The Art of Woodworking

Natalie Van Dam

A craftsman’s tools were some of his most valuable possessions. Each one would have been carefully selected and made or modified to fit a specific need. They were highly personalized, and to the craftsmen, often priceless.

These tools — which include several types of rulers, glass cutters, blades, hammers, screwdrivers, saws and wrenches — are from the chest of Frank Roraff, a carpenter and woodworker for Hackner Altar, a company that played an important role in the history of La Crosse. The tools were passed along to Roraff’s son William and were eventually donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society by William’s wife.

Hackner Altar was founded by Egid Hackner, who was born in Bavaria in 1856. He migrated to the U.S. after receiving a letter from his brother encouraging him to join him in the Midwest. He established Hackner Altar in the 1880s, and many of the workers Hackner would hire were expert carvers who also emigrated from Europe.

All of the work done by the company until 1910 — everything from altars to stairs to pews — was done by hand. After Hackner retired, his children ran the company, which outlived its founder. Hackner died in 1952 at the age of 95. The company stayed in business until 1963.

Some of Hackner Altar’s most famous work was the main altar and baldachin at St. Benedict’s in Chicago, the main altar at the church of the Incarnation in Minneapolis, the Pieta altar and canopy at St. Mark’s church in Cincinnati, and the altar at St. Agnes Church in Buffalo, N.Y. The company’s work also can be found in La Crosse inside Mary of the Angels Chapel at St. Rose Convent.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on July 1, 2017.

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