Enthusiastic fans at a professional football or baseball game, NASCAR race, or college basketball game might be twirling a rally towel in the stands to show support for their favorite team. They may be using a towel with their team’s logo at the gym, or showing pride in their alma mater by taking a school branded beach towel to their local pool. These fans probably don’t realize those towels come from a company that has its roots in Baraboo—a company that began as George O. McArthur & Son.
Today, the company is known as McArthur Towel & Sports and is part of WinCraft, a Winona, Minnesota, company. The McArthur Mill factory, where towels were produced for half a century until 1969, still stands on the banks of the Baraboo River. The looms originally used to weave towels have been removed and the building at 126 Water Street is occupied by Towns & Associates, Inc., publishers of this magazine as well as hotel guest compendiums, community visitors’ guides and publications, and specialty magazines.
The building has been recognized by the Sauk County Landmarks Registry because of its significance to local history. George O. McArthur, a Scotsman born in Ireland, was a weaver. He made a handloom to weave carpets and rugs and sold them from a small barn in Appleton. When the business outgrew the space, George obtained a place on the Fox River. There, using the experience with power looms he had gained in Ireland, he began weaving towels.
But the paper industry in the Fox River Valley was growing, and George was unable to obtain enough water power to continue his operation. A Baraboo banker he met at a YMCA convention suggested that he bring his machinery to Baraboo, where George moved in 1892 to begin his operation in a new setting.
After several expansions, George bought land at the Water Street location in 1914. The parcel, even though one of the earliest developed in Baraboo, was unimproved at the time of his purchase. The first building on the site had been a grist (grain) mill that was built in the 1840s but destroyed by a suspected arsonist in 1852. A few years later, a large four-story flour mill was constructed in its place. Unfortunately, this wooden structure, that had become the pride of Baraboo, was also devastated by a spectacular fire. Fireworks being set off on a high bridge next to the mill were thought to have started the blaze.
The decision was made to construct McArthur’s building out of masonry block because the fire protection would be better. In 1922, an addition was built, doubling the size of the operation. At first the McArthur Mill produced linen toweling and later cotton towels. Customers included hospitals, schools, the military, and similar institutions. At one point in its early history, this was the largest toweling mill east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line.
George guided his business from its founding until his death in 1917. His son, George Jr., who had come over from Ireland with his father, took over the reins of the company and firmly held them until his death in 1928. At that point the business was left in the hands of George Jr.’s three sons, George M. McArthur, Robert M. McArthur, and Andrew McArthur, all graduates of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
George M.’s know-how was reflected in the continual growth of the business. In 1930, the Super Gym towel was created for the University’s athletic program. The towel featured a smooth linen surface at one end, perfect for imprinting large colorful logos, like Bucky Badger. Team members loved the towel. In the 1940s, the weaving operation expanded to include manufacturing hammocks and lasted for two decades.
George F. McArthur was the fourth-generation owner to assume the presidency of the company. While actual production of towels ceased at the McArthur Mill in the late 1960s, towel warehousing remained at another site in Baraboo. The fifth-generation McArthur to head the company in the early 1990s was Gregg McArthur, son of George F.
Gregg remembers being in sales from the time he was eight years old. His grandfather set him up with a table at the Water Street factory to sell remnants, needles, and seconds (products with flaws) when the company had public sales. Sunday was a special day because he would go to the office with his grandfather after church. Gregg also recalls the noisy looms in the original factory.
Another favorite memory of Gregg’s was riding up and down on the freight elevator when he was a youngster. He also remembers the turbine in the lower level. The McArthur family owned a dam on the Baraboo River from which the power of the falling water turned the turbine to produce electricity for the Mill. The dam, along with several others on the river, was removed in the late 1990s.
Because the McArthur Mill encompassed such a large space, the building housed several other businesses after the towel operation ceased. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the McArthur family conducted a building rental business in the Mill. A husband and wife physician team practiced in the Mill for about a year in the late 1970s.
A local oil company had its offices in the Mill for two decades. An asbestos removal service and chemical company operated out of the Mill in the 1980s. Then Sherry Towns bought the McArthur Mill in the 1990s and moved her business, Towns & Associates, Inc., into the space. She remodeled the interior by taking out old steam pipes, removing asbestos, painting, and installing new carpeting and windows.
Sherry also helped form the Citizens for Waterfront Revitalization group, bringing attention to the appearance of properties along the Baraboo River and how they could be improved. A grant from the Department of Natural Resources helped the city of Baraboo move on a redevelopment plan for the river corridor. Sadly, Sherry passed in 2012, but Towns & Associates, Inc. continues its publishing operations in her name.
Today, several refurbished buildings stand alongside Towns & Associates, Inc. on either side of Water Street. “All of these had fruits with the first plan,” says Larry Palm, mayor of Baraboo. “Sherry would be proud to see what she started.”
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.