Gehl Co. founded on a tinkerer’s idea
A German immigrant and machinist saw an opportunity to make farm work easier


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 year.

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 bridge.”

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 Manitou Americas.

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 display.

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 picture.

“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.