Living in La Crosse: William Koch
Murphy’s Area Research Center (ARC)
> Location: Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin- La Crosse
> CITATION: William Koch, interviewed by Howard Fredricks, UW-L Oral History Program, UW-L Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, September 1971 – February 1972.
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:
- Life in La Crosse during the late 1800s and early 1900s (relationships, working class family life, child labor, sickness, adventuring in La Crosse, industry, ethnic and racial groups)
- Being a factory worker for the Pearl Button Company in La Crosse
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.
Life in La Crosse
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.)
Pearl Button Factory Work
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 cover 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 remembers how the Pearl Button Factory ground up extra shells and sold them to be used as chicken feed. He again describes 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