American immigrants Albert Vanderwyst and Jacob Kitzinger never knew each other, but it’s a good bet they would have had a lot to talk about had they met.
Both men launched barrel and drum businesses in the Midwest more than a century ago with little more than basic work skills and a drive to succeed.
Vanderwyst, from the Netherlands, had a cooperage in Cleveland, Ohio, that evolved into Greif Inc.
Kitzinger, from Hungary, founded Kitzinger Cooperage in St. Francis. Years later, it was bought by Mid-America Steel Drum Co., which is part of Greif’s EarthMinded network.
Kitzinger came to America in 1913 aboard a ship on which he was apprenticed to a cooper, or barrel maker. Skipping the return voyage home, he stayed in Wisconsin and ended up making barrels in Madison.
By 1930, Kitzinger was living in Cudahy where he worked for Cudahy Brothers making pork barrels. He also started a barrel business in his garage — the beginning of Kitzinger Cooperage.
When he moved to what’s now St. Francis, he was making wine and beer barrels. His family had two cows, chickens and no running water, according to the St. Francis Historical Society.
Kitzinger Cooperage closed during World War II. Barrel-making materials were scarce during the war and Jacob Kitzinger opened a tavern in South Milwaukee. After the war, however, Kitzinger’s sons, Carl and Jacob Jr., resurrected the barrel business.
In 2011, they sold it to competitor Mid-America Steel Drum.
Greif’s origins are similar.
In the late 1800s, Vanderwyst partnered with William Greif of Cleveland.
U.S. Census records from 1860 describe Vanderwyst as a laborer who owned personal property worth $60, but no land. By 1870, he was listed as a cooper who owned $3,000 worth of real estate and had $1,000 in additional personal property.
Vanderwyst died in 1882 from a “wasting away” disease called “marasmus,” now thought to be cancer.
After Vanderwyst’s death, William Greif’s brothers — Charles, Louis and Thomas — joined the business, which was renamed Greif Brothers Company.
The cooperage made barrels strong enough to ship heavy spikes to railroads in the booming American West.
As business flourished, Greif Brothers purchased nearly 300,000 acres of timberland to provide raw materials for its manufacturing plants. The company still owns and manages forests in the U.S. and Canada.
Greif Inc., the successor to Greif Brothers, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2002.
Eight years later, it established the Container Life Cycle Management joint venture, which now includes the Mid-America Steel Drum operations in Milwaukee, St. Francis and Oak Creek, as well as drum reconditioning facilities in Indiana, Arkansas and Tennessee.
Each year, 27 million drums are processed for reuse or scrapping at more than 100 facilities across America. Here is a look at the industry and the dangers involved when chemicals are left in the drums:
Read the article and see how it’s not been plain sailing for the drum industry!