Preserving the History of Dempster Windmills

November 14, 2016 03:19 PM
 
Preserving the History of Dempster Windmills

In recent years the oldest name in Beatrice, Neb. manufacturing has received new life under new owners set to make Dempsters once again prominent in the ag industry.

As new faces focus on new forward directions for Dempsters, a dedicated group of volunteers has spent years focusing on the past, cataloging the company's storied history that dates back to 1878.

The project began in 2014, when current Dempsters president Ryan Mitchell discovered many of the company's records dating back to the 1800s stored in the building.

The Beatrice Daily Sun reports Mitchell partnered with the Homestead National Monument of America to preserve the documents. The goal is to have a searchable database that can be used for education and research.

"We do anticipate there will be a lot of interest in these archives and learning more about industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States and how that developed," said Mark Engler, Homestead park superintendent. "It also gives a glimpse into the relationships between industry and their employees."

Among the records being sorted are meeting minutes, operator's manuals, blueprints, brochures and personnel records.

But just how large is the collection of Dempsters records?

In total, there are 500,000 documents being sorted through.

Volunteers removed all paperclips and staples from the documents. When complete, they had 103 pounds of discarded metal.

"We kept it, all the staples and paperclips," said volunteer Sally Diekman. "It was just mountains. You couldn't believe the metal we took out. It was just unbelievable."

The project was made possible by a grant from the Margaret and Martha Thomas Foundation, and is being done by around 30 volunteers.

Cataloging efforts began more than two years ago, and will hopefully be finished in the coming weeks.

While the name lives on, Dempsters, LLC. is a different company than Dempster Industries.

Charles Dempster founded Dempster Industries in 1878 in Beatrice.

He became a pioneer in the windmill industry. While the company also produced water pumps, cisterns and other tools for pioneer life.

Dempster Industries is credited with developing a water pumping system that provided Beatrice with clean water from the Zimmerman Springs, a natural spring in the area, when the Big Blue River became too difficult to properly filter.

In 1898, the company moved to its current location at Sixth and Perkins streets. Several expansions were completed over the years as the company grew.

At its peak, more than 500 workers were employed at Dempster Industries in Beatrice.

The company changed hands several times, even being led for a short time by billionaire Warren Buffett.

In 2008, Wallace and Felicia Davis purchased Dempster Industries for $3 million. Five years after acquiring the company, Dempster Industries' liabilities far exceeded its assets, its list of debts swelling and its credit lines and business partnerships evaporated.

The company failed to follow through on multiple contracts and fell further into debt.

In 2012, Donald E. Clark of Frederickstown, Ohio, the former owner of Dempco Inc. and the mortgage holder of the Dempster building, sold the mortgage for the building to Sunny Green LLC, a Mount Vernon, Ohio, company, before he passed away.

Ryan Mitchell came into the picture in 2013, and has been a driving force in reinventing the Dempster name, in part by focusing on innovative products, with a focus on spreaders.

Dempsters' latest spreader utilizes GPS technology to map a farmer's fields. This allows areas in need to receive more fertilizer, while less is spread in areas with adequate soil tests.

Robin Matty, Homestead museum technician, said the attention to detail is one thing that makes the collection so interesting to look through. She gave an example of blueprints for a device called the "hog waterer, which she thought was a fascinating invention.

"The blueprints to me, especially the older ones, it's just the detail in them," she said. "Like the hog waterer, one of the reasons I loved it is because he didn't just draw wood, he drew the actual grain. He didn't just draw squiggly lines. He drew burrs and knots. They were really detailed with all of their blueprints."

Other findings detail just how different working conditions were more than 100 years ago, when safety wasn't a top concern.

"The records really show a lot of things and I think they'll interest a lot of people," Matty said. "Like when OSHA came around, because it wasn't in 1890, and said, 'You have to wear eye wear and you have to wear steel-toed boots.' It's amazing how injuries just dropped overnight. It's cool that we have records to support findings like that and interesting things that you don't even think about."

Engler added that insights from searching board minutes are also interesting, and shed light on unique problems of the day.

"From the early board meeting minutes there is a discussion that we can follow through meeting minutes where they actually discussed if they should electrify the hand pump," he said. "They set up a committee to go out and study it. It's that kind of stuff that I think is really going to give researchers, scholars insight into all sorts of things.

"This is really a treasure trove of information where they can learn about the history of industrial development, the sociology as it relates to industry and even how it relates to a community like Beatrice."

Engler noted that while most of the information will be made available to the public, personnel records are being sealed for an additional 75 years.

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