John Boos & Co. history

Jacob Emmerich works the computer console as wood is measured electronically and cut for use in John Boos & Co. products in the new wood plant.

By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
A lot of hidden history can come out after 130 years.
John Boos & Company might have gained its name because the founders wanted an American “ring” to the company for the future.
“John was a more United States oriented name than the German derived name of Conrad. Conrad Boos owned the blacksmith shop, but John thought of the block idea for the anvil. Conrad went along, and that also had something to do with the company name,” explained Ted Gravenhorst Sr., whose family purchased the company five years after it was founded in 1887.
Conrad sold the company to Adelbert Gravenhorst after John Boos moved to Cincinnati. Unlike today’s age of mergers and buy-outs, some company sales back then did not change the original name to prevent confusion for customers.
When the two-story brick Boos block and anvil factory opened in the late 1800s along the railroad tracks near the old National Road, there was only a small platoon of workers. They worked with hand tools and had traction belts spinning around to keep machinery humming. Some of the workers might have conversed in German with the strong immigrant heritage of Effingham County.
Today, Boos employs 240 at its different buildings, including one for manufacturing metal products and its new wood plant, on South U.S. Route 45. The company also had its headquarters within the building for metal work, and it also has its retail store on Fayette Avenue. Boos, today, is the only company making both wood and metal blocks in the country.
The old wood factory will soon be torn down to make way for new developments planned by the city of Effingham.
John Boos president, Joe Emmerich, said change and progress have always been part of the company’s history. He noted that when people have come into the new wood plant they’ve noticed how workers might be moving or transforming wood in traditional ways. But technology has changed the process immensely.
“You might see some workers handling the wood by hand, but the workers at the computer console by the new machinery are what we’re all about now,” Emmerich said.
Jake Emmerich works the console on the most advanced cutting saw in the wood plant. It has eight cameras confirming different measures and any defects in the wood to be cut. The scanning process helps measure the cuts perfectly to eliminate waste of wood for different cuts.
“It tells the saw where to cut and meets the criteria for the needed lengths,” Emmerich said. “Before we had this machine, all that work was done by 12 people on two different shifts. Now four people are involved and working with more products. It’s light years ahead of what we were doing before. And the accuracy is there, too.”
Emmerich said a position at Boos should not be considered a “factory job” anymore. “These are technology jobs now,” he said.
However, he remembers when high-tech was still in the future for Boos. He started at 18 one summer at the old wood plant. His first job on second shift was scrapping up wood shavings with a shovel in the hot boiler room. When Joe went home sweaty and exhausted after his first day, he admitted to his father that “this might not be a good job.” Some iced tea and encouragement from his father convinced him to keep trying.
Emmerich eventually went up the ladder of success, giving up a potential career as an X-ray technician through his college studies. He became president in 2003 and has helped guide the company to great success, assisted by Boos being featured on the Food Network television shows with use of cutting boards or butcher blocks and then having its stainless kitchen wares added to food preparation areas in several NFL stadiums.
The growth in the Boos market share has more than doubled the number of employees since 2003. The number of employees was just 129 as late as 2011, Emmerich added.
Boos was a small company working with butchers and grocers in the early twentieth century. But world history would change Boos.
World War II had an impact on many American manufacturers, including John Boos & Co. The production needs for supporting the American and Allied war efforts dominated many factory floors during that war.
Gravenhorst said Boos manufactured huge thick butcher blocks, measuring 30 by 30 inches, cutting boards and field mess tables and preparation tables for military food preparation. Some of these were purchased by the Granite City Ordinance Depot for the Department of the Army. This covered 90 percent of JBC’s production capacity by the end of the war.
Emmerich said the end of the war left Boos in a difficult situation: How could the Effingham factory recapture its customers when its products went to the war effort for so long?
Boos sent out a small invasion force of sales reps to packing houses and slaughter plants and supermarkets in the Midwest. The company’s market expanded from the pre-war customers in St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Louisville, Kentucky and Texas. Eventually, the sales reps opened new marketing fronts on the West Coat and out East as well.
Under the direction of the Gravenhorst family, including Ted Sr. and June well past the Second World War, the company added its metal fabrication plant and its wood product line. Later, wood furniture was produced in the form of kitchen islands or other products. It also helped that major retail chains like Bed, Bath & Beyond agreed to sell Boos products.
The marketing strategy of the company had to change. Emmerich noted decades ago there were thousands of meat packing operations across the country. Now there are less than three dozen. Local slaughter operations have been phased out as well.
The construction of facilities outside the center of Effingham reflected on the need to have more room for meeting customer demands both in the commercial and retail realms.
“At one point, the metal sales were growing more rapidly than the wood. So we had to build the new metal plant first,” Emmerich said.
The future of Boos is always about looking at how they can improve their market share and maintain product quality.
“We always define and refine what we do,” Emmerich said.
And whether some people get confused with pronouncing the Boos name (Is it “Bows” or “Booz”?), there is one simple rule: the customer is always right.