By Jim Elias
Muscatine was built on the shoulders of giants.
With names like Huttig, Musser, Boepple, Kent, Stein, Stanley, Carver, Howe — Muscatine entrepreneurs saw needs, started companies, and grew into the giants of industry that gave Muscatine its rich and diverse history.
“Throughout history we’ve had an environment that encourages entrepreneurship,” said Mary Wildermuth, recently retired Executive Director of the Muscatine History & Industry Center (also known as the Button Museum). “People come from everywhere, really, to learn about Muscatine history. It’s been fun to have had the opportunity to tell our stories.”
Buttons, beef, and business furniture are a few of the story elements representing Muscatine’s industrial history which Wildermuth has been proud to showcase during her nearly 10 years leading the museum.
In the museum, visitors will find the complete and comprehensive story about the rise and fall of the pearl button industry in which Muscatine was the unequivocal center and John F. Boepple the giant leading the charge. During the height of button production in 1905, 1.5 billion buttons, nearly 40% of the world’s buttons, were manufactured in Muscatine. Shells and button blanks were shipped to Muscatine from 19 states throughout the central United States to be finished into pearl buttons.
G. A. Kent developed Kent Baby Beef, the first cattle feed composed entirely of high-quality protein with no filler material and built a plant on the banks of the Mississippi River, to take advantage of the economical river transportation.
C. Maxwell Stanley and his brothers-in-law had concerns that men returning from World War II would not be able to find work. So, they started a company called Hom-O-Nize to build metal cabinetry & file boxes. Today, HNI Corp. is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of office furniture.
“Muscatine has many unbelievable stories,” says Wildermuth. “Stories of creatives, stories of the river, and stories of the people who lived and contributed here.
“We need to honor and recognize what these entrepreneurs have done for Muscatine. They had to figure out how to survive and grow. I want people in Muscatine and visitors alike to know and appreciate the contributions these giants have made to this town.”
While Executive Director for the museum, Wildermuth feels pride for being able to tell the stories of the many entrepreneurs who’ve built this town. She has enjoyed greeting and meeting people from all over the world, and says she was thrilled to be a part of the Chinese experience in Muscatine showcasing the town and its history.
Although Wildermuth is retiring from day-to-day activities at the museum, she continues to be a strong proponent for tourism and Muscatine story-telling. She serves as the Board Chair for the Muscatine Convention & Visitors Bureau and is helping to lead the development of videos promoting Muscatine and all it offers.
Thank You Mary Wildermuth
“Mary’s dedication to the Muscatine History and Industry Center coupled with her passion for tourism has helped make Muscatine a great place to visit. I am looking forward to working with her on future tourism projects!”
Jodi Hansen, Director, Muscatine Convention and Visitors Bureau
“I’ve worked with Mary for many years in a lot of different capacities. She is a master networker and she brings people together under common causes to get things done. The History & Industry Center has continued to grow and prosper under her leadership and we are all grateful for her service and generous spirit.”
Katie Watson, Business Solutions Consultant for Muscatine Community College/EICC and Board Member, Muscatine History & Industry Center