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Buller company artifacts are on display downtown

Managing editor

The building currently occupied by Quilts & QuiltRacks, looks like any other building on Hillsboro’s Main Street. But to Virgil Litke it holds many memories of working with his grandfather, J.W. Buller.

Litke is sharing those memories with a window display at 130 N. Main St. as part of Hillsboro’s 125th anniversary.

The display chronicles Buller’s success in the coupler business, inventing a ball and socket coupler. Wooden patterns or prototypes of various couplers manufactured at Buller Coupler Co. in Hillsboro are part of the display.

In 1908 Jacob Buller determined he could not support his family in Jansen, Neb. So, he and his family loaded their few belongings: several pieces of machinery, four horses, two cows, some chickens, and their cat in a boxcar. The family boarded a passenger train, bound for Aulne.

Nine months later, the family moved to Hillsboro after Buller’s short-lived attempt at farming.

After several successful business ventures, Buller purchased a two-story home in 1909 at 110 S. Cedar St. The family lived there for more than 30 years.

By 1912, Buller was manufacturing various engine couplers. He began advertising, and the response was so great he could no longer supply the demand in his second story shop at 131 N. Main St. A new brick building was constructed in 1915 at 130 N. Main St.

The business continued to expand, with Buller using his trusty pocketknife to carve hundreds of wooden patterns. The patterns were fragile. After being cast in iron, they were safely stored.

Some of these wooden patterns are on display throughout the celebration with metal couplers.

During the 1930s, the business continued to grow. Buller contracted with Montgomery Ward & Co. to produce saw frames. He also produced hammer mills, clothesline tighteners, and a metal shear that accelerated production of saw frames.

Buller died March 11, 1946, at age 77.

The business stayed in the family until 1966, when it was sold.

“My grandfather was the largest employer at the time,” Litke said. Litke was among the employees.

Among the artifacts from the family business is a box of canceled checks from First National Bank of Hillsboro. As Litke looked through them Monday for the window display, he pulled a few out for closer inspection. Many of the checks were from the weekly payroll. They were for $18.30 to $23.10.

“This was six days a week and a minimum of nine hours a day,” Litke said.

There also was a check with a 1941 date to the State of Kansas for 45 cents.

“That’s when stamps were three cents,” Litke said.

A 1908 newspaper article is on display about J.W. Buller “seriously working on electrical illumination for the City of Hillsboro,” years ahead of his time.

Another article, dated June 13, 1924, in the Hillsboro Star, noted that 100 couplers per month were being sent to Tennessee and the business was serving dozens of other customers.

“We are not such an unimportant town after all,” the article stated.

Litke’s book, “A Journey with My Grandfather,” also is for sale at the store. The book tells the story of J.W. Buller, his business, and the Buller and Litke families.

Last modified June 17, 2009

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