I have long felt a powerful attraction to Harley-Davidson's old manufacturing
and office complex on Milwaukee's Juneau Avenue. The Capitol Drive factory just doesn't
do the same thing for me and neither would any of the other modern plants. There
is a sense of history at Juneau Avenue; a sense of place; an "old Milwaukee"
presence that evokes one word: ghosts. But I wonder: Do motorcycles have ghosts too?
If they do, then Juneau Avenue would be a logical place for Harley-Davidson motorcycle
ghosts to return to as the clock strikes midnight. Visit the place sometime and see
if you experience those same feelings. -- H.W.
Special Harley-Davidson Enthusiast
95th Anniversary Feature
Built to Last Forever
Visiting Harley-Davidson on Juneau Ave in Milwaukee is a heady experience. Where else can you stand beside a motorcycle factory listed on the National Register of Historic Places and savor the aroma of beer brewing just down the block?
I was doing just that when a voice called out. It was Hal Deckert, 82 year old retired H-D test rider still in the saddle, and back to pay a visit.
ìYou must know this place top to bottom,î I said.
ìNot like I used to,î he grinned. ìWhen I started in 1936 they built the whole motorcycle here. Old timers still called this Chestnut Street. Too bad this building canít talk.î
ìYeah,î I replied. ìToo bad.î
* * *
Harley-Davidsonís Juneau Ave complex stands as a monument to the grit, skill, and dreams of the companyís four founders. Starting with an idea, ten years later they possessed a motorcycle factory worth a visit from the farthest corners of the earth.
No one could have predicted such rapid growth in 1901, when Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson began their first motor building experiments on Henry Melkís lathe. Itís a little known fact, but Henryís house still stands, the lathe still exists, and his grandson still uses it. (Update: it turns out that the lathe may NOT be the same one).
Walter Davidson joined them in 1903 when they moved operations into the Davidson family backyard on the SW corner of 38th St and Highland Blvd. Their first ìfactoryî was in a woodshed built by their father, William C. Davidson, as his workshop. His ambitious sons and Bill Harley, however, soon took it over. By 1906 the woodshed had tripled in size and contained a drill press, lathe, and five or six men building Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Demand for their reliable machine soon outgrew the little shop. Walter Davidson later recalled, ìwe need(ed) more room, and purchased one lot on a piece of land where the present factory stands.î The lot was a block up 38th on the north side of Chestnut St, currently Juneau Ave. Just east of the intersection a 20 X 60 ft one-story wooden structure was built. A 1907 photo shows this second factory. The building has a rough frontier look. The street is dirt. The company had just incorporated. Bill Davidson had left his job as toolroom foreman at the West Milwaukee railshops. Today these buildings stand as partial ruins below the 35th St viaduct.
Growth came quickly. By early 1908 the wooden factory had been spruced up and enlarged with a second story. Later that year a two-story 40 X 60 ft brick addition was added to the buildingís west side. In 1909 the wooden section was faced with brick and a 90 X 110 ft brick addition with sawtooth roof was constructed on the factoryís east side to house new automatic machinery.
Harley-Davidson now occupied attractive premises with 150 ft frontage along Chestnut St. It was built of the same buff-colored brick that gave old Milwaukee the nickname, ìCream City.î The 1909 H-D plant was named by old timers ìthe yellow brick factory.î
H-Dís officers believed this facility would meet their needs for several years. They were wrong. Orders poured in. Production jumped from 450 in 1908 to 1150 in 1909. Packing and crating was done on the street. Even the old woodshed was pressed back into service. A crossroads had been reached. Would Harley-Davidson remain a modest operator or expand to meet the demand for their rugged motorcycle?
In February 1910, the founders of Harley-Davidson laid the basis of the modern company when land was purchased west of the yellow brick factory and Arthur Davidson announced, ìWe will soon start on a new building.î Plans called for five-story factory. The new 65 X 66 ft building would be of fireproof, steel-reinforced concrete construction and faced with dark red brick. The 22,000 sq ft of floor space would double the size of the former factory. Ends contained removable tile walls so additions could be made as future growth dictated.
In June of 1910, Bill Harley and the Davidsons lined up for a photograph next to the yellow brick factory. Afterwards, ground was broken on the spot for the new $20,000 structure. Then they adjourned downtown for a dedication banquet.
This first section of the present ìred brick factoryî was west of 38th St where it dead-ends at Chestnut. It towered over the smaller yellow brick structure when finished in late 1910. That November the founders authorized a second red brick addition on the west side of the new plant. This 127 by 66 ft, five-story structure was finished in early 1911. With these new buildings, production jumped in 1911 to 5600. But even this didnít satisfy demand. In November H-D commented, ìWhen we completed our big five-story factory...we thought we would have ample room for...two or three years.î
The founders now turned their gaze east of the yellow brick factory for further expansion. There, along Chestnut St between 37th and 38th St, stood a private residence, Buchmanís door factory, and Erdman Brosí stone yard. These properties were acquired and curt orders given: ìbuild...to the east as soon as practicable.î The ìeastî building was H-Dís biggest during this period. As designed by W.P. Hirschberg, it was L-shaped to fit the property and to admit natural light into the structure. Its frontage along Chestnut was 130 ft with 175 ft on 37th St. It contained a deep ìsubî basement to provide at-grade rail access. With 90,000 sq ft and five floors this addition more than doubled the floor space of all previous buildings combined.
Construction began in March of 1912. Dynamite was used to break the frozen ground. Then horse drawn wagons hauled away 8,000 yards of dirt dug by Henry Wussowís steam shovel. On May 14, Meyer Construction Co. began pouring concrete. An immense quantity of material was used. Over 700 freight car loads fed the concrete mixer. In just 75 days Meyerís crew constructed and placed wooden forms, put in 500,000 lbs of steel reinforcement, then mixed, poured, and tamped 28 million lbs of concrete.
In Milwaukee this pace of construction was unheard of. In 1912, reinforced concrete was still new, but quickly gaining favor. By contrast the yellow brick factory was of simple wood, brick, and mortar construction. But from 1910 on, each addition to Harley-Davidson met every modern, up-to-date standard. On August 1, the fifth floor was poured and an Old World custom held when a Christmas tree was hoisted atop the structure. This signaled company president Walter Davidson that the concrete work was done and Meyerís crew was entitled toóyou guessed itófree beer!
Concrete framework finished, Edward Steigerwaldís masons rushed in to face the building with some 390,000 red bricks. At the same time master mechanic John and his crew was installing shafting, pulleys, and machinery. Departments on the lower floors were operating before the top floors were bricked in. One visitor remarked, ì(we saw) a small shed, the size of the factory seven years ago and then (the) building going up...the contrast was marvelous.î
Before the big east building was done, Harley-Davidson had already ìgrowedî out of it. That same autumn yet another addition was begun. Local expects called them crazy for attempting two buildings in one season. Yet sales was crying for more bikes and production for more space. Walter Davidson remarked, ìWe had to have it.î The morning of September 7, 1912, saw the H-D offices moved into the east building. Business was conducted ìen route.î Then a demolition crew attacked the yellow brick factory until only the sawtooth portion remained. H-D remarked, ìThe (yellow brick) building...has...passed into history.î
Once again Arnold Meyer urged his menóîItalian sculptorsî Arthur Davidson called themóto greater exertions. This addition contained 32,640 sq ft of floor space with a frontage on Chestnut of 64 ft and extending 85 ft back to the tracks. Work was pushed nights under arc light. Arnold Meyer boasted that his men could erect ìa floor a week.î This pace was necessary not only to beat the season, but to collect a $150 per day bonus for finishing early. Walter Davidson commented, ìI would certainly be pleased to see that bonus paid.î
As concrete pillars rose skyward, workers in the east building watched the large Bar and Shield emblem on the west factory vanish behind the new construction. On November 18, concrete work was finished and Meyerís crew collected an $1,800 bonus. Good weather held and Harley-Davidson occupied their latest addition as the new year dawned.
During 1912, Harley-Davidson had added 122,640 sq ft of floor space, giving them a factory of 199,350 sq ft. H-D could now boost output to 13,000 in 1913. One wit commented, ìwe expect to have enough room in the factory to turn around in without going outside to do it.î But they still werenít satisfied. ìBefore the frost is out...next spring,î the company announced, ìwe will begin another large factory addition.î
Harley-Davidson now had so many new additions that keeping track of them was difficult. A numbering system was therefore devised. Factories No. 1 and No. 2 referred to the woodshed and yellow brick structures. No. 3 and No. 4 were the connected red brick plants on the west end of the property. No. 5 was the big east building facing 37th St. No. 6 occupied the site of the yellow brick factory and was attached to No. 3. No. 7 was a building H-D occupied on Clinton and Oregon St. And No. 8 was the new building planned to replace the sawtooth machine shop.
In the spring of 1913, the last gap along Chestnut St. was closed in with red brick. In April the yellow brick sawtooth was razed. Its replacement would run 90 ft along Chestnut with a depth of 64 ft. Originally planned with five stories, they decided to give it a 6th floor. To add yet more room, the elevator was relocated outside the north wall. Total floor area was 40,320 sq ft. When completed, factory No. 8 contained a hospital room and a photographerís studio.
One visitor commented, ìEvery time I come to Milwaukee you have a building going up.î
Once again the Meyer Co. carried out its tasks with precision. The ìbig bucketî tipped its first load of concrete on May 23 and its last on July 25. With the completion of No. 8 in the fall of 1913, and a 6th floor added to No. 5 in 1914, Harley-Davidson possessed 300,000 sq ft of floor space under one roof. Experts declared the factory ìperfect,î a plant where ìcomfort and production shake hands.î Visitors declared they had never seen a safer or better organized factory. Walter Davidson remarked, ìWith the completion of factory No. 8 we obtain a unit plant (of) maximum manufacturing efficiency.î
The various sections of the red brick factory now merged into a single 476 foot long building along Chestnut St. With partition walls removed, workers could move freely throughout the plant. To the casual observer the Juneau Ave factory appeared built as a single unitóChestnut St having disappeared from the maps in 1926. Visitors stopped asking, ìWhat factory are we in now?î and in time the identities of factories No. 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8óalong with the vanished yellow brick factoryówere forgotten.
This ended Harley-Davidsonís first great era of expansion. Construction after World War One was around the corner on 38th St. While this future ìsouthî complex would again double the factoryís size, it did not inspire the celebratory fever dominating earlier construction. President Walter Davidson could quit ìcampingî on the trail of architects and contractors and go back to what he knew best: building motorcycles.
Nobody took a bow. They were too busy. But between 1903 and 1914 the founders of Harley-Davidson had transformed a literal backyard operation into a powerful, world famous company. They now had enough physical plant to carry them through the First World War and beyond. Foundations had been laid for a company strong enough to weather the storm and stress of 95 years.
Meyerís concrete engineer put it best in 1912 when he boasted: ìReinforced concrete is a wonderful thing. The aqueducts built by the romans stand as proof. The buildings of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. are built to last forever.î
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