The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Bettendorf, William Peter
(July 1, 1857–June 3, 1910)

and

Joseph William Bettendorf

(October 10, 1864–May 16, 1933)

–manufacturers—were the eldest children of German immigrants, Michael and Catherine (Beck) Bettendorf. William was born in Mendota, Illinois, where Michael worked as a teacher and a store clerk. The family moved to Sedalia, Missouri, and then to Leavenworth, Kansas, where Michael worked as a federal government clerk and where Joseph was born. William attended St. Mary's Mission School in Fort Leavenworth, and his father also tutored him at home. At the age of 13, he worked as a messenger boy in Humboldt, Kansas. In 1872 the family moved to Peru, Illinois, where young William spent two years as a clerk in the A. L. Shepard & Company hardware store. He went to work for the Peru Plow Company in 1874 as a machinist's apprentice and in 1878 patented the first successful "power lift" sulky plow. This invention was adopted by seven of the largest manufacturers in the United States, and William received $5,000 in royalty fees. When Joseph reached the age of 18, he, too, went to work for the Peru Plow Company. He started as a machinist and soon became foreman of the assembly department.

    William married Mary Wortman from Peru in 1879. They had two children, both of whom died in infancy. Joseph married Elizabeth Ohl in Peru in 1888. They had two sons, Edwin J. and William E.

    In 1880 William went to work for the Moline Plow Company in Moline, Illinois, for 10 months and then became foreman for the Parlin & Orendorff Company at Canton, Illinois. By July 1882, he was back at the Peru Plow Company as superintendent. In that capacity, he invented the "Bettendorf metal wheel," which had an iron hub and steel spokes. The new wheel, for use in wagons and other farm vehicles, revolutionized farm machinery. The invention was very successful, but William was not satisfied with the method used to make the new wheels, so he invented new machinery to make the wheels. The Peru Plow Company, however, was unwilling to finance the venture even though the company had paid for the wheel patent and owned a half interest.

    In 1886 E. P. Lynch, president of the Eagle Manufacturing Company of Davenport, agreed to help William and Joseph finance the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. William took charge of the factory with a salary of $2,500 a year in addition to the profits that patent rights gave him. The business prospered, using machines that William invented. In 1890 the company built a larger factory in Springfield, Ohio, and Joseph moved to Springfield in 1890 to manage the new branch.

    In 1891 William invented a combined self-oiling hollow steel axle, bolster, and stakes for farm wagons, which replaced those made of wood. In 1892 he resigned his position as vice president and general manager of the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company and sold his interests in his patents to his associates. He then turned his attention to patenting machinery to manufacture axles and invented nine special machines. He opened his new business on January 4, 1894, and incorporated the Bettendorf Axle Company in 1895, with himself as president and Joseph as secretary and later as treasurer.

    William's next project was to make railroad cars stronger by substituting steel for wood in various parts, including the "Bettendorf frame," a metal box used to house and support car axles rotating on bearings. Eventually, he manufactured entire railway cars.

    The business soon outgrew the factory in Davenport, and after two disastrous fires in 1902, the brothers relocated to nearby Gilbert, which in 1903 was renamed Bettendorf. Business at the new plant was so successful that the brothers sold the wagon part of the business to concentrate entirely on manufacturing railway cars. The business became well known in the United States and Europe.

    In 1908, seven years after the death of his first wife, William married Elizabeth H. Staby. They began construction on a 20-room mansion, but before it was finished, William died at the age of 53 from complications of intestinal cancer. At the time of his death, 25 patents were pending in his name.

    Joseph was then appointed company president. Under his guidance, the company continued to flourish. After its name was changed to the Bettendorf Company, it became the largest manufacturing concern in the Davenport area, with shops covering 33 acres and employing up to 2,500 people.

    In 1913 the Bettendorf Company received a $15 million order from the Union Pacific Railroad. During World War I, the company cooperated with other railroad car companies to provide 3,000 cars for government use. In addition, the Bettendorf plant produced 30 percent of all the side frames manufactured for the government during the war.

    Joseph was also interested in other local industries. He served as president and director of the Bettendorf Water Company, the Bettendorf Light and Power Company, the Linograph Corporation, the Westco-Chip pewa Pump Company, the Micro Corporation, and the Buddy "L" Manufacturing Company. He was a director of the Davenport Bank & Trust Company; the Innes Manufacturing Company; Federal Bake Shops, Inc.; the Davenport Machinery & Foundry Company; and the Davenport Locomotive & Manufacturing Company. He also was a member of the Davenport Industrial Commission, which encouraged industrial development in the area. He was also active in many civic organizations, and he supported the Tri-City Symphony Orchestra and other musical organizations. He also enjoyed improving the beautiful flower gardens that surrounded his residence on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.

    Joseph's belief that taxes were too high on real estate and property led to an interest in tax reform. In 1928 he came up with the "gross income tax plan," which he thought would distribute taxes more equitably. His tax plan was considered by the Iowa legislature, but was not passed.

    Joseph died on May 16, 1933, at the age of 68 of a coronary thrombosis at his home in Bettendorf. His two sons, Edwin J. and William, continued the family's involvement in the Bettendorf Company.
Sources include Portrait and Biographical History of Scott County, Iowa (1895); National American Biography (1999); and Who Was Who in America (1897–1942) and (1961– 1968). The Davenport Democrat carried William's obituary on 6/5/1910 and Joseph's on 5/17/1933.
Contributor: Pam Rees

Cite as: Rees, Pam. "Bettendorf, William Peter" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017