approximately 15 years ago, Sam Daniels added dumpsters to its product line. The predominantly summer business complements the company's furnace work. Upwards of 500 dumpsters go out the door each year.

"We've seen a surge of younger, out-of-state couples coming up to build houses," adds Donna. "They like the way of life in Vermont, and they think part of that is burning wood. They talk around town, see who's good, and they come right here." If future seasons are anything like this one, with oil and gas prices fluctuating, the market for wood will increase steadily -- by approximately 20 to 25 percent, figures Jim, over the next five years.

More than likely, homeowners will rely on Sam Daniels for years to come. Whether the Daniels's 2-year-old daughter, Abby, will oversee the plant someday, or one of their nephews will, is yet to be seen. By passing down its designs and values from one generation to the next, the Sam Daniels Co. has accomplished what many businesses only dream of: nearly a century of service.

Echoing his great-grandfather's commitment to quality, Jim explains how important it is to pay attention to the small details. "We show up on the day we told them we'd show up; we do the work that was specified for the amount of dollars specified. That means a lot to people. If you sell people something, you stand behind your product. If you don't do that, it's not going to work."

Larissa K. Vigue is a free-lance writer living in Winooski. She plans to complete her master's degree at Middlebury College's Breadloaf School of English in August.