J. Henry Optenberg has made continuous progress in the business world since starting out in life on his own account, yet to speak of him only as a successful business man would be to give but one phase of a well rounded character, in which public activities constitute an even balance to personal interests. He was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, July 31, 1852, and came to America with his parents, the family home being established first at Ripon, Wisconsin, but shortly afterward in Oshkosh, J. Henry Optenberg being then about ten years of age.
His father, Peter Optenberg, who was born in the Rhine Province, Germany, near the French border, was an ordnance officer in the German army and won distinction as an artillerist, receiving a medal from Emperor William I. He was also prominent in business connections, having charge of the forging department of the Krupp Manufacturing Company, and his knowledge gained in the army was of great benefit to the Krupps in the designing of heavy guns. He afterward became the owner of a factory in the fatherland and was at the head of a good business, but, thinking that his family, numbering five sons and two daughters, would have better advantages in America, he disposed of his business and came to the United States in 1863. At Oshkosh he was given charge of the forging department of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Company, where he continued in business until an attack of typhoid fever terminated his life. Peter Optenberg displayed superior skill and ability in the line of his chosen business and was ever able to command responsible and remunerative positions. His life was, indeed, one of intense and well directed activity and the welfare of his family was ever an uppermost consideration with him.
Two years after the death of the father the mother married again and removed to Dakota, where her second husband died. She next removed to Quincy, Illinois, where she lived with a daughter until called to her final rest in 1904.
When J. Henry Optenberg was about fifteen years of age his mother desired him to learn the cigarmaker's trade, but he had a strong aversion to complying with her request and, therefore, left home. He sought and obtained employment in a boiler and machine shop and learned both the machinist's and boiler maker's trades. His salary was only four dollars per week, out of which sum he had to pay three dollars and twenty five cents for board. In order to earn sufficient money to meet current expenses, he worked at night, doing odd jobs for the first year, frequently laboring until eleven o'clock. His average wage for the night work was a dollar. He worked thus for two or three nights out of each week but during the second year of his employment his salary was increased to six dollars per week and, as this enabled him to meet his expenses, he devoted his evening hours to attending night school, in which he acquainted himself with the rudiments of mechanical engineering. He remained with his first employers for some time but later accepted a position with M. T. Battis, of Oshkosh, who was conducting business as a member of the firm of Battis Brothers. He continued with them for a number of years and in time became so proficient in the work of the shop that he was assigned to the duty of laying out plans for work.
In the beginning of the '70s the legislature of the state of Wisconsin passed a bill offering ten thousand dollars for a successful traction or road engine for agricultural purposes, specifying that this engine must make a two hundred mile road trip besides a plowing and freight-hauling test. Making the test of the two hundred mile run the same was not to average less than five miles an hour. The assembly and senate records will show that this reward was taken by the Oshkosh engine one or two years later. At the time J. Henry Optenberg was a trifle over twenty years old and was employed by the party designing this engine for the purpose of taking the reward thus stated. He was one of the three mechanics that accomplished the whole construction of this engine and afterward built another engine of the same kind for himself. During the threshing season he so engaged himself and in so doing introduced the self-propeller steam threshing engine in three different counties, namely: Calumet, Winnebago and Manitowoc. Thus it will be seen that he was the first one to introduce the steam traction threshing engine in this country and in fact in the world, as he built the first engine of this kind as previously stated in the city of Oshkosh. At that time the same chain was designed and used which is now commonly used on the chain-driven automobile.
History will show in time when tracing back where and how the first principle of the automobile originated, that it will be found as above referred to and some day Mr. Optenberg should be given right to the claim to be one of the three that designed the first automobile in its crude form as it existed at that time. Later on entering business for himself in the village of New Holstein he designed a different engine which was given the name of "Uncle Sam" and is still used today.
For fourteen and a half years he remained with Mr. Battis and during that time was for nine years foreman of the plant. About that time he was given a note for two hundred and fifty dollars by a man of Chilton, Wisconsin. After discounting this he found himself in possession of a cash capital of two hundred and forty dollars, with which he began business on his own account, opening a boiler and machine shop in New Holstein, Wisconsin, in 1883. He remained in that place, then a town of about three hundred population, for nine and a half years, conducting his business under the firm style of J. H. Optenberg & Company and meeting with success in his undertaking. He extended the scope of his activities to include general metal work and the handling of contracts for complete steam power plants.
He suffered great losses, however, when a fire entirely destroyed his plant in New Holstein and thirty days later his home in Oshkosh was burned to the ground. This left him not only without capital and property but with an indebtedness of twelve hundred dollars. However, his business integrity and enterprise had won him the confidence of some good farmer friends in the community, who advanced him a loan of two thousand dollars, this constituting the capital with which he embarked for the second time in the manufacturing business.
In the enterprise which he then established he admitted to a partnership John Lauson, who is at the present time at the head of the Lauson plant at New Holstein. The two men, energetic, determined and ambitious, speedily built up a good trade and were soon able to compete successfully with outside firms in bidding on contracts. Mr. Optenberg retained the plant at New Holstein until 1893, when, purchasing his partner's interest, he removed to Sheboygan, where especially good inducements had been offered him to locate. Among the prominent men of the city who had encouraged him to change his location were J. M. Kohler, A. D. Barrows and David Jenkins. The citizens of Sheboygan agreed to give him a bonus of eight hundred dollars for locating there but a financial panic coming on soon after paralyzed business to such an extent that only a part of the amount was ever paid him.
He had the choice of the purchase of two locations in the selection of a site for his new factory, one at the corner of South Seventh and Georgia streets and the other at South Seventh street and Clara avenue. He decided upon the latter, partly owing to a promise made by the Chicago & Northwestern Railway to build a spur of their main line to his works, which promise, however, was not kept. He had also understood that South Seventh street would be cut through to his site, but this was not done until 1895, in which year the council passed an ordinance opening the street. On establishing business in Sheboygan he admitted Henry Potts to a partnership, which was continued until 1895, when Mr. Potts sold out to Mr. Sonneman, who continued in the business until 1897, when the present corporation was formed under the name of The Optenberg Iron Works. The officers of the company are: J. H. Optenberg, president; William F. Moeller, vice president and treasurer; and R. W. Busse, secretary. Since its incorporation this firm has continued with its original officers and has conducted a general boiler and metal manufacturing and machine shop and has also done a general contracting business in heating plants. They employ from thirty to seventy men according to the season and pay the highest wage in the city, their pay roll amounting to over three thousand dollars per month.
Since 1903 Mr. Optenberg has devoted a great deal of his time to designing machinery and simplifying shop practice. He has several very valuable patents, two of them being flanging clamps, which are now in use all over the country. The business has grown steadily along substantial lines and its increasing patronage is indicative of excellent workmanship and of creditable methods employed.
On the 10th of August, 1872, Mr. Optenberg was married to Miss Minnie Friecke, a daughter of Louis Friecke, who was a native of Hesse-Cassel, Germany, and became a resident of Sheboygan in 1842. He worked first in a brickyard with Fred Karste and Henry Foeste and later engaged in farming. He met an accidental death while assisting in building a log barn. He had four children, of whom Mrs. Optenberg, the youngest, was born in Sheboygan, June 24, 1852. By her marriage she became the mother of seven children but only two are now living, namely: Anna, the wife of R. W. Busse, an official of the Optenberg Iron Works; and Bertha, the wife of Emanuel Heubach, a mason of Sheboygan.
Such in brief is the life history of J. Henry Optenberg, a man well known in manufacturing and business circles in his city and state and enjoying an enviable reputation as a reliable and progressive representative of his chosen field of activity. The many years which he has spent as a machinist and manufacturer have been profitably employed not only in winning a competence for himself but in furnishing to the industrial world many indispensable machinery accessories. He is still active and his laudable ambition is to build up a manufacturing plant which shall surpass in extent and excellence any of similar character in the state. That he is honored in trade circles is indicated in his election as the first state president for Wisconsin of the National Stationary Engineers Association of America. He is a member of the Master Steam Boiler Makers Association of the United States and Canada and his opinions have largely become recognized as authority concerning complex questions relative to the trade. He belongs to the Sharpshooters Association and won the championship medal on different occasions. He is a recognized leader in political circles and at the present writing is serving as a member of the executive committee of the republican county central committee. He is a very public-spirited man, whose service is not that of self-seeking, for with him patriotism is ever put before partisanship and the public welfare before personal aggrandizement. He has been a member of the county and state conventions and does all in his power to secure the adoption of republican principles and yet has never sought office. Local interests and progress are dear to his heart and the cause of education has benefited by his championship, as manifest in his service as a member of the school board. He has also been alderman from the fourth ward and is active the enterprising business man and the progressive citizen-strong in his ability in furthering the interests of the community. He stands as a splendid type of to plan and perform, strong in his honor and his good name.
Information gathered and adapted from History of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, Past and Present
Carl Zillier, Editor
Pubished by The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912, Chicago, IL