Visitors often go silent when they walk onto the empty factory floor of the old Allis-Chalmers plant that Raining Rose Inc. acquired this year at First Avenue and 30th Street SE, according to Raining Rose CEO Chuck Hammond.
With its 35-foot-high ceilings, and huge windows made up of many small single panes, "It's like an industrial cathedral," Hammond said. The eyes tend to wander up to the massive cranes overhead as they search for the right words.
Huge motor scrapers and bulldozers once rolled off the plant floor to make the nation's roads and highways. It was one of the leading companies in a road machinery industry that employed 5,000 and produced $52 million worth of equipment annually in Cedar Rapids, according to a 1948 Gazette article.
The main Allis-Chalmer factory, along with three factory-related buildings, will be coming down next month to make a new production facility for Raining Rose, a fast-growing body care products company. More than a dozen businesses that leased space in the factory, mainly for storage, have been moving out over the past several weeks.
The site's rich past won't be forgotten in the rush to build a new Raining Rose facility, however.
After hearing many former workers recount their memories of the factory, general contractor Bart Woods of Primus Construction suggested that Raining Rose hold an open house for the former workers who remembered the place instead of just a groundbreaking.
"Every week I meet someone who says, "I used to work there when it was Allis-Chalmers, or "my father worked at Allis-Chalmers," Woods said.
If you go
- What: Open house and groundbreaking for Raining Rose Inc. at former Allis-Chalmers plant complex
- When: Open house 5-7p.m. Friday, groundbreaking at 4:30
- Where: Southeast corner, First Ave. and 30th Street SE
Hammond liked the idea. He has come to revere the industrial history of the place, since divided into a bizarre hodgepodge of cluttered tenant spaces.
Most people remember the old 7.75-acre factory complex as Allis-Chalmers, which operated it in the 1950s and 1960s, but Hammond is most interested in its early history under the original owner, LaPlant-Choate Manufacturing Co.
LaPlant-Choate was an innovator in the earthmoving equipment industry, producing some of the first bulldozers and motor scrapers.
Some experts believe LaPlant-Choate made the first bulldozer in regular commercial production.
The company took its name from E.W. LaPlant, who started a 1889 moving houses and pulling out tree stumps, and nephew Roy Choate, who joined him in 1911 to help manufacture horse-drawn and hand-powered stump pullers.
As the nation entered an unprecedented era of highway building, it evolved under Choate's leadership into the business of manufacturing bulldozer and snow plow blades, and other equipment.
The business ran into financial trouble in 1952 and was sold to Milwaukee-based Allis-Chalmers. Allis-Chalmers sold the bulldozer line and concentrated on the company's line of scrapers, making them larger and larger.
Excavating business owner Mike Wolrab of Mount Vernon worked at the plant from 1963 to 1967, handling painting, assembly, parts and other work. He recalled dousing himself in lacquer thinner to remove paint overspray from his exposed skin, and shivering in the uninsulated steel building during the winter.
"Allis-Chalmers had a very good product, and they were way ahead of everyone else on their technology," said Wolrab, 73, who had occasion to appreciate the value of Allis-Chalmers equipment when he worked on the construction of I-80 in Johnson County. "They were just a small plant, competing with big outfits like Caterpillar."
The operation outgrew the First Avenue site and Allis-Chalmers built a new plant on the southwest side that is now PMX Industries. When new leadership at Allis-Chalmers decided to move production away from Cedar Rapids, the operations were acquired by Harnischfeger, another Milwaukee company, to manufacturer cranes and later backhoes.
The business closed down in July 1989, 100 years after E.W. La Plante started his house moving and stump pulling business.
Hammond said he's trying to locate an early plow blade or bulldozer manufactured at the plant to put on permanent display when the Raining Rose plant is opened next year.
Raining Rose plans to build about 120,000 square feet of space on the site, roughly equivalent to the amount in the four current buildings combined. Hammond and Woods said few historic articles remain from the plant's early days, but Raining Rose plans to salvage some of the huge industrial windows for a conference room, and possibly other uses.
Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stouffer Hunter said LaPlant-Choate was was one of the companies that put Cedar Rapids on the map internationally as a center for design, engineering and manufacturing of road building equipment, along with Howard Hall's Iowa Manufacturing. He said the city's location on the Lincoln Highway, the first paved transcontinental highway, made it a good logistic location, although the First Avenue plant also had rail access.
The Allis-Chalmers name has stuck the plant over the years, Hunter said, because the company was better known nationally than Harnischfeger, and because employees seemed to like Allis-Chalmers better than Harnischfeger.
Hammond said Raining Rose considered whether it could preserve all or part of the Allis-Chalmers complex, but nothing seemed feasible.
Of all the people who've remarked on the plant's history, Woods said none have called for it to be preserved."It's had its day'" is what I've heard mostly," Woods said.