Old foundry serves new purpose as home to small firms

Instead of shuttering the Town of Port Washington building that was home to Heatwole Foundry Co. for decades, its owner repurposed it as a no-frills incubator for small businesses

THE OLD HEATWOLE FOUNDRY CO. building in the Town of Port Washington was a pea cannery in the 1920s. Today, it serves as an incubator for small businesses. Owner Craig Heatwole stood outside the former foundry, which closed in 1990. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
JOE POIRIER
Ozaukee Press staff

It may appear to passersby that not much is taking place inside the old Heatwole Foundry Co. building on Highland Drive in the Town of Port Washington, which shutdown its operations nearly three decades ago.

Today, however, the structure serves a new purpose as an incubator for small businesses.

“When we closed the foundry in 1990, we were confronted with what to do with this place,” owner Craig Heatwole said. “This place is a link to my family’s past and I didn’t want to let it go.”

Today, the foundry houses eight businesses, including Speed Performance Research, which repairs engines for classic cars.

“I needed a machine shop, which is hard to find around here, and this place is conveniently located by I-43 for my customers,” owner Jeff St. Peter said.

Heatwole said most of the tenants are local hobbyists, such as a furniture designer, who need a place to work offsite. He also rents  space on the 3.7-acre parcel for storing boats and heavy equipment.

“There’s an eclectic pile of junk here, but it’s in transition to better times,” Heatwole joked.

In the past, the building was home to a couple of artists.

“One woman who used to have a shop here was a sculptress and she would bring in 50-ton blocks of limestone and just chisel away,” Heatwole said. “She made more dust than the foundry made.”

In its heyday, the foundry had as many as 50 employees.

“Most of them lived within five miles of here,” Heatwole said. “They’d work the whole day in the foundry and then go home to farm — talk about hard workers.”   

The company produced small parts such as hammers for glass fire alarms, grinding wheel dressers, transmission cases and end bells for electric motors. The foundry’s customers included Cutler-Hammer, Square D and Gehl Co.

“We were one of the smaller suppliers to those people,” Heatwole said.

Eventually, the companies outsourced most of their production to Mexico and China.

“A lot of the work went away,” Heatwole said. “It was kind of like a post-industrial change from a heavy industrial country, especially in the Midwest, to more of a service industry, which is where we are now.”

The building started its life as a pea cannery in the 1920s but was vacant after World War II.

“There was a period when companies came through Wisconsin and began consolidating all these little canneries so people would close them or sell them,” Heatwole said.

The foundry has been part of Heatwole’s family since the 1850s. Previously called Gilson Foundry, it was started by Heatwole’s great-grandfather.

In 1961, Heatwole’s father Irvin moved the foundry to the Town of Port Washington after a fire destroyed its building on the south side of the city. Today, Voeller Mixers is located at the former site.

“It was an old building and parts of it were made of wood. Foundries are prone to fires when they have 200 degrees of molten iron all over the place,” Heatwole said, noting it was 17 degrees below zero when firefighters fought the flames.

Heatwole said the foundry didn’t skip a beat after the fire because of the family’s roots in the business community.

“My father was in the foundry business since the late 1930s. He knew all these companies because of the sales trail, so it was easy for him to hold onto those customers when the other foundry (building) burned down,” Heatwole said.

In 1969, the company survived a second fire that destroyed the second story of the building. The damaged space below was repurposed as a molding floor with sand castings equipment.

Heatwole began working at the foundry when he was in high school, but left the family business to study political science at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, then went to graduate school at the University of Kansas.

In 1980, he returned to the foundry as vice president. After the company closed in 1990, he taught public administration and American government at UW-Whitewater and UW-Green Bay for 25 years.

In 1995, Heatwole began leasing space in the building to small businesses. Because the building hasn’t been updated since 1969, he said, rent can be as  low as $250 per month.

“The rent is pretty cheap because this isn’t a Cadillac building and there aren’t too many amenities,” he said, noting there is no running water or bathrooms in the facility.

“For 20 years, we’ve been waiting here for sewer and water to come across the highway. This is an industrial area and there are other industries that can use it,” he said.

 Heatwole said he opened his doors to other businesses because he wants to see more development in the town.

“It would be nice for people who live here to work here like they used to in the old days,” he said. “Maybe that’s atavistic of me, but I think we should spend more time focusing on promoting more economic growth in our community.”

 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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