MANKATO — Denny Dotson noticed the collection of boxes when he first began working at Dotson Iron Castings foundry 50 years ago.
“There were boxes and boxes of records and documents. It struck me at the time that these documents were really valuable. I kept moving them to different rooms and buildings over the years and adding to them.”
When he became president of the company, Dotson always kept an empty box under his desk, as did Jean Bye when she took over as president. Now President Tyson Twait does the same.
“Anytime we came across a document we thought would have historical significance we just dropped it in the box,” Dotson said.
Realizing few local small companies have been around nearly 150 years and have an extensive collection of their history, Dotson a few years ago hired archivist Brian Fors to sort through the collection, preserve it and index it.
“We put all the boxes, hundreds of them, all in one room. When Brian saw it, he just said ‘Wow,’” Dotson said. “It took him years to go through it. He knew exactly how they should be archived to preserve them and everything is indexed.”
This week Dotson donated the collection to the Southern Minnesota Historical Center at Minnesota State University.
MSU President Richard Davenport said the archives, the largest single donation to the center in the past 20 years, will be a valuable asset for current and future students and scholars.
“Dotson Iron Castings has been integral in making the greater Mankato area a great place to live and work for more than 140 years, and these archives will be a valuable tool in telling the story of the company’s contribution to our region,” Davenport said in a statement.
The archive donation consists of 65 linear feet of company papers, including correspondence, subject files, contracts, financial records, incorporation documents, ledgers, production data, employee-related records, engineering drawings and photographs from the three main manifestations of the company.
The donation will also include oral histories with the two past presidents of the company and some family records. Potential artifact donations are being discussed.
Jail bail receipt
Fors, who with his wife operates The History Writers, said he was impressed as soon as he laid eyes on the collection.
“I thought it was a great collection from the start. He had finance records, marketing records, internal management reports, meeting minutes and old accounting journals going back to the 1890s. There’s personal letters in this talking about the challenges and ups and downs of business, labor issues, WWll, challenges of growth.”
Fors said that while he found lots of interesting items, one stands out.
“There was a receipt, from 1942, from the North Mankato Police Department. It was a bail receipt for $100. The company paid the bail for one of their employees who’d been arrested. It was World War ll and everyone was doing their part, and no one wanted an employee sitting in jail,” Fors said.
He said archiving the collection took a long time. “There was soot, rust from paper clips and staples. It had to be put in acid-free folders and then inventoried so people can find it when they need it.”
Fors said he was struck by the fact there are few comprehensive histories from manufacturers in rural areas. “A lot of rural areas have manufacturing, but we’re not aware of it because they didn’t keep the history.”
The company began in 1876, when Laurentius Mayer started a blacksmith shop in downtown Mankato. Mayer was soon joined by his three sons, and for 40 years the Mayer family built a business that produced more than 500 tractors, nearly 20,000 power forging hammers and even one car. Dotson’s grandfather was hired to run the company, and he eventually purchased it.
Dotson said the records not only tell the history of the company and things it’s produced over the years, but gives insight into the history that was happening, including the advent of a union at the foundry.
“You can look at the different contracts over the years and see the different language that was added. Unions came about at that time because working conditions were so horrible.”
There are records of when the Mayers sold local bonds to raise money for a major expansion. “You look at the names of the bond owners and they are all the movers and shakers of the community,” Dotson said.
The records also detail the several bankruptcies the company moved through during its existence.
The collections also contain more personal items, including hundreds of letters that Dotson’s parents wrote to each other when they were dating and those written after they were married and Dotson’s father was traveling a lot.
Beyond ensuring the collection is in safe hands and can be used for research, Dotson said he has another reason to be happy about the donation.
“Now, I don’t have to be the one responsible for safeguarding it. That’s a relief.”