Burch Manufacturing Company

Jack Bradley on Oliver tractor

Jack Bradley, then plant foreman on an Oliver 77 tractor displaying Heat-Houser, 1956.

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W4672 Mill Road Greenwood, Wisconsin 54437-8738

It's been 113 years since Burch Manufacturing Company, Inc. of Fort Dodge, Iowa, entered the textile business, fashioning canvas covers for the early covered wagons and repairing tents and other canvas products.

Over that 113 year period, Burch has undergone changes in name, location, product line and production techniques. One thing has remained constant, however; its ownership and management has been in the Burch family since it was started. The family's high standards for quality and dependability have gained the company a well-deserved reputation over the years.

Founded in 1882, Burch Manufacturing has expanded from the once tiny operation setup in a basement to repair covered wagons, to a multi-faceted manufacturing firm with international distribution of many of its products. Its history spans a century which saw more growth and development in both science and industry than any other 113 year period in history.

Burch Manufacturing has its roots in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Eugene C. Burch was a young man, still in school in 1882. Using his mother's sewing machine set up in the basement of the family home, he began to repair covered wagons, buggy tops, awnings, and other canvas goods to earn extra spending money. One of his awning jobs required lettering of the business name on the awning. As canvas paint was not available and being an energetic businessman, he substituted black shoe polish for the lettering. The awning looked beautiful until it rained. At that time, Eugene C. Burch learned there was no substitute for quality.

His mother's domestic sewing machine succumbed to the heavy usage after a short time, and was replaced with a sturdier model to accommodate his increasing volume of business.

As any successful business eventually does, his small operation began to expand. Soon, Eugene was actually manufacturing canvas products-awnings, tents, tarpaulins, horse and wagon covers. He was joined by two of his brothers in 1895, and the firm became known as the Burch Brothers.

As business increased steadily over the next five years, Eugene saw possibilities in Iowa and moved his small factory to Lake City in 1900. Aside from textile goods, the brothers distributed agricultural products on a limited basis, such as bug killer and poultry food. This sideline did not last for many years, and the Burch brothers concentrated mainly on canvas products.

In 1918, Eugene C. Burch bought his brothers' interests in the firm, moved to Fort Dodge, and set up business there with his three sons. He changed the name to Fort Dodge Tent and Awning Company, and opened a branch office in Mason City in 1927. Three years later, one of his sons, H. C. Burch, became the sole owner and manager of the firm, and on November 27, 1935, the company was incorporated in accordance with Iowa laws. He sold the Mason City branch in 1933. Eugene C. Burch, founder of the Fort Dodge Tent and Awning Company, died in 1935.

For the next five years business continued to increase, especially in the manufacturing of canvas products other than tents and awnings.

The war years, between 1942 and 1945, also proved to be a lucrative time for the firm, since a large amount of government work was undertaken, predominantly the manufacturing of officer and squad tents. Due to the additional work created by the government contracts, the corporation bought a building at 6518 First Avenue North, on September 26, 1944, the present Fort Dodge location, for additional space.

Thousands of military tents were manufactured during those years, and production was constantly moving at the maximum rate. Contests were held and incentives offered to employees to set new records in production, all in an effort to keep up with the government demand. Employees were encouraged to buy war bonds to help support the armed forces.

The company newsletter, called OMAR, during these years reflected a sense of rationalism and patriotism. The heading, for example, said that the publication was put out biweekly for 'hard working people working hard for victory.' In one article, the question was asked, 'Did you know that nearly one half of the soldiers are sleeping in the open because there are not enough squad tents to cover them?'

Workers were proud of the fact that they were doing their part to help their country in this time of crisis. They welcomed reports from local men fighting in the war who had come across tents overseas that had been manufactured by the Fort Dodge Tent and Awning Company.

In 1945, the Heat-Houser, an item that would later become one of the firm's best-selling items, was added to the product line. The Heat Houser is a canvas accessory for tractors that channels heat from the engine back to the person operating the vehicle.

When the war was over, the company was left with a large inventory of equipment, and factory space totaling 34,000 square feet. To keep it in full operation, the product line was expanded to include a greater variety of canvas products. When this proved successful, the firm opened a branch in Des Moines in 1947, and later took over another tent and awning company in Des Moines, adding another 32,000 square feet of factory space.

In 1951, H.C. Burch retired as president of the corporation at which time it was purchased by his sons, Paul, Phil, Karl and Max, and they were appointed to the offices of president, vice president, secretary and treasurer, respectively. H. C. Burch died in 1975.

The name was changed from Fort Dodge Tent and Awning to Burch Manufacturing Company, Inc., on September 14, 1953, to reflect the expansion of the organization and the fact that it was manufacturing many items other than tents and awnings.

A factory was opened in Denver, Colorado, in 1955, which was sold years later. The Fort Dodge office was established as the home office.

A 1955 catalog typifies the wide variety of items the company had come to manufacture, aside from tents and awnings in any size: duffle bags, tarpaulins, covers of all kinds, aprons, Venetian blinds, signs, and many other items. The prices in this catalog are a good indicator of the economic changes which have taken place in this country in the last 38 years.

A 10 x 12 foot canvas tent is listed in the catalog for $59.95, for example. At today's prices, the material alone for such a tent would cost much more than that. The 1955 price of a Heat-Houser, complete with windshield and side wings, was $39.95. Because of increased material and production costs, the same model Heat-Houser purchased today would cost four times that much.

Though prices have changed over the years, the Burch Manufacturing reputation has not. The company still manufactures a variety of quality products, as well as specialty items and made-to-order products for customers all over the country. The firm makes component parts for equipment sized to fit the blueprints of many customers.

On December 1, 1976, Karl D. Burch bought out his brothers' interests, and is now owner and president. Longtime employee of 42 years, Margaret Inman was vice president from December 1976 until resigning on December 31, 1993, and is a stockholder. Margaret Inman is the first person in 113 years to purchase stock outside the Burch family.

The Kolaps-A-Tank, another Burch specialty, originally designed for agricultural use, now comes in models used for firefighting purposes. Used by fire-fighters in rural areas where water is not readily accessible, the firefighting Kolaps-A-Tank nearly doubles the capacity of a single tanker, enabling the tanker to fill the Kolaps-A-Tank at the scene of the fire, then return for more water. Water can be pumped from the tank while the tanker is away from the scene.

Hospital Kolaps-A-Tank was used primarily in the treatment of patients with malignant hyperpyrexia, which is a sharp increase in body temperature. It must be controlled and reversed immediately to prevent serious injury and even death.

The Agricultural Kolaps-A-Tank is a versatile model that can be used to store and haul almost any liquid and also meets Food and Drug Administration approval for drinking water. The Agricultural Kolaps-A-Tank has been purchased to help provide drinking water for people on Indian reservations, Desert Storm, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and forest fires.

The newest Kolaps-A-Tank is a decontamination booth, a collapsible portable unit designed for washing down persons who have come in contact with hazardous chemicals. There are three different units: a stand up booth, a unit for unconscious persons, and a walk-through booth.

The Burch Metal Fabricating plant started on September 14, 1984. The company which was supplying metal parts for production went bankrupt, at which time Burch purchased their equipment and with the addition of new equipment started the Burch Fabricating plant. In addition to making their own parts, Burch expanded into awning frames, awning brackets, tables, bird feeder stands, and boot and shoe scrapers, throughout the United States. They also do custom welding for the local retail customer.

In September 1993 Burch moved the Des Moines plant back to the home office.

October 1, 1994, Karl D. Burch retired as president of the corporation and Karla Burch Skaggs (Karl's daughter, 4th generation) became president. Karla has been employed by the corporation for 23 years and has two children. Who knows-they may be the fifth generation of the Burch family to carry on the Burch tradition of quality and service.

At least one product, now in its planning stages, may well be as successful as the Burch Heat-Houser when it was introduced by the company in 1945. If so, the item will no doubt adhere to the strict Burch quality standards customers have come to expect over the past 113 years.

Burch has distributors throughout the Untied States, and sales that are international in scope.

Company president Karla Burch Skaggs is optimistic about the future of Burch Manufacturing Company, Inc. She said the research department is continuously working on designs for new products, and making improvements to the old ones. After 113 years, the company still manufactures a variety of quality products, as well as specialty items and made-to-order products for customers all over the country.

Heat Housers are still for sale. The company phone number is 515-573-4136.

James Bowdle of 2753 Nottingham Road in Columbus, Ohio 43221 sent this c. 1956 photo of his father's Heat Houser on the tractor. James tells us that although the tractor is still family owned, the Heat Houser was discarded in the late '70s.

In our January 2000 issue, we picked up a 1953 advertisement for a Heat Houser, a device used to warm the cab of a tractor in cold weather. We have gotten a fair number of responses, including this company history and photos other subscribers have sent showing their Heat Housers, advertisements for them, or ads for similar products. This story was sent to us by Donald R. Aden of W4672 Mill Road, Greenwood, Wisconsin 54437. Mr. Aden's wife's uncle, jack Bradley, was the Heat Houser designer.