Paul Bader was some sort of a creative and mechanical genius, although he would never admit to that distinction. In discussions with him over the years about his varied projects, he would invariably say to me somewhere during the talk, “You know Brad, it’s not rocket science!” Well, what he was working on may not have been ‘rocket science” to Paul, but it was to many of the rest of us.
Paul came to the Kickapoo Valley entirely by chance in 1970. He and a friend were looking to buy some land in rural Wisconsin and took a trip to Bayfield County to look over a real estate offer overlooking Lake Superior. It was a gorgeous piece of land, but in the end a little pricey for Paul’s wallet. On the drive back to Milwaukee, they took a little detour down the Kickapoo Valley and found it interesting.
Paul stopped at a realty office in Richland Center, left his friend in the car, and soon was riding with the realtor through La Farge to look at a parcel of land on Green Hollow Road. The old farm buildings were pretty well shot, but the view from the little ridge at the top was great. And the price for the property was right! By the time that Paul and the realtor returned to Richland Center, a deal was struck.
Soon Paul was dabbling with an old sawmill operation on his Green Hollow property, trying to make it provide a living for he and his wife, Marcia. “But wood and I never got along”, said Paul, so he switched his emphasis to metal and opened Green Hollow Enterprises – a metal fabrication and welding shop. Paul was always interested in working with metal and had started making his own go-karts when he was only ten years old.
He enjoyed using his hands working with metal and noted that a person gets a lot of satisfaction from designing something; building it, and then watching it work the way that it was intended to. (Parts of this story are excerpted from an article written by Paul Beckstrand, writing for the La Farge Epitaph – August 6, 1975 issue.)
Stove making came about almost by accident for Paul. In the fall of 1974, he got four unsolicited orders to make wood stoves. Paul designed a wood stove, which came to bear his name – the “Bader Burn Right” – BBR for short. It was a good design and burned wood for maximum heat efficiency. According to Paul, one of those stoves went into a new house that Orville Jenson was moving into. Orville, then the manager of Nuzum’s in La Farge, loved his new BBR stove and told everyone he saw about this new stove being made out on Green Hollow. Paul always contended that Orville’s testimonial created a demand to build more stoves. In an interview a few months before his passing in 2013, Paul told me, “Shoot I built four of those stoves and then it just wouldn’t stop. We ended building over 12,000 of those stoves and it still wasn’t enough.”
The “Bader Burn Right” was not envisioned as a permanent solution to the critical energy shortage of the 1970s. “Wood heat is only an interim solution”, said Paul. Although he did point out that, according to recent statistics (from 1975), thirty-three million homes could be heated with the waste from logging and sawmill operations. Over forty years later, near the end of his days, Paul was still envisioning a way of using that logging and sawmill waste to heat the homes and businesses of the Kickapoo Valley.
When the Kickapoo Stove Works began in the mid-1970s, Paul and his colleagues envisioned solar and wind power as a more permanent answer to America’s energy problems, and the group wanted to get into those areas of production also. Paul noted, however, that moving into solar and wind power would take time since they would need to do most of their own research, as little official research was being done in those areas.
After Paul built those first four wood stoves in 1974, the demand for the very efficient BBR called for an expanded operation so more could be produced. In 1975, the Kickapoo Stove Works Corporation was formed to meet that need. Five people worked on producing and selling the stoves in that first year of the Kickapoo Stove Works operation. Paul and Marcia Bader joined with Tom Betten & his wife Eva and George Wilbur to inaugurate the little stove making company.
A goal was set to make 400 BBR stoves in that first year. The stoves continued to be assembled in Paul’s shop in Green Hollow, but a store building (the old Martha’s Restaurant space) was rented on La Farge’s Main Street to help with storage and shipping of the finished stoves and to provide space for a showroom. George Wilbur headed up the selling of the stove from that Main Street location; Marcia Bader kept books for the fledgling company, while the Betten’s helped Paul with making the stoves. Priced at $400 per stove, the Kickapoo Stove Works BBR soon was a hot commodity as people sought alternate heating options during the oil shortage of the mid-1970s. The little stove company could not build them fast enough and expansion was needed.
Working with the Village of La Farge and the newly created Economic Development Commission, the Kickapoo Stove Works began to initiate a plan to expand its production capabilities. But it was a difficult time to start a new project in La Farge. The community seemed to be in a constant turmoil over the on again/off again dam project; there was several major disputes with the state Department of Transportation over the opening of the new State Highway 131 and the closing of the old state highway; two new bridges were being built by DOT across the Kickapoo River at Seelyburg and Andrews Flat and disputes arose over both projects, and lastly, the village seemed to be in a weekly battle with the state DNR over zoning and flood plain mapping. There was little time or energy left to talk to these “Hippies” about their wood stove production needs.
But the BBR stoves were being ordered faster than they could be made and the space on Green Hollow was overwhelmed with the orders. Seeking help in the manufacturing end, the Kickapoo Stove Works rented space in a building in Viroqua by the fall of 1976 and had hired an additional 10 people to help with the production of the stoves. At peak capacity in the new Viroqua assembly plant, 60 stoves could be made in a week. With retail outlets expanded to Viroqua and then Madison, the demand for stoves still overwhelmed production capabilities.
Interestingly, an editorial written by publisher Lonnie Muller in the September 22, 1976 issue of the La Farge Epitaph, lamented over the loss of the KSW plant and jobs to Viroqua. Lonnie listed all of the problems then currently facing La Farge and admonished the village leaders to step up and draw the stove works company back to La Farge. The editorial seemed to have an effect because in the next week’s paper, Al Szepi responded with a letter saying that Kickapoo Industrial Development, Ltd., La Farge’s fledgling attempt at economic development, was entering into talks with KSW about locating in La Farge.
In 1975, Paul & Marcia Bader, Tom & Eva Betten and George Wilbur formed the Kickapoo Stove Works Company (KSW). The move was made to expand the possibilities for the production of a wood stove (The Bader Burn Right – BBR for short) designed and first built by Paul in the fall/winter of 1974/75. Paul had originally built four of the stoves in his welding and machine shop located in Green Hollow a few miles west of La Farge. In that energy-crisis time of the mid-1970s, his efficient wood-burning stove was soon in great demand. For the first year of operation, the young company set a goal to manufacture 300 stoves.
To make that many stoves the fledgling wood stove company needed to expand their operations beyond its Green Hollow beginnings. First, KSW rented office, storage and display space on La Farge’s Main Street in the former Martha’s Restaurant building. The young company also looked for more space in La Farge to manufacture and assemble the stoves, but none could be found. By the fall of 1976, space had been rented in a building in Viroqua and five more workers were hired to help in assembling the new stoves. With the added manufacturing space and increased work force, up to sixty stoves a week could be produced. Eventually, 495 new stoves were produced in that first year of increased production in 1976-77. But more production space was still needed to meet the demand for the popular new wood stove.
In the fall of 1976, KSW began negotiations with the Village of La Farge and a new industrial development effort in the village. Al Szepi, President of La Farge’s new Kickapoo Industrial Development Corporation (KID), wrote a letter to the La Farge Epitaph newspaper in September that outlined preliminary efforts to construct a new stove works manufacturing building in the village.
By November of 1976, Paul Bader announced that KSW had plans to build a new manufacturing facility to be located in one of a possible four locations - La Farge, Readstown, Viola, or Viroqua. Intense negotiations between KSW and the new La Farge industrial development corporation and the village board followed with several meetings held in December. By mid-January of 1977, the industrial development group led by officers Al Szepi, Phil Stittleburg and Kent Steinmetz announced that plans had been initiated to secure a federal Small Business Administration (SBA) loan to pay for construction of a new building to house the stove works manufacturing operation. In addition, the development corporation was negotiating on the purchase of land in La Farge where the new manufacturing plant could be built.
As those plans for a new building in La Farge were being negotiated the wood stove company moved forward with expansion on their own. In February 1977, KSW purchased the Chase Mercantile Building from Finn Johannesen. The large Main Street building, where KSW had been renting space previously, greatly increased the space for offices and for storage and display of completed stove units and other wood stove burning products that KSW was then offering for sale.
Later in the month, KID President Al Szepi announced that the Kickapoo Stove Works would be moving their manufacturing works to La Farge by the summer of 1977! Szepi added that KSW would be moving into a new $140,000 building located in La Farge that the industrial development group would be constructing. KID had taken an option to buy land in the northern part of La Farge for the building and an SBA loan was being arranged to help pay for the project. At the same time Szepi announced that the industrial corporation was raising $14,000 as a 10% match for the SBA loan by selling $10 shares of stock in KID and offering $1,000 debentures on the building project. KSW would lease the manufacturing building from the development corporation and the lease payments could be applied towards eventual purchase of the building.
The industrial development group purchased four acres of property from Bill and Irma Gilman in May 1977. The parcel of property along Mill Street was just north of the La Farge Co-op’s fertilizer storage facility and across the street from Calhoun Park, La Farge’s baseball field. Besides raising the matching money ($14,000) for the project, the industrial development group also secured a loan of $77,000 from the La Farge State Bank in May to begin construction of the building. In addition, an SBA loan of $49,000 was used for the project.
As the financing for the new manufacturing building was taking place, construction on the project had already begun. Fill for the building site was trucked in during late April and actual construction began shortly after. A cement foundation and floor was laid before a fabricated metal building was constructed on the site. The building was completed by the end of June and featured space for construction of several different models of the BBR then being produced. In addition, the building had loading piers on both ends for bringing in parts needed for manufacturing and sending out the finished stoves on semi-trailer trucks.
An open house was held at the new stove works manufacturing facility on July 4, 1977. Over 200 people attended the open house that featured lemonade on the warm summer day, tours of the new plant and music by a band singing folk music.
By the end of the year, nearly 20 people were working at the manufacturing plant producing the standard BBR wood stove, the original BBR parlor furnace, the BBR home furnace, and a cabin model BBR. The stove was still being sold as fast as it could be made from both the La Farge KSW store on Main Street and another store on Madison’s Fish Hatchery Road along the capital city’s beltline.
In addition, KSW developed a catalog that was mailed to potential customers. The catalog featured photos and descriptions of all the different models of BBR wood stoves and other items essential in burning wood for heat. The front cover of the KSW catalog featured a color photo of a Kickapoo River scene. On the inside of that cover of the initial KSW catalog, George Wilbur wrote an introduction for the catalog titled “Heating With Wood”. In the introduction, Wilbur wrote, “ Wood stoves and furnaces are the tools that give us access to the warmth-giving energy of the sun that is locked inside of every tree. Because wood is economical, readily available and renewable, it is fast regaining its old popularity as a heating fuel. If you now heat with gas, electricity or fuel oil, a switch to wood heat may give you enough savings in fuel cost to pay for your stove or furnace in one heating season.”
Paul Bader’s stove was a big hit and eventually, the BBR would be sold at over 30 different locations around the state of Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. The workforce at the KSW facilities in La Farge eventually would grow to nearly forty people with an annual payroll of three-quarters of a million dollars. Nearly twelve thousand BBR wood stoves were produced from that new factory building on the north side of La Farge.