In the halls of the tobacco kings
Though big tobacco is gone, their warehouses are not
If you go
Historic tobacco warehouses are just one part of Edgerton’s agricultural heritage. Enjoy historic Edgerton this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Edgerton Tobacco Heritage Days with festival events and entertainment throughout the city.
Friday, July 16
-- Downtown Edgerton
8 a.m.–7 p.m. rummage and book sales, fish fry.
-- Racetrack Park
5–11 p.m. sports tournaments, live music.
Saturday, July 17
7 a.m.–4 p.m. car show, open-air market, book sale, tobacco history talks and demonstrations.
-- Central Park
9 a.m.–4 p.m. arts, music and entertainment.
-- Racetrack Park
8 a.m.–midnight: run/walk, food, sports tournaments, games, live music.
Sunday, July 18
11:30 a.m.: Parade at Stoughton Road to Rollin Street
-- Racetrack Park
Noon–8 p.m. Truck pull, youth and adult games and contests, raffle, music.
EDGERTON They were once showpieces in a bustling mini-metropolis where tobacco was king—grand storehouses of tan brick and heavy timber where local workers toiled, sorting leaves bound for cigar and chewing tobacco manufacturers in the American east.
That was during tobacco’s golden age, when Edgerton was known as “the Tobaccoopolis of Wisconsin.”
It isn’t anymore.
Of the 55 tobacco warehouses built in or near the city’s downtown in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only about 20 remain. Some burned or were torn down. Others are vacant and in various states of disrepair.
Yet as tobacco production in southern Wisconsin continues to decline, some of Edgerton’s tobacco warehouses have been reborn under new ownership.
It’s not an easy road. The transformations take time, money and risk on the part of investors, who have included private entities, nonprofit organizations, the city of Edgerton, and, indirectly, taxpayers.
But a few local success stories show it’s possible to revive the old warehouses, no tobacco required.
A white elephant trumpets
The phrase ‘as big as a barn’ doesn’t come close to describing the home of Edgerton taxidermy supplier Dan Rinehart’s business.
At 64,000 square feet, the former Eisenlohr tobacco warehouse, a three-floor fortress of brick, cast iron and old growth hardwood at 203 S. Main St., Edgerton, is monolithic.
Rinehart bought the building—along with eight other local tobacco warehouses—in a 2003 deal brokered between him, cigar giant Swisher International and the city of Edgerton.
Until the sale, Swisher had used the warehouse to cure tobacco with dry heat—part of an aging process area farmers say takes four years.
Now, Rinehart, a Cottage Grove resident, runs a taxidermy supply and training studio out of the warehouse. While he only uses about 10,000 square feet of the building, he says his operation has grown steadily.
All it took, Rinehart said, was seven years and $160,000 in repairs to shore up roof leaks and yawning brick walls along the building’s 240-foot length.
The Eisenlohr building has long been known locally as “the white elephant” because of its gargantuan size but also because its 1913 completion dovetailed with a dip in the tobacco market, local historians say.
The building, which is the biggest and last tobacco warehouse built in Edgerton, became viewed as an emblem of local tobacco’s faded grandeur.
“It’s a lot like some of the condo real estate developments that failed during this latest recession. There’s a parallel there,” Rinehart said.
For Rinehart, the 98-year-old warehouse isn’t just a relic.
In the building’s catacomb-like curing rooms, on storage shelves buttressed by foot-thick wooden beams and risers, Rinehart stores fiberglass molds taxidermists use to shape animal heads. The rooms’ nicotine-stained floorboards are lined with rows of bald, white deer head “mannequins.”
Both items are produced at the warehouse.
Another room has special lathes, instruments used in production and for teaching taxidermy. In there, it smells like resin, paint and chemicals.
Elsewhere, the sweet-smelling odor of tobacco lingers, engrained in the old wood. Rinehart said the smell hasn’t faded in the seven years he’s owned the place.
“And I hope it never does,” he said. “I love that smell.”
Rinehart gives tours of the warehouse to show locals how his taxidermy operations are slowly filling the place, shattering people’s notions that it’s a useless shell.
“When I hear about people calling this building a white elephant, I’m appalled,” he said, shooing at one of the warehouse’s resident bats. “I think, ‘What a lack of vision.’”
Repurposed for resale
It took more than vision when Edgerton Community Outreach bought a decrepit tobacco warehouse at 106 S. Main St. near the city’s downtown. It took a calculated risk.
The outreach, a nonprofit provider of social services, food and resale items, had rented the building from its former owner, the city of Edgerton, since the late 1990s. In 2007, the outreach bought the building from the city for $1.
The move ended worries by the outreach that the city would sell the building, which it uses as a thrift store and food pantry. But new problems emerged. The warehouse needed a lot of work.
According to the outreach’s board president, Bob Tews, workers had to jack up 14 support beams in the building’s dry basement and pour new forms to shore up the building’s sloping floors. The work cost $20,000.
Then came roof work. Then came window repairs. Then came growing pains.
Each year, more people use the outreach center for services. Last year, the center’s resale shop sold $100,000 in items, said Sarah Williams, the center’s director.
Where workers used to sort and stem tobacco, volunteers now comb through bag after bag of donated food, clothing, toys and household items. Sorting and storage areas mingle with social service offices.
“We’re busting at the seams,” Williams said.
The outreach has more plans for the warehouse. Its upstairs loft is an expansive, open area, with a solid floor and 30-foot ceilings. The group needs capital, but it has plans to put in an elevator and build offices in the third floor.
“That would double our space. We could move some of our service offices for privacy and give our retail and food pantry room to grow,” Williams said.
Outreach center volunteer Steven Schieldt, an Edgerton native who once tended four acres of tobacco near the city, said he likes seeing the warehouses return to service.
“I think it’s great. I would like to see more of these buildings used like this. There’s a lot of history in each one of these places, all the way down to the bricks,” he said.
Chew on this
“I don’t usually even think about what the building was used for,” Edgerton dentist Mark Irgens said.
The doctor runs a dental office out of one of Edgerton’s 19th century tobacco warehouses at 225 W. Fulton St. He’s rented rehabbed space from the building’s owner, IKI Manufacturing, since 1978.
Irgens said he originally moved into the building because of Edgerton’s proximity to Madison but stayed because he grew fond of the people in Edgerton.
Irgens said the irony of having a dentist’s office in a building that once stored chewing tobacco wore off long ago. In fact, the only time he thinks about it is when plumbing and electrical crews have to drill into the building’s six-inch-thick floors.
“That’s when you’re reminded,” he said.
Celebrating the past
For some locals, the significance of the tobacco warehouses never fades.
“For better or worse, those buildings are just part of the town’s heritage,” Edgerton alderman Matt McIntryre said.
McIntyre is Grand Marshal at this year’s Tobacco Heritage Days, which runs this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Edgerton. The festival is held annually to honor the agricultural heritage of the city, a reminder that Edgerton’s roots were planted in the tobacco fields.
McIntyre said some of the old warehouses are located in the city’s downtown redevelopment zone and are eligible for repair incentives. Still, he said, initiative to rehab the buildings has seemed to slow as the economic downturn lingers.
McIntyre said work on the buildings is often extensive, but he holds out hope that in the right market, with the right buyer, some of the city’s vacant warehouses will see new use.
“It’s a lot of coinage. But you can see, it’s been possible to make some of them work,” he said.