Celebrating Nebraska’s Manufacturing Past

4" table vise in black and white“Every person in Nebraska knows that this state is one of the leading agricultural states of the Union, that in wealth per capita she is one of the first and that her public school system is second to none. Yet how little is known of the manufacturers. How many people know that the annual output of the state’s factories is valued at more than a half billion? Or that shoe strings, suspenders, and spark plugs are made in Omaha, index tags at Exeter, refrigerators minus corners at Fremont, dandelion rakes at Kearney, butter tubs at Ralston, rubber collars at Lincoln and chewing gum at Fairbury? But these are only a few of the more unusual industries. Besides these we have some 4,000 factories engaged in a wide variety of industries and utilizing a large proportion of the raw materials produced within the state.”

The above quote is from The History of Manufacturing and Commerce in Nebraska, published by T.E. Sedgwick of the S.J. Clarke Publishing Company in Chicago, Illinois, circa 1921. Although it’s now been almost one hundred years since the history was published, there’s still some relevance in the notes made by Frank I. Ringer, the author and commissioner of the Nebraska Manufacturers’ Association. Even today, Nebraska is known for agricultural excellence, but many Nebraskans don’t know the vast scope of products that are exported from Nebraska every year.

So, since it’s Labor Day week, we’d like to celebrate the achievements of Nebraskan workers, as well as their contributions to the strength and prosperity of Nebraska through economic activity. There are some truly rich highlights in Nebraska manufacturing history, and products made here have had a lasting impact on the world. Skilled workers today aren’t simply starting a new job or logging hours that have no purpose; they’re committing to a career that has shaped the trajectory of life for Nebraska and her citizens.

Nebraska Aids the U.S.A in WWII: According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, World War II changed the nature of the workforce in Nebraska and served as a catalyst for increased manufacturing activity. “Several Nebraska communities were selected as sites for government defense factories,” and the Martin Bomber Plant manufactured B-26 and B-29 airplanes.

The defense industry in Nebraska also focused on ammunition manufacturing plants in Grand Island, Hastings, Mead, and Sidney. For the first time, women were working consistently outside the home, supplementing Nebraska’s manufacturing workforce in important ways. Nebraskan factories contributed hundreds of aircraft and thousands of kilos of ammunition to American forces fighting in World War II.

The Vise-Grip Company of Nebraska: Most garages, toolkits, and workbenches have a handy vise-grip sitting there ready to go, thanks to the hardworking Petersen family of Nebraska. In the 1930s, a Danish blacksmith named William Petersen in Dewitt, Nebraska, figured out a way to create pliers that could be locked into place and increase efficiency in many tooling processes.

He began selling the Vise-Grip pliers out of the trunk of his car in rural Nebraska, and he eventually opened a manufacturing plant when the pliers became more and more popular. In 1941, the little Nebraska plant began fulfilling government contracts for the use of vise-grips in the defense industry, particularly for English aircraft during World War II. The original plant in Dewitt closed shop in 2008, but the Vise-Grip is still a major part of Nebraska’s manufacturing history. If you’re ever in Dewitt, stop by the local museum to see displays chronicling the development of the Vise-Grip.

Agricultural Manufacturing: Need spurs innovation, so it makes sense that a state with such a substantial investment in agricultural success would also be a pioneer in agricultural manufacturing! The Made in Nebraska Exhibit at the Nebraska Historical Society closed in 2008, but you can still check out their website at the link above to see the wide variety of products, tools, and machines invented by Nebraskans that have changed the future of agricultural production across not just the state, but the world.

We hope you all had a wonderful Labor Day, and took the opportunity to think of all those who have worked so hard to make our country great!

photo credit: 4″ Scout vise made in U.S.A. via photopin (license)