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Trunk full of memories

This is believed to be the trunk that Carl F. “Charles” Segelke used to move to the United States from Germany in 1851.

Luggage, whether it indicates a minor change of pace with a vacation or a complete change of location, holds the things a traveler finds most important.

To those immigrating to the United States, their luggage was a precious piece of home in a foreign land. This week’s artifact is a large wicker trunk made circa 1850-1860, previously owned by Charles Segelke, an immigrant from Germany who settled in La Crosse.

The trunk is made of wicker, measuring 35 inches long, 22 inches wide and 20 inches tall, with a canvas label painted with “Chs. Segelke LA-Cross.” It is believed that this is the trunk Segelke used to move to Wisconsin from Germany.

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Family of a builder

Charles Segelke, his wife, Augusta, and their three daughters played a role in building the La Crosse community.

Carl F. “Charles” Segelke was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1830 and came to the United States in 1851 at age 21. After living in Watertown, Wisconsin, for five years, he moved to La Crosse in September 1856.

He worked under S. Sack for a year before the two became business partners, and Segelke purchased a small shop on south King Street in 1857 in hopes of starting a carpentry business with Sack.

Unfortunately, Sack died in a drowning incident that same year. Segelke later partnered with Jacob Kohlhaus in 1863, and they formed the Segelke-Kohlhaus Manufacturing Co.

They manufactured doors, windows, cabinetry and other forms of millwork for homes and businesses. Surviving Segelke-Kohlhaus catalogs are filled with photos of beautiful East Lake-style woodwork. At one time, they were the largest supplier of architectural woodwork in the upper Midwest.

They found great success in the developing city, and after John Kutzborsky became a partner in 1869, the company moved to a larger facility on South 2nd and Cass streets in 1870. The company continued to grow, and in 1886, they built two- and three-story buildings on 3rd Street to house their new facilities. In 1892, the company incorporated and continued to thrive until 1897, when the facilities on 3rd Street were consumed in a fire.

The Segelke-Kohlhaus Manufacturing Co. proved resilient when the facilities were rebuilt in 1898 and the company returned to its former success.

The company suffered another great loss when on Oct. 26, 1902, Charles went fishing on a raft on the Mississippi with his grandson and was never heard from again. He and his grandson were presumed deceased, but what happened on that fateful day remains a mystery.

Despite the mysterious disappearance of Charles Segelke, the Segelke-Kohlhaus Manufacturing Co. would continue to be successful into the 1950s, when the demand for custom handmade woodwork declined dramatically.

The company closed in 1960, but many local historic homes feature woodwork done by the company. One example is the house of Adolph Kohlhaus, son of co-owner Jacob Kohlhaus, located at 1518 Madison St. This house was designed to showcase the high-quality millwork, and more than 120 years later the quality of the company’s craftsmanship still shows.

This trunk can be seen in our online collections at our website.

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