Hoosier Desk: A notable history

Herald File Photo
An old poster hangs on the wall in Paul and Ken Sternberg's office at the Hoosier Desk building off of Mill Street and Fourth Street in downtown Jasper. The brothers said they found the poster in 1987 when they first bought the building. Ken estimated the drawing was created in the 1930s.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

JASPER — It wasn't the end of an era Monday when demolition began on the century-old Hoosier Desk building at the corner of Third and Mill streets.

The demolition comes as the Jasper Public Library and Jasper Community Arts Commission prepare to build the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center on the site, which will bring both entities under one roof. Originally, boards representing the two entities hoped to repurpose the Hoosier Desk building to suit their needs, but that turned out to be too expensive. Instead, the cultural center will be a new build with materials from the Hoosier Desk building used as decorative materials as a nod to the site’s history, which is a storied one.

Hoosier Desk’s story began on Aug. 20, 1915, when the success of other woodworking manufacturers in the area led to the company opening under the name Jasper Manufacturing Company, according to The Herald’s 2016 Heritage special section. The original executives were Albert Bohnert, president; Joseph Jahn, vice president; Louis J. Eckstein, secretary; Felix Schneider, treasurer; and William Bockelman, director. Louis Seibert served as the first manager. The factory changed its name to Hoosier Desk in 1922 and continued under that name for the next six decades.

Eventually, locals nicknamed the factory “The Hoosier,” and it’s referred to that way several times in Herald coverage of a major strike that took place in 1949 and 1950 and hit several Jasper companies, including Hoosier Desk, Jasper Desk and Jasper Office Furniture. The strike began when the United Furniture Workers Local 331 union clashed with the Jasper Manufacturers’ Association in November 1949. Employees believed the association was taking action meant to destroy the union while a new contract was worked out. Months of strikes followed, causing some level of chaos in Jasper.

On Jan. 9, 1950, 100 picketers lined the streets outside Hoosier Desk, as well as 100 at Jasper Desk and another 100 at Jasper Office Furniture. The picketers came out in response to letters from factory administrators saying that if the employees did not return to work, they would be replaced. As some of the employees bent to the letters, the picketers tried to keep their peers from returning to work. Similar actions were taken months later when the factories hired new workers from out of town.

Union and factory leaders met in February to try to reach an agreement, but those efforts failed, leading to a statewide rally in March as woodworkers from across the state flocked to Jasper in a show of support. During the rally, protesters broke factory windows, and in April, police arrested protesters for rioting in the picket lines. Eventually, the union and factory leadership reached an agreement, and the workers returned to work.

Hoosier Desk earned a level of notoriety over the years, attending furniture shows across the nation with other Jasper companies, and today a Hoosier Desk trade catalogue sits in the collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Library in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Hoosier Desk’s success didn’t last. The company began downsizing in the latter half of the 20th century before finally closing its doors in 1983, and the factory sat vacant for four years.

Then, in 1987, Jasper brothers Ken and Paul Sternberg saw potential in the old building, despite its dilapidation.

“It was kind of getting to be an eyesore,” Paul said.

Still, the brothers took on the building, fixed broken windows and wet floors, added security measures to keep kids out of the building and even brought the foundation up above the 100-year flood plain. As long as they owned the building—about 30 years— the building never flooded, Ken said.

As the brothers worked on the building, they found artifacts from the building’s history. In one wall, they found pieces of the factory’s steam heating system. After burning one of the buildings in the middle of the property, they found a giant gear that must have been used to turn the structure at some point. Ken still remembers when they burned that building. It was 300 feet long and 50 feet wide. The brothers worked with the fire department, and scheduled the burn for sometime when firefighters could be on site. When they lit the building, the fire was huge.

“We had a bonfire in the middle of the city,” Ken recalled.

Once the Sternbergs finished some improvements, they moved storage for their furniture business, Sternberg’s Furniture Showrooms, into the old building. They also opened the space to renters and had no problem finding tenants. Ken estimates they had over 75 tenants through the years, including local companies looking for extra space, a water-bottling operation, photography studios, fitness studios and even the Dubois County welfare office and a boxing ring.

Although the Sternbergs made the building fit for tenants, maintenance was a challenge. The brothers remember spending one night on the roof in the rain with plastic pieces trying to keep the water off a leaky roof above a storage area. They managed to save the items inside and came out with a good story that night.

“The things we had to do,” Ken recalled with a chuckle.

The Hoosier Desk building has a special place in Ken’s heart. He remembers driving over the bridge on Third Avenue, seeing the old building and thinking, ‘I’ve gotta have it.’ As the building fell into disrepair, purchasing the building became both a passion project and a way to give back to Jasper by fixing it up.

“I just had a feeling we could make it successful and clean it up,” Ken said. “I kind of felt like you can’t leave Jasper that way.”

For many years, Ken and Paul turned the old building into an asset for themselves and Jasper businesses. The building grew to be Ken’s favorite purchase. Still, when the library and arts commission approached them about possibly purchasing the property in 2014, Ken said it was a no-brainer. The brothers long believed the site was an ideal place for the new library, and the Cultural Center seemed like an even greater addition to the Old Jasper area, which spans the area along the Patoka River south of the Courthouse Square and includes the Jasper City Mill, Riverwalk, Jasper Train Depot, Hoosier Desk site and Jasper Cabinet site, which is being developed into River Centre by Indianapolis-based Boxer Girl LLC.

“It wasn’t a hard choice (to sell),” Ken said. “Not at all.”

The Sternbergs enjoyed seeing how the Hoosier Desk building evolved over the years, and, at least for the site, the journey isn’t over. The buildings may be gone in about two months, but if everything goes according to plan, a new Jasper Cultural Center will sit on the site by 2020. And, as library and city officials say with pride, the Jasper Cultural Center will be something new that no one’s ever done before.

Artist renderings of the future Jasper Cultural Center are below:

 




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