Fifty years ago, on October 27, 1968 the Wabaunsee County Historical Society held the grand opening of their new museum in Alma, Kansas, the Minnie Palenske Zwanziger Memorial Museum. Present at the opening to cut the ceremonial ribbon was the museum’s benefactor, Alma’s native-son, Fred “Fritz” C. Palenske. The building in which Fritz had been born was visible across the street, and at 80-years of age, the gift of the museum to Wabaunsee County was a tribute to Palenske’s sister, Minnie, as well as to his entire family.
Frederick C. Palenske was born in Alma on July 5, 1888, the son of Alma businessman, Louis Palenske and his wife, Emma Thoes Palenske. Fred’s paternal and maternal grandparents were Alma pioneers, settling in the mid-1850s along Mill Creek, nearly a decade before the town of Alma was created. Fred was the Palenske’s third child, joining older brother, Max and sister, Minnie. The family lived on the second floor of Louis Palenske’s business building which housed a book store and Palenske’s bank. In the two decades that followed Fred’s birth, Louis and Emma Palenske’s family continued to grow with the birth of Arnold, Laura, Victor, and Florence, all born in Alma. Louis and Emma Palenske were no strangers to loss. Two of their children, Martha and Homer, died in infancy.
Fred’s father was prominent in the business community, operating a photography studio and bookstore in Alma from 1880 to 1887, when he sold the photo business to close friend, Gus Meier. Louis Palenske then founded the Alma State Bank before becoming a partner in the Alma National Bank, and finally operating the Commercial National Bank. In 1897 Louis Palenske was elected to the Kansas State Legislature, and for four years Palenske spent considerable time traveling between Alma and Topeka by rail.
As a young man, Fred often worked in the family’s bookstore or spent time at his father’s bank. In 1902 the owner of the Alma flour mill, a Mr. Disbrow, was unable to repay loans he had taken at Palenske’s bank, defaulting and returning the property held as collateral to the bank. Louis Palenske decided to attempt to renovate and operate the mill, believing in its importance to farmers in the community. That decision would haunt him for the rest of his life. Fred, fourteen years old when his father took ownership of the mill, began working there.
When Louis Palenske acquired the mill in 1902, it was powered by water, a relic in the milling industry. In an autobiographical manuscript dated 1938 Louis Palenske writes of the mill, “From a 30-bbl mill I made a 100-bbl mill out of it: built a good-sized elevator; put a steam plant, 100-horsepower; built a 150 feet upper dam, and made a combined-steam and water power mill out of it; and erected store-rooms, etc., spending thousands of dollars. But in trying to do a great thing for Alma, lost our everything; but it was lost honestly. And then, afterwards, it was sold for almost nothing.”
In 1907 Louis purchased the old Horne saloon on the southeast corner of Main and Missouri Streets in Alma. The building, constructed in 1873, had originally housed Peter Degan’s hotel, once called Germania Hall. Degan’s in-laws, the Horne family, had operated saloons and rooming houses in the building for almost thirty years before Palenske purchased the two-story stone structure.
Louis Palenske hired the Feiden brothers to remove most of the old saloon’s façade, which faced west, replacing it with a modern storefront which included a large “picture window” and a hand-cut, arched stone entryway on the northwest corner of the building. By the time the bank opened for business, the Palenske family had moved their residence to the second floor of the new Commercial National Bank building.
Fred was increasingly anxious to leave Alma and seek his fortunes in the business world of America’s big cities. His older brother Max was married and living in Kansas City, employed in the banking business, and Fred wanted to move to the city. Louis Palenske had friends in the banking business in Kansas City, and he got Fred a job at the National Bank of Commerce. In a 1968 interview by Lewis Filstrup and Moulton Davis, Fred recalls his first job, “I went there in the depression, in 1908. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s depression. He caused a money shortage and the banks in Kansas City had no money. They had some money, but not enough. The clearing house printed their own money and …I remember that very well, the National Bank of Commerce. For some reason or other, I don’t know why, but I was chosen to go to the Union Bank Note Company in Kansas City. They had 26 automatic machines. My job was to sit on a high stool and see that these machines were operating. Each night I would take this money—it was signed in the printing operation—back to the National Bank of Commerce in a hack, a one-horse hack, and I can still hear the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones… I did that for weeks and then the bank failed in the hard times and I went to the First National Bank (in Kansas City).”
In about 1910, Fred moved to Chicago, and was hired at the Continental Illinois Bank. Shortly after his employment there, the Continental Illinois merged with the Commercial National Bank, forming the Continental and Commercial National Bank of Chicago. By 1912 Fred was employed with the National Bank Examiners as a clerk before taking a job as a purchasing agent for Mercury Manufacturing Company in 1915. Two years later Fred took a position with Palmer Tire and Rubber Company in St. Joseph, Michigan.
In the first five years of ownership of the mill, Louis Palenske had overseen the construction of a new dam on Mill Creek and installed a steam-producing boiler for auxiliary power, thus increasing the mill’s production capabilities. Still, the venture failed to make a profit. Louis Palenske was still confident that with proper modernization and improvement, the mill could be successful, while providing a great service to local farmers. Unfortunately, the milling business was not Louis Palenske’s forte. He failed to recognize that all of the tiny flour mills in Kansas were rapidly falling victim to the giant mills operating in the cities. The coming of the railroad brought the economies of scale into play as grain could be easily hauled from local depots to centralized mills at a small cost when compared to the savings in milling fees.
By the fall of 1912 it was obvious to the Palenskes that the mill was a lost cause, and that it would have to cease operations. Worse yet, Louis Palenske had borrowed so heavily on behalf of the mill to invest in modernization of the facility, that the Palenske’s lost everything they had. The Commercial National Bank closed, its liabilities were repaid from sale of the bank property and liquidation of the Palenske’s assets. The bank’s business was assumed by the new Farmer’s National Bank which located in the Meyer building directly across the street from Palenske’s former Commercial National Bank. By May of 1913 the liquidation of the bank was complete, and Louis Palenske was financially ruined.
Louis and Emma Palenske moved the family from the upstairs of the bank building, living for a year or so in the house on the mill property until the sale of that land was finalized. Then, the family moved to a rental house in McFarland in 1914. Initially, Louis Palenske built a photographic studio in McFarland, but with Gus Meier operating a successful studio in Alma, located only three miles away, business was very slow for Palenske. By 1917 Louis Palenske had closed the McFarland studio and moved to Burlington, Kansas where he operated a photography studio for more than a decade.
It was while Fred was living in Chicago that he met Maud Preston of St. Joseph, Michigan, a small port town located on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Maud’s parents had been among the early pioneers in St. Joseph. Her father and uncles were all sailors on the Great Lakes, operating merchant ships.
In 1917 Fred and Maud married, as Fred took a job as office manager with Palmer Tire and Rubber Company in St. Joseph. In 1919 Fred formed a partnership with a rubber chemist, A. G. Fredericks, and J. W. Tiscornia, creating The Industrial Rubber Goods Company (IRG). Each man contributed $2,500 to the enterprise, and initially IRG had only one customer, Auto Specialties Company, a manufacturer of convertible tops for the automobile industry. IRG manufactured a rubber seal that was attached to the forward edge of the top. Initially, IRG only employed two or three men.
On October 26, 1920 (Maud’s birthday), a fire erupted at Blanchard Chemical Company, located next door to IRG, destroying the rubber manufacturing plant. The plant was underinsured; however, Fred was determined to continue in business. Fredericks, however, wished to leave the partnership after the fire, so Fred purchased his interest in the company for $2,500. J. W. Tiscornia owned 165 acres of land in Edgewater, and he provided the property to the partnership as a site for the new plant to be built after the fire. By 1921 the new Edgewater plant opened for business.
The late 1920s brought change to the Palenske family. On March 24, 1927 Minnie married lifelong Alma resident, Martin Zwanziger, the grandson of Alma’s founder Gottlieb Zwanziger. The couple soon purchased a home at 724 Kansas Avenue in Alma and lived there for the remainders of their lives.
In the Spring of 1929 Fred’s younger brother, Victor, graduated from Kansas State College at Manhattan with a degree in Engineering. Just prior to graduation Victor had accepted a job with Kansas Power and Light at Wichita, Kansas; however, early in May Fred traveled to Kansas to see Victor, convincing him to move to St. Joseph and take a position with Industrial Rubber Goods. Victor accepted and joined his brother in Michigan after graduation.
In the late 1920s Industrial Rubber began research and development of several new products. In 1931 Fred Palenske and William A. Robbins were awarded a U. S. Patent for rubber weather stripping for windows and doors, particularly for applications in the automotive industry, expanding Industrial Rubber’s product line.
In 1932 Fred received a U. S. Patent for rubber weather stripping seal for refrigerator doors, and four months later, in 1933, he received a patent for rubber weather strip seal to be used with sliding vehicle windows. Industrial Rubber Goods and its successor companies provided rubber seals for Ford truck sliding rear windows until 2005 when a plastic seal replaced the rubber product.
Industrial Rubber Goods provided engineering services in the development of products, particularly for Ford Motor Company. The partnership proved to be successful for both companies. Ford instituted a new type of bidding procedure where they would bid all of the rubber materials used in a particular model of automobile in a single bid. Palenske’s company excelled in winning those multi-product bids.
In about 1928 Louis and Emma Palenske left Burlington and moved to Osage City, Kansas where Louis opened a photographic studio. The aging couple lived there for eight years until Fred purchased a home in Alma in 1936 for his parents to live in retirement. The home at 604 Kansas Avenue was just a short block from Louis’ longtime friend, Gus Meier’s home and two blocks from Minnie and Martin’s home. Minnie provided a watchful eye and helpful hand for her parents during their retirement years in Alma.
Fred and Maud became leaders in the community of St. Joseph, and for over a half-century they supported local charities and were deeply involved in community improvement.
During World War II, IRG shifted to war production, manufacturing gas masks for the U. S. Army. Victor went to Washington D.C. to negotiate and bid on the Army contract for rubber chemical masks. The military contracts allowed for growth of IRG, and at its peak during the war years, the company employed over 700 workers.
During the war, The Industrial Rubber Goods Company was awarded three Army-Navy Eagles, the War Department’s “E” award for excellence. In his 1968 interview with the Fort Miami Heritage Society, Fred Palenske noted IRG’s successful wartime work. “We made gas masks and then we made different parts. Then we made a dust mask for the desert. That’s really where our “E” came from. We had a wonderful setup on that. We had two shifts. I was competing, I was working one shift against the other. The last of our contract, they were holding a boat in New York or someplace for this shipment and we produced 20,000 of those things in one day.”
On August 18, 1943 Fred’s father, Louis F. Palenske passed away in Alma at the age of 85.
Emma Palenske continued to live in Alma in their “retirement house” until her death on June 27, 1957 at the age of 91. After Emma’s death, Minnie’s house became the location of Palenske family gatherings, and Fred’s visits to Alma were not infrequent.
During the post-war boom, Fred’s business grew in leaps and bounds as Industrial Rubber expanded. Fred’s remaining partner, J. W. Tiscornia decided that he wanted to leave the company. Fred purchased Tiscornia’s interest in the business for $39,000. Industrial Rubber constructed two new plants in addition to the Edgewater factory, including the Hilltop plant and a facility at New Troy, Michigan which specialized in plastic manufacturing.
Fred and Maud purchased a 600-acre farm near Elkhart, Indiana, and Fred had a log home constructed on the property. The house, itself, was like a resort; Fred’s niece, Rita Faulders, recalls it being decorated with Navajo rugs. Rita remembered that her brother, Bill’s daughter and her husband honeymooned at the cabin. Fred partnered with a local agriculture college to use the farm as a research farm, teaching animal husbandry in the hog business while using the tillable land for crop experimentation. Fred equipped the farm with the newest and best machinery.
Tragedy struck Fred Palenske on June 10, 1959 when his beloved wife, Maud died in St. Joseph at the age of 75. Fred was devastated.
On September 14, 1961, Fred Palenske announced his retirement from Industrial Rubber Goods Company and the associated sale of the company to Ball Plastics. By the end of 1962 Fred was officially retired, and the sale of his interest in the company was complete. Fred’s brother, Victor, who had served as vice-president of the company for many years, became president of the company and continued to serve in that role until his retirement in 1966.
Fred and Maud had long been deeply involved in community events at St. Joseph, and they often opened their pocketbook to support causes championed by their town and church. In 1939, 1949, and 1959 the town of St. Joseph honored the contributions to the community made by the Palenskes and Industrial Rubber Goods Company.
Despite the fact that Fred and Maud had no children, the Palenskes were revered for their kindness to the children of St. Joseph. The St. Joseph newspaper, The Herald-Press, noted in a February 18, 1939 article reporting on a celebration of Fred’s 20th year of business, “Topping the telegrams was one from Governor Frank D. Fitzgerald, but the one probably most cherished by the recipient was one addressed to ‘Papa Fred’ and signed ‘From the kids of the Edgewater Easter egg hunt.’ Each Easter Mr. Palenske sponsors an egg hunt for all the children of Edgewater.”
In the decade after Fred’s retirement, he spent considerable thought and effort in deciding whom his business fortune would benefit after his death. After Maud’s passing in 1959, Fred hoped to provide a gift to the people of St. Joseph that would honor Maud’s name and her commitment to the town. In his first major philanthropic act, Fred gave $225,000 for the construction of a new library in St. Joseph to be named the Maud Preston Palenske Library. The new library held its grand opening on September 23, 1966 with Fred cutting the ceremonial ribbon.
Fred had a desire to make significant contributions to colleges in Michigan and Indiana. In about 1966, Fred instructed his attorney to send $5,000 to every private college in the state of Michigan. Only one institution, Albion College replied with a letter of thanks. In 1967 Fred gave more than $250,000 for the construction of a new science and physics building on the Albion College campus in Albion, Michigan. Fred, Victor, and Irene toured the new building on December 17, 1969 as it was nearing completion; however, when the building was dedicated as Fred C. Palenske Hall on April 23, 1970, Fred was hospitalized at Mercy Hospital and could not attend. Victor and Irene represented Fred at the opening ceremony.
In a 1975 autobiography by Victor Palenske, he describes Fred’s involvement in the creation of the museum in Alma. He writes: “Fred had been interested for some time in a museum in Alma. There was not too much interest or enthusiasm among the local people there, with exception of Mrs. Perry, the County Superintendent, Ferd Stuewe, and Gerald Haller. After much correspondence and many phone calls, a building was found to be available, tho’ in rather bad shape. Fred gave $34,000 for the purchase and restoration of the corner limestone building, and later, enough for the purchase and repair of the corner building across the street. The museum was dedicated on October 27, 1968, as the Minnie Palenske Zwanziger Museum.”
Alma’s Chevrolet dealer, Gerald Haller worked as the intermediary between the museum supporters in Alma and Fred Palenske in St. Joseph. Numerous letters were exchanged between the two men, describing the difficulty encountered in organizing support for the new museum. While the Wabaunsee County Historical Society had been active in the 1890s, it had long been inactive, and Haller expressed his frustration in his inability to organize and maintain interest in developing a museum in the facilities that Fred was offering.
On May 18, 1967 Fred’s older sister, Minnie, passed away at the age of 81. Fred and Minnie had always been very close, and her death was a blow to Fred. He renewed his efforts to organize a museum in Alma, finding new motivation in providing a lasting memorial to his beloved sister, Minnie.
On October 27, 1968 the newly reorganized Wabaunsee County Historical Society held its grand opening of the Minnie Palenske Zwanziger Memorial Museum in the newly-remodeled Meyer building located at the southwest corner of 3rd and Missouri Streets in Alma. Fred proudly cut the ribbon at the front door in front of a large crowd of well-wishers and family members.
Six months later in May of 1969 Fred returned to Alma to be honored along with Dr.Eldon McKnight by the Alma Rotary Club. While in Alma, Fred discovered that the limestone building directly across Missouri Street from the new museum was for sale. It was the same building that his father had purchased and remodeled in 1907 for his Commercial National Bank and that in which the Palenske family lived for almost a decade. On June 12, 1969 before returning to St. Joseph, Fred purchased the building and gifted it to the newly formed Wabaunsee County Historical Society. That building has since been known as Palenske Hall. This would be Fred’s last trip to his beloved Alma.
Fred was stricken with colon cancer and received treatment at Mercy Hospital in Benton Harbor, Michigan, but on July 27, 1970, he passed away at the age of 82. Fred’s will designated his brother and business partner, Victor, to be the administrator of his estate. Fred’s assets were divided between that of his estate, including his home in St. Joseph, and his trust, which primarily included an investment portfolio. While family members received generous bequests relative to the times, numerous charities and educational institutions were named as the primarily beneficiaries of Fred’s estate.
On March 26, 1973 Fred’s estate in Michigan had finally closed with the sale of the Palenske residence, and the following bequests were paid: Salvation Army, $5,000; American Cancer Society, $5,000; and First Congregational Church, $35,000, of which $5,000 funded a religious education scholarship that Fred had established before his death.
Fred’s farm in Indiana took longer to sell, thus delaying and complicating the settlement of his trust. While Fred’s municipal bonds and other investments were sold within the specified one-year, at the time property was slow in selling in northern Indiana. A sale of Fred’s farm equipment was very successful with the machinery bringing like-new prices, and by the spring of 1974 the farm was sold to an Argentinian.
By December 30, 1974 the trust had closed and Fred’s final philanthropic gifts were presented to the beneficiaries. Besides the personal bequests to relatives and friends, Fred gave $175,000 to the City of St. Joseph for library expansion of the Maud Preston Palenske Memorial Library; $100,000 to Memorial Hospital; $100,000 to the Wabaunsee County Historical Society in Alma, Kansas for an endowment fund; $25,000 to the Wabaunsee County Historical Society for a building fund, $25,000 to the Starr Commonwealth, Albion, Michigan; $5,000 to establish a memorial fund at North Central College, Naperville, Illinois; and lastly, $250,000 each to Hope College, Olivet College, Adrian College, Hillsdale College, and Alma College, all located in Michigan, and Tri-State College in Angola, Indiana. The residual income from the trust was to be divided among those six colleges, making Fred’s gift $268,225.69 to each college for a total of over $1.6 million.
Fred Palenske’s life was one hallmarked by hard work, diligence, loyalty to family, and honor to his heritage and home.
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