Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Rio Creek: John Albrecht and the Wisconsin Chief Fanning Mills

John Albrecht's patented Wisconsin Chief Fanning Mill

One hundred fifty years ago, millers and smithys enjoyed a certain prominence in their communities. Sawmills, grist mills and blacksmiths were indispensable to the early residents of Kewaunee County and a community that could boast all three had truly arrived. Fanning mills were of importance to millers and the farmers themselves, but what exactly is a fanning mill? Such an apparatus was used to clean and separate grains to be used for seeding. A fanning mill meant the farmer didn't sow a field full of weeds!

A year following the end of the Civil War, William Ansorge and John Fetzer opened their fanning mill factory on 4th Street in Ahnapee. Although its location is not clear, their farm implement business was Ahnapee’s first, located at the approximate site of today’s 513 4th Street, opposite the P.H. White residence. Presumably both parts of the business were at the same place. The fanning mill above was built in Rio Creek and much like that developed by Fetzer for manufacture in the business with Ansorge.

Will Palmer was another Ahnapee businessman who ran a fanning mill at his feed business until he sold it in May 1881 to A.D. and A.C. Eveland. Evelands planned to enter such a business themselves.

Grains handled byAlbrecth's Wisconsin Chief
There were fanning mills and there were fanning mills; however none seemed to equal what Rio Creek’s John Albrecht invented and, in May 1896, introduced to the public. His strongly constructed unit had upper shoe sieves of 20 x 24”. The under shoe was 24 x 26”. Albrecht felt his sieves were the finest on the market and offered 16 sieves, 9 of zinc and 7 of wire. Varied motions were regulated at will. The upper shoe could move from 3/16” to 1/3” in a hopping motion. The under shoe could move quickly or slowly, thus suiting the grain being cleaned. Each grain needed its own motion and the necessary amount of wind. Wind speed generated split peas flying over the sieves, or slowed so not one grain of timothy seed would fly out. Wind blew all through the upper sieves via an inside blast board tightened to the sieves when necessary.

No doubt John Albrecht celebrated more on New Year’s Day 1897 than he did the night before because it was on January 1 when he received his Wisconsin Chief fanning mill patent approval from Washington, D.C. A few days later, the Record told readership that the mill was a thing of beauty and that Albrecht was already enjoying a lucrative trade because of it. When Albrecht took a load of his patented fanning mills to a new agency in Green Bay during March 1898, the Record opined that he was doing such a lively business that he’d have to enlarge the Rio Creek plant.

J, Albrech's namet, Rio Creek & patent number
In September 1899, the Green Bay Advocate carried an article on Albrecht’s invention saying his Rio Creek manufactured fanning mills had captured a great deal of attention at the fair.  The paper went on to say that the mill included 13 different sieves for cleaning and sifting. Two of five sieves were used to clean any kinds of grain, wild peas, cockle, wild oats, field oats, mustard seeds and more from wheat, rye, barley, peas, etc. Round and heavy seed could be separated from the oats by passing through the machine once. For several years his were the only fanning mills that were sold in the northern area of the county. 

Farmers liked the machine because of its extensive range and possible adjustments to it. When Albrecht was doing demonstrations at the fair, farmers felt it was the best fanning mill they had ever seen. Sometime later while Albrecht was taking his mills to Brussels, he stopped in Rosiere where he sold everything he had. A short time later the Green Bay Advocate noted that Albrecht was displaying his mills at Herman Smits’ shop on Main Street. The paper said farmers looked at “the novelty” daily and those who had seen it work pronounced it a “good machine.” Just before Christmas the Sturgeon Bay Advocate carried an ad saying Wisconsin Chief was the best on the market and that farmers could give it a try. The paper also ran an article about Jacksonport’s Jos. LeMere  who was closing out his wagons and buggies while saying that Wisconsin Chief fanning mills were the best on the market.

Albrecht’s large Rio Creek factory employed several men turning out the new Wisconsin Chief fanning mills daily. During the fall of 1900 the company was giving Algoma Foundry steady employment as the fanning mill company had ordered enough iron to complete 100 new mills.

Gustav Haack was also building fanning mills in Rio Creek by 1899, a time when Algoma’s Perlewitz Bros. were advertising the full line of wire and perforated sieves they kept in stock for farmers who needed such sieves. Types of grain were varied and each required its own gauge of wire to ensure foreign particles would not drop into the cleaned seed supply below.

As late as 1921 J.F. Wota, the man in charge of Wisconsin’s county agricultural agents, touted the efficiency of fanning mills when he said such devices promoted production by enabling 2 men two hours to clean 25 bushels of oats. Wisconsin Chief’s usefulness apparently came to an end by the advent of World War ll. During the 1940s, the machines were frequently found in the lists of farm auction items.

Albrecht’s Rio Creek-made Wisconsin Chief fanning mill are about 120 years old and few are left. Door County Historical Society’s Heritage Village has one in its granary. Check the website for hours and step back in time touring several historic homes, a church, one room school, blacksmith shop, store and granary.  Albrecht’s invention and those of the Hamacheks made a significant impact on Wisconsin agriculture and beyond. Hamacheks’ drawings and patents can be found at Kewaunee County Historical Society museum and research center.


Sources: Ahnapee Record/Algoma Record/Algoma Record Herald; Green Bay Advocate; Sturgeon Bay Advocate. Photos were taken by the blogger.

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