Manufacturing in the midwest (more than agriculture), showing tractor assembly line

Manufacturing in the Midwest

To this day I have a distinct memory… being a youngster on the school bus, recognizing I was getting close to downtown because of the smell of yeast.

As you might have guessed, the town is Milwaukee, and that smell was beer being produced by one of the larger breweries (actually, turns out more of that aroma likely (initially) came from a distillery).  Usually distinct by 27th Street, the yeast scent was often my first clue that I was near downtown; signaling to me, I was close to where things were made and business was happening.  It’s said that your sense of smell holds your strongest recall, so this tracts.  I imagine I am not alone in this experience, whether you lived in close proximity to a lumber yard, a foundry or mill, or maybe a larger farm.  I am certain there are others out there that have a memory - and maybe a smell - that distinguishes a significant business you grew up near and traveled past regularly.


Midwest = Manufacturing

When most think of the exports from the Midwest, I suspect they think of agriculture, farming and livestock.  And while that is a large part of the midwestern economy, it is still #2 to another focus… one that has been part of midwestern culture for a long time – Manufacturing.  The manufacturing industry had started to decline around the mid-20th century, for various reasons.  But some communities were able to adapt, usually by shifting focus towards sectors such as services and advanced manufacturing. The industry has continued changing over the years, especially recently with trade/tariff aspects, as well as a decline of the auto industry, automation, and other shifts.  Despite this, manufacturing and the Midwest continue to be a strong contributor to the US economy.


Local Company’s, Known Products

Photo thanks to ABC Television (1976)

I knew there were products made in Wisconsin when I was younger, but I remember when I found out that some cars were made here (AMC in Kenosha and GM in Janesville).  Being a car guy from the age of cruising Matchbox cars, I thought all US vehicles only came from Detroit.  Growing older I realized that many surrounding towns were home to known larger companies and great products: Harley Davidson, Johnson Controls, Kohler, S.C. Johnson, Sub-Zero and Trek bicycles to name a few.  A little more than the dairy, cheese and beer that have come to be our state’s “name-sake.” One of the oldest and largest in our area being the Allis Company, founded in 1861.  Allis merged in 1901 to become the Allis-Chalmers Company - known for its contributions of machinery for various industries, from agricultural equipment to power generation.

(At the end I have included the top manufacturing focus and products for the surrounding Midwest states)


Midwest’s Advantage (& History)

There was a time when the Midwest was the hub of production for the country.  The Midwest had inherent traits giving it an advantage in manufacturing… predominantly resources and location.  Resources included access to elements that were in high demand for many areas.  For example, iron and steel production was very reliant on magnetic taconite ore that often came from Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin.  "Resources” encompassed not just materials, but also a regular influx of immigrants with innate talent and skills.  I doubt without the large Bavarian population in Wisconsin that our brewing history would have been near as strong. And despite being a “landlocked” area, the Midwest had access to many rivers and the Great Lakes giving it a freshwater highway (cue music) to get products to other cities, and to adjoin to a growing railroad system.


Conclusion: Pride in Production

While times have changed, the Midwest still makes several great exports.  Artisans still exist!  While not all things are still made by hand, the pride of that design and production persists, and continues to be strong in the Midwest.  It’s not just “the coasts” looking to our region, other countries rely on resources produced here as well.  Advanced manufacturing is emerging as one of the strongest sectors of the US economy.  With all that’s happened in the last 12-16 months, I think we should not only notice but recognize & celebrate things made locally.


What’s an item you were surprised to find out was made locally near you? Did I overlook an important product from your state?  Please update me.


--Brad Tythcott, Marketing Coordinator at ISE

Grandson of Machine Repair Shop Owner.

Son to Product Design Engineer.

Brother of a Fabricator/Welder.


ISE (Information Systems Engineering, Inc) is proceeding into its 2nd generation of family ownership, where our priority continues to be that of helping other companies improve their production, while being your trusted advisor for all things shop floor!

IA…        Being well known for their corn, Iowa does produce a lot of related products including corn oil and corn starch, along with having 1 of the largest cereal mills.  Additionally, ranking high for meat packing plants and machinery production for farms and construction.

IL…         Home to the "windy city,” Illinois’ main export is machinery, including construction and farming related implements. As well as being a resource for processed foods such as baked goods and cereals, candy and sausage. Illinois also does a lot of chemical manufacturing.

IN…        Maybe best known for its interstates, semi-trucks and truck stops, Indiana is big in the service industry.  Being well known for their contributions to transportation related equipment and parts, but also to metal production including steel and aluminum.

MI…       Previously the bustling automotive hub, Michigan still makes a great number of transportation vehicles.  As well as many products needed for production such as bearings, dies, conveyors, and also tools.

MN…     The land of 10,000 lakes, tends to lead in farming livestock and crops including corn. But is also a large manufacturer of technology such as medical devices and agricultural machinery.

OH…      The gross majority of Buckeye manufacturing occurs in transportation including aircraft. Also ranking is their production of fabricated metals (structural, metal stampings and hardware) and chemicals such as soap, industrial chemicals and paint.

WI…       Being “the dairy state/America’s dairyland,” it’s no surprise that our top 5 agricultural products are dairy related and is big in related food products.  But Wisconsin is also a leader in machinery (engines, cranes, HVAC equipment, and metal working machinery), followed by motor vehicles and parts.

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