The Behlen Manufacturing Company (Part I)

The Behlen Manufacturing Company (Part I)

by

Brian Wayne Wells

As published in the September/October 2002 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine

            Nebraska became an organized territory of the United States on May 30, 1854, as a result to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This Act would become one of the most recognizable landmarks on the road to the American Civil War.  Demand for the establishment of Nebraska as an organized territory came not from the populous within the boundaries of the territory, but rather from economic forces outside Nebraska.  Since the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803-1805, the land of the great plains had been crossed by hundreds of explorers and thousands of settlers, all headed for someplace else.  The Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Trail, and the Pony Express all wove their way across the future state of Nebraska, but few of the travelers on those trails ever settled there.

Now, however, in 1854, the need for an intercontinental railroad demanded that the Nebraska Territory be organized.  Citizens and congressmen alike from Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri were very aware of the benefits a transcontinental railroad would have on their communities, and they lobbied hard for the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The proposed route of the transcontinental railroad would follow the Platte River across the land which eventually was to become the state of Nebraska.

It was always intended that Nebraska would become a state.  However, becoming a state would be delayed first by the Panic of 1857 and then by the Civil War.  Only on March 1, 1867, would Nebraska become the thirty-seventh state to be admitted to the union.  (James C. Olson, History of Nebraska [University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, Neb. 1966], pp. 63, 73, and 127.)  Unlike other states in the Great Plains, Nebraska would not become a great wheat producing state.  Settlers coming into Nebraska tended to be from the corn producing states of the East.  Thus, these farmers naturally wanted to raise corn on their new farms, and they would soon give the new state its nickname – the Cornhusker State.  Corn production in Nebraska exploded from 65,450,135 bushels in 1879 to 215,895,996 bushels in 1889.  Meanwhile, wheat production actually declined from 13,037,116 bushels to 10,571,059 bushels over the same ten=year period.  (Ibid.p. 197.)

Along with settlers from the eastern United States, immigrants from outside the United States also came to seek their fortune in Nebraska.  By 1880, 21.53% of Nebraska’s population was of foreign descent.  (Ibid. p. 173.)  Of these groups, the largest was German-speaking, with 31,125 settlers in 1880.  A distant second was the Swedish speaking group, with 10,164.  (Ibid.)

Among the group of first generation Germans in Nebraska was the family of Anna (From) Behlen and her three sons – Friederick, Deitrich, and John Behlen Jr.

Anna Behlen, together with her husband John Behlen Sr., had lived in the province of Oldenburg, Germany.  In 1858, however, things changed for the family when John Sr. suddenly died.  Deitrich, born in 1853, was only five years of age at the time.  Needless to say, in the years immediately following the death of her husband, Anna had to struggle hard to feed herself and her sons. 

Oldenburg Province is located in northwestern Germany, near the coast of the North Sea, and is scarcely at all like Nebraska.  In Oldenburg, the average January temperature is 31˚ Fahrenheit, while in Nebraska the average January temperature is 23˚ Fahrenheit.  (James K. Pollock and Homer Thomas, Germany: In Power and Eclipse [C.Van Nostrand Co.: New York, NY 1952], p. 369; William T. Couch [ed.] Colliers Encyclopedia, Vol. 14  [P.F. Collier & Son Corp.: New York, NY 1959], p. 448.)  In July, the average temperature in Oldenburg is 62.6˚ Fahrenheit, while July in Nebraska averages 73˚ Fahrenheit.  (Ibid.)   The average annual rainfall statistics are 27.2” for Oldenburg and 20” for Nebraska.  The rainfall, temperate climate, and poor drainage render a great deal of the land in Oldenburg Province into marsh land.  The marshes are often covered in fog.  Although 74% of the land in Oldenburg is agricultural land, only 24% is actually cultivated.  (Pollack and Thomas, at p. 369.)  Thus, the primary agricultural enterprise pursued in Oldenburg Province is the raising of beef cattle; dairying is only of secondary importance.  (Ibid. p. 368.)  The marshland soil of Oldenburg naturally contains a great many peat bogs, and peat is used by the citizens of Oldenburg for heating their houses.

Politically, in the mid-nineteenth century, Oldenburg was in turmoil.  In 1866, Oldenburg Province joined the North German Confederation.  This confederation represented a banning together of most of the small states and principalities of northern Germany under the militaristic leadership of the Kingdom of Prussia.  During this period of time, Otto von Bismarck was attempting to unite all of Germany under the rule of the Prussian king – Wilhelm I.  The North German Confederation was Bismarck’s attempt to unify the northern part of Germany in order to attack the states of southern Germany and Austria and bring them to heel under Prussian leadership.  This war came about on June 1, 1866, and is called the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, or the Seven Weeks War.  Many citizens of the small states of northern Germany were resentful at the thought of being swallowed up into the North German Confederation under the control of Prussia.  Furthermore, with the forming of the Northern Confederation in 1866 came the compulsory conscription of young men into the Prussian controlled army.  There was widespread hostility to this conscription among the citizenry of the various states of the new Northern Confederation.  Thus, an outward emigration to America occurred at this time, motivated, in part, by this political opposition to military conscription.  (Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration [University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Ill. 1960], p. 194.)  (Indeed, the author’s own great-great grandparents Joeseph and Sofia {Gersch] Schwark left Adamshagen in the province of Meckenburg, Germany, for this very reason, and brought their children to Bonfield, Illinois, in the United States in 1871 to allow their sons, first-born Henry, second born John, ten-year-old Joseph, and six-year-old Carl to avoid conscription into the Prussian controlled German Army of the newly formed German Empire.)

In 1867, then, Anna Behlen might have been among those that felt it would be better to leave Germany for America than to allow her sons to be taken into military service.  Whatever the reason, Anna took the drastic step of moving to America with her sons – by that time 20=year-old Friederick, 14-year-old Deitrich, and young John Jr.  They settled first in Ogle County, south of Rockford, Illinois.  Then, in March of 1869, she moved again, this time to Platte County, Nebraska, and settled on a farm in Shell Creek Township, ten miles north of Columbus, Nebraska – the county seat of Platte County.  Shortly after arriving in Platte County, Friederick met Eliza Schneider and they were married on April 18, 1870.  Together, they would have eleven children.  Among the younger of the eleven children were William, born in February of 1878; Emma, born in February of 1880; John, born in March of 1882; Minnie, born in May of 1884; August, born in July of 1886; Freda, born in February of 1889; and Lydia, born in December of 1892.  Meanwhile, Friederick’s younger brother Deitrich would assume the role of head of the household on the home farm with his mother.

Deitrich, however, eventually met Johanna Gonuschke, and on July 2, 1876, they were married.  They would have nine children:  Friederick, born in November of 1878; Minna, born in April of 1880; Edward, born in June of 1882; Laura, born in April of 1884; Arthur, born in December of 1886; Harry, born in May of 1889; Clara, born in December of 1891; Phillip, born in November of 1897; and Hulda, born sometime after 1900.  Both the families of Friederick and Deitrich would obtain farms in Shell Creek Township, close to the original family farm, and all their children would attend District 35 country school in Platte County.

Meanwhile, as Shell Creek Township became more settled, it took on the further trappings of a modern community.  The Shell Creek Baptist Church was established in about 1874, and the Behlen family became early active members of that church.  However, the newly organized church did not have its own building until Dietrich and Johanna Behlen donated some land, which then became the building site for the church.  In the years that followed, the Behlen children and grandchildren were all baptized in that church, with the Reverend H.P. Benthack serving as pastor.  Indeed, Ella Sara, daughter of Rev. Benthack and his wife Dorothea (Tiedge) Benthack, would develop an attraction to Dietrich and Johanna Behlen’s oldest son Friederick.

Years passed, and young Friederick (Fred) continued to grow and mature on his parents’ farm.  On November 4, 1903, he and Ella Benthack were married, and they too would establish themselves on a farm in Shell Creek Township.  Soon, they started their own family, composed of nine children:  Walter, born in 1906; Gilbert Edward, born on April 17, 1907; Herbert Peter, born on October 15, 1909; and Selma, Norma, Ruth, Ruby and Frances.  Of these children, their oldest son Walter showed considerable mechanical ability as he grew up.  He also read the entire set of encyclopedias that his parents owned.  While growing up, Walter spent much of his spare time “puttering” with his own mechanical inventions.

Walter was eventually distracted from his inventions long enough to marry Ruby Cumming of Woodville Township in Platte County.  They settled in a small house on the edge of Columbus, Nebraska, where Walter got a job as a delivery person for the Railway Express Company for $25.00 per week.  In the evenings after work, however, he could always be found in the garage behind their home working on various mechanical projects.

As the First World War came to an end, an economic recession that lasted until 1921 swept over the rural Midwestern United States.  However, in Nebraska, farming continued to be fragile after that time, since drought was always an ever-present danger.  Thus, in 1921, Fred and Ella were not alone when they were forced by the bad economic conditions to move from their present farm to another farm near Columbus.  During the mid-1920s, foreign demand for agricultural products of the United States, including Nebraska corn, drastically fell off, creating another downturn for Nebraska farmers.  (James C. Olson, History of Nebraska [University of Neb. Press: Lincoln, Neb. 1966], p. 286.)  Corn which had sold for $1.56 per bushel in 1920 sold for $.89 per bushel in 1925 and $.65 in 1926.  (Ibid., pp. 286-287)  The same thing was also occurring to other farm products.  Indeed, such was the desperate condition of Nebraska farmers that between 1922 and 1929 the average price index of farm products in Nebraska was less than 35% of the pre-war level.  (Ibid.)  One of the casualties of this particular recession of the late 1920s was, once again, Walter’s father Fred Behlen, as Fred and Ella were forced to seek employment other than farming.  Fortunately, Fred received an opportunity to purchase and operate a dairy located near Columbus.  This dairy became known as the Behlen Dairy.  Also forced to leave farming was their now mature son Gilbert, who had remained on the home farm to help his father.   Fortunately, Gilbert obtained a position with his brother Walter at the Railway Express Office and he moved into Columbus.

While his father got the dairy up and going and got back on his feet economically, Walter and Gilbert continued to work steadily for Railway Express.  On December 29, 1934, Gilbert married Irene Bunney, the daughter of Loren and Fannie Mae (Tunison) Bunney.  As a game conservation officer for the State of Nebraska, Loren Bunney had provided a secure living for his family in the uncertain economic times.  Gilbert and Irene would eventually have three children:  Sharon, born on February 25, 1938; Kurt, born on May 2, 1942; and Rodney, born on July 21, 1946.

Meanwhile, Herbert (nicknamed “Mike”), who had also followed his family off the farm in Shell Creek Township, was following an independent path in his adulthood.  After graduating from Kramer High School in Columbus, he was fortunate enough to gain admittance into the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.  After attending the University for two years, he worked for the Columbus Bakery, the J.C. Penney Company, and the Montgomery Ward Company before obtaining a position as an agent for the Union Pacific Stage Lines in Sioux City, Iowa, and later in Grand Island, Nebraska.  While in Sioux City, he met Ethel M. Russell, daughter of Alfred and Doria Lee (Hedges) Russell, from Vermillion, South Dakota.  Herbert and Ethel fell in love and were married on April 13, 1940.  They would have one daughter Donna Lee.

Walter and Ruby also had their own family, including a daughter Mary Ann and a son Kent.  Always in the back of his mind, Walter kept thinking of how he could make his interest in mechanical devices pay for itself.  After working during the day for the Express Company, he would come home and spend many evenings in his unheated garage working on his projects.  In 1935, just as the nation was beginning to recover from the Great Depression, Walter founded the One-Minute Soldering Iron Company.  The company was to operate out of his garage and was to manufacture the quick heating electric soldering iron which Walter had recently developed.  However, the market for electric soldering irons proved disappointing and Walter had a hard time raising the money for its production.  Thus, Walter’s soldering iron never made it into production.

Nonetheless, Walter did not give up on his dream.  In 1936, Walter had a chance to purchase a little manufacturing business called the Koziol Husking Hook Company for $600. Together with his brothers Gilbert and Mike and his father Fred, Walter placed $25.00 down on the company.  This company was to continue to make husking hooks but would have a new name – the Behlen Manufacturing Company.  This company also was to function out of Walter’s garage.  However, the company’s product, the husking hook – which was a metal hook fitted into a glove to aid in the hand-husking of ear corn – was already becoming outdated.  Mechanical picking of corn was already replacing hand husking in large areas of the Midwestern United States and Canada.  Thus, once again Walter found himself heading a company which was without a real saleable product, and this time he was responsible for not just his own family but also his parents and the families of his brothers.

By the late 1930s, the United States was rapidly becoming an industrial nation, and workers in the new factories that were part of this industrial drive were often required to have steel-toed shoes.  Thus, the Behlen brothers found a market in making steel-toe caps.  They would build much of their own machinery from parts obtained from a local salvage yard.  Using a homemade forge, a large grinder with Babbitt bearings (which the Behlens made themselves from scrap metal), a drill press, and a welder, they started manufacturing steel caps for work shoes.  The heat treating of the steel toe caps was accomplished in an improvised conveyor furnace by the head of a cream separator used in reverse as a highly effective speed reducer.  (The Story of Behlen Manufacturing Company  [A transcription of a speech given by Walter Behlen on October 11, 1968, at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska], p. 2.)  Soon, many orders were coming in to the Behlens for more toe caps.  Finally, it appeared Walter had found a product that allowed his business to grow.

Needless to say, the Behlens were always keeping their eyes open for new opportunities.  While working at the Railway Express, Walter and Gilbert handled a great many wooden crates filled with eggs.  However, these crates had fasteners on their lids which proved to be completely unsatisfactory for shipping.  Seeing this, Walter set about designing a better fastener.  Soon the Behlen Company was manufacturing this product also, and new orders for these fasteners came in from baby chick hatcheries across the nation.  The price for 25 pairs of fasteners was $8.00.  This fastener proved to be the first of many products designed and manufactured by the Behlen Company.  Dental clasps used by dentists in making partial plates and high temperature thermometers were also products designed and manufactured by the Behlen Company.  Still, the steel toe caps were their leading sales item.

As the United States entered the Second World War, a whole new group of employees entered the workforce, as women went to work in vast numbers in factories across the nation.   It was the vastly expanding market for steel toe caps created by these new workers that allowed Walter to cease his employment with the Railway Express after 16 years to become full-time General Manager of the Behlen Company.

Soon, the new demand for their products outstripped the capacity of the Behlen Company which was still limited to the confines of Walter’s garage.  Thus, in 1943, Walter and his brothers moved to an old repair shop building in up-town Columbus, where they began to employ a night shift for round-the-clock production.  However, due to complaints from the guests of an adjoining hotel that noise from the night shift work interrupted their sleep, the Behlens purchased the hotel and kept the building as an investment.  It would prove to be a sound investment, as the hotel would eventually be sold in the post-World War II era at a price several times greater than the original price.  (Ibid. p. 3.)

Along with the new location, the company obtained a $6,000 loan from the First National Bank and Trust Company located in Columbus which they used to purchase new equipment for their new factory.  Finally, they could replace their old homemade factory equipment.  By 1944, the Behlen Company was employing 35 workers.

During this time, other changes were also occurring in the family.  Herbert (Mike) Behlen left the company temporarily for a tour of duty with the Army Air Corps.  Walter, as general manager, and his father Fred, as personnel manager, held down the fort in Mike’s absence.  Gilbert continued his employment with Railway Express, but maintained his connection with the family business on a part-time basis.  Only with the end of the war in 1945 was the family management reunited, as Mike was discharged from active service and Gilbert quit his job at Railway Express to devote himself full-time to the company.

In 1945, the company expanded into manufacturing zinc-coated wire mesh for installation in wire corncribs.  This was the Behlen Company’s initiation into the manufacture of round storage buildings.  It all began with the building of a galvanizing plant on the factory property.  The products needed for processing galvanized metal had been so highly restricted during the war that the galvanizing process itself had been abandoned by many companies during the war.  Indeed, immediately after the war, the same problems existed until the economy was able to return to full peacetime regularity.  Thus, the Behlen Company had many obstacles to overcome in starting this new manufacturing project.  The Company made improvements in its round corncrib by making the corncrib of a stressed-skin, frameless design.  This same single-panel, stressed-skin, frameless design was improved and employed in the production of Behlen’s grain bins.  The panels for the grain bins were made by large rolling machines which weighed 100 tons each and cost the Behlen Company $200,000 a piece.  (Ibid.

p. 4)  As time would show, round corncribs and round grain bins were to become the most important products of the Behlen Company and, indeed, the products which made Behlen a household name across the nation.

Also, in 1945, the Behlen Manufacturing Company began developing a new grain dryer which resulted in the Behlen dryer.  Each dryer required a 5-million BTU heating unit.  When the company advertised and received the quotes for production of the heating unit from other companies, they found the price exorbitant – costing many thousands of dollars.  Additionally, the units made by those other companies were too large and cumbersome for use in the manufacture of the proposed Behlen grain dryer.  Once again, the Company set about designing its own product – a new, more efficient heating unit.  Soon, the Behlen Company was producing its own 5-million BTU heating unit for its dryers for only a few hundred dollars per unit.

Production of grain bins and grain dryers soon meant the farming public was building complete grain systems.  To answer this demand, the Behlen Manufacturing Company started producing augers, elevator legs, and perforated bin floors as part of its entire grain system.

Also, during the war and in the immediate post-war period, the Behlen Company recognized another possible market in the upgrading of old farm tractors.  With the end of the war, many farmers across the nation were beginning to upgrade their pre-war, steel-wheeled farm tractors by cutting the steel bands of the wheels and welding on rims for rubber tires.  This meant that the tractor was much smoother to ride and more convenient to use.  However, installation of rubber tires oftentimes clearly revealed another shortcoming of pre-war tractors – they were painfully slow.  Top speed of the pre-war John Deere Model A was 6 ¼ mph and for the Model B was 6 ¾ mph.  Top speed on the 3-speed transmission FarmallRegular was 4 mph.  For both the Farmall F-20 and F-30 model tractors on steel wheels, the top speed was 3 ¾ mph.  (C.H. Wendel, Nebraska Farm Tractor Tests [Crestline Pub.: Osceola, Wisc. 1993), pp. 51, 77, 85, 88 and 99.)  If some way could be found to increase this top speed, these old pre-war tractors would be given new life.  A road speed of 14 or 15 mph would mean that the old tractors now fitted with rubber tires could be used to haul wagons to town or to transport machinery to the field much quicker.  (Ibid.) 

Specifically, the Behlen Company recognized the existence of the market for a supplemental transmission that would provide this road speed of 14 to 15 mph for pre-war tractors.  Thus, the Behlen Company designed and began manufacturing a High Speed gear box for installation on the Farmall Regular, Farmall F-20, and Farmall F-30 tractors.  The Behlen Company also manufactured a High Speed transmission for the John Deere Model A and Model B tractors.  Unlike the popular Heisler Manufacturing Company’s Step-Up supplemental transmission which was already on the market, the Behlen High-Speed gear box did not double the number of gears on the tractor by providing a high and low range; rather, the Behlen High-Speed gear box provided a second entire pathway for the power train of the tractor.  Thus, to engage the Behlen High speed gear box, the tractor operator would shift the regular transmission to neutral and then shift the lever of the gear box to engage the supplemental transmission.  If the regular transmission were not disengaged before engaging the supplemental transmission, the tractor would actually be engaged in two separate gears at the same time and releasing the clutch would cause the engine to kill as the two transmissions worked against each other.  The Behlen transmission for the John Deere A and B models was marketed to the post-war public for the price of $68.00.  The Farmall F-30 Gear Box carried a price tag of $69.50 Frieght on Board (F.O.B.) from Columbus, Nebraska.  For the extremely popular Farmall F-20 and Farmall Regular Behlen supplemental transmission, the price was $56.80.

Thus, in the period immediately following the Second World War, the Behlen Company was off to a good financial start.  The future was bright for Walter, his father Fred, and his brothers Mike and Gilbert.

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