The Bettendorf Brothers

Jul 31, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Rock Island has its share of "tail-wags-dog" stories. In one of them, the tail became the dog.

As befits a fairy tale, we begin in a sleepy storybook village named Gilbert just east of Davenport, Iowa. Here, along the Mississippi River, sturdy and thrifty German immigrants raised onions in the rich flat bottomland soil. In Gilbert, a resident reported, "everybody had a picket fence and a garden, and chickens, and a cow and a few pigs."

The hard-working farmers likely did not notice two young men surveying the Gilbert waterfront along the railroad tracks in early June of 1902. The men were William P. and Joseph Bettendorf, sons of a German immigrant. They worked together as well as Jack Spratt and his wife. William could invent anything, and Joseph could sell anything William invented.

Their wheel factory in Davenport had burned down in May, but it hadn't stopped them. Their new factory in Gilbert opened in late 1902 with 300 employees. "Overnight," a local historian put it, "the steady people of Gilbert awoke in a whirl of industry with chimneys that smoke, and wheels that hum, and shears that chew up boiler plate." The following April, these new residents of unincorporated Gilbert voted to incorporate as the new town of Bettendorf.

That same year, William invented a single piece truck frame for the wheels of railroad cars, a vast improvement over the older many-piece frames which broke down frequently, and Bettendorf was on its way. The three hundred employees grew to 3,000 by 1920. Plant size tripled in 1909 alone with the addition of a foundry and two open-hearth steel furnaces. In the new automated assembly line that extended for almost a mile along the river, raw materials entered one end and a complete railroad car exited the other.

But alas, there was a larger dog with a larger tail. The Great Depression wagged the company with the same ease the company had wagged Gilbert. By 1937 the Bettendorf Axle Company was through.

There are still a few sleepy towns around Rock Island. Do you have a good idea that needs a place to happen?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.