Co. founded on a tinkerer’s idea
German immigrant and machinist saw an opportunity to make
farm work easier
LINDA MCALPINE - Daily News
August 14, 2014
Loren and Marie Nonhof of West
Bend check out exhibits pertaining to the history of the
Gehl Company onMonday when the Heritage Hall at Manitou
Americas in West Bend was open for the day. Memorabilia from
the Gehl Co. is being collected for a display in the hall at
Manitou Americas, which is to open to the public in 2015.
Gehl Co. is a subsidiary of Manitou Americas.
Linda McAlpine/Daily News
WEST BEND - It’s hard to
imagine that an ordinary blacksmith shop, founded in 1859 in
West Bend, would revolutionize farm work and give rise to an
internationally renowned company, a business whose long
history is being preserved.
It all started with Louis Lucas.
Lucas, according to his biography in the book “History of
Washington and Ozaukee Counties,” published in 1881 by the
Western Historical Co. of Chicago, was born in France. He
arrived in America in 1852, settling in West Bend that same
Lucas learned the machinist trade in his home country. He
started a blacksmith shop, putting to use his knowledge of
coppersmithing and tin work.
In 1859 he built a foundry “on River Street near the lower
The foundry specialized in making plows and repairing farm
equipment. Considering that most of the settlers at that
time were engaged in agricultural pursuits, the business was
a sound one.
In 1873, Lucas sold the foundry to Jacob Young. Lucas,
according to the history book, took up the cultivation of
cranberries on his farm, flooding several acres for the
berries by damming the Silver Creek. He went on to become a
justice of the peace in West Bend.
Jacob Young took on several business partners to run the
foundry but it was in 1878 that he connected with Charles
Siberzahn, a partnership that was to have a profound impact
on the company.
Farm work was labor intensive, especially for dairy farmers,
as they not only had to tend to their herds, but they had to
tend to the crops they raised to feed them.
Siberzahn, a native of Germany, was a machinist but he was
also a tinkerer.
This undated photo shows the
business that Louis Lucas started in West Bend in 1859.
Lucas’ company grew to become the Gehl Co., an
internationally known manufacturer of agricultural and
industrial equipment and parts. Photo from the collection of
According to the book “Three
Generations of Success — The Gehl Company,” by Bill Beck,
published in 2008, Siberzahn hoped an idea of his would
“revolutionize feed cutting for dairy cattle.”
He created a working model of a machine that would do just
that which was dubbed the Hexelbank Cutter. It went into
commercial production in 1889 and it did what Siberzahn
dreamed it would and business started to boom.
In 1902, Siberzahn, at the age of 73, decided to sell the
business, which he did to John W. Gehl, who took over the
company in August of that year.
Disaster struck in 1906, however, when a fire destroyed the
company. Stock in the company was sold to raise money to
rebuild on the same site and by 1914, things had turned
around so much for the business that it was able to tout
itself as “the largest exclusive ensilage cutter
manufacturer in the country.”
Gehl Brothers Manufacturing Co., like many others, suffered
difficult times during the early 1930s with the onset of the
Great Depression and was on the brink of bankruptcy when a
reorganization plan, with a loan by B. C. Ziegler, kept the
company afloat. During World War II, the business took on
defense contracts, making products for the war effort,
according to the Gehl history book.
The post-war years brought expansion to the business and
thanks to pent up demand for its products, the company’s
dollar volume in 1948 was five times what it was in 1940.
The 1960s brought more change, even to the company name,
which was shortened from Gehl Brothers Manufacturing Co. to
the Gehl Company. The next decades would see the expansion
of products to include making construction equipment and its
marketing to foreign countries such as the Middle East and
Africa along with the opening of new plants in the United
States. In 1997, Gehl Co. acquired Mustang Manufacturing
Company and in 2004, it entered into a partnership with
Manitou BF S.A. In 2008, Gehl Company became a subsidiary
that corporation and in 2009, moved into its
state-of-the-art research and design facility and new
corporate headquarters in West Bend.
It is in this new facility that the history of the Gehl Co.
is being collected and preserved with an eye to opening to
the public next year a “Heritage Hall,” said Lori Heidecker,
director of marketing for Manitou America on Monday when the
Hall was open for the day as part of a company-wide
celebration of the “I Make America” event.
“This is a work in progress and we hope to have the hall
ready by 2015 for a grand opening,” Heidecker said as she
watched a group of Gehl Company retirees page through a huge
scrapbook of old photos from the business that was on
Loren Nonhof, who worked for the Gehl Co. from 1960 until
his retirement in 1992, was one of the retirees enjoying the
history and memorabilia that was on exhibit — items that
included some of the company’s earliest machinery to things
that were used for marketing the Gehl name, from caps and
ashtrays to belt buckles and playing cards, along with
miniature replicas of its construction equipment lines.
“What a wonderful idea,” said Nonhof’s wife, Marie as the
couple admired the displays, one of which — a large framed
photo of the company’s 25-year club — included her husband’s
“They are doing a beautiful job here preserving all of
this,” she said.
Heidecker said she is accepting donations of items from the
Gehl Company history to be a part of the Heritage Hall.
For more information about donating to the Heritage Hall,
call Heidecker at Gehl Co., 334-9461.