Invention is the lifeblood of successful entrepreneurs. It breeds new ideas and changes the way our world works. As our communities moved into the mid-1900s, pioneer ingenuity often led to industrialization. While local entrepreneurs such as William Rahr, J.E. Hamilton, and Henry Stolze are commonly looked upon as industry leaders in our community, many more individuals brought their own creations into practice, including a young Reedsville entrepreneur, Dr. A.H. Junge.
“The founding fathers of Manitowoc had dreams, big dreams,” wrote Leonora Kadow as she began the Manitowoc County Historical Society’s Occupational Monograph Number 18 on the “History of Aluminum.”
Mirro Aluminum Company’s roots began in 1893 when Two Rivers’ Joseph Koenig traveled to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago where products were displayed made of aluminum. Henry Vits, from Manitowoc, set up a shop to manufacture aluminum products at the same time. In 1909 Koenig’s Aluminum Manufacturing Company and Vit’s Manitowoc Novelty Company merged with the New Jersey Aluminum Company of Newark to create the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company, which was locally known as the “Goods”.
“Manufacturing of cooking utensils by mass production methods began in 1913 when the company produced a double boiler for the Quaker Oats Company, which ultimately sold over the billion mark,” wrote Kadow. “Up to this time, the business has been mainly novelties, with aluminum combs the principal product.”
A brandline of pots and pans was created using the founders’ names: ‘VI’ from Vits and ‘KO’ from Koenig forned the “VIKO” brand. By 1915 the company received its first contract for automobile hub caps.
With the outbreak of World War I, manufacturing turned to canteens, cooking utensils, and mess kits. It is estimated that over 1 million canteens were made by the “Goods”. “Mirro, the finest aluminum” was launched in 1917 to answer the call for the company’s first nationally advertised, high-quality, brand line. The launch included full-page advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and Better Homes and Gardens.
Kadow wrote, “George Vits, who was president at this time, had an intense personal interest in his employees.” Each year the business would hold a Company Picnic, beginning with a parade, followed by games for kids and entertainment.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, there was about 3,400 employees at Aluminum Goods. But with sales down by more than 65 percent by 1931, the number of employees dropped to 2,500. With the worst of the Depression over by 1933, employment immediately rose to 2,700.
By 1940 the company was directly and indirectly involved with national defense work. Product included a wide range of items for the armed forces, from coffee filters and meat platters to airplane fuel tanks and cartridge cases.
On April 10, 1957, Aluminum Goods stockholders officially decided to change the company’s name to Mirro Aluminum Company.
On July 15, 1983, after over 88 years in operation, Mirro was officially acquired by the Newell Company, headquartered in Freeport, Illinois. Continued acquisitions took place over the coming years including Manitowoc’s Aluminum Specialty Company/Foley in 1984. WearEver Company was acquired in 1989.
Cutbacks and layoffs soon took a toll on the company. In May, 2001 corporate offices were moved to Ohio and in the coming years production in our community ceased, resulting in the loss of 882 Mirro jobs.
The ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of Koenig and Vits reaches far beyond the brick and mortar buildings of the Mirro Manufacturing Company. As we watch the closing chapter of the company’s Plant 2 on Washington Street come to an end, we can remind ourselves of the dedicated employees, the over 10,000 teakettles a day work ethic, and the stories that will remain.
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. It was first observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic.
During that first national celebration, former Union Gen. and Ohio Congressman, James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there. He proclaimed, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
It would be 140 years later that Manitowoc’s own Robert Tills would be buried at Arlington and honored for his service and sacrifice to our country. Tills was born March 9, 1918 in Manitowoc, son of William and Adelaide Tills. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a seaman second class in 1937 at the age of19. Two years later, he was commissioned an ensign in the Naval Reserve and by April 1941, Tills gained regular Navy status and was soon flying patrols in the Philippines.
Tills was scheduled to return home to Wisconsin on leave for Christmas in 1941 to be married. But early on December 8, 1941, just 8 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, one seaplane began a search of the Philippine seas for signs of the Japanese. Two other seaplanes, including Tills', remained in Malalag Bay. Japanese fighter planes "strafed the helpless PBYs, turning them into collanders of metal and fabric and setting them afire," according to the Navy records. "Ensign Robert Tills died in the fusillade of bullets." The rest of the crew escaped unharmed and the aircraft sank to the bottom of the bay with Tills's remains still on board. Robert Tills' body was not recovered and he joined a list with 78,000 other Americans missing in action during World War II. Tills was the first Navy officer to be lost in defense of the Philippine Islands during WWII.
More than 65 years later, in 2007, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was notified by U.S. authorities in the Philippines that aircraft wreckage had been discovered in Malalag Bay under more than 60 feet of water. A fragment of the wreckage bore the markings “PBY-4.” The next month, a team traveled to the site and recovered human remains. Forensic tools were able to identify the remains as Robert Tills.
In December, 2008, the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced that the remains of Tills had been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors. Tills was buried on March 23, 2009 in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.