Theodore Roosevelt sits atop a Bucyrus steam shovel at the Panama Canal.

Some Former Bucyrus Employees Are Determined to Keep its Memory Alive

Before Bucyrus International can fade into the past, some former employees are determined to memorialize it with a museum.

When industrial behemoth Caterpillar acquired Bucyrus International in 2011, it immediately began scrubbing away the heavy mining equipment manufacturer’s then 118-year history here. Caterpillar removed all signs and flags at the sprawling facility in South Milwaukee and pulled the plug on Bucyrus’ website. In an especially stinging blow, Caterpillar quietly shuttered Bucyrus’ privately funded but publicly accessible Heritage Museum, which honored the many historic projects completed using Bucyrus equipment, including the Panama Canal. “Caterpillar’s attempts to erase all traces of Bucyrus are an insult to a proud heritage,” says local historian and author John Gurda.

But all may not be lost. An intensifying effort, driven by a group of Bucyrus retirees, hopes to reopen the museum at another facility in South Milwaukee. The former museum was filled with models of Bucyrus’ mammoth mining equipment and covered three floors. While Caterpillar moved some of the artifacts to its corporate archives in Illinois, a few held by the retirees have been displayed at the South Milwaukee Public Library and City Hall. Others sit in storage in a South Milwaukee warehouse.

Caterpillar closed the museum as part of a wider consolidation (a “facility optimization”), spokeswoman Lisa Miller says – the company has cut jobs in South Milwaukee due to a prolonged slump in the mining industry. While Miller says Caterpillar will help in the search for a museum location, using the original spot is off the table. At the forefront of the search is Robert Jelinek, a South Milwaukee native who worked at Bucyrus for 38 years. “We’ll need to find a place to settle in or be forced to begin dispersing our archives,” says Jelinek.

He’d like to see the museum eventually returned to its original space on the Caterpillar property, but that would probably mean a long wait for that part of the complex to be sold, and then negotiating with the new owner. Jelinek, however, hopes to have a new museum site, preferably in South Milwaukee, settled on by late 2018 or early 2019.

Former Bucyrus CEO Tim Sullivan says he’ll contribute financial support if enough artifacts can be collected. Caterpillar has already donated many of them, but not a few key pieces that Jelinek desperately wants, including models of the Panama Canal steam shovels.

South Milwaukee Mayor Erik Brooks says the city will do its part to help the museum, and he’s written multiple letters backing it. “We want to tell the Bucyrus story,” he says. “It’s part of who we are.”

‘Buckets of History’ appears in the May 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.