Manitowoc-Two Rivers: Page 5 of 6

I've Got One Word For You, Aluminum.

In 1893, a young fellow named Joseph Koenig came home to Two Rivers from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago with a comb in his pocket. It had caught his eye at the fair because it was made of a metal unfamiliar to most Americans--aluminum. Koenig's comb was made in Germany but he saw no reason why it couldn't be made in the USA and why he shouldn't do it--except that he had no experience, no workshop and no capital.

He visited J.E. Hamilton, who had achieved some success making wood type for printers and had a small steam-powered factory in Two Rivers. Hamilton let Koenig use a workbench equipped with a drive belt connected to the steam engine that would run a saw, drills and other tools. Koenig started making combs and sold more than a few. In 1895, he was able to convince Hamilton and a few others to invest and the Aluminum Manufacturing Company was incorporated.

A few years later, Henry Vits, who had been in the tannery business at Manitowoc since the 1850s, saw the future and it was not leather. He incorporated the Manitowoc Novelty Company and set up a factory to turn out novelties, which turned out to be combs. Henry's son George was in charge of sales and on a trip east he discovered the New Jersey Aluminum Company in Newark, New Jersey. 

By 1909, George Vits had brought about the merger of his own company with Koenig's company and the New Jersey manufacturer into the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company. Vits became president of the company in 1912, and it took off under his leadership. A year later, Aluminum Goods expanded its line from combs to cook ware. Vits had landed a contract to produce double boilers for the Quaker Oats Company. Next came the company's own brand of VIKO pots and pans and heavy orders to make cookware sold under other names.

Prospects for the company were as bright as a hubcap on prom night

Automakers were switching from wooden spokes to metal wheels with hubs that required "caps." Lightweight, corrosion-resistant aluminum was ideal for hubcaps and Aluminum Goods was soon punching them out by the tens of thousands for Studebaker, Dodge and Buick.

Prospects for the company were as bright as a hubcap on prom night when American entry into World War I made them even brighter. Aluminum Goods couldn't turn out mess kits, cookware and canteens fast enough for the expanding military. When the war was over, the company was able to make five large additions to its plants in Manitowoc and Two Rivers and buy another factory in St. Louis. During the war, Aluminum Goods rebranded itself with a national advertising campaign promoting MIRRO, The Finest Aluminum. Growth continued during the boom years of the 1920s, with MIRRO making jobs for 3,500 men and women at Manitowoc and Two Rivers.

Operations slowed down in the 1930s, and MIRRO had to lay off one thousand workers --but 2,500 still had jobs. The buildup for the war that started in 1940 filled the workstations again and MIRRO was busier than ever. In addition to cook pots, mess kits and canteens by the millions, the company shaped aluminum into parts for airplanes, radar stations and ammunition cases.

When the war ended, MIRRO hit the jackpot again with popular consumer goods -- most notably MIRRO-MATIC pressure cookers, electric fry pans and coffee percolators. In the mid-1950s company headquarters and some manufacturing moved to a new 100 acre facility midway between Manitowoc and Two Rivers. In the early 1960s, MIRRO hired Milwaukee designer Brooks Stevens to redesign it products and to add color to its silver and black line of goods. He suggested nutmeg brown and Wedgewood blue. MIRRO opted for harvest gold and avocado, signature colors of the '60s. Stevens wasn't involved when MIRRO became one of the first cookware makers to coat its pots with "space-age" Teflon.

The company carried on until, like every manufacturer in the US, it faced the twin challenges of automation and foreign competition. Both meant the local work force would be reduced. MIRRO soldiered on and was acquired by the Newell Corporation in 1983. Newell struggled to stay in Wisconsin but, by 2001, had moved all of its manufacturing out of the state. In 2003, it closed its offices here too. That year, a group of former employees purchased some of the MIRRO facilities and reopened as Koenig & Vits to manufacture coils and other custom aluminum products.

It was a great run while it lasted. MIRRO's is the story of American manufacturing in the 20th century. Low-skill, high employment, mass production has been replaced by high skill, automated, custom work.


Hamilton of Two Rivers

J.E. (James) Hamilton story is a classic American saga. He was born in Two Rivers of sturdy Yankee stock in 1852. As a young man he acquired a foot-powered scroll saw he used to cut the decorative doodads favored by Victorian house designers. Demand for his goods was slack in 1870's Two Rivers, but Hamilton was optimistic, encouraged by the steadfast Etta Shove, a graduate of Lawrence College, who graciously consented to become Mrs. Hamilton in 1880. Although Hamilton worked as a foreman at a local chair factory, the newlyweds could not make ends meet. They were forced to live -- along with the scroll saw -- in a back bedroom at Mother Hamilton's house.

A few months after the wedding, William F. Nash, publisher of the Two Rivers Chronicle, asked Hamilton for help. He had agreed to print posters advertising a "Grand Ball" to be held at the Turners Hall and did not have type of the right size and style in his shop. New poster type, made from wood and not lead, had to be ordered from the east and would not arrive in time, so could Hamilton, who was so handy with his scroll saw, oblige?

J.E. said he could. With Nash's input, he drew up a design, and started pedaling his saw. The result was a reverse face with the letters outlined by the block around them. It worked. Nash was out of trouble and Hamilton was into a new career.

He decided that other small town printers throughout the Midwest would have needs similar to Nash's and perhaps he could meet them. Having no experience as a type maker, Hamilton continued to cut thin strips of wood into the desired shape. He then glued them up with a durable and expensive strip of holly wood on top and less costly pine stock on the bottom. He called his new typeface Hollywood. Hamilton hit the road and found that his hunch about the needs of small town printers was accurate. He also learned that type was not made by gluing up layers of hard and soft wood, but by carving the desired typeface into the ends of hard maple blocks. 

He pursued the business, perfected his end cutting technique and found a partner willing to invest. Two years after cutting the Grand Ball type, he moved his office, and the scroll saw, out of his mother's house and into a steam-powered factory.

The story continues, but remains consistent. Hamilton and his successors at the helm of the company proved to be very good at discovering new markets to serve and then serving them very well. The plant grew to dominate the water front at Two Rivers. Employment grew from a few to a few thousand. Two Rivers became the Hamilton Company town.

From wooden type in myriad styles and sizes, it was a logical step to make the wooden spacers (reglet) and the blocks (furniture) printers used to position their page layouts for printing. Then came specialized work tables with "stones" for assembling the forms that went into the press.

Next came a special "cabinet" for dentists, then a full line of drafting room equipment--adjustable drawing boards, tables and oversized storage cabinets for blue prints. All this equipment was made of quality hardwood, still abundant in the lakes region. During World War I, the company landed a big contract for airplane fuselages made of wooden frames covered with canvas. Hamilton expanded its plant, and would have become a major airplane builder but the war ended before serious production could begin. After the war, radio was developed and home receivers entered the front parlor. They required handsome wood cabinets and Hamilton supplied them. Babies were coming into the world, too. They required cribs, potty chairs and new-fangled things called "playpens." Hamilton obliged.

Before the war, Hamilton had added steel furniture to its line and continued to develop new products after the war. Furniture and workstations for dental and medical offices, for hospital examining rooms, and for laboratories appeared, along with laboratory work benches for high schools and universities.

Just before World War II, Hamilton introduced what company publicists said was the first home clothes dryer.

Just before World War II, Hamilton introduced what company publicists said was the first home clothes dryer. It was invented by a North Dakota farm boy named Ross Moore whose cruel mother forced him to hang the laundry on a line in the yard. He concocted a plan for a rotating drum filled with heated air and sold the Hamilton staff on it. They perfected the idea and enclosed the works in a featureless white metal cabinet--then called in designer Brooks Stevens. He said that no one would spend $375 on a storage cabinet whose purpose they couldn't immediately discern. Stevens redesigned the cabinet, added up-to-date control dials and a chrome nameplate identifying it as a "Fluff-dri" and--the final stroke of genius--put a window in the door. World War II delayed production of all consumer appliances. After the war the Fluff-dri hit the stores to great acclaim and soon every other clothes dryer on the market came with a window on the door. As the company's website states, the Hamilton dryer, "freed the American housewife from the last vestiges of washday blues."

Hamilton followed along the familiar course of American manufacturing in the late 20th century. In 1968, it was acquired by a conglomerate that presided over a necessary downsizing in the '70s and sold out in the '80s. The vast plant on the lake front was shut down. In 1993, the company was purchased by Fisher Scientific, and continues manufacturing specialized laboratory equipment on a much reduced scale.

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