By Will Mathes
In 1892 the Kiel Manufacturing Co. was incorporated as a table manufacturing business. The factory was built upon several acres of land purchased from three area farmers.
In 1893 a depression occurred that saw 36 of the original stockholders turn over their shares in the business to J.B. Laun and A.W. Dassler. Several reorganizations took place in 1907, 1932 and 1935 when the A.A. Laun Furniture Co. was formed, which stayed in business until 2013.
My first knowledge of the furniture factory came when I was just a boy of 5 years old in 1939. My family happened to live on South Sixth Street in Kiel, which was just a block away from the business.
Daily the factory whistle would blow to mark certain periods of the day. The early morning whistle would let the workers know that factory work was to begin. Then at 9 a.m. a morning break would occur and the whistle let the men know they could have a bite of lunch or a smoke. Ten minutes later the whistle called all back to their jobs. Signaling noon the factory whistle blew as did Kiel’s fire whistle, which was located in the city hall building a block north of where I lived. Between the two they would have all the dogs within several blocks joining in with their melodious howls. The working men would walk, jog, ride bicycles and a select few would drive cars headed home for the noon meal. Since most women did not work outside of the home, a hot noon meal was waiting. At that time this noon meal was called “dinner.”
For about five minutes the sidewalks on both sides of Sixth Street were full of workers on their way home. Most lived within four to six blocks and the dinner hour was a full hour long so they could easily get home, sit down for a meal and still find time to rest a bit and get back to the factory before 1 p.m. For those who lingered too long at home a whistle blew at 12:55 p.m. to warn them work was to begin again in five minutes.
In today’s hectic pace it’s hard to imagine a factory with more than 100 workers shutting down completely for an hour at noon. We kids enjoyed watching this daily parade and would often sit on our front porch and wave to relatives or people we knew as they headed home.
Later in the 1950s and 1960s more and more workers would drive cars to work and this caused a traffic jam. One half block north from our house Sixth Street intersected with Kiel’s main street which was also State Highway 57. It became necessary then for a Kiel policeman to stand in the intersection at the stroke of noon to keep the traffic flowing. This same routine occurred with the 5 p.m. whistle at the end of the work day. An important part of the lives of boys on the south end of Kiel was that from time to time the company would buy old newspaper. This was used to wrap tables, desks and other furniture which was being shipped to various places in the United States. Laun Furniture back then was sold in all 48 states in the country. It was also Kiel’s largest industry.
We would take a coaster wagon and canvass the neighborhood begging for old newspapers. There was a grumpy old man who would deal with us when we came with our load and we always hesitated bothering him for fear of what he might say. The prospect of a shiny quarter or half dollar and sometimes we’d hit the mother lode and get a real paper dollar for our effort helped ease our concern.
My first time with this experience was when I was 6 years old. As we went door to door asking for papers I was reprimanded by an older boy because I asked the lady, “Got any papers to sell?” I didn’t know what sell meant and we surely were not paying for what we took off people’s hands.
During the war years in the 1940s we were especially challenged to make a few nickels and dimes because the Boy Scouts would collect old papers and magazines for the war effort all over the community and the pickings were very slim. We knew enough to precede the announced paper drive with our own neighborhood collection. It wasn’t that we were unpatriotic, but we had few chances to earn a little spending money. Besides, we reasoned, the rest of the city would easily make a big haul for the scouts and what did old newspaper have to do with fighting a war anyway?
One of the big events of the year for the A.A. Laun Furniture Factory was the summer picnic. To show its appreciation for its dedicated workers it would host a picnic for all of its employees and their families. The picnic would usually be held on the company’s grounds next to the Sheboygan River and the Milwaukee Road railroad tracks on Kiel’s south side. All the food, drinks and games would be free. Having no father we had no connection to get us to the picnic. Sometimes though we could arrange to spend time with a neighbor child on that day and have the family invite us to go along with them. We felt extremely lucky to go and made up for the short supply of food in our own poor home by indulging in everything that was offered at the picnic.
Though there was a feeling of guilt that accompanied us our good fortune quickly pushed it to the back of our minds. That is, until some boy who was a bully would spot one of us and announce loudly that we didn’t belong there and not only did our father not work there, our father was dead! At times like that being small had an advantage. Slipping away into the crowd was easy.
The other part of the picnic that supplied us with some entertainment occurred in the early evening. After imbibing in a bit too much free beer at the picnic, some of those men who had walked so purposefully up Sixth Street at noon and again after a day’s work were now having some difficulty negotiating that same sidewalk they knew so well. Street light poles, street sign posts and the occasional fence or tree provided much needed support on this familiar route home. As we watched and giggled at this spectacle of silly walking, we found it difficult to think someone would purposely drink enough to flounder in this way. But we were kids. What did we know?
During the war years almost everyone did whatever they could to help in the war’s efforts. One of the things the A.A. Laun Co. did was to provide plots of ground on unused portions of the acreage it owned to provide victory gardens for its employees who had no access to raise food. Often on evenings after work we would see the same workmen walking back to the factory area with garden tools to tend their gardens.
We boys would often go to the river next to the factory to fish for bullheads at dusk and on into the dark. Being boys there is no reason to believe we didn’t help ourselves to an ear of sweet corn now and then to roast over the fire we built to accompany our fishing. The joke was usually on us though, as the few small cobs left on the plants were too mature for table fare and all of the good corn had already been harvested. We ate it anyway because we all knew swiped sweet corn, even though tough to chew and roasted black over an open fire, was the best.
The other exciting thing that happened periodically was when the fire whistle blew and we all ran up to the corner of Sixth and Fremont to see the trucks go out of town. Often to our surprise they didn’t turn the corner but came straight south on Sixth Street. While complying with the policeman’s wave to go through without stopping at the stop sign, they would head to the furniture factory.
We followed with a two-block flat-out run sure to find a huge blaze at the end of it. Mostly we saw nothing at all as some dust ignited briefly or a boiler backfired or a drying kiln overheated. One of the young boys in our neighborhood summed it up. As with many children he had a slight speech impediment and language he undoubtedly overhead in his father’s tavern.
“Ebery time da dot darned fire whistle blows the dot darned fire trucks go to da dot darned furniture factory and deres no dot darned fire! Dot darnit!”
It was sad to see the A.A. Laun Furniture Factory close after more than 100 years of business in the Kiel area. Its quality built tables are still in use around the country, but foreign competition has dried up its market. My testimony is meant only to show how this one boy was connected to it.