Algoma is “OK”:
History of the Algoma Foundary and Machine Company of Algoma, Wisconsin
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the March/April 1995 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
The ensilage process of chopping green corn or hay and storing it in a silo was first developed by August Goffart, a French experimenter, in 1877. (Robert C. Nesbit, Wisconsin: A History [University of Wisconsin Press; Madison, Wisconsin, 1973], p. 291.) In 1880, Dr. H.S. Weeks, of Ononomowoc, Wisconsin, also conducted experiments with ensilage stored in silos. The success of Dr. Weeks’ experiments led some pioneering farmers to construct silos for storage of this new type of cattle feed. Later experiments found that three cows could be fed for seven months on one acre of silage crops while it would take two acres of hay to feed just one cow for the same seven months.
At first, there was a major resistance to this new method of chopping and storing ensilage based on the belief that the fodder would eat away at the stomachs of cows or cause them to lose their teeth. As of 1904, there were only 716 silos in the entire state of Wisconsin. However, in the early 1900s, William Dempster Hoard, editor of Hoard’s Dairyman, began promoting silage for dairy herds in his magazine. Thus, following the First World War, silos started to spring up across the nation as farmers began to see the advantages of silage.
Most commonly, silage was cut into pieces about an inch in length. Machines were developed to facilitate this procedure, and the ensilage cutter–or stationary forage harvester–was born, with the dairy state of Wisconsin becoming the center for manufacturing and sales of silage equipment. One of the companies that realized the potential market for ensilage cutters in Wisconsin was the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company of Algoma, Wisconsin.
Algoma is a small city of 3,600 people located on the shore of Lake Michigan at the base of Door Peninsula. The entity that was to become the Algoma Company was first established there in 1883 as A. Hamacek and Company by Adolf and Anton Hamacek. A. Hamacek and Company made horse-drawn farm machinery and operated an electric light plant for those Algoma residents who had electric lighting in their homes and businesses. On August 28, 1891, Adolph Hamacek left the partnership and moved to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Anton, however, continued to operate the business alone until the spring of 1893 when he formed another partnership with Joseph Wodsedalek and August Ziemer from Kewaunee, Wisconsin. On August 6, 1895, a fire totally destroyed the business’s two-story building located in the 600 block of Fremont Street in Algoma. Following the fire, the partnership purchased a new property, just east of the new Fourth Street Bridge in Algoma, owned by John Ihlenfeld. This was an excellent location which was served by a spur of the Green Bay and Western Railroad. The partnership then moved their operations to the single-story building located on that property.
During World War I, one of the partnership’s employees, Joseph Sticka, a machinist, conceived of his own design for a stationary forage harvester and left the employ of the partnership to establish his own business. However, the business he established was not sufficiently capitalized and he soon sought the backing of his old employer. Thus, in 1920, the partnership began mass producing the forage harvester developed by Joseph Sticka.
In March of 1920, the partnership was transformed into a company and incorporated as the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company. Joseph Wodsedalek became president and Joseph F. Sticka became a director. E.W. Anderogg, general manager of the Algoma Net Company, also became a director. While continuing his work at the Net Company, Mr Anderogg sat on the board of the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company as representative of the interests of his boss, M.W. Perry, president of the Algoma Net Company. M.W. Perry, although a minority shareholder, had loaned the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company a great deal of money. Therefore, M.L. Perry had much influence over the company.
Shortly after they became incorporated, the Algoma Company introduced a new line of modern farm equipment bearing the trade name OK. This line included forage harvesters–or ensilage cutters–forage blowers, feed grinders and hammermills. This expansion, however, was ill-timed.
Although it is commonly accepted that the Great Depression began with the stock market crash in 1929 following a period of prosperity throughout the 1920s, the facts are that in the rural areas of the nation the depression actually began in 1921 with the fall in the price of farm products following the end of World War I. Farmers were feeling the effects of the depression as early as 1921. This meant that there was little demand for new farm machinery from that time until the nation began to recover in the 1930s. As a result, the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company suffered deficits for the first nine years of its existence.
A financial statement, dated Feb. 1, 1929, noted that the corporation had a $38,807.20 deficit in its annual budget at that time. The board required action and the corporation underwent a financial reorganization whereby the persons who had loaned the company money were made preferred stockholders in the corporation. Suddenly, all the creditors of the company became the owners of the company. In short, this meant that M.W. Perry became the majority shareholder of the company with 51% of the shares. He also bought out all of the remaining inrterests of the Joseph Wodsedalek family.
On March 2, 1929, a new management team was installed. M.W. Perry became the new president and E.W. Anderogg became the new general manager of the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company. Following the reorganization, the compamy underwent a corporate down-sizing and under the new leadership managed to finish the year in good order and even showed a profit. Consequently, in 1929, the corporation made its first profit in the face of the financial dislocations which occurred on Wall Street in October of 1929 and continued profitably for the next three years.
In the Spring of 1932, E.W. Anderogg was made treasurer. The Company then began to cast about to find the right person to fill the position of general manager and were fortunate in obtaining the services of E.J. Albro for this position. He had served as manager of the farm equipment division of the Montgomery Ward Company for 15 years, from 1917 to 1932. In his position at Montgomery Ward, E.J. Albro had supervised the purchasing of thousands of dollars of fly nets from the Algoma Net Company. Now he used his influence to arrange for Montgomery Ward to purchase all of their hammermills from the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company. Montgomery Ward would sell these farm implements under their own name and eventually would become the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company’s largest single customer, absorbing 35% of all of the farm equipment they produced.
The silo fillers produced by the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company continued to follow the original design conceived by Joseph F. Sticka; however, with some small improvements made to the original design. Two sizes of silo fillers were offered, e.g., a 13″ throat model and a 15″ throat model. These two models came out of the factory, along with the hammermills and all of the other farm equipment offered by the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company, cloaked in the green paint that in the early years symbolized the OK line of farm machinery. A bright yellow “OK” insignia would appear on both sides of the hinged casing covering the knife wheel. Another insignia declaring “Mfd. by Algoma Foundry and Machine Company, Algoma, Wisconsin” was stenciled on both sides of the transport frame underneath the feeding table. Although no paint numbers now exist which could allow a restorer to recreate the exact shade of this green paint, according to John Beitling, long-term employee of the paint department, the shade was very close to the green color which was habitually used on 1948-1950 Chevrolet pickups.
When Montgomery Ward began placing large orders for hammermills and other equipment, the purchasing contract required that such equipment be painted Montgomery Ward red and that the equipment bear no insignias. Marvin Zirbel, another former employee of the Algoma Company, remembers that to save cost the Company made the decision to change the color of its entire line of OK equipment to Montgomery Ward red, Martin-Senour 99L-1637. (Later, in 1964, when Massey-Ferguson bought the corporate entity which included the Algoma Company, Massey-Ferguson personnel found that the red paint used by the Algoma Company was indistinguishable from their own Massey-Ferguson red.) The bright yellow insignias and lettering, however, would still appear in the same locations on the silo fillers and on all of those machines which were not sold to Montgomery Ward but were offered to the public through jobbers and wholesalers under the Company’s own name.
In 1943, one of these OK silo fillers rolled out of the plant cloaked in its red paint job and insignias. It was one of the smaller models with a 13″ throat. It traveled by railroad flatbed out of Algoma, across Wisconsin and into Minnesota, where it was sold to its first owner. After only one season, the silo filler was resold in 1944 to Roy Johnson (a beef farmer), Harold Nelsen and Harris Quist (who milked Holstein herds on their farms), and Leonard Johnson (who milked Jersey cows). They bought the silo filler together, along with a McCormick-Deering corn binder which had a wagon loading attachment. (A two-row version of this binder with the wagon loading attachment can be seen in the 1934 International Harvester movie, Farming the Farmall Way.) The four Lindstrom-area farmers used the silo filler to fill their own silos on all four farms and for some custom work in their neighborhood as well. Harold Nelsen remembers that the OK silo filler was a “light runner”–a smooth and easy operating machine–powered most often by a Farmall H. Each summer the silo filler was towed from farm to farm in the Lindstrom neighborhood by the Farmall H and performed admirably.
Following World War II, a flood of new and more efficient farm machinery came onto the market. In 1944, International Harvester had introduced the No. 55-T baler, their first successful cotton stripper, and the new No. 2 field forage harvester. All of these machines were advertised as “one-man harvesting machines.” (See the 1944 IH movies called “One-Man Harvesting” and “One-Man Cotton Harvesting.”)
Like other farmers across the nation, these four farmers saw the advantages of single-stage processing of ensilage in the field, rather than carrying bundles of corn to the silo for processing. Thus, in about 1949, Roy Johnson bought one of the new McCormick-Deering field choppers. The other three farmers then hired him to fill the silos on their farms and the OK silo filler was sold to Maynard Mohn of Center City, Minnesota. After a few years, the Mohn family also upgraded their silo filling operations; however, the OK silo filler remained stored under cover on the Mohn farm until it was put up for sale several years later at an auction.
John Bjonstad, grandnephew of Maynard Mohn, having observed the OK silo filler several times on the Mohn farm, expressed an interest in seeing the silo filler saved from the cutting torch. At the auction, therefore, John’s grandfather, Paul Holm, of Almelund, Minnesota, purchased the silo filler for his grandson. John and his grandfather then transported the silo filler to the site of the LeSueur Pioneer Power Show near LeCenter, Minnesota. There, in 1990, the silo filler was set up and operated by John and his grandfather as an exhibit at the Show.
Following that Show, the silo filler was wintered at the Pioneer Power site; however, due to the shortage of storage buildings, the OK silo filler was stored outside for one of the first winters since it had been manufactured. Unfortunately, it has not been operated as an exhibit in any of the Shows since 1990.
In August of 1994, the OK silo filler was found by the author and his brother, Mark Wells, of Billerica, Massachusetts, in about the same location where it had been stored following the 1990 Show. Even in 1994, after four years of sitting outside in the elements, the knives and shear bar seemed to be in very good condition. The pressed-paper pulley showed evidence of having recently been treated with fuel oil. It appeared, however, that the growing layer of rust threatened to obliterate the “OK” decal hinged blower cover and the “Algoma Foundry and Machine Co.” stencilling on the frame under the feeding table. It was at this point that the author and his brother began to think about restoration of the OK silo filler. Research into the proper paint scheme, the correct shade of paint, and remaking of the proper decals is currently being conducted and plans are being made for a 1995 restoration.
The Algoma Foundry and Machine Company continued to function independently until September 14, 1962, when the company was sold to Badger Northland Company, Inc. The Algoma Company became a division of the Badger Company, with Karl Kuehn of Kaukauna, Wisconsin, serving as head of the Algoma farm equipment division. Badger was manufacturing a short line of farm equipment, which included silo unloaders and barn cleaners, when they bought out the Algoma Company. They hoped, through the acquisition of the Algoma Company, to broaden their line of Badger products to include forage equipment, particularly their field chopper.
In 1964, Badger Northland was in turn acquired by the Massey-Ferguson Company. By this time, however, no silo fillers or forage equipment were being made at the Algoma site. It was a sign of the times that only garden tractors (the Massey-Ferguson model 10) and snowmobiles were being made in the old foundry building. In the summer of 1970, operations at the Algoma plant were entirely discontinued by Massey-Ferguson.
Before the merger with Massey-Ferguson in 1964, the president of Badger Northland was Wisconsin native Vincent Rolf. He had been one of the founders of the Badger Farm Equipment Company in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, in 1949. In 1965, he along with almost all of the original founders of Badger formed a new company called Calumet Corporation of Kaukauna, Wisconsin. Calumet manufactured liquid pumps, liquid manure spreaders, and a line of trailers for transporting boats, snowmobiles, and garden tractors at its plant in Dundas, Wisconsin. Upon learning that the old foundry building in Algoma was available, Calumet moved its manufacturing operations from Dundas to the foundry building in December of 1970, operating there until 1973.
Over the years, many people of the Algoma area were employed at the foundry: Lester Zimmerman was a machinist at the foundry; George Bietling, Marvin Zirbel amd Doug Silmer worked there at different times; as noted previously, John Beitling worked for many years in the paint department; and Emil Bostick, now of Luxembourg, Wisconsin, worked in the stenciling department.
It is a different world now than when the foundry was first opened in 1895, reflecting the changes in farming methods which have occurred in the interim and reflecting the transition of the United States from an agricultural nation into an industrial nation. Restoration of old farm machinery is one way in which the agricultural history of the nation can be preserved for future generations. It is hoped that restoration of the 1943 OK silo filler will compose one more chapter of that history, a chapter which will recognize not only the farmers that used the silo filler but also the men and women who made the silo filler.