Oak Mfg. Co. was an integral part of Crystal Lake through most of the 20th century. Books can (and have) been written about the company’s history, products, people, and impact on our community. This brief history of the company touches on just a bit of the company’s local impact.
Oak Mfg. Co. was founded in 1932 by Edward Bessey in Crystal Lake during the “Golden Age of Radio.” The company produced small switches, dial lights, and sockets for the expanding radio industry. A fair portion of the business was also derived from stamping laminated bakelite and fabricating pieces from bakelite and fibre tubing.
The original Crystal Lake factory was located on the north side of Crystal Lake Avenue, just east of Main Street. In later years, it was known as “Plant 2.” The factory consisted of two buildings: the old Duntile plant (which manufactured concrete blocks) and the 100’ x 125’ addition which housed the lathes, presses, and other machinery.
Money was tight during the Depression Era of the 1930’s – but somehow Oak was able to limp its way through the tough times, making payroll and maintaining production. Many of its earliest employees were still on the payroll 35 years later, including: Elmer Benson, Robert Berg, Alfred Berquist, Otto Kolls, George Kongabel, Richard Kossak, Milton Krumpen, Lillian Legat, Rose Leigh, Bessy Mayer, Joseph Miske, Florence Naslund, Florence Peterson, Martha Reimer, John Rovelstad, Richard Rovelstad, Frances Setina, Fred Vogelman, Marvin Wells, Harry Wendt, Charles Woosley, and Carl Zeyloth.
In November, 1934, The Crystal Lake Herald reports:
Oak Mfg. Co. Continues Recovery Pace – For the past many months, each evening, long after the lights of Crystal Lake are turned low for the night, one bright spot remains—the shop of the Oak Mfg. Co. It has gotten so now that the riders on the late trains look to this factory as a beacon. More than once have train crews remarked one to the other the “They are at it again—good times must be on the way.”
What is this company that keeps working away, day and night, week in and week out, month by month, around the calendar? Right here in Crystal Lake we have a business romance in that romantic industry of radio. The progress that the Oak Mfg. Co. has made and is making is an inspiration. It is more than that—those lights that burn so brightly that nimble fingers may work, is a beacon signaling the return of better times.
By the end of the 1930s, business had picked up quite a bit. Oak was still manufacturing all sorts of electronic components for radios. They even branched out, trying new and unique items that sometimes (often) failed, such as: Golfo (an indoor golf driving range) and a Doughnut Machine (mixed & baked doughnuts). But the losses from these side ventures were always offset by the success Oak had in producing its mainstay of radio components.
The employees of Oak were happy to have jobs, and enjoyed a “family-type” of camaraderie throughout the plant. In 1939, company president Ed Bessey purchased an old restaurant building and established the Oak Social Club.
World War II brought new challenges and opportunities to Oak Mfg. Co. Production of switches and radio tuners for civilian use was eliminated – the focus was on government (military) use. Oak was one of the first companies to enter into a royalty-free agreement with the United States Government which permitted anyone (including competitors) to manufacture and sell Oak products that were previously protected with patents. Despite this, Oak had plenty of business, as they had excellent, well-manned tool rooms, and top-notch manufacturing facilities.
Also during the War, women joined the workforce while the men were fighting overseas. The Crystal Lake plant established its Employees’ Welfare Club. This devoted group kept up a line of communication between the people in service and home. They wrote letters, and provided material things such as sweaters and socks.
The end of World War II brought new opportunities to Oak Mfg. Co. The War had brought about a change in the communication industry. Radios, record players, and televisions were on demand by the civilian population that had patiently “done without” during the War. A new name for these types of items was coined, “electronics. “
The sudden death in 1949 of Oak’s beloved president, Edward Bessey brought a change in leadership. Elof Sandstrom was elected Chairman and Robert A. O’Reilly was elected President. This hard-working leadership team continued to lead Oak through an evolution of new products and new industry.
Elof Sandstrom played an extremely important role in the success of Oak. He was a hard worker, who was known to work very long hours. Elof was one of Oak’s first employees, and had remained as Ed Bessey’s right-hand man through both the prosperous and lean years.
Through the ensuing decades, Oak has retooled itself many times and adapted to the ever changing technological advances of the 20th century. For example, in the 1970’s Oak developed the technology to make over-the-air subscription television service possible and economical. Here was the birth of “Pay TV”. In 1980, Oak was the largest employer in Crystal Lake, with 2,500 people on its local payroll. The company reported profits of $20 million on sales of $386 million!
All good things must come to an end. Technology moved faster than Oak, and the company began to shut down operations. In 1991, the company announced plans to close its doors in Crystal Lake and leave town by year’s end.