The history of The C.A. Lawton Co.: The first generation

By C.A. Lawton | February 6, 2019
39 Lawton History

Innovation and community: these are ideals that encapsulate the 139-year history of The C.A. Lawton Co. The company got its start when founder, Charles Lawton, used his father’s machine designs to revolutionize the process of flour making. These men were innovators, and they taught their sons to be innovators.

Throughout the C.A. Lawton Co.’s 139 year history, Lawton innovations brought heat to rural farming areas in the winter, created convenience for consumers, and allowed the company to enter into international markets. In its darkest days, the company survived because of the relationships Lawton created with the surrounding community. During the Great Depression, Lawton remained one of the area’s largest employers because of the sacrifices made in order to keep people on. Lawton has always been a family affair, and that closeness echoes through the company and out to the customers and community Lawton serves.

Since beginning our lean journey, community and innovation at Lawton have become more intertwined than ever. Now the C.A. Lawton Co.’s employees use their relationships to forge and implement new ideas for continuous improvement company-wide. Innovation and community are the foundation of Lawton’s history, and our history is the foundation of our company’s future. You are a part of that future, and now we invite you to be a part of our history.

In 1879, Civil War Veteran Charles Lawton and his uncle E.W. Arndt made their place among De Pere, Wisconsin’s profitable manufacturing market by establishing the Novelty Manufacturing Company. It was a company named for its roots in innovation. However, its name would later be changed to The C.A. Lawton Co. The facility was located on the river in an old converted fish kit factory. Though the operation was small, their ideas were grand.

From the very start, their focus was on the needs of the community. Their business plan was to simply let the market dictate production. This strategy proved to be valuable in saving the then-budding manufacturing company seven years later.

With the needs of the market in mind, The Novelty Manufacturing Company developed the “Bran Dresser,” a device designed by Lawton’s father for the purpose of separating bran from flour. When it was debuted at the Miller’s National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1880, the “Bran Dresser” garnered a great deal of attention. Arndt and Lawton were leading the industry. However, their spotlight was quickly stolen when, one year later, the entire flour making process was revolutionized by the invention of the Stevens Roller Mill.

This, however, did not stop Lawton and Arndt from living up to the novelty in their name. Through the Stevens process, and the production of power transmission gearing, they were able to generate enough business to expand the company. They also acquired a loan from Jones Bank of De Pere. With this capital, Lawton and Arndt purchased more machinery, and added a new foundry. This was the beginning of real growth for the young company.

Innovation is defined as a new idea or method of doing things. Lawton and Arndt started with a new idea, and when that did not work, they were quick to find a new method for growth and success.

Shortly thereafter, the Novelty Manufacturing Company’s growth was unfortunately stunted. In 1886, Jones Bank ran into financial difficulty, and as a result, closed its doors. This caused a great deal of stress for the Novelty Manufacturing Company. Lawton and Arndt feared that the seven-year-old company would have to close its doors.

One local businessman bought the title to the Novelty Manufacturing Company from Jones Bank for $4,000 and sold it back to Lawton at a profit of only $500. Other business owners offered to make trades with Lawton in order to provide the company with the resources it needed to stay afloat. Charles Lawton was also offered a $500 credit to a local store by the owner and told Charles Lawton to simply pay him back as he was able. Lastly, a local individual bought the patent for the bran dresser from Lawton for $400. This patent, even then, was nearly worthless. However, they all knew that Charles Lawton and his company were not.

Though the company was budding, Charles Lawton had managed to build strong relationships with people and businesses within the community. Through these relationships, The Novelty Manufacturing Company had also demonstrated its value to the local economy and community through the production of power transmission machinery, as well as brush machines, flour packers, and purifiers for flour mills. Charles Lawton had also demonstrated his character. As a result, the community believed in Lawton. Though this trust, Lawton’s company was saved. Were it not for Charles Lawton’s knack at building connections and relationships, The C.A. Lawton Co. would not exist today.

By 1890, the company was thriving again. Charles Lawton was able to pay off all debts owed to the local businessmen who had given assistance to the company and purchase the best new manufacturing equipment for the company. He also had a new machine shop and foundry constructed in order to better serve the company’s needs and provide room for growth for generations to come.

Throughout the 1890s, the company continued operating with the same business model it had used since its inception: allowing the community and industry to dictate what they produced. Thus, during this time, the bulk of Lawton’s efforts were allocated towards the production of a saw, paper, and pulp mill machinery, mining equipment, and common wood products like pails and barrels. The C.A. Lawton Company also continued its line of power transmission machinery. In fact, Lawton still produces power transmission machinery today.

In 1904, Charles Lawton began a partnership with a man named Edward Lauson. Together they formed an independent manufacturing company within the Lawton factory, and called it the Lauson-Lawton Company. The most profitable result of this partnership was the Lawton-Lauson gasoline engine, also known as the “Wisconsin” engine. Charles Lawton and Edward Lauson discovered a market within the farming community. Since electricity had not yet reached rural areas, Lawton and Lauson used the Lauson-Lawton engine to power portable generators, conveyor belts that took silage into silos, and to mechanically process grain.

The Lauson-Lawton engine was an innovation brought to fruition through a relationship. A community was formed within Lawton, and that community came together to solve a problem. Through this partnership, Lawton was able to branch out into consumer markets for the first time, which allowed for growth and new opportunities in the future. This was the moment where community and innovation began to intertwine.