How One Man Improved Farmer’s Lives, Revolutionized the Railroad Industry, and Re-Invented the Wheel

William Bettendorf showed a passion and talent for invention from an early age.

Raised by German immigrants first in Illinois and then later near Leavenworth, Kansas, William was able to see first hand the daily struggles of the American farmer. At the age of thirteen, he set out on his own, working in several plow companies.

His drive and keen intelligence allowed him to climb the management ladder, eventually landing him a high position at the Peru Plow Company in Peru, Illinois. But no matter how well-heeled he had become, William’s passion for invention was still just as keen as it had been when he was a child.

The world was constantly re-inventing itself during the late 1800’s, awash in the wonders and new convenience wrought by the industrial age. The agricultural industry was no different.

Several inventions had come about that made the farmer’s life easier and his work more productive. One of these was the sulky plow.

Making Farmer’s Lives Easier

Before the sulky plow, a farmer plowed a field furrow with a horse-drawn plow that he walked behind. It was hard and tiring work, and it only allowed a farmer to till about forty acres on average.

The sulky plow allowed a man to ride down the road while controlling his horses. It was much less tiring than walking a full forty acres, struggling to control a plow by hand. However, the problem was that the farmer still had to get off the plow at the end of the row, raise the plow share out of the row, maneuver the plow and all into the start of the next row, then lower the plow back down by hand. Needless to say, it was still a very labor-intensive endeavor.

William, while not originating many of the inventions for which he would become famous, took an existing part and improved it. In this case, he devised a type of sulky plow that featured a mechanical device that would raise and lower the plow out of the ground.

No longer did a farmer have to get off the plow. He did it all with the pull of a lever. It was a smash success, and several companies paid to use the design for their own products.

   Later, William invented a new kind of metal wheel. At that time, the wires on standard wheels that helped to hold the wheel together were only welded at the surface of the wheel hub, making them more prone to breaking off. The more of these that broke off, the weaker the wheel would eventually become, until, finally, it was completely unusable.

William determined that if the wheel hub had holes drilled into it, and the wire attached within, then the wheel would be less prone to breaking and would last longer. This new metal wheel was an incredible success.

 

Bettendorf Metal Wheel
The hub of a Bettendorf Metal Wheel. Courtesy of Google Images. 

 

The Peru Plow Company was more  than happy to manufacture the newly-designed wheel. It was such a huge success that they eventually changed their name to the Peru Plow and Wheel Company. William had been more than happy to  stay there, but there was a problem.

The company, while happy to manufacture his invention, would not listen to Williams’ thoughts or requests to change the methods which were being used to manufacture the wheel. He wanted to make the wheel’s better and more efficient.

Neither side could come to a lasting compromise, and so William quit. He still had control of the patent, and so he decided to strike out on his own.

New Venues

He moved to Davenport, Iowa, and founded the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. His brother Joseph would join him later. In a few years, they would have the largest factory in the city. They diversified into making other wagon and agricultural parts as well, namely a type of hollow metal axle.

Bettendorf Axle Co. Cardx with text copy
Bettendorf Axle Company Advertisement. Courtesy of David E. Sneed Collection. 

 

As good as this sounds, William discovered that his consumers were primarily buying his products seasonally. There was no way that he could run a factory that only operated in the warmer months. William needed a product he could sell year round.

After some consideration, he decided to move away from agricultural equipment and look at another transportation staple of the Industrial Age – the train.

Revolutionizing an Industry

As he had always done, William found a weaker component of the average railcar and set about making it better. What he found was the railroad truck.

A railroad truck gives a railroad car its mobility, guidance, and support. The Bettendorf Truck was constructed of one solid piece, giving it a rugged durability that the standard trucks of the day did not have. A standard railroad truck was made of several different pieces bolted together. If these bolts came undone, then the truck could fall apart and cause a train derailment, which would suck.

The Bettendorf Truck, as it came to be called, was an overnight sensation. It was amazingly popular, even more than his other inventions. Very soon, he was on the way to a higher level of success than even he had ever experienced before. But, like had happened so often before, an issue arose.

Bettendorf Truck
A Bettendorf Railroad Truck. Courtesy of Google Images. 

 

The problem with downtown Davenport at that time, much like any other  large city, was that there really wasn’t room for a company  to expand and grow. Buildings were well-established and huddled close together, preventing William from erecting new structures to build his new railroad trucks.

What he needed was space, and there just wasn’t any to be had where he was at. William would have to build new facilities for his growing company elsewhere.

Expansion, Disaster, and a Big Recovery

With a very successful company that was looking to grow and expand, there were several cities that really wanted him to build in their area. These cities knew that they would benefit from new workers moving into their towns to obtain the dependable jobs to be had with William Bettendorf’s company.

In turn, they would spend all of that hard earned cash in area shops, and buy their necessary goods from local merchants. And, of course, their tax dollars would benefit the city itself.

Clinton, Iowa, and East Moline, Illinois were two of the leading contenders for a new location. Others were scrambling to get their name thrown into the proverbial hat, as well.

Word spread quickly, and eventually reached the ears of C.A. Ficke, a former Davenport mayor and leading citizen. He had a suggestion for William.

 

Charles August Ficke
C.A. Ficke. Courtesy of Google Images.

 

Ficke owned a tract of land near the Mississippi River in the town of Gilbert. He approached William to see if the young businessman wouldn’t rather go to Gilbert and expand his factory there instead. To sweeten the deal, Ficke told William that he could get Gilbert to pay for the whole thing, which amounted to about $15,000.

So one day, William attended a town meeting in Gilbert. He explained the situation to the assembled townsfolk, and made it clear that he would prefer to remain in Iowa rather than move back to Illinois. So, if they could raise the money, the Bettendorf Company would build on Ficke’s land by the river. The townspeople readily agreed.

After much effort, Gilbert gathered the necessary funds and William began to make plans to build along the riverfront there.

While all of this was going on, disaster struck. A series of two fires in early 1902 almost completely devastated William’s company in Davenport. Suddenly thankful for his new holding in nearby Gilbert, William expanded his plans from an addition to building his entire company anew there.

By 1903, the newly minted Bettendorf Company was built and open for business. There was more than enough room to expand here, and both William and the town of Gilbert was more than pleased with this new outcome.

William wasted no time in developing the town. He put significant funds into businesses and building new houses. He also built a hotel to where travelling workers could stay until a house could be built for them. Gilbert was so overjoyed with what William was doing in their town that they renamed the town Bettendorf in his honor.

Combined sales from the Bettendorf Truck and William’s other successful inventions sent William and Joseph to the very top of the manufacturing business. And as the business was generous to them, the brothers and their company were generous with the town.

Positive Growth    

   By 1905, business was booming for the Bettendorf Company. After the invention of the Bettendorf Truck, a newly-designed truck invented by William, business demands for it allowed William to focus solely on railroad car parts and stop manufacturing wagon pieces, including his famous metal wheel.

As business grew, the company grew with it, undergoing major expansions, including the construction of their own on-site foundry.

William’s personal life took an upturn, as well. A widower whose only two children had both died of diphtheria in 1894, he remarried a woman named Elizabeth Staby, who had one son of her own from a previous marriage.

With business doing so well, William determined to build himself a new home. This was going to be a showcase of his success, designed to entertain and enthrall visiting businessman and heads of industry. In 1909, construction of his home began.

William’s Mansion

   The Spanish-style mansion was constructed on the bluff overlooking not only the Mississippi River valley below it, but also his  new company. It had 22 rooms, with some design innovations that William himself designed.

 

IMG_9863 (2)
The William Bettendorf Mansion. Courtesy of UMV Archives

 

 

After spending a lifetime improving the durability of equipment in the agricultural and railroad industries, William turned his inventive mind toward his new mansion. In the attic, the concrete floor was poured over a foot thick to promote durability.

The entire house had electricity, fed by the power plant at the Bettendorf Company, as well as a built-in vacuuming system. Like his brother would later do, William had European craftsman come and install hand carved wood work throughout the home.

From a nearby home from which he could oversee the construction of the sprawling mansion, William and his wife began ordering Austrian furniture to fill their new residence. Life was truly grand for William and his new family. Unfortunately, things would not last.

Stomach Trouble

In 1910, William and his family took a vacation to Lake Okoboji in Western Iowa. While there, he began to experience stomach problems. Being a robust and hard-working man, William shrugged it off and continued shopping and socializing. However, he soon began to experience severe stomach pains.

Lake Okoboji

Doctors were immediately called to come and examine him. William was initially diagnosed with ptomaine poisoning and prescribed bedrest until the symptoms subsided. For the next few days, William’s health improved. He was feeling better, and was probably ready to get back to work.

On the third day, William collapsed and his condition took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse.

Joseph, his younger brother, contacted a surgical specialist from Chicago, Dr. A.D. Bevan, to come and examine William. The doctor left immediately via train. Thanks to Joseph’s influence in the railroad industry, Bevan’s train was given the right away on the track from Chicago, allowing the doctor to arrive as quickly as possible.

Bevan was taken straight to William’s home, where they determined the inventor was suffering from a perforated bowel and needed surgery. The doctors also told William that the chances of him surviving the procedure were very low, about 100 to 1. He agreed to the operation anyway, and preparations were made.

Right before William was taken to the operating table he told his surgeons “Make sure the lights are all right before you operate.” Those would be William’s last words.  William never woke up again, passing away on the operating table on June 3, 1910

The funeral was held three days later, on June 6. The community was in shock. Several prominent businessman and politicians both publically and privately gave their personal condolences to the family. Joseph, in one of his first decisions as the new head of the Bettendorf Company, shut down the business for the entire day. Like his brother, he held the interests of his employees close to his own heart and made sure that they were paid for a day’s work regardless.

A special funeral service was held outside the doors of the factory itself for the workers, and after the eulogy was given, hundreds people in attendance made a procession to the bungalow where William had lived while overseeing the construction of his mansion. There, they slowly made their way inside, where William’s body had been laid out for the occasion. The mass of people slowly made their way inside, paying their final respects to their lost benefactor, and then proceeding on through the back door.

Another funeral service was held at the home during the afternoon. Schools, businesses, and banks closed out of respect for William, as well as allowing the employees, teachers, and school children to attend. Even bars closed in honor of William’s memory.

After the funeral, William’s body was taken to Oakdale Cemetery and buried next to his first wife.

 

William Bettendorf Grave
William Bettendorf’s Gravestone. Author’s Collection. 

 

William was a great man who took his natural talents and used them to their fullest. He was a consummate inventor who fostered respect in his fellow man, from the lowliest worker in his employ to the towering giants of the railroad industry. He catered to all their needs, and tried to make the lives of so many safer and easier.

When he came to Gilbert, William didn’t just invest in a town or put more money into a new company that bore his name. He invested in the very people themselves, and when he died, they stopped their lives and virtually everything going on in their town to come out and pay final respects for the man who had done so much.

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