From varnish and paint to glass and garments the Aalfs Manufacturing Company has been an important part of Sioux City since 1892. Though the business has undergone major changes in is past, Aalfs has long been a well-recognized name in the community. More than manufacturing, however, the Aalfs family has contributed both time and money to make Sioux City a better place for residents.
Nittert Aalfs and his wife, Wilhelmina, moved to Sioux City in 1909 hoping to open a new wholesale house. Nittert already had a successful paint company in both LeMars and Fort Dodge, Iowa. Upon his move to Sioux City, Aalfs tried to expand his business by selling both wallpaper and paint. He had several customers; most were other Sioux City businesses. From this small start, though, he transformed Aalfs Paint and Glass Company into one of the largest distributors of paint and glass in the Midwest.
After only ten years in Sioux City, Aalfs had to move from his small operation in the Gilman Block. By 1922 the company was operating in the Boston Block where it would stay for many years. In the Boston Block the company used three floors and the basement. In all, the business occupied over 50,000 square feet of the building. In that same year the wholesaler employed thirty-five people. Aalfs also employed four salesmen who covered western Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, and southern Minnesota.
The company took great pride in its growth and its comprehensive line of high-quality products. They sold paint, wallpaper, window and plate glass. They were also the exclusive distributor of Minnesota Linseed Oil Company’s paints, O’Brien Varnish Company’s and Murphy Varnish Company’s products.
Business was going very well for Aalfs when, in 1929, the Baker Company moved into the Boston Block. H.A. Baker had been manufacturing clothing since 1892. Since 1917 Baker’s company had been operating in a building on the southeast corner of Fifth and Jones Streets. He specialized in men’s and boy’s clothing including overalls, pants and shirts.
Both Aalfs and Baker were happy working out of the Boston Block. In 1939, however, as Baker grew older he decided to sell his company to the Aalfs Paint and Glass Company. In December the deal was final and Aalfs’ business became known as the Aalfs-Baker Company. By this time Nittert Aalfs was no longer president of the business, but his son N. Wilbur Aalfs was in control.
Though Wilbur had given up distributing paint and glass, his new garment business was very successful. The company’s 1941 catalog contained 75 major items for sale, including shirts, pants, sweaters, ties, shoe strings, gloves, caps, and suspenders.
During World War Two, business was slow for the newly reorganized company. Denim, like many items, was sold on a rationed basis during the war. The Aalfs-Baker Company did find some success during their early years by producing pants and shirts for the military services. These military sales kept Aalfs-Baker from closing. The company’s products performed for the military well and demonstrated that the garments were of high quality.
In 1943 J.C. Penney first contracted with the Aalfs-Baker Manufacturing Company for new products. This business from J.C. Penney also helped keep the Sioux City company open during the war years. Soon sales were booming for Aalfs-Baker and more manufacturing capacity was needed to keep up with demand. These new plants opened in LeMars in 1943, Sheldon in 1955, and Spencer in 1962.
During those years the company undertook large changes to become for efficient and profitable. First, in 1952, the Aalfs-Baker Manufacturing Company discontinued many lines of clothing and eliminated its sales department. Also in 1952, the company decided to only manufacture jeans and to sell them almost exclusively to J.C. Penney. Finally in 1959, the Aalfs-Baker name was dropped and the firm became the Aalfs Manufacturing Company.
In 1977 manufacturing operations were moved from the Boston Block in downtown Sioux City to a new facility in the Bridgeport Industrial area. The new complex was complete with cutting, sewing, laundering, finishing and distributing operations. During the 1980s Aalfs decided to open new manufacturing plants in Arkansas. From 1988 until 1994, Aalfs opens new facilities in Mena, Arkadelphia, Malvern, Glenwood, and Texarkana.
Aalfs Manufacturing Company again decided to make their company more efficient. They abandoned all of their manufacturing facilities in Iowa and South Dakota in 1999.
In 2001 Aalfs closed their plants in Arkadelphia and Malvern in Arkansas. In 2002 they relocated their warehousing to Mena and closed the Texarkana distribution center.
Today Aalfs Manufacturing Company has corporate offices in Sioux City, sales and marketing in Dallas, Texas; distribution center in Mena, Arkansas; and seven manufacturing partnerships in Mexico. The company manufactures jeans for J.C. Penney, Tommy Hilfiger, GAP, Old Navy, and Harley Davidson.
Today in Sioux City the charitable gifts of the Aalfs family can be seen across the community. During the Sioux City Public Library’s multi-million dollar campaign for a new facility in the late 1980s, the Aalfs family came through with the largest contribution. To honor that gift the library is known as the Wilbur Aalfs Public Library. Also, the Aalfs family donated 240 acres in Plymouth County to the Broken Kettle Grasslands area.
From a small beginning as a paint and wallpaper wholesaler, the Aalfs Manufacturing Company became an important part of Sioux City’s economy. The business also added clout to Sioux City’s manufacturing identity. Hundreds of people have owed their livelihoods to Aalfs and the company benefited for decades from Sioux City’s friendly business climate. In recent years the Aalfs family has given back to the community that gave them their start.
Aalfs Family Biography File, Sioux City Public Museum, SC56.1.
Aalfs Manufacturing Company, Sioux City Public Museum, SC120.
Aalfs Manufacturing/Paint and Glass Co. Sioux City Public Museum SC54.
Adams, John D. Three Quarters of a Century of Progress. Sioux City, IA: Verstegen Printing Company, 1923.
Library – Wilbur Aalfs Newspaper Clippings File, Sioux City Public Museum, SC54.