Remembrance on the Wisconsin Chair Company
Tuesday, 31 July 2007 00:00
|Remembrance on the Wisconsin Chair Company|
|Recollections on the chair company by Bill Moeser (1919)|
During the research on the Wisconsin Chair Company one of my first letters with questions about the company was forwarded to Erik Moeser, grandson to WCC-president Otto E. Moeser (1880-1972). Erik informed me that his father, Bill Moeser (born 1919) was still alive and living in Springfield, Vermont. Bill Moeser was the youngest son of Otto Moeser and Emma Kratzer-Moeser. From a previous marriage Otto had three children: Marshall, Edward and Ruth.
|Otto Moeser 1936 at the WCC|
Between 1995 and 2003 Bill and I communicated mostly via snail-mail and later via email. The first letter I received from him included six pages and more was to come. I am grateful to Bill Moeser and his son Erik for helping out on the details of the Wisconsin Chair Company.
According to “Moody’s Industrials” of 1927 the Wisconsin Chair Company was incorporated on 10 October 1888 “to engage in the manufacture of chairs, household furniture and veneer. Company operates a plant located on the shore of Lake Michigan at Port Washington, Wisconsin. Privately owned docks and slip afford facilities for lake transportations. Property comprises about five acres of land, practically all of which is occupied by factory buildings and warehouses. The buildings are of brick construction and contain approximately 330,000 square feet of floor space. Company also owns a plant in Grafton, Wisconsin, which it leases [sic] to the New York Recording Laboratories. Company is also interested in the United Phonographs Corporation, operating at Sheboygan, Wisconsin.”
“My father, Otto E. Moeser, was born on 4 March 1880 on a farm in Wisconsin, near Oshkosh [Winnebago], the oldest of thirteen children, ten of whom grew up. His father [William] and mother [Mathilda] were born in Germany, city of Posen or there about. Otto’s father was a blacksmith and followed that trade throughout his entire life.
In 1899 the original chair company building was destroyed by a $1.1 Million fire that levelled the facility as well as half of downtown Port Washington. The fire spread from the factory’s building along the lake front between Washington and Pier Streets and westwards into downtown, destroying many of the businesses on the eastside of Franklin Street. [According to Ambrose P. Mayer it was John Martin Bostwick Sr. who influenced Frederick Dennett, the company’s president, to stay and rebuild in Port. “he put in $300,000”, said Mayer.
A new factory was built at harbour-side along the north slip. Bill Moeser: “The new plant was a four story brick affair and the one I was acquainted with.”
“In the early 1900s (1904) O.E. [Moeser] became acquainted with John M. Bostwick and left the railroad business where he worked as a telegraph operator and station agent, to work with the Bostwick enterprise.
I was born on 20 October 1919 and by the age of four I was aware that Otto was a big shot in the Wisconsin Chair Company. Otto’s first wife was a Zelmer. They had three children: Marshall, born in 1903 and being the oldest; Ruth and Edward. Otto’s first wife died of pneumonia. Marshall worked for the Wisconsin Chair Company-New York Recording Laboratories-National School Equipment Co. in a number of capacities and was residing in Atlanta, Georgia for many years. [The National School Equipment Co.’s branch office was located at the Bolling-Jones Building at 23-33 Ivy Street, now renamed as Peach Street, in Atlanta]. Marshall died in 1983.
|Otto Moeser 1948, Springfield|
I was Otto’s fourth child and I was half kin to those three. Otto’s second wife was Emma Kratzer and was Hans Kratzer’s sister. Hans Kratzer was a “doughboy” with the Americans in France in 1917-1918. When I “woke up” he had a house in Port Washington and was a salesman on the road as a “drummer” like Willie Loman in Artur Miller’s “Death Of A Salesman”. He was a nice uncle who took me and his son Karl along fishing on some of Wisconsin’s many inland lakes.
[Hans Kratzer ran the NYRL branch office at 316 South Wabash Avenue in Chicago and was present during recording sessions in Orlando R. Marsh’s Recording Laboratories across the street at the Lyon & Healy Building, on the seventh floor, room 707. He was at least present during an April 1927 recording session of Doc Roberts et. al. whose recorded output was to be issued as The Kentucky Throrobreds on the Paramount 3000 Old Time Music Series]
About the Wisconsin Chair Company
I worked there summers from age fourteen through college years as a day labourer at 34 cents per hour. Otto Moeser thought it was good training and I guess it was. I learned how much backache one dollar represented. My first summer there was in 1934 and times were hard. The company barely managed to pull through the Great depression. At the peak it employed 400 men and women [sic: by 1934 the company gave employment to 600 people]. The women worked at the office and as painters of striping and other decorations on furniture. This was done with a very steady hand.
The factory was powered by an 1890 vintage steam engine. It had one huge cylinder and a seventeen feet (in diameter) flywheel. The engineer was Ed Heise who had a handle-bar moustache and oiled the engines’ joints every now and then with a long sprout oil can. The engine was connected by belts to two generators, one AC and one DC. The belt was 36 inches wide and made of many stitched-together hides. When it broke, specialists came out from Milwaukee to mend it.
Many of the electric motors in the factory which powered the wood working machines were DC. John Zahn was the company electrician. He would even rewind burnt-out armatures.
The company purchased a small amount of power for the office from Wisconsin Electric Power. There was a new plant across the harbour and they burned coal. The Wisconsin Chair Company boiler was fired with sawdust, shavings and wood slab ends from the furniture work.
Exhaust steam heated the factory. So you see, co-generation is nothing new.
When I was six years old, they let me pull the cord which ran the whistle signalling the beginning and the end of the shifts. The whistle could be heard all over town. Five minute warning and at 7.30 am the final whistle blew at which the work began.
J. M. Bostwick was never around much in Port Washington. My father ran the company for him. J.M.B. lived in the house on Fourth Street, Milwaukee-he broke his hip and was confined to a wheelchair. Certainly by 1929 J.M. Bostwick took no active part in the Wisconsin Chair Company though as the owner of 80 % of the company he was ultimately “the boss”. After he died his housekeeper (and mistress) stayed on in the house as she had rights to it from J.M.’s estate.
As I said at age fourteen I went to work summers as a labourer in the factory working on all kinds of furniture, including school desks and the like. The Wisconsin Chair Company had a division elegantly titled National School Equipment Co. Carl Severson, a taciturn Swede who had his office at the main building, was its manager. We got government orders from schools and big jobs for churches – pews, railings, lecterns etcetera. One summer a church job kept many of us working. I sanded many pews, all in golden oak. I got a real education there. I had to work extra hard to avoid the stigma of being the bosses’ son, and they therefore accepted me on the factory floor.
The shop was a closed union: United Brotherhood Of Carpenters And Joiners and I could work summers, along with a number of other students, by special Union permit, and we had to wear the Union button on our overalls. My mother did not like that, but I kept it on at breakfast, to the amusement of Otto.
The Depression hit hard on the Wisconsin Chair Company: reports for the future foresaw that business in 1933 would 25 % of the preceding year. In the first six months of 1932 the company almost came to a stand still. The Depression tightened many cities financially, which deferred schools from making further purchases. The company survived as long as it did by switching to very high quality furniture, penthouse stuff. Carter McCarthy, the new sales manager conferred with Otto Moeser and they decided that in a Depression most people were so poor they could not buy anything but food and pay rent, but there are always rich people around. Some items appeared in movie sets, where a luxurious interior was required for Greta Garbo and others like her.
Otto was a director of the Port Washington State Bank, owned by the Hill family. He and Clarence Hill were golfing buddies and the Bank pulled the company through many a payroll date. Meeting the payroll was always a big hurdle.
By the time Paramount’s recording came to an end, the Wisconsin Chair Company began its march of progress in August 1932 “from a standing start with no designs, no orders and no customers. Each month the business grew larger. In early 1934, when the New York Recording Laboratories officially had been withdrawn from the record business, Mr. John Martin Bostwick Sr. expressed his ambition of seeing every machine in the plant in operation and every man in Port Washington given a job.
Within a few months, on 28 June 1934, The Port Washington Post published a statement by Otto Moeser, saying that the minimum wage of any employee would be increased with one cent to 35 cents per hour. This increase, although it meant a monthly loss of over $600 was granted in order to promote peace, harmony and good-will between employer and employee. Also a donation of 150 folding chairs, as a gift for the labour hall was made.
In 1935, after the death of John M. Bostwick, until its demise in 1954 the Wisconsin Chair Company was run by my father principally for the benefit of the heirs of J.M. Bostwick. Otto was the trustee to run the estate and look after the descendants in the Bostwick family.
As for the Wisconsin Chair Company, it was more dismantled and torn down rather than sold. I don’t believe anyone ran it as a going business after Otto retired. A combination of factors led to the death of the business - an old outmoded four-story building, which was very inefficient; competition from southern manufacturers who could pay lower wages (no union), and the growing use of metal furniture. There was not enough capital to modernize the business so it just died a natural death.
|Otto Moeser's home in Port Washington, WI|
It is absurd to think that the Wisconsin Chair Company’s closure was my father’s fault. Because of his great ability the company hung on longer than anyone had a right to expect. The high labour costs in the north made it impossible to carry on against competition from companies in the American south. There was no Federal minimum wage legislation until 1938, and then minimum was set at 25 cents per hour. In 1933 I was a beginner and summer labourer earned 34 cents per hour. Fast-growing furniture companies in the south, notably North Carolina, were paying one half that and had an aggressive anti-union climate with full cooperation of the local police. The Wisconsin Chair Company was 100 % unionized with a closed shop. My father had to deal with that.
I knew about the court fight [of 1957]. Heirs of J.M. Bostwick brought suit against Otto and Allon Cady, claiming that they defrauded the Bostwick estate. It was only John Bostwick Jr. who brought suit against the trustees. Douglas was loyal to my father. The fact was “Old Man” Bostwick left his share of the Wisconsin Chair Company (about 80 %) to his heirs but put it all in Trust, making Otto and Allon Cady the trustees, with power to control and run the company. Allon Cady was married to Mary Bostwick, a daughter of the “Old Man” as they called him.
The case ended in a complete victory for Otto and the other trustee, as the court decision said there was nothing amiss.. As you can imagine, this caused some bad feelings
By reason of ability to make cabinets the Wisconsin Chair Company got mixed up in the record business and had a plant in Grafton, run with water power from a dam on the Milwaukee River. Grafton was only a few miles from Port Washington and I clearly remember visiting the record factory. They did recording there before the days of electric recording. It was called “acoustic” and there was a huge horn of plywood you could walk into [Bill Moeser was ten years old when he first visited the studio]. The performers yelled and played into this horn and the sound intensified by reason of a taper in the enclosure ending in a diaphragm which physically drove a needle against a wax plate. The plate was then plated somehow to make a master, by which the grooves would be impressed on a bakelite-like substance under heat. The pressing came out like a 78rpm record much like making waffles in a cooking iron. Some records were pressed on both sides and some only on one side, the other side being glossy smooth. The records in the early 1920s were quite thick. I have a clear recollection of watching the pressing of the records. The black disks were steaming hot. The edges were then trimmed and the record cooled
Because of the acoustic recording process one could not tape performances in the field, so the artists had to come to the recording studio in Grafton. Around the late 1920s RCA and others developed sophisticated electric recording. The NYRL did not have the capital to compete and the business soon ceased to exist.
Two artist come to mind who stayed at our house in Port Washington: Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Both black and real black jazz artists. I am sure I met a number of artists who came to Port Washington to record for Paramount in nearby Grafton. I can’t really recall them all but Blind Lemon and Ma Rainey must have made a big impression on me. At age five, I sat on Ma Rainey’s lap and was hugged by her as my mother watched nervously. I remember my mother being a little nervous, but I got along fine with ma Rainey; she thought I was a cute little boy!!
I do well remember Blind Lemon Jefferson and probably assumed he was blind although he may have had a small amount of sight. Some totally blind persons wear glasses if only for some protection, but I recall his being guided around a bit. He may have been able to see large objects and obstacles.
I am not sure whether Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey stayed at my father’s house, but they certainly ate there and were entertained and looked after during their recording sessions in Grafton [sic: Ma Rainey was in Port Washington in 1924 and Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1928. At that time there was no recording studio in Grafton]. Mr. Maurice Supper and Art Satherly were often part of the group.
At Laibly lived in our neighbourhood, he was a sales man of some sort (NYRL sales manager)
One other executive comes to mind – a promoter type named Arthur Satherly who was often a dinner guest at my father’s house in the 1920s. A flashy man with gold bracelets – that’s all a six-year old would remember.
Paramount records sold big in the south. We had a big case of records in our attic. I destroyed what now would be priceless records with a shotgun I got for my fourteenth birthday to use for hunting pheasants and rabbits in the many woods in our area of Wisconsin. It was target practice which I now regret very greatly! The records were extras that happened to be stored in our home on Grand Avenue in Port Washington.
31 July 2007
Alex van der Tuuk