There you are on the Mobile Bay ferry — or at Mount Rushmore or Stone Mountain or at the feet of Birmingham’s Vulcan statue — and you want a better view. You drop a quarter in the viewer slot, and all that was in the hazy distance springs clearly into view.
You might not notice what was clear before — the little label near the coin slot that says: SeeCoast Manufacturing Co. Inc. and tells you this ’scope was made in Fairhope.
Gerri Cain, who has led the SeeCoast team since her husband Geoffrey’s death in March, tells the company story — one that started with a case of tuberculosis.
Back in the 1950s, Gerri Cain relates, her father-in-law Ken was diagnosed with tuberculosis and suddenly unable to do much work. While he was sorting out his future, he saw a coin-operated telescope in Chicago and was intrigued enough to buy a couple and find good locations for them. If you picked a good spot, you could collect enough coins to make the enterprise worth your while.
Before long, the whole family was involved, taking turns visiting the viewers and collecting the coins. That prompted Ken Cain to buy several more of the viewing devices and bring a partner into the business. But after a good hard look at the device, Ken realized he could make his own, Gerri says.
He contracted with East Birmingham Bronze for the castings and set to work. Meanwhile, back in the early 1960s, Ken’s son Geoff — away at college in Mississippi — came home to join the business, which was still housed in the basement of the family home in Fairhope. After their marriage, Gerri spent many years managing the books for the family business. They lacked just 23 days of a 50-year marriage when Geoff died this spring.
Owner/President Geraldine Cain
The family business, growing slowly over the years, outgrew the basement and moved into its own space in the 1980s.
The process is stately and meticulous. Bronze castings — big heavy pieces manufactured at Ledbetter Foundry in Remlap and smaller pieces crafted on site in Fairhope — take a turn through the grinding room to smooth surfaces. Next comes the powder coating room — powder coating stands up to the elements better than paint — before baking to set the coating. Individual pieces are assembled and welded.
Custom touches come next — How far will the viewer swivel? Does it operate with one American quarter or, perhaps, two Euros?
And then the optics, with protective covers to keep the vital elements in optimal condition as long as possible.
In these days when Alabama’s automotive factories churn out hundreds of thousands of vehicles a year, SeeCoast makes perhaps 200 telescope and binocular systems a year.
“Not everyone needs one, ” quips Gerri.
But several of the seven staff members have been at SeeCoast almost as long as Gerri herself.
Shop foreman Mike Lambert had some machine shop experience gleaned during high school but was working at a local grocery, just like his friends, when he consulted Geoff Cain about a better job at SeeCoast. He joined the team back in the basement days, as did quality control manager Jo Ann Styron, who’s been there some 32 years.
Now SeeCoast boasts viewers in 80 countries they can document and perhaps twice that many, since purchasers don’t always tell them where the product will be installed.
Gerri has seen many of the ones in the U.S. She’s particularly fond of ones installed on the water — at the Riverwalk in New Orleans, for example, or on the Mobile Bay ferry — a location that brings in round about a thousand dollars a year in quarters.
The staff loves to hear from friends who have traveled the world and seen the sights via SeeCoast, like the one who sent a photo recently from the Tower of David in Jerusalem.
And if you have a condo with a balcony, SeeCoast has a scope that’s just right for that location, too — no coins needed.
Nedra Bloom is copy editor for Business Alabama, and Todd Douglas is a freelance photographer based in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Text By Nedra Bloom // Photos by Todd Douglas