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Recently, three rare Exposition Medals from Bucyrus-Erie’s early history found their way home to the South Milwaukee Visitor Center. Medals and other awards were a common form of recognition given out to exhibitors at major U.S. exhibitions and fairs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were awarded to companies showcasing new products or innovations. The recipients of these medals often capitalized on the recognition by using the award medals in marketing campaigns.
These medals were once displayed in the Bucyrus-Erie Club, which was the center of employee social activities. The club’s building was sold and the manager at the time, not wanting to see the medals thrown away or misplaced, recovered them for safe keeping until they could find a proper home. They found their way home to the South Milwaukee Visitor Center in July.
The Southern Exposition Medal
The concept of the Southern Exposition was to showcase traditional agriculture of the south and bring in new technology from the industrial north. The inaugural event was officially opened on August 1, 1883, by President Chester A. Arthur. It ran for 88 days and was attended by almost one million people. Originally planned for three months, the exposition proved so popular it ran annually from August to October for a total of five years (1883-1887). At that time, the Bucyrus Foundry & Manufacturing Company was located in Bucyrus, Ohio, and had been in operation since 1880. The primary focus of their business was the manufacture of hand cars, ballast unloaders, locomotive drive wheels and several other small parts for the railroad and mining industries. The bronze medal was awarded to the Bucyrus Foundry and Manufacturing Company for “Best Mine Car” at the 1883 Southern Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky.
National Exposition of Railway Appliances Medal
The Bucyrus Foundry and Manufacturing Company received its first order for a newly designed steam-powered rail shovel from the Ohio Central Railroad in 1882. Described as the “Thompson Iron Steam Shovel and Derrick,” the company exhibited this new product along with a new track-laying machine, hand cars and ballast unloaders at the National Exposition of Railway Appliances in Chicago, Illinois, which ran from May 24 to June 23, 1883. Bucyrus won several first place awards including one for its steam shovel. Over the next five years, the shovel gained popularity and sales rose, and by the end of 1888, the company had shifted its focus to the manufacture of excavation equipment. The medal, silver in color but made of copper, is the award for “Best Ballast Unloader.”
World’s Columbian Exposition Medal
The success of the company’s excavation equipment became so great that the company’s name was changed to the Bucyrus Steam Shovel and Dredge Company. As the product line shifted to larger excavation equipment, company management found the current facility in Bucyrus, Ohio, increasingly inadequate. Since the tiny one-and-a-half acre site would not allow expansion, in the fall of 1891, the company entertained a group of entrepreneurs known as the South Milwaukee Company. Looking to attract new business to form an industrial town on recently acquired property in Milwaukee County, the group convinced Bucyrus to relocate by awarding 15 acres of land and $50,000 for the purpose of constructing a new factory.
Operations officially began in South Milwaukee in April of 1893. On top of increasing machine sales and the relocation of their entire operations to a different state, Bucyrus still managed to find time to plan for what was, at that time, the largest exposition the world had ever seen. The World’s Columbian Exposition, more commonly referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair or Chicago Columbian Exposition, opened May 1, 1893. The company displayed steam shovels, models and photos in the Transportation building and placer mining equipment in the Mines and Mining building. Still listed as Bucyrus Steam Shovel and Dredge Company, Bucyrus, Ohio, the company would officially incorporate as Bucyrus Steam Shovel and Dredge Company of Wisconsin on August 16, right in the middle of the exposition’s run. The bronze medal was awarded to “Bucyrus Steam Shovel Company,” and it has yet to be determined what the award was for.
Sharing the Medal’s History
The three medals have been kept in excellent condition and will require very little conservation. Bucyrus’ company history, “Designed for Digging” by Harold Williamson and Kenneth Myers, mentions the importance of the company’s recognition at the 1893 National Exposition of Railway Appliances, but nothing is recorded of the other two expositions. Additional research will hopefully soon add to the historical archives. All three medals are on display on the first floor of the museum in the South Milwaukee Visitor Center and are being considered for temporary exhibit at the Caterpillar Visitors Center in the future.