Moving forward, reflecting back as Blumenthal Lansing Company brings operations to an end

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

“It’s like losing your family,” Dawn Schobert, long-time employee of the Blumenthal Lansing plant, expressed in regard to the plant's closing as the long-time Lansing facility has now ceased operations. “Many of us have worked together for as long as we can remember. I’ve worked there 42 years. We’ve seen each other get married, have kids, see those kids graduate, lose family members. Now we won’t see those people every day. It’s going to be hard.”

The emotional toll will be as hard to bear as the financial toll for these displaced workers of the Blumenthal Lansing Button Factory. Schobert’s sentiments are the sentiments of many of the employees out of work with the Blumenthal Lansing  Button Factory  closing its doors. She, along with nearly 70 others, have been seeking new jobs and wondering what the future holds for them. Many are too young for retirement, yet they have been out of the job-seeking market for 20 or 30 years, or more. Resumés, interviews and expected job skills have changed a lot in those years.

To help the employees find possible jobs, Iowa Workforce Development has offered numerous services to job seekers, especially those who have been laid off from long-term employment. The Regional Iowa Workforce Development, based out of a regional office in Decorah, has satellite offices in all of the county seats in Iowa. A job fair held in Lansing in July had 20 employers looking for new employees. Approximately 40 people attended the job fair. Some of those employers were local, such as nutMeg’s Bakery and Lansing Housing Products; some were fairly close, such as Waukon businesses like Waukon Feed Ranch and TASC, Inc.; and some were from as far away as Dubuque, such as the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark. An Iowa Works representative has also been available to workers at the factory over its past few months. Many of the workers from Lansing would like to stay in this area because of family ties.

In addition to job fairs, Northeast IA Iowa Works offers one-on-one assistance to individuals who want assistance with interviewing skills and writing resumes. Iowa Works offers numerous workshops to help with job searching and brushing up job skills. Interested individuals can call 563-382-0457 or e-mail for more information.
Amy Chicos of Iowa WorkForce Development explained the process and the resources available for the displaced workers. “The Rapid Response process for a business closure or mass lay-off is led by the IowaWORKS Northeast Iowa, Decorah office."

Worker information meetings were set up by Fern Rissman, WIOA Director, to inform affected workers of the services available by agency partners from northeast Iowa.  Presentations were made by Rissman about the re-employment and re-training services available from the IowaWORKS in Decorah. Dr. Wendy Mihm-Herold spoke about  programs available at NICC. Other groups represented in workshops were Visiting Nurses Association, Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation services, Allamakee County Economic Development Executive Director Val Reinke, and Department of Human Services.

Rissman also reported, “IowaWORKS staff member Lisa Curtin has provided weekly on-site office hours at the plant to assist and guide individuals through their job loss. Workshops on job applications, resumés and interviewing were provided  at the plant prior to the Job Fair to better prepare workers for the event. IowaWORKS staff have facilitated the National Career Readiness Certificate assessment as a measurement of transferable skills for the workers. Since many of the affected workers have not been job seekers for many years, IowaWORKS staff guide them through the re-employment process.”

Rissman further stated, “Assistance for applying for unemployment insurance is taken out to the workers when closures occur. This process is also underway to assist affected workers from the closure of CVG in Monona. IowaWorks staff wishes to thank Kee High School and its staff for allowing us to use their facility for the job fair.”

Northeast Iowa Community College also stands ready to help individuals who want to take classes to train for different types of jobs. NICC's Waukon Center was represented at the job fair as well. People who are considering classes, either towards a degree, for job certification or for increased job skills can contact Erica Nosbisch at the Waukon Center at 563-538-3060 or e-mail

Lansing has had a long tradition with button making. Mollusk shells, with their pearly inner surface, were an ideal material for buttons in the late 19th century. Harvesting mollusks (clams) on the Mississippi was likened to the California Gold Rush. The Mississippi River had millions of them.

In 1877, Benjamin Blumenthal started B. Blumenthal and Co., one of the first button factories along the Mississippi, in Muscatine. There were numerous button factories all along the Mississippi River.

The factory in Lansing was started by retired steamboat Capt. Jeremiah Turner in 1897. Starting as Turner Button Factory, it manufactured clam shell button blanks and sent them on to other factories to complete. By 1907, Turner's grandson, Leo Hufschmidt, was a partner in the company that now was called Lansing Button Works.
Lansing resident Karen Galema’s family has a long history connected to the button industry. She said her great-great-grandparents were clammers on the Mississippi River, making a good living collecting clams and selling them to the button factories.

In 1916, the United States produced six billion buttons a year. As the mollusks became scarcer because of the huge demand as well as the environmental issue of the river changing with locks and dams, more and more buttons were made from other materials, such as plastic. There was no longer a need to keep the button factories close to the river.
Galema recalls, “The Button Factory had several locations in Lansing. It was along Front Street, then on Main Street where Horsfalls and Kerndt Brothers Bank is now, then down by the high school where the fitness center is, and then, finally, they built the building on the west edge of town in the '90s.”

In 1938, the company stopped manufacturing buttons and became the factory that sorted and carded the buttons. By 1943, the Lansing Button Company was a wholesaler of buttons. It became the second largest wholesaler of buttons in the U.S. Blumenthal's was the largest.

During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Blumenthal acquired several other button companies, including the Lansing Company in 1986. Eventually most of the buttons were made overseas but sent to Lansing to be carded and sorted. The Lansing Blumenthal plant was one of the last button factories in the United States.

In early 2016, the Blumenthal Company was sold to CSS Industries out of Pennsylvania. At that point, everyone still felt that the factory would stay open, but in April, the parent industry announced the decision to move the operation elsewhere by mid-summer.

This closure hits not only the full-time employees but also the home workers. Many individuals, particularly retirees, supplemented their income by working from home, carding and sorting buttons. Replacing this income will be difficult since there are few work-from-home jobs similar to this.

Galema, one of those home workers, said, “Generations of families have worked at the button factory. Many of the full-time workers have worked there for decades. It was a good part-time job for college students and high school students. Now it’s gone. It’s kind of like going through a death in the family.”

Equally devastating is the financial toll. Removing the income from over 70 workers is going to have far-reaching effects not only on them but on the grocery store, the small businesses and the community overall. When seven percent of the workforce in a town with a population of 1,000  is laid off, the economic impact can be overwhelming to the entire community.

Lansing Mayor Brennan  contacted Senator Chuck Grassley’s office to see what assistance could be offered at the Federal level as well.  Senator Grassley responded by writing to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, requesting assistance in the area of retraining displaced workers. Grassley’s office posted a press release which stated,

“If the state requests federal assistance, it is my hope that the Department of Labor would take quick action to assist the displaced workers and aid the efforts of the state, regional and local organizations and economic development leaders in response to this closure.”

Grassley also requested that the Department of Labor quickly consider any additional requests for assistance, including any potential request for a National Dislocated Worker Grant to help workers and provide assistance to those affected by the Blumenthal Lansing closure. “The services and employment training facilitated by the Department of Labor would be critical in helping the affected workers get back on their feet and find suitable employment as quickly as possible,” Grassley's letter continued. Copies of the letter were also sent to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad. Other area organizations are working diligently to try to find solutions for these employees, as well as the facility itself.

Valerie  Reinke, Executive Director of Allamakee County Economic Development & Tourism, stated, “Allamakee County Economic Development (ACED) continues to reach out to all of our partners in economic development to promote the building, the workforce, and the community.”

She explained that there have been many tours, meetings and conversations about the property. “This building is 100,000-plus square feet. The property is almost 24 acres. There are property taxes, insurance and maintenance to consider. The building is 510 feet from one end to the other - it is a really big building. The building has been well maintained.”
Mayor Brennan also shared his thoughts on the potential use of the building. "The City will continue to work with the owners and area organizations to try and find a new owner and purpose for the building. We need to do a lot of homework and explore all potential options for the future of the building. We have a lot of research to do.”

As needs change and the world changes, many industries with 19th century roots and which seemed essential to a river town’s existence  have faded away: logging, riverboating, ice harvesting, clamming and now, button making. All agree that Lansing will have to look to the future and continue to explore options of 21st century solutions to assist impacted workers, their families and the community.