When Dale Deno rescued an old Appleton husker/shredder he found at the junkyard, it was just another day for a young man farming on a shoestring. “When I started out,” he says, “I used a lot of equipment I salvaged from the junkyard.” He showed the piece to his brother, who uttered the words that instantly changed the course of Dale’s life:
“What else did Appleton make?”
Dale started looking for other Appleton relics almost immediately. “I had never really collected anything,” he says. “I started with shellers because they were small and I didn’t have a lot of room. I’d be out looking at junk and I’d see something I knew had to be 100 years old. ‘I don’t know what it is,’ he recalls thinking, ‘so I’ll just drag it home.'”
Dale, who lives in Menasha, Wisconsin – just next to Appleton – on the north edge of Lake Winnebago, has spent a lifetime scouring the area for Appleton Mfg. Co. collectibles. He doesn’t run into much competition. “Anybody can collect John Deere,” he says, “but not many recognize the Appleton company.”
Early industrial success
Established on land traditionally occupied by the Ho-Chunk and Menominee Native American tribes, Appleton was an early industrial center on the Fox River before it was officially incorporated as a city in 1857. “In the 1840s, local industry was all wood,” Dale says. “Paper mills, lumber and furniture were all produced here. By the 1870s, it was all foundries and industrial manufacturing.”
Founded in 1872 in Appleton, Appleton Mfg. Co. gained early fame for its burr mills and corn shellers. “They took their burr mills to field trials and fairs in the 1880s and ’90s and won a lot of prizes,” Dale says. By 1890, the company claimed to have produced more metal burr mills than any other manufacturer in the world.
In 1894, the company relocated to a new factory on the outskirts of Geneva, Illinois, just west of Chicago. In 1900, when the new factory was destroyed in a fire, Appleton was enticed to rebuild in nearby Batavia, Illinois.
Establishing headquarters in buildings on First Street in Batavia, Appleton built a new plant on the west bank of the river covering nearly 10 acres. Employing 300 men, Appleton manufactured thousands of windmills and other pieces of farm equipment until World War II. Appleton made almost all of its own iron castings in its own foundry until late in the 1920s, and operated its own machine shop, paint shop and woodworking shop, as well as an assembly room and warehouse.
Appleton came roaring out of the gates early on. During the more than two decades it operated in Wisconsin, the company maintained offices and showrooms in Chicago and Minneapolis. But sometime after producing artillery shells for the war effort during World War II, Appleton Mfg. Co. went out of business.
Over the years, the Appleton line included wood and steel windmills, corn shellers, feed cutters, seeders, wood saws, gas engines, a tractor (the Appleton), galvanized steel water tanks, feed grinding mills and manure spreaders.
A damp discovery
By the time Dale came along, Appleton Mfg. Co. had been gone from Wisconsin for decades. But growing up on a farm, he was well familiar with agriculture. “I pitched plenty of bundles into the threshing machine as a teenager,” he recalls. At 18, during the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He ended up in Huntsville, Alabama at the Redstone Arsenal, where he taught missile electronics for Nike Hercules Air Defense weapons.
On his return home, he worked as a machinist and automator at Miller Welders in Appleton. After 10 years, he returned to full-time farming, allowing him to bring up his family the way he had been raised, on a farm. Many years later, he ran into the corn shredder. For the first five years of his new hobby, he housed his collection in a trailer. “Then I made a mistake,” he says.
At an auction, he saw a corn picker. “Nobody knew what it was,” he says. It was a summer day, and there was a little sprinkle of rain – just enough moisture that original paint bloomed on the picker’s metal surface and Dale was able to make out the Appleton logo. “Nobody knew what it was and I would not either if it hadn’t rained,” he says.
Bent drive shaft
“a blessing in disguise”
Patents on the picker went back as far as 1927. “It could have been ground-driven,” he says. “Five horses could pull it. Or, you could use it with a mounted 8hp engine. It was one of the very first with a PTO.”
Dale took the picker completely apart, cleaned and painted it. When he began to put it back together, “nothing wanted to line up,” he recalls. Eventually he discovered that the main drive shaft was bent. “With the PTO,” he speculates, “it was more horsepower than they were used to back then.”
And that, he says, was a blessing in disguise. “That bent shaft was too much trouble to fix, but the picker was too good to throw away,” he says. “It had very little wear on it; it was almost like it was when it came from the factory. It was complete and in good shape. The gears were like brand new,” he marvels. “It’s just unreal.”
Several hits – and one out
Dale’s trailer display is home to several immaculately restored Appleton shellers, burr mills and fodder cutters, as well as a hay trolley, gas engine and dealer sign. The oldest piece – a one-hole Badger corn sheller – dates to the early 1870s. “It uses hard maple for bearings,” he says. “It’s in very good shape; there’s no wear on the metal at all.” His Appleton Royal Sheller was in production from 1880-1940. “Appleton listed their most popular products on the outside of their shellers,” he notes. “It was like a free billboard.”
Appleton produced 27 models of burr mills. They varied depending on what the farmer had for a power source. Appleton also built a cob slicer for a few years, but Dale describes it as a bad idea. “A cow won’t eat dry cobs,” he says, “but if you slice them up, it would – and it did. But it could not digest the slices.” The slicers were produced for just a couple of years while Appleton refined their grinding equipment.
In 1894, Appleton purchased the entire plant and machinery of the Goodhue Wind Engine Co. of St. Charles, Illinois, and added a number of galvanized steel mills to the line of windmills formerly made by Goodhue. Appleton started building manure spreaders in 1905. The line eventually included eight variations of each model. By about 1913, Appleton offered its own complete line of stationary gas engines. A 22hp model joined the portable line in 1917.
The project that waited 40 years
In the final shed we visit stands a wonderment of a horse tread power. Completely restored and encased in gallons of fresh red paint, the immaculately restored Appleton Success Level Horse Tread Power commands attention.
“At an auction, an 11- or 12-year-old kid found it while kicking around the junk pile,” Dale says. “He paid $10 or $20 for it. He wanted to restore it in high school, but it laid in a shed for 40 years.” Later, he sold it to Dale so restoration of the unique piece could be completed.
“This was a big innovation in 1900. The earlier treadmills were slope-style,” he says. At field trials, on a normal slope with a 1,300-lb. horse, it generated 1-1/8hp. When the brake was released, the tread started going downhill and the horse had no choice but to walk. “The biggest challenge,” Dale says with a smile, “was getting the horse to back off the treadmill.”
Paint tells a story
Dale has learned to decipher clues he finds in the paint. He maintains that lettering painted upside-down was an attention-getting device. The fact that names of several Appleton implements – Manure Spreader or Corn Picker – were painted on them was no accident. “People didn’t know what these things were,” he says. “Appleton was educating the market for a new product.”
At its heart, he says, a handsome paint job was nothing more than good business in a fiercely competitive era. “If you could paint it better than the competition did, you could sell it,” he says. “With a good artist and good advertising, you could have success.”
Paired with an extensive collection of original Appleton catalogs (including one dating to 1880), Dale says study of original paint has given him a deep understanding of the Appleton line. “I’ve learned so much history,” he says. “There’s so much history in the paint. When you study the detail, the flourishes, that helps you date a piece.”
His approach to restoration prioritizes preservation. He typically replaces wood components with new wood, and lavish applications of fresh paint are routine business. “I like to preserve it so somebody else doesn’t throw it away,” he says. “I just want to thank people for keeping these old things so I could make them look new again.” FC