The waterpower of the Rock River brought paper mills to Beloit in the 1850’s. Along with the mills came the need for replacement parts, and eventually, brand new paper-making machines. In 1858, a small machine shop led by Orson Merrill and George Houston started production of machine parts, and in 1862, the foundry manufactured its first full-size paper-making machine.
In 1885, Merrill & Houston Iron Works sold its assets for $20,000 (nearly $600,000 today). Four ex-employees joined forces to form a new company, Beloit Iron Works. At the time, there were just ten employees.
BIGGER & BETTER THINGS
Over the next several years, the foundry would increase its workforce to nearly 100 men, export its first machine to Japan, and embark on an innovative journey to become the world-leader in paper-making machines. Soon, they needed more space.
In 1896, Beloit Iron Works unveiled their new state-of-the-art machine shop, an expansive complex that spread across 30 acres of downtown riverfront property. With experienced craftsmen and the hottest new technology (electric cranes, lighting and motors), Iron Works began manufacturing equipment that often stretched the length of a football field.
When the U.S. entered World War II, Beloit Iron Works switched gears (pun intended) and aided in the production of war materials, including boring machines, powder mills and corvette engines. The company was later awarded the Army-Navy “E” for excellence and recognized for its patriotic contributions.
By 1949, the economic powerhouse employed more than 1,500 people and had opened its first international sales office in Paris, France.
Beloit Iron Works rebranded as Beloit Corporation in 1962 and within a few years, became a household name. If you lived in or near Beloit, you either worked at “The Corp” or knew someone who did. It was a giant both in size and industry, and as business continued to grow, so did the workforce.
THE UPS & DOWNS
In 1986, Beloit Corporation was sold to Harnischfeger Industries of Milwaukee. Business continued as usual, but Beloit was looking tired. Population decline, an eroding tax base, and a shrinking housing stock were just a few of the problems the community faced.
The signs of struggle prompted Beloit’s private sector leaders to begin strategizing for a better future. Beloit 2000 was formed (now Beloit 200), and its visionary members took it upon themselves to plan, fund, and execute the revitalization of Beloit’s riverfront. They, in collaboration with the public sector and the support of the community, cleared dilapidated bars, bowling alleys and gas stations, and replaced them with running paths, playgrounds and a riverside park. Things were looking up.
Then, in 1999, thirteen years after the acquisition by Harnischfeger Industries, shifting economies and corporate restructuring caught up with the industrial powerhouse that was once the heartbeat of the city. Beloit Corporation filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors. In a day, more than 2,000 people were left jobless.
The City watched in disbelief as property and pensions were seized and pieces of the company were sold at auction. The empty 750,000 sf complex was sold in bankruptcy proceedings, a move that worried citizens and city leaders alike. The complex was left to deteriorate and become a bitter symbol of economic hardship.
In 2001, Diane Hendricks and her late husband, Ken (founder of ABC Supply Co. and Beloit 2000 member), stepped up to the plate and purchased the industrial complex, preventing its acquisition by out-of-town developers. The couple had already purchased and renovated another large building on the river, which was and is still home to ABC Supply Co.’s National Support Center.
The complex was renamed again, this time in homage to its early days as Beloit Iron Works, “Ironworks Campus”. Within a year, more than 100,000 square feet of space were transformed into impressive loft-style offices with 12-foot ceilings, exposed brick and industrial charm. A steady stream of companies soon made Ironworks Campus their home.
After Ken passed in a tragic accident in 2007, Diane took it upon herself to uphold his legacy and build her own along the way. Under her leadership and the management of Hendricks Commercial Properties, Ironworks Campus continues to undergo a truly remarkable transformation. It is now home to more than 1,200 emloyees and 20 businesses, including industry-leading technology companies, a co-working space, a career exploration center for students and a state-of-the-art entertainment facility.
Ironworks Campus echoes a time in America’s industrial heritage when people came together to build things that last, and as we like to say, making history never gets old.