Flour Sack Dish Towel

Amy Vach

Catalog Number: 1992.006.02

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

This week’s artifact is a printed pink cotton dish towel that started life as a flour sack.

There are holes on the towel left behind from the original stitching that once held this towel together as a flour sack. It was donated to La Crosse County Historical Society in 1992 by the woman who repurposed it, Winifred Mattson.

Mattson was born in 1917, and along with this towel, she gave an account of her thoughts on life as a young woman during the Great Depression in this region.

This is Mattson’s story:

“Flour during the Depression (the 1930s) was sacked in muslin bags printed with colorful designs. Since most people in a small town were quite poor, having lost their savings in a bank failure, they collected these sacks to make clothes, towels or small tablecloths to cover the oil-cloth on the kitchen table. Everyone who stopped at the house was offered coffee and bread or a sweet if available; otherwise, a child was sent uptown to buy tiny powdered sugar covered doughnuts.

“Friends would get together to exchange sacks in order to match up designs. A sack was also a nice little thing to bring to the house. The pink towel was made into a towel by me after this period was over, and I have used it until now, 60 years later; they had to be strong when they were filled with 40 pounds of flour. The Depression was not an unhappy time for me — children looked at it as normal living. One learned to cope.”

While Mattson turned this flour sack into a towel, repurposed flour sacks were turned into various items including clothing, toys, quilts, curtains, pillowcases, undergarments and diapers. These flour sacks were made with cotton and tightly woven so that they would be able to hold anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds of flour.

Manufacturers quickly realized that customers were repurposing their sacks, so they began printing colorful designs to make them more appealing and encourage repeat purchases.

It is estimated that nearly 3.5 million women and children wore clothing made from flour sacks during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until the early 1940s.

In the 1950s, the colorfully printed cotton flour sacks were replaced by cheaper paper bags still used today.

After growing up in southern Minnesota, Mattson worked as a school librarian and French teacher in Trempealeau for 22 years.

She moved to La Crosse in 1961 and lived here until her death in 2002.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on November 3, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

La Crosse Plow Co. Sales Models

Michelle Kelly

Catalog Numbers: 2014.fic.419 & 420

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Catalog Numbers:The artifacts in the accompanying photos are sales models of two La Crosse Plow Co. plows.

The one in the bottom image is the Ryder Sulky Plow. It stands not quite 8 inches high and is 9 inches long. The writing on the plow indicates the patent for that plow was from Nov. 16, 1880.

Sulky plows were meant to be ridden while being pulled by a mule or a horse.

Most were made from a combination of wood and metal pieces, but because Albert Hirshheimer was a master blacksmith, most of his plows were completely made of metal.

The upper image is also a sulky plow, built entirely of metal; this model is only 5 inches high. A bit more ornate, with gold design and lettering, the second model was made circa 1895.

Born in Wurttemberg, Germany, Hirshheimer immigrated with his family in the 1850s. The family settled in Pennsylvania for several years before moving to La Crosse in 1856.

Hirshheimer soon began a blacksmithing apprenticeship with Barclay & Bantam, a shop in the area that specialized in plows. By 1865, he was considered a master blacksmith and Barclay & Bantam made him a partner in the shop.

Throughout the 1870s, Hirshheimer worked at buying Barclay & Bantam out of their shares of the business. He succeeded in 1881, when he incorporated the company as the La Crosse Plow Co.

Initially the La Crosse Plow Co. was only producing versions of sulky plows, like most other manufacturers.

But in 1911, Hirshheimer expanded his business. He helped incorporate the Sta-Rite Engine Co., an engine manufacturer, and instigated a merger with the Happy Farmer Tractor Co. — bringing tractor manufacturing to La Crosse in 1916. This marked the end of sulky plows and the start of engine-powered tractors in La Crosse.

Albert Hirshheimer’s son, Harry, took over his father’s business after Albert died in 1924. However, by the time of his father’s death the company was struggling. Son Harry Hirshheimer tried to hold on, but in 1929 the company was sold to Allis-Chalmers, a large manufacturing company.

Allis-Chalmers renamed its new location the La Crosse Works, and it was open for decades. In 1969, the plant was down to 400 employees from a postwar high of 1,593, and when the workers went on strike, the company closed the plant.

After the shutdown, the buildings were vacant for many years.

The G. Heileman Brewing Co. purchased the largest tract of what used to be the La Crosse Plow Co. in 1970, and Machine Products, a Heileman business, used the location until 1994. Now, the historic buildings are being developed for mixed residential and commercial use.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on October 29, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

Ole Tollefson's Violin Patterns

Amy Vach

Catalog Numbers: 2013.029.01-2013.029.14

More than a century ago, La Crosse was home to a violin-maker, Ole Tollefson.

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Tollefson was born in Norway in 1853. At the age of 3, he sailed with his parents to the U.S. The family settled in Detroit, later in Lansing, Iowa, and finally in La Crosse.

For a brief time, Tollefson worked at a grocery store before starting his music career at the Bergh Piano Co. in the violin department. In 1924, he left Bergh and opened his own music store at Fifth and Jay streets making and repairing violins.

In 1927, Tollefson described his life’s work in the La Crosse Tribune: “The violin is a peculiar instrument, and once you become infatuated with its mysteries, you never lose interest.” All of the new instruments sold in Tollefson’s shop were handmade by him.

The patterns pictured were made and used by Tollefson to create his one-of-a-kind violins. These forms were donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 2013 by Dan Brodrick, who is himself a luthier -- one who makes or repairs stringed instruments. The items donated include various wooden and wrought-iron forms used to create violins. 

To create his violins, Tollefson used spruce and Pernambuco wood that was guaranteed by his supplier, Rushford and Draper of Liverpool, to be at least 200 years old. That was re-purposed from the masts of old shipwrecks.

The January 1920 edition of The Violinist, a magazine published in Chicago, features violin-makers and shops across the country. In the magazine, Tollefson is described as an American citizen and a dealer who sells all grades of violins, new and old. He is also listed as making violins, cellos, violas, bows and wound strings.

Tollefson died in 1938, and his obituary noted that he was the only recognized violin-maker in western Wisconsin upon his retirement in 1936, and that he was rated among the leading violin-makers in the world.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on October 20, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.