A Looming Decision for Two Rivers...

April 07, 2013  •  Leave a Comment



Two Rivers,

James Edward Hamilton, an early pioneer and the man most responsible for putting your town on the map, now needs your help.

His manufacturing complex, built over a 40 year period from the 1880s to the1920s, and covering over 12 acres of waterfront property, may be staring down the wrecking ball.

J.E. Hamilton was born in Two Rivers in 1852. After his father, also prominent in Two Rivers' history and twice an elected member to the State Legislature, was killed in the line of duty in the Civil War, young James wandered a bit. He moved to New York with his family, and then returned to Two Rivers working various odd jobs. He then left for the Dakota Gold Rush in 1876, only to return again a year later - but this time he returned a determined man. He famously said to his mother after telling her he would be staying in Two Rivers for the long haul, "If there's anything in the old town, I'm going to get it out of her,"


Did he ever.


By 1880, J.E began his own business developing wood type. By 1885 he expanded his business to include furniture and cabinets, and by 1889 the Hamilton Manufacturing Company was officially incorporated and housed in the largest factory complex of it's kind in the world.

The factory complex continued operations as Hamilton's Wood Type Manufacturing until 1992 when it was acquired by what is now Thermo Fisher Scientific. By the mid-2000's dark days were looming and trends were not heading in the right direction. This last fall, the last 200 manufacturing employees at the factory, built in 1881, were let go.


The question now is what happens to the old complex.


The easy answer is what seems to be the opinion of the majority of Two River's current business owners: Tear it down.


Really? Just tear it down? Wash your hands of it? The tradition, symbolism, and legacy of those buildings mean nothing to you?


The legacy of Hamilton Wood Type Manufacturing is that it was the lifeblood for 130 years of Two Rivers residents. Inside those walls were generations of blood, sweat, and tears shed by factory workers providing for their families, planning for their futures, as well as their children's futures. Many of them often times working overtime, or double shifts, so their children could go on to a brighter future and live the American Dream.

And you want to tear that down...

It is understandable that not all of our historic buildings can be saved. Some of them have deteriorated to the point where they just simply aren't safe anymore. Just 10 years ago however, almost 1,200 employees still worked inside these walls at Thermo Fisher. No doubt that extensive repairs are needed, but It is unlikely that a sprawling complex of this stature would go from being safe for hundreds of employees to beyond repair in just 10 years...and if it did, the city itself should be ashamed.

Some business owners, as in the news clip above, are clamoring for the buildings to be torn down and "something attractive to the community" put in it's place.

"Something attractive to the community?"

The Hamilton Buildings have their own "site file" at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, containing scores or writings, clippings, and historical documents pertaining to the buildings and their history. It housed the museum dedicated to the largest collection of wood type in the world and was a destination for artists, scholars, students, and craftsmen from the world over. It even has an award winning movie produced about it entitled, "Typeface" released in 2009.

Yes, maybe something more "attractive to the community" would work....


As a historical landscape photographer, I have seen the results of other community leaders and business owners from decades past who thought the same about certain structures in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. They, too, thought razing older buildings and putting in "something attractive" was the best way to implement innovation and promote commercial and residential development in their communities. Our streets are littered with these "attractive" sights throughout our state, and sadly, throughout the country. More often than not, these properties are now abandoned warehouses, old parking lots with cracked, uneven, weed-riddled pavement, or condo and retail space which never hold tenants. The community leaders who made those decisions are no longer around to answer for their decisions, and current leaders refer to the actions of their predecessors as "unfortunate," or "mistakes."

Two Rivers, you now have a chance to not make that same mistake. A "build it and they will come" mentality is unrealistic. You will never be a destination city...and that is OK. It is in your simplicity, identity, and history which lies your beauty. Hamilton IS your identity, your history, and your legacy - not condos or boutique shops. It is what you are not which makes what your are so unique.

If you tear these buildings down it is a virtual guarantee future generations will wish you hadn't.

Work with Thermo Fisher to repair and revitalize the buildings, acquire them, and build a task force to recruit future companies to once again provide for future generations of Two Rivers families.

James Edward Hamilton not only provided a good living to many generations of Two Rivers residents, he also built the Hamilton Community House, was instrumental in the founding of the Bank of Two Rivers, Grace Congregational Church, The Two Rivers Coal Company, and the city's early light, water, and phone companies, much of this paid for with his own money.


The spirit of J.E. Hamilton is no doubt somewhere, watching what may become of the pillars of his life's work.

73 years after his death, it's time to pay him back.

Scott Wittman is a professional photographer specializing in Historical Landscapes and Elegant Portraiture based in Appleton WI. More of his work can be seen at www.scottwittmanvisual.com.


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