The Early Years
The history of Allis-Chalmers dates back to 1847; when the Decker & Seville Reliance Works was established in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The company was started by Charles Decker and James Seville and manufactured castings, sawing machinery, grist mills, and other heavy equipment. The Panic of 1857 brought the company down and was sold on a sheriff's sale on February 7, 1861.
Edward P. Allis had moved to Milwaukee from Cazenovia, New York, in 1846. Upon moving to Milwaukee, he was a partner in the leather business with a college friend, William Allen. Together, Allen and Allis founded the Wisconsin Leather Company in 1851. The two operated a store in Milwaukee and a tannery in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. In 1854 Allis sold his stake in the company. Allis bought the Reliance Works in 1861, and soon it was known as the Edward P. Allis & Company. The company thrived and expanded under Allis; a new foundry was erected in the late 1860s. The new factory made allowed the company to add new products to the catalog and helped secure a bid for Milwaukee's water pump and pipe project.
Edward P. Allis passed away on April 1, 1889. Before his death, Allis successfully turned his Reliance Works into a thriving company, survived bankruptcy from the Panic of 1873, and surrounded himself with expert men who brought innovations to each field of the company's products. The company employed approximately 1,500 workers and reached $3 million in annual production.
E.P. Allis & Co. earned the reputation as the largest steam engine builder in the United States, and the company needed room to expand the business. In 1900 a 110 acres was bought west of Milwaukee for the site of the new factory complex. The small suburb would take on the name of company that would establish headquarters there, West Allis. The new factory opened in September 1902.
In 1900 Edwin Reynolds, the general superintendent of E.P. Allis & Co, met William J. Chalmers, president of Fraser & Chalmers, in a hotel lobby in Chicago. The two businessmen talked of the possibility of merging the two companies. Soon after the Chicago meeting, other companies had joined in on merger talks. Fraser & Chalmers, E.P. Allis & Co., Gates Iron Works, and Dickson Mfg. Co. were all in on the merger deal. On May 8, 1901, the Allis-Chalmers Company was incorporated in New Jersey. The merger formed a company that produced an extensive line of heavy, industrial machinery.
Allis-Chalmers Co. experienced turbulence in its first decade of incorporation. A poor economy and feuding company officers pushed the company to the brink of bankruptcy. On April 8, 1912, the company went into receivership. Otto H. Falk, one of the receivers, would make the firm prosperous again. On April 16, 1913, the company was reorganized and incorporated as the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company, and Falk assumed the position as its president.
One of the first steps Falk took as president was to consolidate operations at six plants to just two, making the West Allis Works company headquarters. Secondly, he saw the capabilities of the company to take on more endeavors. The process of acquisitions got underway. Some new lines included flour milling equipment, mining, cement, and electrical equipment.
One of the most notable product lines to be added was farm tractors in 1914. Early on, Allis-Chalmers was only a small contender in the farm tractor market. The acquisitions of the LaCrosse Plow Company and the Advance-Rumely Thresher Company propelled Allis-Chalmers as an important farm equipment manufacturer. LaCrosse Plow Co. helped broaden the company's line of agricultural equipment. The Advance-Rumely Co. gave Allis-Chalmers the much-needed dealership network needed to market its tractors.
Allis-Chalmers would soon be known for its bright orange tractors, but they were not always orange. In 1929 the Tractor Department Manager Harry Merritt saw the poppies in bloom on a trip to California, he decided on "Persian Orange" for the color of the tractors; replacing the color green. The rest is history. The company's Tractor Division would go on to pioneer in farm tractor advancements that included: first tractor with pneumatic tires, first power-adjustable rims, and first turbocharged tractor, just to name a few.
Aging & Decline
Under the leadership of William A. Roberts, Allis-Chalmers began to explore the future of nuclear energy in 1950s. The Hawley plant in West Allis, formerly built for work on the Manhattan Project during World War II, was repurposed for the nuclear energy research. Allis-Chalmers shut the program down in 1966 from lack of funding and technological setbacks.
In 1957 Allis-Chalmers International was formed and oversaw manufacturing and sales of products outside the U.S. and Canada. The formation of this division helped the company open plants in England, France, Mexico, and other countries. The division struggled with funding to make Allis-Chalmers an international company, and although factories were opened up in other countries, the profits were poor.
The company experienced financial problems by the late 1960s. Production was coming out of many different plants around the country. These plants, however, were dated, inefficient, and in need of modernization. Allis-Chalmers also sought to invest in new lines of products that were profitable and cut those that were losing money.
By the 1960s Allis-Chalmers was fighting takeover attempts. The company's board of directors turned down offers, but White Consolidated was poised to take the company by force in 1968. Allis-Chalmers quickly filed a suit in U.S. District Court desperately trying to stop the takeover. Allis-Chalmers and White Consolidated battle in court, until the latter eventually dropped its stock in Allis-Chalmers.
The 1970s was another decade of change for the company. Starting in 1971 the company was renamed the Allis-Chalmers Corporation. In 1974 Allis-Chalmers entered a joint venture with Fiat S.p.A. of Italy. They worked together to manufacture and sell construction machinery, but because of Allis-Chalmers' small holdings in the agreement (35%) it essentially terminated the company's construction machinery line.
Investments in products that expected to be profitable ended with huge losses. To compensate for losses, the company was forced to sell-off divisions. A poor economy also contributed to the hemorrhaging of company funds. The farm equipment line that had always been a source of income had begun to founder.
Looking to stay in business, Allis-Chalmers began looking at selling its agriculture division. In March 1985 Allis-Chalmers lost its agricultural division to Klockner-Humboldt-Deutz (KHD) to form Deutz-Allis. Tractors continued to be built at the West Allis Works badged as "Deutz-Allis" for the rest of the year. On December 6, 1985, tractor production ended and the tractor plant was closed.
Over next couple of years, the company would continue to sell off branches and even try to lease empty factory space, just to make profit. Allis-Chalmers was forced to shut down the West Allis Works on January 29, 1989, keeping only its corporate offices. A company that once employed 20,000 people was whittled down to 100 workers in 1989. On January 30, 1999, the last of the Allis-Chalmers employees still occupying the office building in West Allis were laid off. This officially marked the end of the company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.