When you’re stuck in traffic on Washington Street, notice the three-story red brick building at 34 S. Washington St. that is named the Kroehler Family YMCA. If you visit or live in the building known as Fifth Avenue Station, you might read about the former furniture factory known as Kroehler Manufacturing Company that was located there. So, who were the Kroehlers (pronounced cray-ler) and what was their impact on Naperville?
Peter E. Kroehler was a farm boy from Minnesota, born in 1872, whose father encouraged him to go to school even during the summer. A true American success story, from his humble beginnings helping out on the family farm, Kroehler rose to prominence as the owner of Kroehler Manufacturing Co. and was twice elected mayor of Naperville. Kroehler Manufacturing Co. was a major employer in Naperville for over 80 years, providing hundreds of jobs for residents in Naperville and at plants throughout the country.
In 1890, Kroehler’s quest for higher education led him to enroll in the Commercial Academy at North Central College, then called North-Western College. He was a student of Professor James L. Nichols (the benefactor and namesake of Nichols Library), who was the department chairman. Nichols was a successful entrepreneur and business book publisher, who invited the 21-year-old Kroehler in 1893 to help run the Naperville Lounge Factory, a small furniture manufacturing company. Kroehler immersed himself in all aspects of the furniture business, which operated in a converted skating rink.
In 1896, Kroehler became one of four partners in the Naperville Lounge Factory. The company continued to grow and in 1897, Kroehler moved the factory to a new building that was built next to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad tracks. In 1898, the name was changed to the Naperville Lounge Company.
In 1903, Kroehler bought out his partners in the lounge company, then sold half interest in the company to Sears, Roebuck & Co. for $30,000. In a mere 12 years, he purchased back Sears’ interest for $1.2 million.
When the original furniture facility was partially destroyed by a tornado in 1913, he rebuilt a better factory. As the business continued to grow, Kroehler acquired more plants throughout the country. By 1915, he renamed the company Kroehler Manufacturing Co. with four plants in Illinois, New York and Ohio and capital stock of over one million dollars.
By the mid-1940s, the company had more than $20 million in annual sales. In addition to being an astute businessman, Peter Kroehler was also an innovator. In 1909, he patented the Unifold Davenport, a folding metal bed frame with a removable mattress that soon became a customer favorite. He also developed the “push-back” theater chair in 1937. Kroehler’s philanthropy was well-known throughout the community and he helped found the YMCA and generously supported his alma mater, North Central College.
During World War II, all the Kroehler plants were called upon to help the war effort. The company changed its facilities from crafting furniture to making wooden assemblies for airplanes, wings for target planes, army cots, quartermaster furniture, cable drums for the Signal Corps, artificial limbs, collapsible landing boats, knapsacks, folding chairs, filing cabinets, living room furniture for federal housing projects, life preserver cushions and much more.
Throughout the 1960s, the company employed close to 8,000 people around the country and annual revenues passed $100 million.
The company survived the economic downturns of the 1890s and the Great Depression, but it couldn’t sustain itself during the recession of the 1970s. In 1978, the Naperville plant closed forever, but the memories live on in the former employees, their descendants and the cherished Kroehler memorabilia that continues to be donated to Naper Settlement . From the unique furniture to the tools, records and photographs, all tell a story about a man and a company that profoundly influenced Naperville. The beautiful brick building that once housed the manufacturing facility was repurposed into a multi-use development now known as Fifth Avenue Station.
Through his tenacity and vision for the future, Peter Kroehler changed the history of Naperville. He stands as a model for hard work, determination, innovation and philanthropy.
- Donna DeFalco, Naper Settlement
One of the unique ways Kroehler Manufacturing Co. brought its products to the people was through a collection of 12 miniature rooms included in a traveling exhibition titled, “Four Generations of Furniture Fashion.” These exquisite miniature rooms were created by master craftsman, miniaturist and furniture historian, E.J. Kupjack. He also created the Thorne Rooms for Narcissa Niblack Thorne, which are displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. When Kroehler closed its Naperville plant in 1978, the tiny rooms were a casualty of the economic times and were thrown out. Former Kroehler Plant Manager Walt Schall rescued five of them from a dumpster, which are now in Naper Settlement’s collection. The other seven were found by a private party, who then sold them to collectors.