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Dan Townes, right, of Shelbyville Pencil Company explains some industrial machinery to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and Paul Bellantone, president and CEO of Promotional Products Association International. Local VIPs toured Shelbyville Pencil on Friday as part of a kickoff event for Promotional Products Work! Week. The event also included a luncheon at the Blue Ribbon Circle.
T-G Photo by John I. Carney

Shelbyville was once home to four pencil manufacturers — now there is only one, Musgrave Pencil Company. But there are also Shelbyville Pencil Company and National Pen Corp., which imprint messages and logos on writing instruments and other promotional products.

When you figure in other promotional product imprinters, such as Elaborate Images and The Cap Company, writing instruments, office supplies and promotional products account for 1,500 local jobs and $48 million in direct income, according to Shelbyville-Bedford County Chamber of Commerce CEO Allen Pitner.

Pitner knows that industry first-hand; his family used to run Economy Pencil, which was also a pencil imprinter, and Pitner is a past president of the Promotional Products Association of the Mid-South.

Special week

Pitner spoke during a kickoff luncheon for Promotional Products Work! Week which will run May 14-18. Paul Bellantone, president and CEO of Promotional Products Association International, traveled to Shelbyville to meet with local VIPs and congratulate Shelbyville for its role in the promotional products industry. Bellantone said that there are few cities where promotional products are as linked to the community at Shelbyville.

Mark Farrar of Shelbyville is CEO of the Promotional Products Association of the Mid-South and worked to organize Friday’s kickoff event, which was attended by U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, State Rep. Shane Reeves and a host of other local dignitaries. The event began with a tour of Shelbyville Pencil Company prior to the luncheon.

On Thursday night, Shelbyville City Council passed a resolution declaring the city to be “Promotional Products City USA” for the day.

County Mayor Eugene Ray also submitted a proclamation, which was presented on his behalf by Scott Johnson of Bedford County Emergency Management Agency, declaring Promotional Products Work! Week in Bedford County, and Reeves presented a similar resolution signed by himself, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and State Rep. Pat Marsh.

Spark for growth

“I have a heart for small business,” said Reeves, “and when small businesses grow, they hire people.”

Reeves’ proclamation said that of the 828 promotional products companies employing 11,000 in Tennessee, 98 percent are small businesses.

Pitner, in his speech at the luncheon, discussed the history of pencil manufacturing and imprinting in Shelbyville. Musgrave Pencil Company was founded, under the name Bedford Cedar, in 1916, and began making pencils in the early 1920s. At the height of Shelbyville’s dominance as “The Pencil City,” it was home to four manufacturers — Musgrave, Empire Pencil Company, National Pen & Pencil Company and Commonweath Pencil.

Empire Pencil, through a series of acquisitions, became part of Newell Corp., which still has packaging and distribution facilities in Shelbyville but no longer any manufacturing. The other two companies are long since gone. (National Pen & Pencil was no relation to National Pen Corp., which still operates in Shelbyville as a seller and imprinter of promotional products.)

A worker at Shelbyville Pencil Company puts imprinted pencils into a box.
T-G Photo by John I. Carney

Shelbyville Pencil Company was formed when the Townes family bought the pencil-imprinting division of Musgrave.

Major factor

Bellantone toured Musgrave on Thursday. He noted that imprinted writing instruments — pens and pencils — make up 7.77 percent of the promotional products market according to the latest figures. The percentage fluctuates, he said, but writing instruments are consistently in the top five. The leading promotional product is clothing — such as T-shirts and caps — which make up just over one-third of the market. Bellantone was told by Farrar — who serves as ring announcer for The Celebration — about how caps are used to promote contenders in the walking horse show, with patrons lining up at the barns prior to show time to get a ball cap emblazoned with the name of their favorite stallion, mare or gelding.

Bellantone said promotional products go back to America’s earliest days. Commemorative coins were handed out at Washington’s inauguration. The first promotional product as we know them today may have been book bags which were handed out by a shoe store to school children as they walked past the shop. Bellantone noted the friendly, family atmosphere at the companies he visited in Shelbyville, and said it’s typical of smaller businesses to care for their employees and try to protect them, even as the economy forces changes in marketing and technology.