Have you ever heard of the Naperville Lounge Co.?
Could it be the name of a rock band? Or, maybe, a piano bar located in a sprawling western suburb of Chicago?
Actually, it was the original name of the Kroehler Manufacturing Co., which would be a major employer in Kankakee County for nearly three-fourths of a century.
In 1903, a decade after it was founded in DuPage County, the Naperville Lounge Co. purchased a large piece of vacant industrial land in Bradley The property the company bought had been a factory site dating to the industrial origins of Bradley (then called North Kankakee).
Bounded by Michigan Avenue on the west, Goodwin Street on the north, the Illinois Central tracks on the east and South Street on the south, the land originally belonged to the Gibbs Chair Co. Gibbs Chair occupied two substantial factory buildings, each 60 by 250 feet and four stories in height. It was one of the four original factories operating in North Kankakee in 1893; the others were Ideal Folding Bed Co., the Joseph Turk Furniture Co. and Demme & Dierkes Furniture Co.
A national financial panic forced Gibbs Chair Co. to close its doors in mid-1893. The buildings stood idle until 1900, when they were purchased by the Archer Starch Co. Converted to the manufacture of cornstarch, the plant was considered the world’s largest, processing 6,000 bushels of corn each day. On March 15, 1901, 14 months after it opened, the complex was destroyed in a spectacular fire.
The Naperville Lounge Co. was founded in 1893 by James Nichols (a professor at a Naperville school that later became North Central College) and two other men.
They hired Peter E. Kroehler, one of Nichols’ students, as a clerk for the company, paying him $26 per month. Kroehler rose rapidly in the company, becoming a partner in 1896.
The year 1903 was a busy one for Kroehler: he became president of the Naperville Lounge Co., bought out two of his partners and purchased the land in Bradley. It would be eight years, however, before furniture was once again manufactured on the Bradley site.
In June 1911, Kroehler opened his new factory under a different corporate name: P.E. Kroehler Manufacturing Co.
Four years later, in 1915, Kroehler bought out his remaining partner (Sears, Roebuck and Co.) in the Naperville Lounge Co., then merged the Naperville and Kroehler firms with two other furniture makers. The new, larger organization would operate under the name Kroehler Manufacturing Co. until 1981.
The plant Kroehler opened in 1911 was identified as “Factory No. 3” (Factory No. 1 was, of course, in Naperville; Factory No. 2 opened in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1907). Interestingly, the company referred to Factory No. 3 as its Kankakee plant. Factory No. 4, opened in 1930 on the Michigan Avenue side of the property, was referred to as the Bradley plant.
A 1928 article in the Kankakee Daily Republican noted that the Kankakee plant “enjoys the distinction of being the world’s largest factory devoted to the manufacture of living room furniture. In the item of bed Davenports (called sofa beds or sleeper sofas today) alone for the last year, the output was greater than the combined output of 10 of its largest competitors.”
The article detailed some of the statistics of production at the four-story, 550,000-square-foot factory: 3,000 railroad carloads of furniture shipped annually, 900 pieces of upholstered furniture turned out each working day, 10-million-linear-feet of birch and mahogany lumber used annually to construct furniture frames and 18,000 yards of (mostly imported) upholstery fabric consumed each week.
When Factory No. 4 opened in 1930, all the upholstered furniture production was shifted there; Factory No. 3 converted its operations to building dining room and bedroom furniture. At that time, the manufacturer had nine plants in the United States and Canada; by 1968, the company’s 75th year in business, there were 22 Kroehler factories around the world, employing 7,000 workers.
In 1961, after 50 years of operation, Kroehler’s Factory No. 3 shut down, and production was consolidated in the more-modern Factory No.4. By the early 1970s, the local plant employed more than 850 workers.
Sales of Kroehler furniture totaled $143 million in 1973, and $167 million in 1976.
The lingering effects of a 1974-75 recession eventually took their toll: the company lost $14 million in 1977 and 1978.
By 1980, the company was selling off its manufacturing plants and in 1981, a Chicago investment company bought a controlling interest. In effect, Kroehler was no longer Kroehler.
Beginning in 1982, a new firm called Luxor Spring Co. manufactured furniture at the Bradley plant keeping the Kroehler brand name alive. It went bankrupt, however, in 1986.
The original Factory No. 3, on the east side of the site along the railroad tracks, burned down in 1989.
Today, Factory No. 4, along Michigan Avenue, is rented out to a number of small companies.