A Pail Factory is opened in Menasha, Wis. The three owners, Nathan Beckworth, Joseph Sanford and C.W. Billings, produce the pails themselves. After failing to earn a profit, the partners sell the factory to Joseph Keyes, Norman Wolcott and Lot Rice.
In July 1850, Elisha Smith travels from his home in Woonsocket, R.I., to Menasha after receiving a letter from an acquaintance encouraging him to do so. After visiting, he returns to his home to marry Julia Mowry. The morning after their wedding, they head to Menasha. The 1000-mile journey takes more than a week. They travel by train, steamship, horse-drawn carriage and boat. Once in Menasha, they live in a small two-room cabin and Elisha becomes a partner in the dry-goods store of his acquaintance, Dr. Doane.
In addition to the dry goods store, Elisha ventures into a second business. He buys the then-struggling Pail Factory for $1,200 and runs it himself. He operates the machinery and delivers products by horse-drawn wagon. The business grows, and he is able to hire his first employees and sell products as far away as Chicago. By this time, his primary product is barrels that are used for shipping wheat. Wisconsin is one of the largest growers of wheat at this time.
The Panic of 1857 strikes and drives thousands of businesses into bankruptcy. The Pail Factory is not one of them. Until this time, Elisha has been lobbying for a railroad to be built from Menasha to Manitowoc, but the idea dies with the Panic of 1857. By now, he is selling his tubs and pails in almost every town of any size in Wisconsin and Illinois.
Smith influences the community through his philanthropy, as well as his business. He keeps a small ledger of benevolence that shows he has been giving money to those in need steadily between 1858 and his death in 1899. When he dies, Smith's secret philanthropies are revealed and praised. Among them are such acts as providing a fund at the local bookstore for students unable to pay for their own books and anonymously distributing groceries and clothing to poor families. Smith also gives large, public donations and supports colleges and religious institutions in Wisconsin and across the United States. According to his own accounts, Smith's religious enthusiasm increases in 1858, and he becomes diligent in his support of Christianity. His factories are closed on Sundays, and he closes the factory for a few hours on holy days that occur during the workweek.
The Pail Factory expands through the Civil War, supplying pails and other wooden storage and shipping containers to the Union forces. The Pail Factory becomes the largest woodenware factory in Wisconsin and produces 900 barrels, 300 tubs, 2400 butter tubs, 300 washboards and 300 boxes of clothespins each day.
The Chicago and Northwest Railroad complete a branch line to Menasha and Neenah. In return, the communities agree to pay for the bridges, railroad ties and the grading of the line. This helps Elisha’s business expand dramatically, allowing imports and exports to ship with ease. Because of the growth of the Pail Factory, Elisha closes his dry goods business to concentrate solely on the manufacture of woodenware.
The Pail Factory is the largest woodenware manufacturer in the Midwest and perhaps even the United States. It employs 250 people and continues to make pails, tubs, churns, measures, clothespins and other wooden products.
The Pail Factory's expenses rise faster than its income. On April 6, 1872, it is announced that The Pail Factory, the community's largest employer, is $250,000 in debt. It has to close its doors, letting go of all its employees. The factory soon reopens in receivership with the financial help of Julia Smith's father, Spencer Mowry.
The business is incorporated under the name Menasha Wooden Ware Company. Spencer Mowry owns 90 percent of the stock, Julia owns two percent and Elisha owns none. Elisha continues running the business as general superintendent, but Henry Hewitt, Sr., president of a local bank, is elected president. It will be nine years before Elisha regains the presidency. Elisha does eventually repay all The Pail Factory's debt, including those that were discharged in receivership, restoring his good name.
Candy pails become one of Menasha's major product lines. A popular feature of Menasha's candy pail is a patented lock that prevents pilferage. These pails are used by candy manufacturers to ship licorice, anise squares, gumdrops and other candy to retail stores, which use the pails to hold and display the candy.
Menasha Wooden Ware purchases 85 acres near the factory to provide drying yards for lumber and staves. It also opens mills in Auburndale, Stevens Point, Wrightstown and Apple Creek, Wis., to make staves to be shipped to Menasha, where they are made into products.
The company opens a three-story paint shop, where products are painted by a crew of 80.
In 1852, company founder Elisha D. Smith bought a struggling wooden pail factory that opened in Menasha, Wis. just three years earlier. In the more than 160 years since then, our devoted employees have worked together to build one of the country’s oldest and most successful privately held family companies.
Take a virtual tour across a century and a half to discover what has grown from Menasha Corporation’s strong roots.