Edward P. Allis | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Allis, Edward P. (1824-1889)

Edward P. Allis | Wisconsin Historical Society

Entrepreneur and manufacturing innovator Edward P. Allis (1824-1889) helped to revolutionize steam engines, agricultural equipment and heavy machinery, building a worldwide reputation for his enormous Milwaukee factory. Merging with the Fraser and Chalmers Company in 1901, the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company continued to build machinery for most of the 20th century.

Edward Phelps Allis was born May 12, 1824, in Cazenovia, New York. Graduating from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1845, Allis intended to become a lawyer, but his plans changed and he moved to Milwaukee the following year. In 1848 he married Margaret Watson with whom he would eventually have 12 children.

Allis began his life in Wisconsin in the leather business, building extensive tanneries at Two Rivers, Wisconsin. By 1854 Allis had disposed of his tanneries and confined his business operations to banking and real estate. Allis purchased Milwaukee's Reliance Works in 1860 and began producing steam engines and other mill equipment at the same time that many sawmills and flour mills were converting to steam power. Allis also installed a mill for the production of iron pipe to supply the water systems in Milwaukee and Chicago, and worked with millwright George Hinckley to develop a high-speed saw for large sawmills. By the late 1880s Allis Company was Milwaukee's largest industrial employer and built heavy machinery for factories, mines, power plants and public utilities.

In the 1870s Allis joined the Greenback Party, a political movement that gained a more significant following after the severe depression of 1873. Advocating an increase in the supply of paper money — greenbacks — first issued by the government to help pay for the Civil War, the Greenback Party believed that maintaining a flexible supply of paper money better served the interests of working people. As a major employer, Allis sought to maintain good relations with his employees and worked to reward the diligence and efficiency of his workers. Allis was the Greenback party's candidate for governor in 1877 and 1881.

By the time of Allis' death on April 1, 1889, the Allis Company employed more than 1,200 workers and earned over $3 million dollars a year.