Photo: The exterior facade of the Dubuque Malting Company, also known as Dubuque Brewing Company and Dubuque Brewing & Malting Company.
The iconic midwestern cities Milwaukee and St. Louis are synonymous with domestic beer production. Schlitz, Pabst, Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and other big-time operations have been around since the 19th century. Facing growing competition the Heeb, Iowa, Western, and Northern Breweries joined forces to form the Dubuque Malting Company in 1892. The taps have long ran dry, but the monumental building they built still stands to this day.
In 1895 the company began construction on 30th and Jackson Street. The modern brewery cost $500,000 (or $13.8 million adjusted for inflation) to build and equip. The first floor of the Jackson street frontage is cream-colored Bedford stone, while the rest of the buildings are pressed brick. The 10-acre property includes office, stock, brew, mill, boiler, machinery bottling, barn, wagon, garage, and other minor buildings. Electrical wiring provided power for over 200 lamps throughout the entire complex. An artisan well with a six-inch diameter output flow provided ample water supplies for brewing. On May 7, 1896 the brewery greeted 20,000 guests at its grand opening.
When the fanfare subsided the brewery began round the clock operations. The approximately 225,000 square foot facility was able to produce 300,000 barrels annually according to advertising, but more realistic figures place that number around 190,000. Within the Dubuque city limits beer was delivered by electric vehicles traveling at 6mph. Beer destined for other locations horse-drawn wagons, gas-powered trucks, and refrigerated railroad cars.
Photo (source): The Dubuque Brewing & Malting Company
Like many contemporary large brewery operations the company expanded into real-estate by owning corporate saloons. When ordinances passed forbidding breweries from directly owning real-estate, the Dubuque Realty Company was formed as a shell company. Distribution ordinances limiting sales to approved businesses were evaded by founding the East Dubuque Supply Company. However by checking out Brotman Law, no shrewd corporate lawyer or crafty bookkeeping tricks could avoid the rising influence of the Prohibition Movement.
In 1915 the state legislature repealed the Mulct Act, which effectively outlawed saloons from operating in Iowa. Another deadly blow to the local brewing industry was dealt in 1918 when an amendment to the state constitution barring alcoholic beverages went into effect. The Dubuque Brewing & Malting Company could not weather the shift in political climate, and ceased operations.
During the coming decades the building would be used or considered for various purposes. A meat packer, a failed upstart brewery, a trucking company, a packing business, and a potential corn refinery never matched the economic glory of the former brewery. In 1978 the building was nominated to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, but later removed at the behest of the owners.
Photo: The formidable towers of the Dubuque Brewing & Malting Company.
Efforts to demolish the structure were thwarted in 2005 when the city placed the property within a conservation district. In 2010 the city ordered repairs to bring the building up to code, but few have been performed due to lack of funding. Preservationists continue to hold on to hope that the romanesque structure will find a new purpose.
Today the Dubuque Brewing & Malting Company building is surrounded by a shipping company, auto repair shops, and a trendy gentrified restaurant. Middle-class homes are dwarfed in comparison to the castle towers at the edges of the complex. Wood covers a majority of the windows blocking sunlight from penetrating the ash covered interior from a 2009 fire. Crimson bricks crumble from all corners of the external façade, exposing just how thick its walls truly are.
The current owner runs an eponymous business called Jim Krueger Auto & Truck Parts on the ground level. Empty husks of rusting classic cars, piles of rubber tires, and other miscellaneous parts are strewn about in the darkness. Much like the preservationist’s hopes for the brewery, Jim holds on to the notion that one day the decaying cars will be returned to their former glory. The minute it is gone someone will surely come looking.
Photo: Some of the remaining homes in Henry River Mill Village.
Nestled on the banks of a winding river just outside of Hildebran, North Carolina are the greyed remnants of a blue-collar community. The sound of rural silence is intermittently broken by passers-by who point out the windows of their vehicles, making note of the setting used in a blockbuster film. A sign on the side of the road indicates to gawkers that the entire surrounding area is on the real estate market. If the right buyer for the Henry River Mill Village comes along, they can own one of the few remaining intact examples of a company town.
After Confederate defeat in the Civil War, poor white southern farmers suddenly faced increased competition from newly emancipated African-Americans for low-wage work. Facing destitution these farmers banded together in close-knit communities in the recessed regions of Appalachia (Carroll, p. 11-12).
Community became a central component in the Cotton Mill Campaign that swept through the region beginning in the 1880s. Textile mills offered the south an opportunity to separate ties with northern industrial interests and produce cotton products locally. Industrialists eagerly tapped into the vein of local pride and positioned the mills as an opportunity for impoverished farmers to share in the modern prosperity of industrialism. These new mills became “symbols of regional regeneration, yardsticks of a town’s progress, and badges of civic pride.”
Though the rural citizens were eager to take up mill work, subsistence farming did not lend itself to the saving of capital necessary to purchase a home in close proximity to the mill. To ameliorate this hurdle thirty-five houses were constructed along the gradual slope leading to the main Henry River Mills Manufacturing Company building. Employees were allowed to live in these simple dwellings rent-free, or at a deeply subsidized rate in later decades. Each unit provided a family with about an acre of land for personal use, an outdoor privy, a warm fireplace to keep warm, and a place to call home.
Photo: The centerpiece of the mill community was the multi-purpose company store.
At the heart of the village is a two-story brick building that primarily functioned as the company store. Instead of paying workers in hard currency, employees were issued tokens that could only be tendered at the company store. This practice, common with industrialists of the era, allowed companies to reclaim workers’ salaries and keep them under company influence. Workers were not only beholden to the company store monopoly on goods, but also the social services it hosted. The company store building also served as a post-office, bank, school, and church. The doctrine taught in the classroom and preached from the pulpit often coincided with company interests. Social and economic pressure to remain loyal to the company kept workers in line.
Towards the southern edge of the village are the concrete foundation of the mill that powered the community. In 1902 David Aderholdt, Marcus Aderholdt, Miles Rudisill, and Michael Rudisill purchased an existing machine shop on the 1,500 acre property. By 1905 the Henry River Mills Manufacturing Company had completed construction of a dam to provide water power to the new three-story textile mill. In the subsequent decades the mill expanded to meet demand by building additions, wiring its buildings for electricity, reinvesting in new mechanical textile equipment, and adapting to new market trends. The American textile industry suffered a severe decline in the 1960s as global capitalism proliferated. Unable to compete with low foreign labor costs, the mill and its surrounding community was sold carte blanche to Wade Shepherd in 1975. The investment proved disastrous as the mill was completely consumed by fire in 1977.
Photo: One of the remaining 1&1/2 story homes.
Despite the devastation some of the villagers remained throughout the 1980s. While the homes were adequate for the period the mill was operational, they had fallen woefully behind by modern standards. Even the occupied homes still lacked proper electrical wiring, indoor plumbing, insulation, or any significant additions. Vacant homes were long pilfered for anything of value and bore typical signs of sustained neglect. Environmental elements have greatly deteriorated the wood frame homes insuring that they will remain uninhabitable. Of the original lot of 35, only 20 structures remain.
After three decades of decay the homes provided a perfect setting for the poverty stricken District 12 in The Hunger Games. The village served as a backdrop in the dystopian fantasy where extreme poverty is leveraged as a means of regional government control. The blockbuster film has brought unwanted attention to the village resulting in theft and vandalism. Shepherd has posted trespassing notices, but the warnings often go unheeded by curious visitors.
As an outsider it is tough to imagine one’s life being under the thumb of corporate masters. Although the villagers of Henry River Mill were kept in meager homes afforded by their work and nominal pay, stories from those who lived there emphasize the close-knit community they were a part of. The farm ethic of interdependence on one’s neighbors carried over and built strong community bonds. As modern working-class Americans continue to struggle with obtaining livable wages and corporate impositions on personal choice, few can claim that they have the support of their neighbors. Unfortunately the welfare of Henry River Mill Village citizens was heavily reliant on the fortunes of the controlling company. When the mill ceased operations, the village was relegated to become nothing more than a fading historical curiosity.
Photo: Power plant for what was originally the Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co.
In 1910 seasoned manufacturing veterans F.A. Ingalls and Charles C. Shepard partnered to create the Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co. in Harvey, Illinois. Ingalls took up the mantle of President and treasurer, while Shepard acted as Vice President. The company produced a wide range of parts for the burgeoning automobile industry and railroad companies. As the world delved into chaos during the War to End All Wars industrial manufacturers across the United States were pushed to the limits of their operating capacities to great profit. In 1920 the Wyman-Gordon Company out of Worcester, Massachusetts acquired the Ingalls-Shepard Forging Co. and rechristened it as the Ingalls-Shepard Division. The consolidation placed Ingalls as Vice President of Wyman-Gordon, but he would still maintain operational control over the Harvey factory.
Photo (source): Logo from an advertisement for Wyman-Gordon with the Harvey plant on the right.
The Roaring Twenties were a boon for the steel industry. The automobile, which had been a luxury item the previous decade, now entered the American mainstream as mass production made “horseless carriages” accessible to the general public. The automobile may have driven urban development outward, but new architectural technologies drove cities upwards. Skyscrapers demanded strong metal frameworks to withstand environmental punishment. New massive machines such as massive cranes and earth movers were needed to move materials. While skyscrapers penetrated the sky, aeronautic developments of the Great War brought with it the commercialization of airplane travel. Wyman-Gordon produced parts that serviced every one of these industries. At the outset of World War II all large US manufacturers devoted their efforts to defeating the Axis, which Wyman-Gordon used to their industrial advantage. US Army engineers kept on the heels of the front lines to dismantle superior German industrial technology and pass it on to American businesses such as Wyman-Gordon. The Wyman-Gordon company claims to have produced more single parts for the war effort than any of its entirety of its competitors in the industry.
Photo: The equipment is completely rusted over.
Innovation in the aeronautics industry drove Wyman-Gordon business for the next few decades. By the 1960’s the Wyman-Gordon company was recognized as the leading innovator in forging and titanium technologies. The US government contracted with Wyman-Gordon to create parts for the B-52 Stratofortress, the secret SR-71 spy plane, F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle fighter jets. In the civilian market the company produced parts for hundreds of other aircraft. In the 1980’s, however, declining defense expenditures, sagging commercial airline development, and international competition put manufacturers like Wyman-Gordon into commercial distress.
In order to stay operational Wyman-Gordon decided to shutter the Ingalls-Shepard Division in Harvey. The announcement proved devastating as the community had already endured the recent closing of three other major manufacturing employers. The company tried in vain to sell the 780,000 sq. foot facility for over six months, but was unable to find a buyer. The manufacturing of diesel engine crankshafts was moved to the company’s Danville, Illinois plant and special manufacturing to Jackson, Michigan. In 1986 the closing of the Ingalls-Shepard Division took with it 350 jobs from Harvey.
Photo: Massive storage areas several stories tall.
Plans for redevelopment of the 47-acre industrial site revolve around tapping into Harvey’s geographic advantages in transportation. The southern Chicago suburb has three expressways, four national highways, four freight railroads and the Chicago Metra lines running through it. Although a majority of the Ingalls-Shepard Division buildings have been demolished, the Environmental Protection Agency has listed the location as a brownfield in need of cleanup before development can continue. It would seem logical that Wyman-Gordon would be on the hook for cleaning up the site, but that is not the case. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the Chicago area and lowest average household income Harvey cannot afford the up front costs for assessing the property. Compounding an already bad situation is the fact that the total cost of cleanup may exceed the market value of the land once remediated.
All that remains of the Ingalls-Shepard Division is the power plant and a still occupied large building across the street from it. Fences border the entire perimeter of the power plant, but are pried wide open in several areas. The building is about four or fives stories high with an even higher smokestack affixed to the rear. On the inside the factory has been scrapped and everything metal has the patina of decay. The interchangeable fixtures of the heavy machinery are all missing, but the core pieces remain. Coal hoppers, generators, and some dynamos encased in a heavy layer of rust remain. Steel walkways crisscrossing the upper portions are missing large sections and appear quite unsafe for even the most seasoned urban explorer to traverse.
Photo: Some of the steel walkways have large sections missing.
The Ingalls-Shepard Division power plant is a monument to the prosperity once generated in the Harvey. The power plant will most likely loom over the community until the federal government steps in with enough money to remediate the land. In the long run the tax-payers will end up paying for Wyman-Gordon’s mess.
There is still one thing that I have been unable to pin down about this location though. Why was the power plant spared from demolition when the rest of the factory came down? If you have an answer, please leave it in the comments.
ASME (PDF) – Fascinating brochure detailing how US troops captured superior German forging technology during World War II and passed it on to Wyman-Gordon.
Chicago Tribune – 1985 article announcing Wyman-Gordon plans to sell the Ingalls-Shepard Division plant.
Chicago Tribune – 1986 article announcing 350 layoffs from the Wyman-Gordon plant.
Chicago Tribune – 2010 article on the EPA cleanup of the Wyman-Gordon plant.
CNT (PDF) – Document describing a collaborative effort between Harvey and Dixmoor authorities to remediate the site.
EPA – Facility Detail Report by the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA – 1997 Brownfield Assessment Pilot by the Environmental Protection Agency.
American Urbex is a means to motivate myself to get out the door and explore new places. Unfortunately… or fortunately depending on your point of view… there are only so many urbex locations to explore nearby. Because I do not have unlimited funds does not mean that I am limited when exploring new things. One of those new things for me that is cheap to explore is podcasting. I have decided to stick my head out there and see what happens with American Urbex Podcast. There are a few episodes already recorded and I have scheduled release dates set. Using some of the money donated to American Urbex, I have invested into hosting for a podcast.
What is the American Urbex Podcast?
In the first couple of episodes I will be talking about some of the places I have explored. I will discuss some of the background information, the location details, and what motivates me to keep going. Future episodes will address topics such as research methods, preservation, camera equipment, online resources and more. The natural rhythm and flow of the podcast will work itself out as time goes on. So without further ado I present unto the public the American Urbex Podcast.
Photo: The state of Illinois would like to move this property that sits opposite downtown Chicago.
The colloquial “Damen Silos” harken back to an era when Chicago was a big player in the grain trade. The land on which the grain elevator lords over has been in use since the early 1800’s. In 1832 a fire broke out at the grain elevator and then rebuilt with with concrete. Disaster struck again on September 9, 1905 when spontaneous combustion killed several workers and consumed the entire building within an hour. Immediately thereafter architect John S. Metcalf was commissioned to build the current elevator.
Photo (source): View of the grain elevator looking northeast.
The John S. Metcalf Company, consulting engineers, designed and built this facility for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1906. The original complex included a powerhouse, elevator with temporary storage and processing silos, and thirty-five grain storage silos. With a 400,000 bushel capacity, this complex could accommodate sixty railroad cars at the elevator and 300 railroad cars at a yard a short distance away. Equipmentat the site included two driers, bleachers, oat clippers, cleaners, scourers and dust packers. Using filtered water from the adjacent South Branch of the Chicago River, boilers with a total of 1,500 horsepower generated the steam and electricity required bythemachinery. The thirty-five grain silos south of this facility had a total capacity of one million bushels. In 1932, a grain dust explosion ignited a fire which destroyed the original timber and brick building. The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad rebuilt the concrete processing house with fourteen reinforced concrete silos; the capacity of the facility was increased to 1,700,000 bushels. After reconstruction, the rail road leased the facility to the Stratton Grain Company.
Photo: (source): Drawing of the grain elevator from around 1908.
In 1977 another large explosion caused significant damage to the grain elevator. Afterwards the location fell into disuse and became property of the state. The real estate company charged with selling the property states “the property was owned by the state who wanted seventeen million for it and it didn’t sell. They have lowered it to eleven million, but they are only willing to sell it in one big chunk.” In this economic downturn it is highly unlikely that this waterfront property will move anytime soon.
Photo: A lone abandoned Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight hides below the view of the Chicago skyline.
The silos were the last location of the day during this urbex expedition. The sun was fast fading and we were a bit fatigued. Other urbex explorers have braved several stories of rickety stairs with missing platforms to get shots from the top of the cavernous silos. I wasn’t having any of that. I had already broken my tripod handle and slipped on some ice. My urbex partner lost a lens cap and broke his tripod leg. We were content with just standing in awe of the colossal monument to human industry.
The monumental Brach’s candy factory in Chicago is a crumbling shrine to “The World’s Candy Capital.” Perhaps more appropriately though, the colossal factory is a tombstone marking the agonizing death of the American Dream. The factory is a well-known urbex location in the greater Chicago area. It was a great thrill to finally get to explore it physically. Before I delve into that let’s explore the factory intellectually.
German immigrant Emil J. Brach was an ambitious 22 year-old when he came to Chicago in 1881 to work for the Bunte Brothers & Spoehr candy manufacturers. The spendthrift Brach saved $15,000, which he invested into a candy company that quickly went under. Learning from his mistakes Brach rolled up his sleeves and took matters into his own hands. In 1904 the 45 year-old Brach invested $1000 and opened his own “Palace of Sweets” at the corner of North Avenue and Towne Street. With the help of sons Edwin and Frank, Brach attracted locals by making the delicious sweets in a single kettle in the rear of the store and placing them in attractive displays in the front. Customers craved Brach’s popular caramel in particular, which at 20 cents per pound was much cheaper than retailers’ 50-60 cents per pound. To keep up with demand Frank Brach delivered sweets to local department stores for customer convenience.
Photo: The beautiful terrra cotta Brach’s logo outside the abandoned factory.
The Brach’s company would move three more times between 1906 and 1913 to keep up the rapid expansion of their operations. Shipping was vital to their ever growing business. The company dispatched candy via horse, vehicle, mail-order and even by rail. The company’s widening markets expanded along with their burgeoning product line. Within that early growth period Brach’s added hard candies, ice cream, chocolates and nut products to their repertoire. In 1923 Brach consolidated operations into a $5 million facility designed by architect Alfred Alschuler at the intersection of Kilpatrick, Ferdinand, and the Beltline railroad tracks. At that time the company produced over 250 candy variations at about 4 million pounds per week. During the boom years Brach hired workers of all ethnic backgrounds. For years company notices were printed in multiple languages.
Photo (source): A Brach’s employee overlooks the panning procedure that gives hard candy its lustre.
Managing Brach’s reputation for quality was a top priority for the company. They were the first candy producer to implement a “Laboratory for Control” to inspect products. All candies came with a 30-day money-back guarantee and were shipped in special containers to assure freshness.
At the height of the Great Depression Brach’s was able to post a net income of $175,000 even with a dismal $1.27 million in sales, all while keeping more than 1000 people employed. The company was the first to grant employees raises during the severe economic downturn. They also served meals at cost to keep their employees well fed and motivated. During World War II the company was given the Army & Navy Production Award for the high-quality rations produced for the troops. 327 Brach’s employees served in the Armed Forces during the war effort and eight made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. On September 7, 1948 an electrical spark ignited corn starch and caused an explosion on the third floor. The explosion destroyed much of the north side of the factory. The disaster injured 18 and killed 11 employees, but occurred before the day shift before 2,400 employees began.
Emil J. Brach worked vigorously until the day he died in 1947 at age 88. By that time Emil positioned Brach’s as the #1 bulk producer of candy in the US. Sons Edwin and Frank took over operations after their father’s passing. They tapped into the exploding middle-class market by positioning attractive candy displays in groceries and purchasing ads on television. The Brach brothers didn’t lose their nostalgia for their old shop either. In 1958 they introduced the signature “Pick-A-Mix” kiosks which are still present in modern supermarkets. Edwin passed away at the age of 70 in 1965 leaving his brother Frank in charge. By the 1960’s Brach’s produced over 500 individual types of candies. Unable to keep pace on his own, an aging 75 year-old Frank Brach put the company up for sale in 1966 and it was purchased by American Home Products.
Photo: One of the few remaining markers identifying the building owner.
Frank’s death in 1970 left wife Helen at the helm of the Brach’s candy fortune. Helen Brach visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on February 17, 1977 and was never heard from again. Investigations into the millionaire’s disappearance failed to yield any conclusive evidence as to her whereabouts and she was officially declared dead in 1984. It wasn’t until 1989 that a federal investigation into horse racketeering turned the focus to her then lover Richard Bailey. Bailey had conned Brach into investing in horses and their relationship soured when Helen discovered the scam. Bailey was eventually convicted in 1994 of multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with Helen’s disappearance. In 2005 accomplice Joe Plemmons came forward to authorities describing his role in the crime. According to Plemmons, he fired two rounds rounds into the visibly beaten body of Helen Brach. Plemmons then escorted two accomplices to an active steel mill off of Interstate 65. Two steel mill employees held blast furnace doors open when Helen Brach’s corpse was fed into a trough and incinerated.
Acquisition of the Brach’s brand traded hands over the past few decades. In 1987 American Home Products sold Brach’s to european candy and coffee producer James Suchard. Principle stockholder Klaus J. Jacobs sold Suchard off to Philip-Morris in 1990, but retained ownership of the Brach’s business units. In 1994 Jacobs merged Brach’s with another property he purchased, Brock Candy Company, to form Brach & Brock Confections, Inc. Ownership changed hands again in 2003 when Brach & Brock Confections, Inc. was sold to the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer Barry-Callebaut headquartered in Zürich, Switzerland.
Photo (akagoldfish): The abandoned factory as seen from the cracking parking lot.
The Chicago factory fell on hard times in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Artificially inflated domestic sugar costs and strict import quotas put in place by the US Department of Agriculture made operating costs in Chicago difficult for Brach’s. (These policies have essentially crippled candy production throughout the United States.) High labor costs also exacerbated the situation to the point where the owners decided to shutter the aging plant. Brach’s began laying off employees in 2001 and gradually continued until 2003. After 76 years in operation the “Palace of Sweets” closed its doors. Production of Brach’s candies resumed in Mexico where labor and sugar are more cost effective.
Video: Amateur video of the Brach’s administration building demolition.
Photo: Scene from The Dark Knight. Copyright Warner Brothers.
In August of 2007 the location was used as a set for filming The Dark Knight. The former parking deck was completely demolished in the scene in which the Joker destroys Gotham General Hospital. The factory can also be seen in the shot (far left), which was also rigged to fire explosives from the windows. The final scene from the Dark Knight can be viewed here.
Photo: A lone sign warns factory explorers of the dangerous wet floor.
Soon after filming occurred Brach’s Confections was sold to current owners Farley & Sathers for an undisclosed sum in November 2007. The sale includes current manufacturing facilities located in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Winona, Minnesota; and Linares, Mexico. After four years without a tenant ML Realty Partners, LLC purchased the vacated Chicago factory in 2008 for redevelopment into a warehouse. Visible progress on that project has not materialized.
Photo: The Chicago skyline can be seen in the background of the factory.
The abandoned Brach’s candy factory, much like the Barber-Colman plant, impressed me with its sheer magnitude. We were there for four hours before recognizing the time. Even after all that exploring we still failed to traverse much of the factory. Despite the immense size of the factory most areas were barren or cloaked in darkness enitrely. Almost every possible surface has been covered by taggers in a bid for some kind of street-cred. The upper floors in one of the larger towers are all but inaccessible without the aid of proper climbing equipment. The exteriors are perhaps the most visually engaging elements of the factory. If you are looking for photographic gems the total number of opportunities are sparse. In my opinion the Brach’s factory has a sweeter history than adventure potential. I’m quite satisfied, however, that I checked this off my urbex list before it disappears entirely.
Wikipedia – Entry for missing Brach’s heiress Helen Brach.
Super Fictional Bonus!
Editor’s Note: The following biographical information about Emil J. Brach cannot be confirmed by legitimate academic resources. This excerpt from the 1996 book “Germans are Bad-Ass: A Compendium of Bad-Assery Throughout History Minus Hitler” is considered to be a complete fabrication.
Brach’s candy is synonymous with joyfully delicious candy, but few are aware of Emil J. Brach’s sinister motives for creating sugary sweets. As a German, Brach’s love for fine chocolate was surpassed only by Schadenfreude. Emil had a troubled upbringing as a child. His father Augustus was a dentist obsessed with hygiene, but is also described by sources as a vitriolic alcoholic with foul temperament. Brach’s mother Gerta was a strict Protestant who severely punished young Emil for the slightest infraction. In her mid-40’s Gerta was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus, which up until the 1930’s was considered a death sentence. The diagnosis crushed Augustus and sent him into a sustained alcohol-fueled depression. Emil took great pleasure in seeing his oppressive mother robbed of her strength, particularly after she ate her secret stash of chocolate sweets. Gerta eventually slipped into a coma and passed away after a lengthy ordeal. The next day Augustus was struck by a carriage and passed away from the sustained injuries. With his parents out of the way, Emil vowed to immigrate to the land of opportunity to exact Schadenfreude from dentists and diabetics by carefully crafting a seemingly benevolent sweets empire.
The abandoned 65-acre Barber-Colman factory complex is a sprawling 795,000 square foot facility that is currently under demolition by the city of Rockford, Illinois. When I first discovered the site I had no idea that it had such an engaging history. Many of the things we consider modern conveniences were developed by the man who made this factory possible.
At the young age of 17 Howard D. Colman invented a warp drawing machine, which is used to automate the weaving of cotton into patterns. A local lumberman, W.A. Barber, invested $100 so Colman could transform his wooden prototype into iron and steel. With that initial investment the Barber-Colman company was founded. In 1894 the prodigious inventor was granted his first patent for a instrument that measured the flow of milk. This early success, along with the 149 patents eventually granted to Colman over the years, were key in building Barber-Colman. Colman, however, was quite a humble man and often attributed his inventions to his financial backer Barber. He is described in Jon Lundin’s book The Master Inventor as a man who always took the stairs. Photographs of Colman were so rare that employees would pass him by completely oblivious as to who he was.
Photo: The design was submitted by Howard D. Colman himself in 1939.
Photo (source): An arial view of the factory complex taken in 1962.
The Barber-Colman factory constructed its first building on the banks of the Rock River and was operational by 1902. By 1916 the company owned the two city blocks and built even more structures to keep pace with market demand. Colman wisely diversified the companies offerings. Products included handheld tools, garage door openers, oscillating fans, office machines, hardness check pumps, plastics manufacturing, air conditioning, avionics, textile hand knotters, milling cutters, gear hobbing machines and of course the warp drawing machine. Investors were not to keen on Colman’s consumer electronics endeavors, but the diversification kept the company solvent all throughout the Great Depression. As with any major industrial business during World War II the company contracted with the US government to make avionics.
Photo (source): A Barber-Colman engineer with a computer that used vacuum tubes for data storage.
Taking innovative risks in a variety of markets paid off for the Barber-Colman company. Allied engineers turned their wartime computing innovations to the private sector after World War II. Computer pioneer George Stibitz built a prototype gear hob control computer in 1950 which was used briefly at Barber-Colman. This computer was one of the earliest to use binary bits to store and process data. (Note: The computer you are using right now is built on that very innovation.) Although they were one of the earliest examples of American businesses using electronic computers, the company decided not to invest in the unproven technology.
Photo: Data punchcards bearing the Barber-Colman logo.
In 1980 the Barber-Colman company decided to relocate their headquarters just north of Rockford, Illinois. The Reed-Chatwood textile company purchased the building in 1984 and held operations there for a few years. Reed-Chatwood did not find the same level of success that Barber-Colman enjoyed at the location and ceased operations in 1996. The property was then put up for auction. The new owners created a business incubator and leased the space out to smaller industrial and office tenants. The venture was eventually shut down in 1999 after the owners failed to pay for utilities. In 2002 the city of Rockford purchased the abandoned property for $775,000 for redevelopment. The city has shown the property to several potential investors, but so far nothing of substance has materialized. In 2009 a fire broke out on the third floor in some of the office spaces. The fire department was able to contain most of the damage to the third floor.
Photo: A lone chair sits alone on one of the massive production floors.
Video: Volunteers rescuing files for preservation from one of the upper floors of the long abandoned factory.
An impressive array of Barber-Colman files were discovered on the 6th floor of one of the buildings after Rockford purchased the property. In 2008 thirty volunteers organized to move 1000 drawings and 500 binders containing Barber-Colman history. The Midway Village Museum is currently cataloguing the find as part of Rockford’s history. Although the Barber-Colman factory is a vital piece of industrial history, it now looms silently next to the Rock River.
Photo: Warning sign on the freight elevator.
This urbex trip turned out to be one of the most intellectually satisfying I have ever been on. I discovered the site late on a Saturday evening and called friends immediately. I just had a gut feeling about it. We arrived at the location early Sunday morning and were instantly awestruck. The volume of subject matter to photograph were overwhelming as we meandered through the buildings. Along the way we came across old machinery, vintage computer technology, some Barber-Colman products, blueprints, personal photos, and other office materials. We even met another photographer who was taking senior photos and a homeless person named Rob. After six hours on-site the sun began to set and we left thoroughly exhausted. There were maybe two or three structures left that we just did not have time to explore.
Photo: Uncut steel slugs for wrenches.
When it comes to urbex I am very conservative. I do my research, contact people who have been to a location, ask pertinent questions, and sometimes scout a location prior to going into it. That was not the case this time around and it heightened the anticipation. It was a kind euphoric rush that I have not felt since my first urbex experience. It was not until I got home that I discovered just how influential this urbex location was. I am grateful that I had a chance to explore it before the factory completely disappears in the coming months.
Colman was a humble genius inventor on par with Edison or Ford, but without the fanfare or celebrity. He genuinely cared for his employees and saw to their welfare by organizing recreational outings, a company band, and sports teams. He also took the steps necessary to insure they kept their jobs during economic depressions. If only the same could be said for today’s business leaders.