FOND DU LAC — The Mercury Marine Museum does a solid job of telling the story of a Wisconsin company that grew into a boating industry world power.
E. Carl Kiekhaefer’s tale of buying a bankrupt Cedarburg manufacturing shop and using his engineering background to transform the company into one of the largest outboard motor manufacturers is well documented in the 5,000-square-foot space that is part of the sprawling Children’s Museum of Fond du Lac.
The Mercury Marine Museum that opened earlier this month as part of the company’s 75th anniversary shows off motors of varying sizes, colors and horsepower and offers a video tour of the company’s monstrous 1.5-million-square-foot production facility that stretches about a mile along Highway 41. The museum even highlights some of the old television commercials that aired when most households had just three or four commercial channels and PBS.
But visit the museum and there’s a pretty good chance some of Mercury Marine’s history will also walk through the front door.
Photographer M.P. King and I had plopped down in front of a small movie screen that was showing footage of the company’s foundry, assembly line and testing facilities. That’s when we learned of Rick Gokey. When he sat down behind us, Gokey wondered out loud in a raspy voice if he would recognize anyone in the film.
It turns out Gokey worked at Mercury Marine for 42 years. He started in 1967 at $1.57 an hour in the paint shop and would later work on the assembly line, in buildings and grounds and the stockroom. When he retired in 2009, Gokey was back in the paint department making almost $27 an hour.
“It was a good living as far as I’m concerned,” said Gokey, 65, who began working at the company shortly after graduating from Fond du Lac’s Goodrich High School. “I built some of these motors here and painted a lot of them. It was a nice place to work.”
Gokey’s dad worked construction and his mother was in the grocery business, but his two brothers, Terry and James, worked at Mercury Marine for 42 and 39 years, respectively. For the trio of brothers, that’s a combined 123 years at what is now Fond du Lac County’s largest employer.
The Gokeys are hardly an anomaly.
Like the now-idle General Motors Assembly plant in Janesville, the paper mills along the Wisconsin and Fox rivers and countless other major companies that have or still are helping to define communities like Kohler, Manitowoc, Dodgeville and Racine, Mercury Marine has provided work for generations of families in this region on the south shore of the state’s largest inland lake.
And like many of the state’s signature industries, Mercury Marine has had its share of layoffs, threats of moving elsewhere and battles with local and state governments to secure public financing for improvements.
In 2009, the Fond du Lac County Board of Supervisors approved a $50 million low-interest loan to the company and a 0.5 percent sales tax to bond for the loan, which is being paid back by the company over 12 years. The loan, along with a record at the time of $65 million in state tax credits approved in 2010, came when the company was considering whether to close either its Fond du Lac or Stillwater, Okla., plants.
In addition, the Mercury Marine union approved wage cuts and concessions that repealed 2 percent pay raises in 2011 and 2012, froze wages through 2016 and cut the wages of new hires by 30 percent.
“Cut your legs off, you got a chance to live and get a prosthesis and walk again,” Steve Kirchoff, a longtime employee, told the Associated Press at the time.
Since that time, the work that had been done by 380 non-union employees in Oklahoma has been moved to Fond du Lac, the workforce has nearly doubled to 3,100 employees, and the company has added 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space with five expansion projects since 2010, said Lee Gordon, a company spokesman.
The company’s most recent expansion went ahead even though the County Board in November rejected, by two votes, Mercury Marine’s $10 million public loan request to help finance the $30 million project.
The rapid increase in employees and continued expansion of the plant has business leaders beaming. Positive news at Merc, as it’s referred to by the locals, means more work for area suppliers like valve and coupling maker R.B. Royal Industries, Mid-States Aluminum Corp., International Paper, ACH Foam Technologies and several trucking companies, just to name a few.
“It runs deep,” Joe Reitenmeier, executive director of the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce, said of Mercury Marine’s impact. “We’re all in on this. It’s a great partnership.”
The relationship between Mercury Marine and Fond du Lac got its start in 1946 when Kiekhaefer purchased a Fond du Lac dairy farm for his growing outboard motor business. In 1939, the Mequon native bought a Cedarburg company that had 300 Thor outboard motors rejected by a large mail-order retailer due to defects and operating problems.
According to company history, Kiekhaefer and his team initially redesigned the engines. When he showed them at the 1940 New York Boat Show, it resulted in 16,000 orders. So when Kiekhaefer — who at one time worked at Evinrude Motors and Nash Motors in Milwaukee — needed more space, he found a barn and land in Fond du Lac for his Kiekhaefer Corp. headquarters. In 1961, the company was purchased by Brunswick Corp. and, in 1971, changed its name to Mercury Marine.
The museum takes visitors on a chronological tour that includes the Thor engine, the creation of the secret Lake X testing facility in Florida and changing the color of the company’s motors to black to make them seem smaller. The displays include a snowmobile and chainsaw that were once made by the company and rows of outboards, including one in Green Bay Packers colors.
The company’s crystal trophy naming Mercury Marine as the Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year in 2010 is also on display. In 2013, the company paid out $234 million in wages and benefits and another $250 million to Wisconsin-based contractors and suppliers.
For Gokey, who made his first visit to the museum last week, the museum is a cross between nostalgia and window to the future.
“It brings back good, old memories for me,” Gokey said. “I’m glad they didn’t move. It would have been disastrous for Fond du Lac.”