Sometimes you just never know where a story will lead.
What I discovered in our newspaper's archives is an amazing story about a business called The Uchtorff Co., a company that figured significantly in Davenport history. Described as "one of Davenport's major industrial firms" in a 1948 Daily Times article, its name is barely recognized today, if at all.
But during the course of its operation from roughly 1928 to 1988, Uchtorff employed thousands of Quad-Citians who depended on its lathes, drill presses, and welding torches for their paychecks.
Its main business was the manufacture of parts for other companies. Clients included those in the farm implement, tractor and auto businesses.
Uchtorff went all-out for the war effort of the 1940s, becoming the first company in the Quad-Cities to receive an "E" award from the Army-Navy, "the highest award that can be bestowed upon an American manufacturing plant in recognition of production efficiency," according to The Daily Times of March 30, 1943.
One of its early contracts with the Rock Island Arsenal was to refinish about 250,000 — 250,000! — trench helmets that had been stored away unused for 22 years.
To meet the war production demands, the company hired women! They were punch press operators, spot welders, assemblers, sprayers, stencilers and, yes, riveters.
When the "E" award was presented in 1943, company founder and president Albert Uchtorff told the Democrat and Leader that he previously "could not picture women operating the heavy machines in my plant, but since the first group started to work last fall (September 1942), I have changed my opinion of women in war plants."
"I have found them to be excellent workers and in some cases they have out-produced the men," he said.
After the war: Buying a brewery, clearing Cook's Point
In 1948, the company was a $2.5 million business with an annual payroll of $600,000, according to the Dec. 4, 1948, Daily Times.
In spring 1948, Priester Construction Co. began building a 70-foot by 225-foot building for Uchtorff to assemble disc harrows for International Harvester Co.
Uchtorff also made speaker cases for the Victor Animatograph Corp., Davenport; battery boxes for Farmall Works, Rock Island; and fenders and engine pans and covers for J.I. Case Co., Bettendorf.
In 1953, Uchtorff bought as a subsidiary — and later closed — one of the last three remaining old-time breweries in Iowa, the company that began as the Independent Brewing Co., then became Blackhawk Brewing Co., then Zoller, then Uchtorff. It ceased operations in 1956.
Albert F. Uchtorff also was the entrepreneur who bought up about 30 acres of land in southwest Davenport along the Mississippi River at Schmidt Road known as Cook's Point — a one-time settlement of some 300 people of Mexican descent — and then cleared it out in 1952 so it could be used for building factories.
In February 1966, Uchtorff died at age 82.
His son, Alfred, the man who built the Bettendorf house where Ken and Amy VanSickle live, died in 1979 at age 72.
A grandson, Richard, died in 1988 at age 60. Shortly thereafter, the closely held company was sold for the first time.
Still in business
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After a couple of different owners, the buildings at 1833 W. 2nd St. were purchased in 2003 by Mick Jones, of Mediapolis, Iowa.
In 2004, Jones opened his business called ESCP Corp., an ISO-certified manufacturer of metal racks, containers and parts for OEM (original equipment manufacturer) companies.
Today it employs about 40 people and is run by Sara Jones, who took over after her father died in 2018.
Some of the original Ochtorff equipment, including a huge press, is still in use.
Jones said it is her understanding that there has been at least some continuous manufacturing at the location since Uchtorff opened.
While every article I read about Uchtorff was interesting, one in the Daily Leader from June 24, 1898, that made me think, "what if?" in an "It's a Wonderful Life" kind of way.
"Albert Uchtorff Gets His Sleeve Caught in the Cog Wheels," the headline read.
"This morning about 10 o'clock, Albert Uchtorff, a young boy about 15 years of age, who is employed in the Roddewig-Schmidt Candy factory, barely escaped having his arm severely crushed in the cog wheels of the machine at which he was working," the story said.
"As it was, his sleeve catching in the cogs pulled his arms into the machinery and it was bruised and lacerated in a manner that will keep him home for several weeks.
"The belt driving the machinery was loose and when the boy's arm was caught in the wheels, it slipped off the pulley. Had the belt been tight, nothing could have saved the arm from being ground up in the cogs.
"The injured lad was taken to the office of Dr. Matthey where Dr. Matthey (and an assistant) dressed the wound."
But what if the belt had been tighter and had not slipped off the pulley and Uchtorff's arm had been ground up? Would he have recovered to go on to found his company? Without antibiotics, wounds in those days could become fatally infected. Even if he had lived, maybe his disability would have prevented him from doing what he eventually did.
We'll never know, because the belt did slip off the pulley.
... And two years later, when he was 17, Uchtorff got a job at the Rock Island Arsenal where he worked for the next 25 years, working his way up, through diligence and ability, to foreman of the blacksmith and press shops. He then started his own company.
A pillar of the community
By the time of his death, Uchtorff had become a pillar of the community.
He was a member of the Davenport Club, Outing Club, American Legion, Elks, Rotary, Masons and Chamber of Commerce. He was a director of First Trust & Savings Bank, the Friendly House and the Salvation Army and had been involved in the Community Chest (a precursor to United Way) and the Humane Society of Scott County. He also had been a member of the Davenport Levee Improvement Commission.
Hobbies included bowling and growing roses; he had 250 rose bushes at his home, according to his obituary.
Today, Uchtorff's name isn't widely recognized, but the factory he built still provides a livelihood for its workers, still is part of Davenport's industrial landscape.
But wouldn't he be surprised to see Sara sitting in his office?