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A renewed look at the Box Factory
In Wauzeka
1_Box factory_original box factory
The original box factory sat on this site before this building was built on the land. Harold Pomerening built and owned this building and the one next to it (R & S Welding). Harold had his implement business in these buildings before the school bought this one for their bus barn.

WAUZEKA - According to an article written by Viola Reichmann for the Lower Wisconsin River Genealogical and Historical Research Center (LWR), in 1917 Joseph Doll and his brother, Albert, decided to build a factory along the Kickapoo River to make cheese boxes. The building of the box factory had been discussed between Dr. C.J. Miller, Frank Keal and Joe Doll as early as 1913.

From 1913 to 1917, the startup of the factory had its ups and downs. According to another article from the LWR, about 30 men risked about $5,000 in startup capital, and elected Joe Doll, as President and Manager. In the winter of 1913-1914, the men bought and cut 3,000 board feet of lumber. In the spring of 1914, floods came and carried the lumber away. Mr. Doll resigned and sold his shares. John Keller of Prairie du Chien was hired as manager. During the summer of 1914, the factory employed about 18 men. In 1915, John Rickliff started as manager, but the factory closed because of the lack of money to operate. 

2_Box Factory_dryer building
This is the original drier building for the box factory. Completed cheese boxes were put in here to dry before being shipped out to the cheese factories.

In 1916, Joseph Doll rented the factory and prepared for the 1917 season. Fourteen men were employed. In 1918, the factory had its first fire, but they had insurance and were able to collect $1200. In 1919, Mr. Doll bought the factory, and they made 80,000 boxes. Each year thereafter, the number of completed boxes increased. In 1921, Doll selected Harry Geisler as a partner and factory manager. At that time, there were about 40 men working at the factory, and they worked day and night to keep up with the demand for the cheese boxes. Wisconsin was a dairy state, and there were many small farms in our area. Cheese factories were built close to several farms so the farmers would have easy access for selling their milk. These cheese factory owners needed the cheese boxes to store and age the cheese they made and sold.

By 1923 the company used 750,000 board feet of lumber, and in 1924, they made 225,000 boxes. The average pay was thirty-five cents an hour by the 1030’s.

3_Box Factory_heading yard
This is part of the area where the “Heading Yard” was located. Lumber used for making the lids, “heads”, and bottoms of the cheese boxes was stacked in this area. Scott’s Shelter sits on the land now.

In 1930, the factory completely burned down. According to the LWR article, it took only about 20 days before the two new buildings, (the main building and the dryer), were up. New tools, such as lathes, band saws, planers, were added. Other saws used were two manpower saws and a hole saw. The hole saw was used to cut the head (top) and bottom pieces of the boxes. The factory consisted of three buildings—the main factory building, (approximately where the Wauzeka School Bus Barn currently sits), the dryer, (directly across from the main building), and the filing building (where saws, etc were filed and repaired). There was also the area called the heading yard, where the lumber for the box heads and bottoms were kept. The heading yard consisted of the space from the factory up to what is now the end of East Front Street. During the time of the factory’s running, the heading area would have covered the area up to and beyond Scott’s shelter by the boat landing.

The factory was powered by a steam engine that was fired by the wood scraps left over from making the cheese boxes. Any excess wood not used by the factory, was available for community members to buy and use in their cook stoves or their wood stoves that were used to heat their homes. People could also buy some of the longer pole-like pieces of wood that remained after the veneer was taken, to use as posts for building porches, etc onto their homes.

John Hurda was the man who kept the steam engine fires burning. Every morning at the sound of the 7 a.m. whistle, he was told to get the fires going so work could begin. The whistle blew at 7 a.m. to start the day, and again at 1 p.m. to call the workers back from lunch.

4_Box Factory_another building
This is another building that was owned by the box factory. It was used for storage of needed items and was possibly used as the place where saws and blades were sharpened or where items were stored or were repaired.

Albert Doll was very good at making tools and saws. Harry Geisler was very good at building machinery used in the box factory. Pearl Geisler, also known as “Pearly Gates” among his coworkers, sharpened the saws and other tools that were used in running the factory. The company used cottonwood, red elm, white elm, soft maple and basswood.

Joe Doll owned land in the Wisconsin bottoms that were full of the needed wood. In the winter months, when the Kickapoo river froze over, the men would cross the river into the bottoms, cut the trees and drag them back over the river. Most of the tree were cut with a two man cross cut saw. Pat Hurda, a former box factory employee at the age of 15, told of many cottonwood trees that were 60” in diameter were cut with the two man crosscut saw.

Trucks without doors were used to drag the trees back to the factory. It was best to not have doors on the trucks in case they would go through the ice. The men could jump out quickly and get away from the sinking truck. At one time a pile of rocks was placed in the middle of the Kickapoo to use as footings for a bridge so the logs could be more safely brought across the river. Joe Doll also owned farmland near Steuben. Later, the company would buy lumber from those farm areas, making it easier to get lumber year round. Those farms are now known as the Domback and Beers farms. When work was slow in later years, Joe Doll would send some of the workers up to the farms to do farm work just to keep them on the payroll.

Once the cottonwood, basswood, red elm, and white elm trees were at the factory, they were put into the boiler to cook. This process would release the bark on the logs, and then the men could peel it off. Peeling the bark was done by hand. After the bark was peeled, the log was put on a lathe to cut the veneer off. The veneer was cut into five foot wide by twelve feet long pieces. These pieces were only one-eighth inch thick. The one-eighth inch veneer was used for the outside of the cheese boxes.

Dan Trehey would cut the sections of veneer in 16” or 18” sections. Pat Hurda and Fred Reichmann attest to the fact that Dan was a whiz on cutting the veneer into the correct sizes. One time, however, Dan got his fingers a little too close to the blade and lost his two middle fingers on one hand. Another worker asked Dan if he wanted to save the fingers and go to the Dr., but Dan said, “No, just throw them in the fire box!” 

OSHA would have had a heyday if they had seen some of the conditions at the box factory. The saws had no guards, the big belts were not safe. If a piece of lumber got caught in one of the belts, it would be thrown hard and fast, and the men had to be on the lookout all the time. Even given this particular incident with Dan, there were very few bad accidents at the box factory during its entire history. There were, however plenty of injuries.

Pat Hurda learned to put the pieces of veneer together in the right sizes. When he first started that position, he was often teased that he wouldn’t be able to get the veneer together fast enough to keep the line moving as it needed to. He said after the first few attempts, he learned very quickly how to line the pieces up and slide them into the tongue and groove positions, get them the correct length, and send them down the line. Harold Dittman was one of the workers who would form the round boxes and staple them together. The factory made two different sizes of round cheese boxes, the larger cheddar cheese box, which was about 16”—18” tall, and the Daisy cheese box, which was about 8”—10” tall. The boxes were about 16” in diameter. The head, or cover, and the bottom were made of maple, and were each about three fourths inch thick. The top and bottom had a two inch band attached to fit over the main part of the box. Later the factory also made square “rat” boxes, which were used to ship muskrats. 

The larger box held about 70 pounds of cheese. After the boxes were built, they were stacked and dried before they were shipped. The boxes were first shipped by teams of horses and a wagon to the various cheese factories in the area. Later, they were shipped by train. Some were also shipped by trucks. Butch Stuckey and Virgil Bass were two of the men who delivered the boxes by truck. Boxes were sold all over Southwestern Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, and Northeast Iowa.

In 1967, Pat Hurd said he was paid $1.25 an hour. By 1970, the average wage was $1.60 an hour. 

After WWII, new ideas were developed, and paper and plastic containers were developed to replace the wooden cheese boxes. Co-ops were formed, and the smaller cheese factories began to close down. Cheese was stored and aged in larger quantities. When box sales dropped, and the factory had only about 13 employees, Harry Geisler and Joseph Doll’s son, George, decided to close the factory, ending a long era of a longstanding industry in Wauzeka, (1913—1970). Many people in our community benefitted from the jobs that were available at that factory.

Some of the people who worked at the factory were, Joseph Doll, Albert Doll, Harry Geisler, Pearl Geisler, John Keller, John Rickliff, John Hurda, Harold Dittmann, Dan Trehey, Gordon McFall, Edwin Reichmann, Donald (Doc) Lyons, Fred Reichmann, Louis Geisler, Louis Schwartz, George Chunat, George Schaefer, George Reichmann, Frank Schwartz, George Doll, Walter Lathrop, Wilson (Biddy) Phetteplace, Jack Trehey, Austin (Bud) Mills, Charles Harold, Gary Haven, Roger Reichmann, Pat Hurda, Butch Stuckey, Virgil Bass, and Jinx Walters. There are more names of workers that couldn’t be found in the archives, and for that we apologize to their families.

The Wauzeka LWR is hosting a potluck picnic on August 12, 2023, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Scott’s Shelter located at the boat landing in Wauzeka, to honor the box factory workers and their families. We would like to hear more stories about the box factory and meet family members of the workers. Please bring a dish to pass and your own drinks. Please call Bruce Salmon at 608-875-6452 or Suzette Ray at 608-875-5505 for more information. Thanks you!  See you on August 12!