Murphy’s Area Research Center (ARC)
William Koch was born in 1882 in La Crosse to a family that lived on the North Side. He left school at the age of fourteen to begin working and help support his family. Throughout his life, Koch worked many jobs in La Crosse, including at the lumber mills, the railroad, and the Pearl Button Factory. He was married in 1910 and had two children. This interview was done in 1971-1972, when Koch was about 90 years old, however, Koch speaks very clearly about his whole life and is never shy to give his opinion!
This interview touches on many many subjects, however, this finding aid focuses on two major topics discussed by Koch:
The whole transcript is typed and a total of 348-pages long! But never fear, this finding aid lists just the pages needed for the two topics above.
Pages 2-14: In this opening section of the interview, Koch describes his German immigrant grandparents and other family background. He tells what his childhood was like growing up on the North Side of La Crosse in the late 1800s, including information on his education, all of the jobs he and his family members had—including his young sisters—and interactions he had with some nearby Ho-Chunk children. Koch started working when he was 14-years-old, and his early jobs included the Milwaukee Coal Chutes, the railroad, La Crosse Rubber Mills, Pearl Button Factory, Coleman Lumber Co., and even picking potatoes in South Dakota. Koch also remembered hunting with his Dad and seeing passenger pigeons (now extinct)!
On pages 75-82 Koch talks about lumber production at the sawmills. Never one to shy away from expressing his opinion, Koch also shares is view on harvesting logs in Wisconsin, the building of a road through the La Crosse marsh, and the effect logging had on Native Americans in Wisconsin.
Pages 84-94 cover ”river pirates.” These are people who stole logs right off the river from the lumber companies. In addition, Koch also brings up log jams, logging accidents, and his memories of the rowdy lumbermen in La Crosse. In this section Koch also discusses La Crosse’s Redlight district and other memories of downtown in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
On pages 95-100 Koch describes the rivalry between the North and South sides of La Crosse. He discusses other La Crosse memories as well, including farm animals and community pastureland right in town! He gives his opinion about the Ho-Chunk in the area, and why many lived on “Indian Hill.” Koch eagerly shares his opinion on the sale of liquor to local Native Americans, and the role whites played in bringing liquor and disease to Native Americans. It is important to note that during this part of the interview, he makes anti-Native American racist remarks. In your notes make sure to put all his questionable language in quotation marks. That way people won’t think his language is your language.
Page 122-142: In this section, Koch talks a lot about helping fight fires with the firemen as a kid—not unusual at the time. He had fond childhood memories of horses being used in town, which he describes, but he also recalled common diseases and dangers faced by La Crosse youth. (Just a hint, some of the diseases and dangers were connected to the river.)
On pages 15-41 William Koch begins to talk about his job at the Pearl Button Factory. (Most of this 348-page interview is about the Pearl Button Factory!) He describes exactly how the button factory worked: first how cutting buttons worked, then what the clam shell industry was like, then clamming along Wisconsin rivers and the Mississippi River. He also uses great detail describing how pay worked at the factory for the various jobs. He remembers workers rioting because of their pay.
Pages 42-74 covers why Koch eventually left the Pearl Button Factory. He shares information about the people he worked with, including many female factory workers. He also describes the social life of the factory, like the breaks the workers were allowed to take, and other changes that made the workday more enjoyable. In this section Koch also describes further how the factory ran, including the machinery they used. Eventually the topic turns to how the invention of plastic helped lead to the factory’s closure.
Pages A-Z: These pages are different. They are lettered, not numbered, and are inserted right between pages 74 and 75 of the transcript. (Weird) This section is a kind of “grab bag” of a whole bunch of topics, some new, and others touched on previously. Here is a highlights list: Koch talks about how river pollution made it hard to find clams for the factory. He further describes some of the people he worked with, including his fellow female factory workers. In particular, he discuses their work roles and wages at the factory. He vividly remembers innovations made at the La Crosse factory and how these helped the button industry nation-wide. Finally Koch also mentions attitudes towards Germans during WWI.
On pages 176-190 Koch remembered how the Pearl Button Factory ground up extra shells and sold them to be used as chicken feed. He again described the machine he designed, his career at the factory, and manufacturing at the factory
Pages 209-214 give more information about the making of buttons.
Pages 237b-242 address Koch’s memory about unions, strikes, and labor organizers at the Pearl Button Factory.
Pages 302-304 return to the subject of the Ho-Chunk. This time Koch mentions their role digging shells for the Pearl Button Factory.
Reviewed by: Jennifer DeRocher
Family of Robbie Moss
Robbie Moss was an African American woman that lived in La Crosse from the 1930s through to her death in 2004. She was born in Mississippi in 1912 and moved to La Crosse when she married Orby Moss, the grandson of Zacharias Louis Moss, one of the first Black American settlers in La Crosse. He settled here in 1852 and opened a barbershop. (This was just two years after La Crosse became established as a town, making the Moss family one of La Crosse’s pioneer families.)
Robbie was interviewed by Dr. Gretchen Lockett, a UWL professor who is also African American. In the interview, Moss and Lockett talk about their experiences being African American in La Crosse between the early 1940s and 1982. They also cover major national and local events, such as WWII, workers’ strikes, and the Muriel Boatlift. Prejudice – theirs and others – and segregation is addressed throughout. There is also a fair amount of discussion about the relationship between La Crosse’s African American and Native American communities. Overall, this interview is a great window into what life was like as a minority in a small Midwestern city during the middle part of the 20th century. Although Moss and Lockett are the main “voices” in this oral history, there are others who speak as well, and everyone in the room has different experiences and different opinions about the racism they faced.
This oral history interview was recorded in 1982. It consists of two cassette tapes, each an hour long, but there is also a written transcript of the interview, which is 68 pages long.
There are many people talking in this interview. The interviewers are Dr. Gretchen Lockett, a professor at UWL, and an unidentified student. Robbie Moss is the primary person being interviewed, however her granddaughter and at least three other people are in the room as well, and they all talk. Because of this, the transcript can get confusing. Many times it lists people as, “GUEST,” “GUEST 2,” or “?????.” The person who typed the transcript often mixed up who was speaking. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you listen to the interview while you read the transcript. As you listen, you will begin to recognize the voices, making the whole interview much clearer.
Pages 1-7 are the part of the interview where Lockett and Moss talk about the Moss family and Robbie’s childhood. In addition, she talks about her experience being one of the few African Americans in La Crosse. In particular she remembers being refused service at places of business, segregation signs during World War II, Black soldiers at Fort McCoy (previously named Camp McCoy), and a La Crosse woman that was involved with in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Especially interesting is the part where Moss reflects upon her own prejudices against Native Americans.
On pages 10-22 the other people in the room begin to talk more. They share common experiences of racial discrimination. In particular, Moss remembers Black American soldiers being refused service in downtown La Crosse, which she compares with her own experience being turned away at a La Crosse drugstore. In addition, this section covers a number of very important local and national events. For example, Moss remembers the time during the 1980s when there were Cubans (many who were Black) in La Crosse due to the Mariel Boatlift. She remembers community backlash against Black Americans and Native Americans, and the La Crosse Telephone Company Strike of 1977. When the workers went on strike, the company responded by finding replacements – Black and white – from the South willing to come up and work. Robbie shares her theories of La Crosse’s prejudices at this time.
A very interesting part of this interview is the conversation about Black organizations in La Crosse, like the NAACP, the Black church in La Crosse, and Black settlements around the region, such as the one near Hillsboro. Nathan Smith is mentioned. He was a prominent Black American in La Crosse in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Pages 23-37 are all about racial attitudes and behavior in La Crosse and the Midwest. The group discusses their personal experiences and theories about race in La Crosse, but also the difference between racism in the Midwest and racism in the South. (This subject is especially interesting because for many white Midwesterners, northern racism is a subject they may have never considered. Here you get to learn about it by someone who directly experienced it.) They also talk some more about the racism Cubans faced in La Crosse in 1982, why they could not find jobs, and how the media reported about them.
On pages 37-50 Robbie Moss’s granddaughter shares her views and experiences as a Black American college students in La Crosse (mostly Viterbo, where she went to school). This turns into a discussion about religion and racism in the community. Moss weighs in as well, telling what it was like for her children in terms of school, dating, going to events like prom, and all the other typical things children do in general. This section also returns to the subject of the hardships for women of color, and what it was like to live in such a prominently white community. Robbie Moss’s memories of what it was like when famous Black musicians came to La Crosse is really interesting! (By the way, Duke Ellington, Peaches & Herb, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and Louie Armstrong – whom Robbie and her son met – all came to La Crosse during Moss’s lifetime.)
Pages 50-66 return to the subject of Black churches in La Crosse and employment challenges. Moss remembered not being able to get a job at Trane Company and the National Gauge and Register Company. They voice their different theories on the subject of jobs.