From Shoes to Bowling Pins

Manufacturing related to forest products has always been an important part of the economy of Langlade County. It may happen that an industry must change with the times in order to stay active and this was no more true than in the case of the Vulcan Corporation.

The Vulcan Corporation was established in 1909 as a manufacturer of shoe lasts, originally in Portsmouth Ohio. In 1919 the company started a plant in Crandon, which moved to Antigo in 1925 and took over the buildings of the Antigo Tractor Company in Antigo’s industrial park. The north end of Edison Street in Antigo was lined with the Vulcan sawmill and drying kilns.

As plant manager Don Degenhart said in 1973:“Being in the shoe last business set the style. It was a darn good business.” A good last was the first step in the production of a good shoe. Shoe lasts were originally made of a hardwood such as maple, which is abundant in Langlade County. Each last was designed for a particular heel height, toe shape, and shoe type although shoe styles could vary when using a given last.

Metal and plastic began to replace hardwood and Vulcan decided to change its production while still continuing to make some shoe lasts. During the 1930s and 1940s the plant started making bowling pins in small amounts for Brunswick and also some golf clubs. They also tried their hand at furniture, sewing machine tops, and shuffleboards. During World War II they made gun stocks as part of the war effort.

In 1952 the company decided to focus on the bowling pins and took over the National Youth Administration buildings on Elm Street. The buildings had been used by the NYA, a New Deal project designed to provide training and work for young men in the late 1930s.

Once again, the abundance of maple trees in the area proved an advantage since maple was required in bowling pin manufacturing. In fact wood for bowling pins came from a radius of 60 miles from Antigo. In the 1950s about 20% of all bowling lanes in the U.S. used pins that began life at the Vulcan sawmill on Elm Street in Antigo. The popularity of bowling increased greatly in the 1950s with the introduction of automatic pin setters, which decreased waiting times for bowlers. Another explosion in demand took place in the 1960s when bowling became popular in Japan. The establishment of 500 lane high-rise facilities and about 125,000 lanes created a tremendous demand and Vulcan had to charter flights to supply the demand for pins to the bowling hungry Japanese public.

But Vulcan was not exclusively a bowling pin company. They continued to make wooden heels for shoes. Also, in 1953 they acquired the U.S. Bung Company and for a few years manufactured bungs for beer barrels. In 1968 they closed their bung making operations in order to expand pin manufacturing. During those 15 years they had produced between 25 and 33 million bungs a year.

Technology changed the methods of pin manufacturing, with laminates and new materials used in coating the pins. These changes were always carefully monitored and controlled by the American Bowling Congress based in Milwaukee. In the early 1990s, when Vulcan merged with Brunswick, the plant on Edison Street employed 145 people and produced 8,000 pins a day. By the time it closed its Antigo shop in 2008 Vulcan had been a major economy force in Antigo for over 80 years.

A recent donation of material related to Vulcan was made to the museum by the Degenhart family. Don Degenhart had been the plant manager for many years.

Source: Langlade County Historical Society Spring 2015 Newsletter