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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Area woman remembers how a local grease gun factory 'went to war' in '42

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Making grease guns may not sound like a very ladylike job. Then, making bullets for a machine gun may not either.

As World War II came on the horizon, though, all of America set aside gender biases. After Pearl Harbor, Nazi Germany aligned itself with Japan and Italy and young American men packed the induction stations to go fight the enemy in Europe and the Pacific. A few men remained behind to work in defense plants, but it was mainly women who exchanged their kitchen aprons for welding helmets and created the arsenal of democracy.

Albert City, tucked midway between the two coasts, even found itself wrapped up in the defense effort as Ed Sundholm's Superior Manufacturing Company expanded from grease guns to 20mm shell casings.

Vivian Wilbur of Albert City, who dedicated most of her working life to working for Sundholm and later owners of the company, recalls the days when she worked at the Superior Manufacturing Company plant in Albert City then later at the defense plant west of town and finally at the Spencer plant.

To rewind a bit further, though, it's necessary to look at how the Superior Manufacturing Company, manufacturer of no fewer than 17 million grease guns, many likely still hanging on pegs in garages around the world, was started.

Ed Sundholm first began in 1924 in a 10-by-24 garage. The first products he made were garden tools, vending machines, engine governors, and comb sterilizers for barber shops.

Sundholm expanded the building to 20-by-24 in 1928 then moved to the Kindwall Blacksmith Shop in 1932. That building was destroyed in a fire, so Sundholm built a new building in 1932 where he embarked upon a new venture, vegetable slicers.

It was in 1935 when Sundholm patented his grease gun, the product for which he was most famous. The Superior grease gun first sold for $7.50 while the company's major competitor sold a similar product for $25. Then, as manufacturing became more efficient and Sundholm turned more competitive, the guns sold for $5 then for $2.50.

As World War II loomed, in 1942 Sundholm started his ordinance plant on his farm where he obtained government contracts to make 20mm shells, shell primers, and bomb parts. Vivian, who started working for Sundholm in 1942, said between his Albert City plant and Sundholm's farm there were 300 employees. It was a busy time, as workers saw productivity as a way of beating the Axis forces.

"We worked 10-hour days all the time and five hours on Saturday," Vivian said. While the plant continued production through the war, Vivian lived in Albert City and married her husband, Willie, in 1944 and they moved in Laurens. Due to gas rationing, Superior Manufacturing bussed employees to and from work daily. The grease gun factory kept right on going, since the tools were necessary for mechanics in the armed forces.

"We had a feeling that we needed to be doing this," Vivian said. Five of her siblings entered the service, including her sister who was a nurse. Vivian quit February 1945 to have her first child and the ordinance plant closed not much later at the end of the war.

After getting a good start on her family, Vivian returned to work for Sundholm. "He always treated me well," Vivian recalls. "You respected him." Starting at 32 cents an hour in 1942, Vivian earned $1 an hour when she started working again for Sundholm in 1960.

Vivian remembers that the Albert City plant made about 6,000 grease guns a day in 1966-67. In 1967, the plant was sold and the operation moved to Spencer next to Eaton's where it became the Southwest PetroChem company and later Witco. Vivian worked there until 1988.

Vivian said that about 1992-93, Witco sold out to concerns in Minnesota, Illinois, and Mexico.

With her immediate family of 11 siblings, Vivian said four remain, all in the Albert City area, including Andy, Richard, and Ingeborg.

Vivian and Willie have six children: Mike, Terry, Dennis, Tom, Peg Hannam, and Margo Forbes.

Just as Vivian and Willie's families thought nothing of serving their country, whether it was in the armed forces or in defense plants, Vivian said right after Sept. 11, 2001 her grandson John Hannam, whose father is an Omaha neurologist, joined the Marines out of a sense of duty. Two other grandsons are also in the service, one a 1st Lt. and the other with the Navy on the U.S. Carl Vincent.

The public can view a full display of grease guns and other products made by Superior Manufacturing Company and its successive owners at the Albert City Threshermen and Collectors Show on County M54 northwest of Albert City this Aug. 12-14. The display, much of it donated by the Witco company, includes items manufactured throughout the company's history and includes products the Superior Manufacturing Company and its successors made through most of this century.

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I knew or know Vivian Wilbur because I worked at what known for years as Witco Corp. from 1971 thru 1997 when the plant closed after pruchase by another company and moved to Mexico. Her's was an office based position when I was working there but she was always friendly and nice. When I did a history of the company for 25th anniversay of Superior Mfg. coming to Spencer, Iowa in 1994 I spoke with her about writing her memories briefly for the book. She repsopnded right away and I'm sure encouraged other to do likewise. Thanks belatedly for a great aricle.

I too have memories of the grease gun manufacturing and treasure many but would like to forget other memories.

-- Posted by rayruss on Sun, Feb 26, 2012, at 6:48 AM

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