Time Machine: Cedar Rapids factory produced variety of goods before its demolition in 1997
George A. Ohler manufactured furniture — and caskets — at a factory at Washington and Benton streets on the east side of the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids. He’d been at it since 1854.
In 1882, he sold the land to Charles Clark, Charles Jones and James Douglas, who razed the factory to build a new one, run by steam, to manufacture crackers. (James was the nephew of George B. Douglas Sr., founder of North Star Mills, forerunner of Quaker Oats.)
The Jones, Douglas & Co. factory had basement walls made of Anamosa stone, and the two-story brick building was operating by August of that year.
The boiler and engine were in the basement. Machines on the first floor mixed, molded, cut and baked the crackers, which were then lifted by elevator to the second floor for packaging. Under Jones’ management, the factory put out 80 barrels of crackers in 10 hours.
In 1884, the City Council changed Cedar Rapids’ street names. The cracker factory now stood at the corner of B Avenue and Second Street NE.
By the end of the decade, the American Biscuit Co. had bought the company. In a nationwide battle for business with the New York Cracker Co., American Biscuit was forced to lower its prices. In 1892, it sold the Cedar Rapids factory to a candy manufacturer.
W.A. Buchanan had long had a fruit business in Cedar Rapids and had branched into candies in 1890.
As his business expanded, he partnered with W.H. Armstrong and A.H. Newman in June 1892 and incorporated as Buchanan Candy & Fruit Co., which took over the B Avenue factory. The new partners put about $14,000 into the business.
The company, in a little less than a year and a half later, changed its name to the Cedar Rapids Candy Co.
The Cedar Rapids Candy Co. continued to prosper with its signature product, the Acme Chocolate Drop. By 1892, the company was producing more than 1,000 pounds of candy per day. It had 41 employees and six traveling salesmen. It also sold nuts, peanuts and cigars.
Business was so good by 1909 that the candy company broke ground on a new, larger building on A Avenue NE.
NEXT UP: YEAST
In November 1912, the building on B Avenue became the locally owned National Yeast Co.
In June 1913, candy company officers A.H. Newman and Henry Rickel sold their stock in the firm and invested in the yeast company. Glenn Averill took over Newman’s position as president of the candy company.
National Yeast’s primary product was Ideal Yeast, a dry yeast that didn’t mold. With demand rapidly increasing, the company planned a move to the Magnus Brewery building at 720 Dewey Ave. in 1915. Magnus was idled by Prohibition, and most of the machinery in the brewery could be used to make yeast.
HIDES, FURS & WOOL
The manufacturing building, at 130 B Ave. NE, was quickly sold to Max Ohsman, a dealer in hides, furs and wool who shipped many of his products to New York.
In 1915, Ohsman and his four sons formed a new company with his sons in the former National Yeast building at 130 B Ave. NE. Th e Ohsman & Sons Co. dealt in hides, furs and wool, shipping much of its product to New York. Ohsman, born in Russia in 1868, and his family came to Cedar Rapids in 1895 by way of Boston and Charles City. He formed a partnership with Jacob Wolf in 1895, dealing in junk and scrap iron.
Five years later, Ohsman dissolved the partnership, selling his share of the business to Wolf.
He then formed a new business with Frank Effron at 215 Second St. NE. Ohsman & Effron dealt in scrap metals as well as hides, furs and wool.
(A side note: Three of Ohsman’s sons, Louie, Joe and Morris, teamed with four other neighborhood boys and performed a matinee. The money they raised — $1.80 (about $48 today) — was donated to the Home for the Friendless.)
In 1908, Ohsman & Effron Co. enlarged its business, spending $5,000 to add a rendering plant “west of the Ely road and north of Prairie Creek.”
The Evening Gazette called the new company a “real public benefactor” because the plant would take “all the dead animals of the city and refuse from three score butcher shops” and convert the waste into fertilizer and other byproducts.
Until then, if a horse or cow within the city limits, the owner had to pay $2 to $5 to have the carcass removed. Now, the rendering plant would not only remove the carcass but pay 50 cents for it. The hides were removed, the offal put in vats and the bones sorted and piled for shipment in carloads.
Max Ohsman headed his company until 1944, when Louie and Joe took over. He died in 1946 at the age of 76. He was buried in Eben Israel, a cemetery he helped found.
In the mid-1960s, during an urban renewal push that centered on building a downtown civic center, Ohsman & Sons found itself on the fringe of the renewal area.
The Ohsmans’ attorney, T.J. Ingersoll, pointed out that the company had maintained its property and that it would be difficult to relocate the business elsewhere. That argument prevailed, and Ohsman’s stayed where it was.
In 1997, Quaker Oats bought the B Avenue building to gain space for parking. The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., sent someone to check the Fairbanks scale left behind in the B Avenue building. It was old but not old enough for the museum to claim.
Ohsman & Sons Co. moved to the former Colonial Baking Co. building at Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street SE. It continues in operation today from offices at 311 Third Ave. SE.
On Dec. 22, 1997, the 115-year-old factory building met the wrecking ball.
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