South Milwaukee’s Bucyrus Heritage Will Be Preserved With New Museum

South Milwaukee’s Bucyrus Heritage Will Be Preserved With New Museum

The South Milwaukee Industrial Museum, an attached event space and a nearby public space will have themes evoking the city’s longtime mining equipment manufacturer.

For nearly 120 years, Bucyrus made heavy mining equipment in South Milwaukee, forging a strong bond to the South Shore community’s industrial heritage.

The link was broken in 2011, when Illinois-based industrial giant Caterpillar acquired Bucyrus. Almost immediately, Caterpillar took steps to rid itself of the Bucyrus connection. Signs and flags were removed from the sprawling manufacturing complex in the heart of the city. The Bucyrus brand disappeared. And in one final blow, Caterpillar shuttered the Heritage Museum, which honored many historic projects carried out using Bucyrus equipment, including the Panama Canal.

The moves stung many in the community and painstaking efforts began to preserve Bucyrus’ history in some way, including trying to find a new home to display Bucyrus’ artifacts.

Those efforts are finally coming to fruition.

The Bucyrus Foundation and other project leaders announced on Thursday a $2 million gift to the city of South Milwaukee to enable two projects to help transform the city’s downtown: $1.5 million toward the renovation of the now city-owned property at 1919 12th Ave., which previously housed Papa Luigi’s II restaurant and entertainment center, and $500,000 toward the development of a city-owned public space at 11th and Madison avenues, currently home to the South Milwaukee Downtown Market and other community events.

The South Milwaukee Industrial Museum will set up at 1919 12th Ave., a former Bucyrus International building and more recently the home of Papa Luigi’s II restaurant.

The 12th Avenue building will be named the Bucyrus Club, as it was for more than 80 years under the company’s ownership of the property. It will feature the South Milwaukee Industrial Museum and a banquet facility operated by Skyline Catering Inc. The public space will also pay homage to the Bucyrus name.

“Bucyrus defined our city for generations,” Mayor Erik Brooks said Thursday at a news conference announcing the development. “We were a company town and proud of it. Today, we are still proud of our blue-collar roots, even as we reinvest and reinvent ourselves as a city.”

The Bucyrus Foundation was formed in the 1970s, and its resources continue to grow, said Tim Sullivan, Bucyrus Foundation chairman and former Bucyrus International CEO. “The reason the foundation was formed was to give back to the community,” he said. “We are getting to the point now where we can give meaningful money to the city of South Milwaukee.”

Sullivan is hopeful that the investment will spark other development in South Milwaukee. “It takes money to make money,” he said. “You are spending money basically to create a catalyst for the future of this city.”

‘A transformational project’ 

The South Milwaukee Common Council approved purchasing the building for $560,000 at its meeting on Wednesday night. The city closed on the purchase Thursday morning. Under the deal, the city will use a combination of foundation funds and other sources – including tax increment district revenue and anticipated economic development grants – to fund a renovation of the space that will cost more than $3 million.

Skyline Catering also will fund improvements and pay rent to the city. Construction is expected to begin this spring, with a partial opening planned for Dec. 18 – the 100-year anniversary of Bucyrus’ opening its first employee club there.

“This is a transformational project for our downtown and our city,” Brooks said. “It will bring our proud past to life, telling the story of Bucyrus, its workers and their impact on the city and the world in a really unique way. We are incredibly proud of our heritage in South Milwaukee, and we need to do a better job telling that story. This does that, and more, for generations to come.”

Skyline Catering, owned by South Milwaukee residents Ernie and Kathy Wunsch, aims to bring a variety of events, ranging from small community groups and wedding receptions to corporate events of more than 400 to the Bucyrus Club. The club will eventually be open to the public for Friday fish fries and special events.

“We see a huge potential here,” Ernie Wunsch said. “This is a dream come true that we can have our own facility.”

The former Heritage Museum had been 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, many items have been sitting in storage in a South Milwaukee warehouse.

The new South Milwaukee Industrial Museum will feature these rare artifacts, models, images and other items from the collection formerly located on the Bucyrus campus. The museum has been seeking a permanent home for several years, including negotiating with the Historical Construction Equipment Association in Bowling Green, Ohio.

“We searched probably a dozen different locations, and nothing was panning out financially for us until this opportunity came up,” said Bob Jelinek, co-founder and chairman of the South Milwaukee Industrial Museum. The new museum will have the same industrial look and feel as the Heritage building, he said. 

Sullivan had previously pledged a personal investment in the museum project but backed away as he spearheaded the foundation’s effort to provide funding.

“Well, there is a lot more to come,” he said. “I think because this was going to be a big jump start, we decided to take the foundation lead on this one. I’ve already committed to the mayor and others that I plan to personally stay involved with the city and make sure we progress forward with my support, both in person and financially.”

New public space

Bucyrus Foundation funds also will be used to create a public space with a manufacturing heritage spin. Planning for the space at 11th and Madison – a block away from the proposed Bucyrus Club – is expected to begin in the coming weeks and will include stakeholders like the South Milwaukee Downtown Market and other community partners. Earlier this month, the Common Council voted to engage Saiki Design, a Madison-based landscape architecture firm, in the planning effort.

Construction of the public space is expected in to be completed in 2021. Project details will be shaped through a public comment process, although the public space is expected to include permanent facilities to support special events and daily users, as well as historical features evoking the manufacturing history of the city.

“I can’t wait to work with all of our partners, and the community as a whole, to breathe new life into this part of our city center,” Brooks said.

Bucyrus officially began operations in South Milwaukee in 1893, and would incorporate in Wisconsin as the Bucyrus Steam Shovel and Dredge Co. The company eventually changed its name to The Bucyrus Co. before becoming Bucyrus-Erie after purchasing the Erie Steam Shovel Co. The name changed again in 1997 to Bucyrus International to reflect its worldwide business interests.

At one point, Bucyrus employed more than 2,400 people in South Milwaukee alone, and had more than 3,700 employees operating in 17 plants and subsidiary service operations worldwide. In July of 2011, the company was purchased by Caterpillar. The products were rebranded and the Bucyrus name disappeared. Caterpillar continues to operate on part of the South Milwaukee property. However, production at the main plant ceased in 2016 after 123 years of continuous operation.

“You don’t want to let go,” Sullivan said. “The history is so rich, the heritage is so strong that you want to make sure that you can take it in to perpetuity. It will let generations to come understand that important things were done in this city.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.