Coffin factory funerals are rarely so solemn.
On February 16, 2011, the power company took Buckstaff, a 161 year-old furniture (and yes, casket) works in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, off the grid.
Today, the last order is strewn half-complete between workstations, and production targets for February 17th wait on desks under Green Bay Packers paperweights.
Everything in the plant seems incomplete, and not because of what has since been scrapped or auctioned from the dozen or so factory buildings there. There is a feeling everywhere that a story was cut short. It is almost strong enough to make even a clumsy historian, such as myself, pick up a drill to finish the job.
There are few echoes on those factory floors, in spite of that fact that everything that could be constructed from wood has been. Whether it be half upholstered seat cushions, or criss-crossing conveyors near the varnishing line, or lines of shelves holding hardware, the space is still packed. Years under leaky rooftops have yet to take the scent of fresh-cut cedar out of the floorboards, and although there are many broken windows, yesteryear’s paperwork seems all but intact.
Over the last century and a half, hundreds of men walked the arteries that align with the plant’s obvious layout, carving well-worn paths into the boot-hardened wood. In spite of the stillness, the clutter-lined, clear-cut paths that run between stations are still alive with the earnest energy of the many workers who spent their whole professional lives here. On these buildings and its people, time whittled a path.
Heritage as a city builder
Before the lights went out; before the trucking companies refused to transport orders; before lumber deliveries stopped, work got done.
It began in 1850 when a man named John Buckstaff moved to Oshkosh from New Brunswick, Canada to found one of the city’s first sawmills. The planks and shingles that came from that helped build the early city, which was quickly finding itself in a lumber-funded growth spurt. Buckstaff, it seemed, was in the right place at the right time.
As the money piled high, the company moved through groups of investors, but always retained its ties to the Buckstaffs. The John Buckstaff Sawmill was followed by the John Buckstaff and Sons Co., Buckstaff Brothers and Chase, and Buckstaff-Edward Company. Eventually The Buckstaff Company emerged, the name the company would wear to the grave.
A pair of fires threaten to erase the factory.
Fires slowed expansion but the company rebuilt the lost buildings to be larger, modern, and more fire-resistant. The first major blaze struck on January 30th, 1886, destroying the new casket factory building. Only in 1883 had the company begun to build hardwood coffins, after acquiring Northern Casket of Ormo, WI. Also lost that day was a significant part of the chair plant, begun in 1882 after an investment by Richard Edwards, half-namesake of the company’s ‘Buckstaff and Edwards’ era.
Not only was most of the plant lost, but the flames cut power off to most of the city; an ironic twist considering the factory’s final fate, wherein the city cuts off the power to the factory.
A second blaze on January 15th, 1891 destroyed the paint shop and a stock warehouse after an employee attempted to extinguish a match in a metal can on the factory floor. This very can happened to be full of benzene; the events following are predictable. While the fire department saved the woodworking floors “with difficulty”, the losses were half that of the 1886 inferno.
Though about 450 men and women collected Buckstaff paychecks in those days, there were, remarkably, no fatalities.
Daniel Buckstaff, John’s son, converted the sawmill from steam to electric power with a Westinghouse generator in 1907. This made the mill not only much less prone to fire, but the first electric sawmill in the world.
20th century rollercoaster
By the turn of the century, fiery evidence of industrial growing pains gave way to tangible success.
The brand went national, and came to command respect for its high-quality goods which were being delivered by convoys of delivery trucks to myriad schools, libraries, and offices.
By the early 1900s, the Buckstaff name was known for its resilient products; it was a something which was seen as an investment. Perhaps the most demanding single order came from the US Pentagon, which used Buckstaff furniture throughout its restaurant for its 1958 remodel.
It was about this time that the firm ceased marketing its coffins, and converted its casket shop into an automated baked-finish section for its institutional furniture line. As Buckstaff continued to reinvent itself, new departments brought new products, such as the customer plastic, Resilyte. Plant managers pointed to the stainless steel line to demonstrate its efforts to modernize the plant.
Unfortunately, it seems the motivation to update the Buckstaff operation, most of which was housed in buildings from the 1890s, ended there.
In the 1976 a new Buckstaff, also by the name of John, took full control of the company from his siblings. In the comments strings about the closing in local newspapers, John is fondly recognized as the last real Buckstaff to run the company the way it ought to be. Quality remained high, and orders kept the doors open even as employment ebbed in the economy tumult of the 1980s and global competition of the 1990s and 2000s.
How the plant came to close.
John Buckstaff retired from the business in 2007 and sold it to local businessman Martin Cowie. To the press, Cowie bragged that he would triple the sales figures for Buckstaff furniture. In the end, however, it was not the lack of sales that brought down the Oshkosh institution, but management issues.
The Buckstaff Company was no longer meeting its obligations to customers or creditors. As one employee recalls, by 2010:
“Orders went unfilled. Bills went unpaid. Deposits for orders we couldn’t complete weren’t returned. Salaries went unpaid. You couldn’t make anything because the raw materials wouldn’t be delivered. You couldn’t ship anything because the trucking companies wouldn’t pick up an order.”
So we end where we began, on February 16, 2011. Employees, many of which were at that time going unpaid, looked out of the windows to see a half-dozen trucks from Wisconsin Public Service.
Cowie had taken a loan for about $2 million from Citizens Bank when he bought the company from John Buckstaff to kickstart operations. Evidently, the loan was not being repaid, as the bank sued Cowie for more than $1 million. Without access to that funding, utilities went unpaid.
Thus, employees watched the utility trucks move with purpose around the plant grounds, literally turning off the lights. Shortly after, supervisors sent their employees home, never to return. It is this caveat that makes Buckstaff’s closing so bittersweet:
The good times were good, but there are not many left who can remind us.
Buckstaff’s factory will likely be demolished.
Not only will we lose (another) factory, but so will lose we the only standing memorial to the work that helped put Oshkosh, Wisconsin on the map.