IBM, Ulster County’s largest employer came – and went

Left, the campus known as IBM Kingston, though it was in the Town of Ulster, employed 7100 people at its peak in the mid-1980s. Right, the U.S. Air Force contracted IBM to develop a national air defense network, which came to be known as SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment). (Friends of Historic Kingston)

Most of the Boice Dairy Farm in Lake Katrine was purchased by IBM in February 1954 when the iconic American company needed a new facility to support its growing operations. The sprawling 208-acre campus known as IBM Kingston brought about massive changes to the housing, retail, and economic landscape of the area. To this day, you can still often bump into a former “Beemer.”

Founded in 1911 by Thomas Watson Sr. in Endicott, New York, the company was originally called the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). Its presence in the Hudson Valley began in a former pickle factory in Poughkeepsie in 1941 with a subsidiary called Munitions Manufacturing Company, formed to produce rifles, cannons, and aircraft fire-control systems during World War II. After the war, the facility shifted to manufacturing punchcard calculators and electric typewriters. As the Cold War escalated, the U.S. Air Force contracted with IBM to develop a national air defense network known as SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment). 


By the early Fifties, the Poughkeepsie plant was running out of space. Fred Eisler, owner of the Stuyvesant hotel in Kingston, had been friends with IBM president Thomas Watson Jr. for more than four decades. He suggested Kingston. 

When the facility opened in November 1956, one division was dedicated to the electric typewriter. (Friends of Historic Kingston)

The countryside was growing in popularity, especially as urban areas were considered a greater threat to Soviet attack, and automobile use was rapidly expanding. The New York State Thruway‘s Ulster County segment was completed in 1954-’55, and the last segment from Yonkers to Bronx a year later. The Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge across the Hudson River began construction in 1954 and opened in 1957. During the two years it took to build the new facility, IBM rented space for its first 40 employees in a former bowling alley called Ruzzo Bowlatorium on Grand Street in Midtown.

IBM Kingston opened in November 1956 with one division for the electric typewriter and one for SAGE. The first real-time data processor in existence, SAGE took nine years and $18 billion to develop. It was built, tested, and the personnel were trained at the Kingston facility. One of the company‘s other well-known products, the IBM System 360, was a popular and successful mainframe assembled, tested, shipped, and supported in Kingston.

In July 1994. in the middle of a $8.9-billion company restructuring, IBM announced it would close its 2.4-million-square-foot facility in Kmgston and transfer operations there elsewhere.

It was the end of an era. Today, Ulster County has less than a quarter of the manufacturing labor force  it boasted of during the heyday of IBM.

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