The Wisconsin Chair Company (1888-1954) PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 15 November 2005 00:00
he Wisconsin Chair Company (1888-1954)

 


The Wisconsin Chair Company (1888-1954) by Alex van der Tuuk

 

The Wisconsin Chair Company was incorporated in 1888 in Port Washington , Wisconsin by Frederick A. Dennett (1849 - 1920) of Sheboygan . An empty building which housed the Sash and Door Company until 1886 was sold by John Martin Bostwick (1837 – 1935) to Dennett. The building was conveniently located at harbor side, which was handy for transportation of wood (a rail road line passing Port, would last another 16 years). The company, starting with a working crew of 35 men, slowly developed into a solid factory, increasing its common stock yearly.

The first set-back came with the depression of 1893, when hardly any orders came in. Payment to the factory workers were done with I OweYou coupons, and the Port community dealt with it. By obtaining a patent for rocking chairs business started to boom and by the end of the century the WCC had some 600 employees.

 
Chair Factory #2 in Port Washington
Chair Factory #2 in Port Washington
 

A devestating fire on February 19, 1899 burnt the factory to the ground and six square blocks of down town Port Washington , leaving hundreds of people out of work. It was doubtful whether Dennett would rebuild, and if so, if he would relocate to Sheboygan . By April, news spread that Dennett WAS to rebuild the company in Port. Within the year the company was back in business and prospered during the following decades. By 1923 the National School Equipment Co. became part of the WCC, supplying schools with desks, chairs etc. Carl Seversen, described as a taciturn Swede, became manager of the department.


Many accidents happened in the factory. Fires, explosions, people getting cooked in the veneer department. Safety was not a first priority, like it is today. This led to a three-week strike in 1933. Not only working condition for women were improved, so were their wages. In 1935 an employee earned 35 cents per hour.


When the depression of 1929 hit the economy, it hit the WCC as well. By 1932, it was estimated, that only 25 % of schools would place new orders. Investigating the market, led to the conclusion that the WCC would start producing high quality furniture. There were too many people who could not pay the rent, let alone buy new furniture. But there were always the rich people, able to make new investments. With no contracts and orders the WCC's board of directors recruited Carter McCarthy, a former saleman in semi-retirement. Within short notice, McCarthy came back with orders and by 1934 the factory was almost in full operation again.


During the 1930s and early 1940s the company prospered under the management of John M. Bostwick (until his death in 1935) and Otto E. Moeser (1880 – 1972).

 
Addie Tiegs working in the pressing plant
Addie Tiegs working in the pressing plant
 

World War II saw the majority of the male employees drafted and more and more older men took their jobs at the chair factory, as well as women. Contracts for the war department assured their income but after the war was over orders started to drop. New techniques were en vogue, like metal and plastics, to produce furniture. The high-graded furniture which lasted for life was too expensive to compete with other companies. Companies from the south did not have a union like the WCC, which made it possible to pay lower wages.


By the early 1950s about 50% of the building was rented to a shoe manufacturer, Edmunds-McKlapp; personnel had declined from a healthy 400 to 270 by 1954, when the factory closed.


In 1953 it became apparent that the company would no longer hold. Although the union did everything to keep the company alive, even giving in on wages, it would not hold. The company was sold to Morrie Chaitlen from Milwaukee and although his intentions were to make a blooming business of the company, it collapsed within the year. Older people of Port still remember what happened and those who were there, still have bad feelings about the way Otto Moeser sold the company to Morrie Chaitlen, who in return had no plans to make the company go. Moeser, however did what he had to do: sell the company. The building was too old, as were the board of directors and their employees. And they could not compete against factories who paid lower wages.

 
Out of business
Out of business
 

On September 10, 1954, WCC's doors closed indefinitely. Although rumored to reopen with Otto Moeser back in place, it was nothing more than that.


The buildings were then sold to Arthur Krueger who promised to find work for 400 people by renting floor space to small companies. By 1957 some 70 people did work in the building, but collecting rent remained a pain. In the end Krueger gave up. Between 1954 and 1968 the building were torn down.


Today, an official historical marker reminds us of the WCC and the devestating fire of 1899.


Suggested reading:


Consumed By Fire: A Collection Of Writings About The Famous Wisconsin Chair Comapny Fire (1997), by Fr. Kevin J. Wester

 
 
 
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