Hynite: The Beginning of Industry in South Milwaukee

I somehow convinced my friend to take a walk with me to a place we had never been on a late Summer evening, back in 2008. We made short work of the long abandoned, crumbling road leading up towards this dead factory space.

Hynite Dock Door

As we climbed under the tattered fence, bent by some kind of powerful force, we slowly began to notice a creeping darkness envelop us. We arrogantly walked up to this looming steel, brick and concrete structure only to be overwhelmed by the black hole of never-ending darkness. We stood there quietly for only moments, but they felt like years. A strange sound pierced through the stone-cold silence and in that moment we both knew that there was no way that we would enter this building on that night.

From that first moment I saw Hynite, I didn’t stop wondering about it. There was something about this place that I couldn’t shake. I decided to go after work with a friend one chilly and sprinkly night the following year and walked through front to back for the very first time. I did not know its name or what this place was about, but I could feel this depth, mystery- this inexplicable emotion emanating from this place. I always felt that there was more to the Cream City brick and strange rusted machinery than met the eyes. With my eyes closed, we quickly crossed the threshold and walked to the center portion of the building with all these rows of skylight windows above (they hadn’t been broken out yet at this time) and stood completely still to observe the dead silence. It didn’t seem like I ever opened my eyes and the sound of soft rain suddenly muted. We then felt a strangeness surround us like an invisible intensity and the blinding darkness of this room began to really sink in. As we headed to the back, we saw the old brick arch ways leaking in some of the orangish tinge from the light painted clouds to the left and then paint peeled, concrete stairs on our right that lead up to the other floors. We made it out into the back yard through the large bay door and looked back on this looming dark industrial ghost as the silence lifted. The whole place seemed to come to life with the sounds of the night- sounds that old buildings make accompanied by nature when no one has been around in many years.

Hynite Reflection

This wasn’t the Peter Cooper Glue Factory (which burned down in 1987 as one of Oak Creeks largest fires and the rest was razed in 2010), this place was Hynite. This space was originally a manufacturer of “100 proof sour mash whiskey, bonded whiskey, bourbon whiskey, and gin” called The Lakeside Distillery built in 1892 by P.R. and John Francis Carroll- hence why this “company town” was named Carrollville. The workers were said to have been given a “quart of whiskey per day” as a “token of management’s regard for workers’ welfare”. In 1919, Lakeside Distillery shuttered because of Prohibition and was bought by the Milwaukee tanning industry as a partnership to process animal “tankage” and scrap leather into high nitrogenous fertilizer, hence the patented name “Hynite”. Tankage is the blood, bones and other animal by-products left over from the tanning process which was moved by rail called ‘gut cars’ from Milwaukee. Note that the US Glue Company was built in 1899 by the investments of “17 prominent tanning industries from Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois” and was bought by Peter Cooper Glue during the Great Depression in 1933. Peter Cooper was the brilliant mind behind America’s first steam locomotive he built by hand called the “Tom Thumb”, the first to turn anthracite coal into iron and invented gelatin (what we know today as ‘Jell-o’). The Peter Cooper Glue Factory worked with Hynite to create different types of glues and gelatin.

Hynite Elevator Shaft

Residents at the time of full operation, spoke of the entire site as a place of unbearable stench which turned the air “pink” and clothes a “distinct rust color”. Hynite opened in 1919 and died out around 2002 because the “cost for shipping the feed and fertilizer became more expensive than what the product was worth”. The once convenient shore line location would eventually be this company’s demise.

The story of this industry is incredible. It was the oldest building and last of its kind on this stretch of lakeside land- the very first industry in this area. Lots of strange and beautiful Cream City brick and architecture is now lost forever after demolition took place this last April, but thankfully burned into my memory.


Editor’s Note: Welcome Teddi Stavee to UEM!