FOREST CITY | Winnebago Industries started 60 years ago with a dozen workers building travel trailers in a facility shared with a hatchery.
Today, the Forest City-based company is a leading U.S. recreation vehicle manufacturer with 4,200 employees.
"There's this rich spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that seems to have grown up here fostered by our location and the people who have worked here," said Chad Reece, director of marketing at Winnebago.
In late 1957, citizens of Forest City contributed to a fund drive to start the new industry. Residents could invest money in $100 increments.
The fund drive raised $50,000, with 208 residents contributing.
Reece said this speaks to the "grass-roots" background of Winnebago, which has made it such an iconic brand.
Marlen Hanson was one of the original 12 employees who started work on Jan. 28, 1958.
He was just 18 and it was his first full-time job.
At that time jobs in the Forest City area "were not easy to come by," he said.
Although Winnebago only paid him $1 an hour, which was the minimum wage at the time, he considered himself lucky.
That first group of employees set up the plant for production.
The first Winnebago plant was at the intersection of Highways 9 and 69, where Forest City Ford is now located.
Work was slow at first, according to Hanson. He said half the building was occupied by a hatchery, so there wasn't a lot of room for building trailers.
The also didn't have many tools.
Hanson said there was tremendous excitement in the community about opening the plant.
As the company grew, "it put a lot of people to work," he said.
Hanson left Winnebago after six months to work for Forester Trailer, which had just started. He stayed with Forester until it closed 19 years later.
Hanson returned to Winnebago in 1983 and stayed until his retirement in 2002.
By 1961, the company had grown so much that the old canning factory in the west part of town was purchased and converted to production.
Harlan Rodberg started working at that new plant in February 1964. He was farming at the time and thought he would just work for a few months until the start of field work in the spring.
"Fifty springs later I was still there so I must have liked it," said Rodberg, who retired from the company in 2014.
In September 1964, a fire broke out at the plant. Rodberg remembers lots of local fire departments came to fight the blaze, but the wooden building was destroyed.
Work began that fall on what would become known as the north plant.
Rodberg said everyone worked together to make that happen because the community wanted to the company to succeed.
In the spring of 1965, Rodberg and the other employees went to work at the new building.
Winnebago built its first motor home the following year.
"It took us quite a while to build that first one," Rodberg said.
In a few years there wasn't enough room at the north plant, so work began on the new site, nicknamed "Big Bertha."
Membership Sale Advisory! Subscribe or log in to keep reading.