The En-Tire Story: New gallery devoted to Eau Claire’s long tire-making history

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

SHAPING HISTORY. The new Uniroyal Tire Factory Gallery in Eau Claire’s Banbury Place features displays, photos, and a collection of vintage equipment.
SHAPING HISTORY. The new Uniroyal Tire Factory Gallery in Eau Claire’s Banbury Place features displays, photos, and a collection of vintage equipment.

Eau Claire finally has a gallery solely dedicated to detailing its long history as a tire-manufacturing hub. The Uniroyal Tire Factory Gallery opened in late May inside Building 13 of Banbury Place, which until 1992 was the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant.

Since its genesis in 1917, the vast plant along the bank of the Eau Claire River employed thousands of workers and churned out as many as 30,000 tires a day. Over its 75 years of operation, the factory had a substantial impact on the economic, social, and cultural fabric of the Chippewa Valley. The new gallery was created through a collaboration among the Chippewa Valley Museum, Visit Eau Claire, Royal Credit Union, and Banbury Place.

“If you take the time to start at the beginning and go around, you get a real comprehensive idea of what that whole era was all about.” – Linda John, Visit Eau Claire

The exhibit is full of historic objects, vintage photographs, and a detailed timeline that combine to tell the story of the factory and the people who worked there. The displays wrap around the walls of a spacious room on the first floor of Banbury’s Building 13, which today is best known for housing dozens of small businesses, from artists studios to commercial kitchens to carpentry workshops.

“If you take the time to start at the beginning and go around, you get a real comprehensive idea of what that whole era was all about,” said Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, the region’s tourism development agency. In addition to learning about the plant’s evolution over the years, visitors will learn about its conversion to a munitions plant during World War II, the history of union organizing by its workers, and the social connections forged among employees, which spilled over into company bowling teams, softball leagues, and picnics.

John said the gallery was an outgrowth of Visit Eau Claire’s ongoing efforts to create “signature experiences” – tours and other activities that give visitors an in-depth understanding of local culture and history, some of which are centered on Banbury Place.

Workers labor on the inspection line at what was then called the U.S. Rubber Co. plant in Eau Claire in August 1947.

Workers labor on the inspection line at what was then called the U.S. Rubber Co. plant in Eau Claire in August 1947.

When John approached Banbury Place owner Jack Kaiser with the idea of creating the historic display, “His eyes lit up,” she said. “He said he’s for years dreamed about doing a museum or exhibit in this space.” Because the history of Royal Credit Union – which was created in 1964 to serve the financial needs of Uniroyal employees – is deeply connected to Banbury Place, they were approached as partners in the effort as well.

Next, Chippewa Valley Museum staff members worked with Banbury Place to identify artifacts that could be used in the exhibit. Museum director Carrie Ronnander and exhibit designer Jeanne Nyre met with Patti Cigan – Jack Kaiser’s mother – to scope out original items that were in storage around the former factory. These were combined with objects from the museum’s own collection to be put on display. Highlights include a huge tire mold, a branding iron used for marking tires, and even some steel-belted radials produced at the plant.

The physical objects are accompanied by a detailed, illustrated timeline of the plant’s history. Ronnander said she was pleased with the final result, and would love to pursue similar collaborations with other partners to create off-site museum exhibits.

John, of Visit Eau Claire, said the gallery will have three primary uses. First, it will be open at no charge for drop-in visitors between 9am and 8pm Thursday-Sunday. It will also be a launching point for groups that book historic tours of Banbury Place, which are led by a costumed interpretive narrator. Finally, the room will be booked for private events. All are examples of how Banbury Place – like the city itself – has taken on a new life since the final tire rolled off the production line.

Uniroyal Tire Factory Gallery • Banbury Place Building 13, Suite 29 • 930 Galloway St., Eau Claire • open to the public Thursday-Sunday, 9am-8pm • FREE • learn more at visiteauclaire.com