Thanks for Asking | July 18, 2013

our local Jack-of-all-Facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot |

On a city street rain gutter/grate I saw that it was made by Northwestern Motor Company, Eau Claire. Can you tell me about them and why a motor company made city street rain gutters? And for how long?

Thanks for asking. First – and most important as far as the company is concerned – it’s still in business! It’s up on Truax, near the west end of the North Crossing. Since 1939, it’s made tow tractors, the four-wheelers you mainly see on airport tarmacs hauling baggage carts (and sometimes tugboating planes). About 20 years ago, NMC bought a similarly specific manufacturing company named Wollard, which made baggage belt loaders, mobile passenger stairs, and the like. So, without knowing it, you see NMC-Wollard machines all the time: at airports or military bases, or photobombing TV news reports at just such places.

The NMC-Wollard website says the company started in the 1930s. Respectfully, I disagree.

In 1905, a fellow named Kim Rosholt, along with some other folks, started Northwestern Steel & Iron Works. That company made an odd assortment of odd and mostly useful things: cement mixers; gasoline engines for motor boats; canning factory equipment; molds for concrete lawn vases (you’re most likely to see those at a cemetery); and, molds for concrete blocks, monuments, and columns. In fact, when the factory expanded, it made its own concrete blocks to build its new building. Beginning in 1908, it also manufactured National-brand steam pressure cookers. And from there, we could follow a complicated name trail until we got to L.E. Phillips and the Presto FryBaby.

In 1910, the very same Kim Rosholt, his son Raymond, and some other folks organized a different company, Northwestern Motor Company, which they incorporated two years later. These two Northwesterns worked together on an engine, called the Casey Jones, designed to relieve humans of powering the iconic railroad handcar (which, incidentally, is still your best bet for a getaway vehicle if you’re trapped in a silent movie). From there it was on to a bright future in specialized articulated and/or tractor-like industrial equipment.

In 1922, the Steel & Iron Works building was gutted by fire. It resumed operations at Phoenix Manufacturing. Phoenix, incidentally, was just about to be bought by William Hobbs (yep: Hobbs Ice Arena). In 1951, Hobbs disposed of Phoenix to a new corporation headed by L.L. Phillips (L.E. Phillips’ first cousin), and it became Phoenix Steel (yep: Phoenix Park). Which is drifting away from the point.

The point is, early in their corporate histories, the two Northwestern companies, which were kinda hard to tell apart anyway, manufactured molded iron stuff, some of which was meant to work directly with concrete stuff. In that context, it’s not so much of a stretch that NMC made your iron curb inlet. How long did the company manufacture them? No idea.

From the Multiple Questions Department: I keep being asked about the pigeons circling over Culver’s.

The flock is (or was) Lawrence Kloss’ and flies (or flew) from a loft behind 1717 Keith St. The local media have covered this pretty thoroughly, but here’s a detail (thanks to the Leader-Telegram’s Joe Knight) that y’all may have missed: In 2011, Kloss actually got rid of his flock to others, sadly but dutifully, because keeping them broke a zoning law (properties zoned residential can have pigeon lofts, but properties zoned commercial can’t, and his house is zoned commercial). However, after about a year, the pigeons started returning to his loft and the skies above it. Which is beautiful, but, also, so very bittersweet.