|An old photo of the groundbreaking IXL business office buillding, remarkably preserved over the decades.|
For most of a century this elaborate Queen Anne style office building and apartment residence was the hub of the Wisconsin Land and Lumber operation and its company town of Hermansville. The office was completed in 1883; the company ceased operations in 1960.
|Hermansville was a mill town based on a single product: IXL hardwood flooring, which it pioneered. This sales display is in the unusual IXL Museum, a perfectly preserved company office.|
Over the years little was changed here. A few things were added and very little removed, so it's like visiting an office and apartment from the 1880s with minor updates through the early 20th century. In the main office, old Burroughs adding machines and inkwells sit on big oak desks, along with the mimeograph Edison invented. The original mechanical clock and crank telephones remain in place. Ledgers of pay records are here, too - a fabulous resource for labor historians. Businesses rarely leave such detailed records for public perusal.
|An elaborate apartment over the office awaited visits from IXLs owner.|
Today it's not hard to imagine the company's 600 to 800 workers lining up at the paymaster's office to receive their weekly pay - in scrip to be spent at the company store. Wisconsin Land and Lumber built the entire town and owned the workers' houses until selling them off after World War II. Such corporate paternalism was common in Upper Peninsula mining and mill towns. Inexpensive housing was a great perk for workers, but being both landlord and employers also gave the companies extraordinary control over workers' lives. To give an idea of how workers lived in Hermansville, an employee house that remains unaltered when it was built (probably the late 19th century) has been moved next to the museum. It is being furnished it as it would have been in the early 20th century. A family of ten or twelve would live in a three-room house like this, and without apparent hardship.
|The IXL office remains as it was around 1900.|
Some museum volunteers are older local people with roots in the town and its gossip. If one of them is your guide, your museum experience will be rich. Stay awhile and you may hear stories about how the owner advised the manager, when five men came into town asking for jobs, not to hire the German. Germans, he said, were trouble-makers. (IXL's founder himself was German!)
Details of architecture and decorating show that the owners indeed bought "the best of everything" for their headquarters, as the tour guides state. The brass doorknobs and the staircase's varied hardwoods are richly patterned. The owner's upstairs apartment for his sojourns here is quite grand. The parlor's elaborate painted stenciling has recently been restored. One bedroom is furnished to remember a beloved local schoolteacher who roomed here for decades. The memorable attic is laid out and organized as a storage area. One area is given over to massive gilt mirrors and huge framed engravings acquired on European trips. It's a treasury of bourgeois German-American kultur: scenes from ancient history and images of then-current heroes, including Washington and Bismarck. Old trunks contain things that haven't yet been displayed.
C. J. L. Meyer established Hermansville to supply pine lumber for his big sash, door, and blind factory in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, because Wisconsin pine was running out. He bought 50,000 acres of timberland around Hermansville, set up a sawmill here in 1878, laid out this company town, and built houses and rooming houses for its workers. At this stage of the lumber industry's development, it depended on unskilled immigrants for its work force. Hermansville's adult population was almost entirely foreign-born.
As the pine gave out here, too, Meyer turned his attention to the remaining hardwood. Here in the 1880s he first perfected machinery to produce hardwood flooring. Because of IXL, hardwood flooring became a prestigious home adornment. IXL ("I excel') was stamped in a circle on back of each strip produced.
Meyer was more an inventor and operations manager than a businessman. His son-in-law, Washington Earle, made IXL successful and started a sister town at Blaney near Manistique to make more flooring. Credit for preserving the IXL Museum goes to his civic-minded descendants, including many U.P. residents.
Architectural historian Kathryn Eckert writes that the office building is "one of the buildings that speaks most eloquently for the Upper Peninsula." It clearly shows so many themes that shaped the U.P.: the imported bourgeois culture of owners and managers; the polyglot immigrant workers; the lumber companies' meticulous organization and attention to detail in creating towns to support their enterprises; and the owners' characteristic sense of social responsibility and authoritative conviction that only they knew what was best.
Hermansville is on U.S. 2, 26 miles west of Escanaba and 15 miles east of Norway. Turn at the sign for the IXL Museum and go 4 blocks south. Museum is at southwest end of the main street. 498-2498 or 498-7724. Open daily Mem.-Labor Day 12:30-4 Central Time and by appointment. Annual admission (for as many visits as you like): $5/adult, $10/family. Handicap accessible: no. Six steps into the office; once in, the first floor is accessible.
Return to Hermansville
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POINTS OF INTEREST
IXL Museum. One of the rare scenes that can take you back to 19th-century industrial life. The centerpiece is the wonderfully preserved office building for the company that pioneered tongue-and-groove hardwood flooring ... more