Jack Klasey: Foundries were an early industry here

September 9, 2018

When you hear the words “cast iron,” you probably picture a heavy frying pan (skillet).

But if you worked in one of Kankakee’s manufacturing plants in the first half of the 1900s, you would be more likely to think of the stovetop grates on a gas range, a fire hydrant, the burner on a water heater, a radiator for a steam-heated house, or a pulley on a garden tractor.

Such cast-iron items were produced in industrial plants called foundries. Workers in the foundries melted iron and poured it into molds to create two kinds of products: those that were basically complete (such as a fire hydrant), and those that would become part of a more complex product (such as the stove-top grates on a gas range).

The first foundry in Kankakee County dates to Civil War days. In 1861, Peter Weber established his foundry business on the east side of Washington Avenue, midway between River Street and Bourbonnais Street. Eleven years later, Weber sold the business to R. Beaumont and George Woodruff.

By the late 1870s, the business was making use of an unusual source of power to operate its machinery: a belt-and-pulley system driven by a waterwheel in the nearby Kankakee River. The power system was devised by James McGrew, owner of the flour mill at the foot of West Avenue, just above the dam. McGrew’s water-powered system eventually served the foundry and the Lohrman wagon-building shop on Washington Avenue, and four businesses along West Avenue.

The Beaumont and Woodruff Foundry and Machine Shop, housed in a gable-roofed two-story brick building, manufactured fire hydrants, a combination hot-water and steam heating apparatus, and a cast-iron chimney for homes. In the mid-1890s, the foundry advertised the chimney as “safe from fire, durable, cheaper, and lighter than brick.” The foundry lasted almost a century; the building was demolished in February, 1961.

In October, 1892, the John Laing foundry and machine shop became one of the first industries to open its doors in the new town of North Kankakee (now Bradley). Although a national economic recession struck the following year, the business survived; by July, 1893, it was the only one of the five factories in North Kankakee that was still operating.

In 1902, the business was sold to W.C. Burrell and became the Burrell Foundry and Machine Shop. Three years later, it produced a piece of local history: a large bronze plaque marking the last camping grounds of the Pottawatomi in Kankakee County. The plaque, mounted on a large boulder on the grounds of the Kankakee County Courthouse, was commissioned in 1905 by the Kankakee Woman’s Club.

Several years later, the Burrell firm shut down the foundry operation and began manufacturing machinery for making concrete blocks. In 1914, the business changed hands again and became the Manco Manufacturing Co.

The largest of the area’s foundry operations was the Kankakee Foundry, located on the north side of Station Street at Main Avenue. The plant was opened about 1903 by Matt Garland and John Haswell, who purchased a partially completed building from the failed Blue Flame Co. In early 1907, Garland announced that a 9,000-square-foot addition, costing $8,000, would be built to double the company’s production capacity. The expanded business would triple the company’s workforce to 150 men.

In 1920, the foundry was forced to close when its two main customers went bankrupt. One of those customers, the Foley-Williams Sewing Machine Co., was located just across Main Avenue. Five years later, the defunct foundry was purchased by F.A. Schneider, who rebuilt the business into a successful operation. Among the customers were the Florence Stove Co. (later Roper Corp.), which occupied the old Foley-Williams site, and the A.O. Smith Corp. on the south side of Kankakee. Caterpillar Corp. in Peoria was also a major customer for castings produced by the Kankakee Foundry. From 1925 until it closed in 1978, the foundry employed an average of 75 men (during World War II, women also joined the foundry workforce).

Kankakee Foundry will be commemorated this weekend by the Kankakee Model Railroad Club, which will unveil its annual collectible HO-scale model railroad car. The hopper car bearing the Kankakee Foundry name will be on display (and available for purchase) Sunday during Railfest at the Kankakee Railroad Museum. The Museum is located in the Kankakee Depot at Miner Festival Park on Merchant Street (where the Community Arts Council will be holding its Fall Art Stroll on Sunday, as well).

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