Monday, February 20, 2012

High On A Hill Was Western Leather

On a hill overlooking the western valley that Commerce Street ran through was Western Leather Products Corporation. It was a large century old firm that was founded by the Pfister & Vogel Tannery in the early 1900's. There is an old saying in the leather industry that goes like this: "One's profits lay on the cutting room floor". Every piece of the animal is used to create a profit and P&V knew they had to watch their bottom line so WLPC was formed to use whatever offal that hit their cutting room floor. Hides were trimmed and sold to the customer by a price that was measured in square feet. A certain amount of money was paid for every square foot and the measurement was made down to the quarter of a square foot. The trimmed pieces that could not be measured or used by the tannery were sent over to WLPC where they took these small pieces and layered them together to make heels, heel counters or toecaps for shoes. This was a basic form of recycling all the parts of the animal. Eventually WLPC added more products to their line of goods and one mainstay was the leather welt used in shoe manufacturing. Over the years they also added an industrial sewing part of their operation in which they made many items for the private sector and also for the U.S. Military.

It was January of 1979 when I became the designer for Western Leather Products Corporation. Leaving The Leather Shop behind was not very emotional for me at the time. I was looking forward to expanding my knowledge of leather crafting and I was happy that they picked me for this job. I felt complimented that my self-taught skills were valued. Getting The Leather Shop moved in a timely matter was another thing. The winter of 1978-79 was to say the least, BRUTUL. Starting the last few weekends in December 1978 it seemed to snow very hard with copious amounts of snow and then get bitter cold. This pattern of warm wet snow followed by an arctic blast repeated itself for six to seven weeks in a row. My plan was to move all my equipment to a garage I procured nearby but each weekend I tried to move the weather was so bad I couldn't move anything. By the end of January 1979, the roads in Milwaukee was so choked with frozen snow piled high everywhere, the National Guard of Wisconsin was brought in to help clear the streets. Was this some type of omen from above?

The very last few days of January 1979, I was finally able to move the items from my old shop thanks to some help from some friends. I was ready for the next chapter of my leather career to be written.

When I joined Western Leather, the industrial department was a shell of what it was at onetime. One of the reasons they hired me was to breath some life back into this department. WLPC had made a fortune on a wide variety of items over their existence but these items were no longer relevant. Many of us can remember how transistor radios were all the rage back in the mid-1900's and WLPC made virtually all the leather cases these radios were encased in. This type of construction was called "box stitching" and was so called because the edges of the leather were put together at a right angle to each other and stitched in place. The cases they made for the little transistor radios fit them like a little box. As you can imagine, over the years the popularity of the transistor radio declined and so did Western's business. Other items they made were small luggage pieces, men's toilet kits, specialty cases for walkie talkie type devices and even some holsters for guns. By the time I joined WLPC, not much was left in real production but all the tools and tricks of the trade were there for me to learn.

I was like a kid in a candy store with all these fantastic machines and tools at my disposal. There was a foreman who ran the floor so my time was spent on learning the machines/tools and developing new products. Early on it was good timing when the huge company Parker Pen had me design a simple pen case for one of their signature lines. The first order from them was small but as we continued making them our annual production exceeded one million units per year. Parker Pen paid us close to $1.00  per pen case. The industrial department was very busy and more important I was learning skills that I never had.

We Sold Over One Million of These Pen Cases To Parker Pen

These skills not only included designing but how to cost analyze an item, write a work flow that the sewing/manufacturing room could follow and which machines would be used. The retired man who ran the room before me was a very skilled craftsman. His name is Bill Vogellsburg and he was a master leather worker and a very skilled machinist. Bill V. would be called in on occasion to assist me with setting up machines or tools needed to make certain new products. I quickly found out that being a designer and a leather craftsman also had to be complimented by being a good machinist. There was so many tools that were used in manufacturing and from Bill Vogellsburg I received a good working knowledge on how to make these tools. This was an opportunity I would never have had at The Leather Shop. As draconian as Western Leather could be at times, I was in nirvana.

Back in the early 1980's, every bill from either the electric company or phone company and many other companies came with printed advertisements stuffed into the envelopes. A large mail order company, Golden Press Shoppers Service, had me design a small handbag. Here is the brochure:

This Advertising Brochure Was Used To Sell A Leather Purse I designed for Western Leather - 1980

Working at WLPC was not the happy go lucky style that I enjoyed for many years on Brady Street. I was in a salary position but was required to conform to their business model. The work day began and ended by a time clock that was punched by many in the building. Besides the industrial or sewing room that I worked in, Western Leather was also a tannery and still made those shoe components. They tanned or more correctly, re-tanned cow shoulders for the waist belt industry. I was able to visit all these various departments and observe and learn about so many procedures in tanning and putting a finish on the leather. Even the welting and heel/counter divisions were mine to explore. The owner of WLPC was a man named Edward Yewer and his son was being groomed to take over the business. His name was Ted Yewer and we knew each other from the years that Boo Boo and I had together. The Yewer family was no stranger to the Pine Lake crowd of wealthy people. They family actually lived on Beaver Lake which is next to Pine Lake and is thought by some as to being the superior lake of the two. Ted and I would work together on business projects and we had our fair of mischief in the building too. One day we decided to climb to the top of the water towers that were on top of the building. It was a dangerous climb but the view was amazing. When the general manager of the company found out what we had done he had a fit. Being the son of the owner didn't give Ted any slack and I was guilty too!

Ted Yewer and I tried to upgrade the items that Western Leather enjoyed making for many years. We attended a number of trade shows in Chicago in hopes of attracting more business. Ted canvassed the state of Wisconsin and beyond with hopes of creating more business. We had sales reps who were doing the same but sales remained flat. A glossy brochure illustrating our line of goods was introduced but sales and enthusiasm was declining.

As the years wore on at Western Leather, I found myself looking out the window and longing to be independent again. Ted Yewer was a great guy but I think he saw the writing on the wall too. Western Leather and the upper management were not going to make the substantial investments they needed to continue moving the business along. The tannery and shoe divisions were slowing down and much of that work was being pressured by stiff competition from tiny hands in foreign lands. For Western Leather to take on the likes of Amity or Enger-kress was not going to happen. I made a decision and gave them my two weeks notice.

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