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Bettendorf Sons

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you ever have a choice between inheriting wealth or reputation, it might be a good idea to go with reputation. That's what came in handy for Edwin and William Bettendorf during the Great Depression.

Their father. Joseph, and his brother, William P., had founded the Bettendorf Company in 1903 and developed it into one of the premier manufacturers of railroad cars. At its height, the factory ran for more than a mile along the Mississippi River and employed more than three thousand workers.

Then came the Great Depression. Orders for railroad cars dried up. In 1931, the Bettendorf Company closed its doors. When Joseph died two years later, his sons inherited a silent factory. What more could happen? In 1936, the state of Iowa demanded $233,000 in delinquent taxes by January 1st, 1937, or the factory would become the property of the state.

Fortunately, the brothers had inherited their father's fierce determination along with the factory. On faith alone, they rehired former employees intending to resume limited production. Edwin Bettendorf made a proposal to the employees. "I'll do all I can," he said, "Draw what salary you have to, but please don't draw any more than that. If you can let some of what you earn stay on the books, maybe we can pull through."

Even more fortunately, the brothers had inherited their father's reputation. The original Bettendorfs had always been concerned with the lives of their employees outside the factory. They had built modest homes for them surrounding the plant. They had sponsored picnics, lectures, athletic teams. They established a company club and a monthly newsletter profiling individual workers.

Edwin and William had kept up that tradition. During the five years the plant had been closed, they had kept as many men on salary as they could. Now, it was payback time. The rehired employees did their part, and on December 31st, 1936, the company secretary wrote out a check to the state of Iowa for $233,000, saving the plant.

Two years later, the brothers sold the factory to the Arsenal to manufacture tanks for the coming war effort. In order to diversify, the company itself split into five smaller manufacturing concerns, keeping many of those loyal employees on the payroll.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.