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Preserving Heritage: The Artistry of Kahoka Button Factory’s Hand-Carved Wood Buttons

 By Emily Bontrager 

Sometimes we learn new things about the past or even new facts about our ancestors. Some events or items can even get lost over time. Luckily, the Paul Rowe Museum is one of the places in Kahoka that helps preserve local history. 

Recently my father, Shawn McAfee, was approached by someone to purchase a collection of buttons from the Jenkins Button Factory of Kahoka, Missouri. 

Being interested in our county history, he was curious and asked to see them, and was amazed at the craftsmanship and surprised he had never seen one or knew about the factory. 

He decided to purchase the collection and return them back to our county. The collection was purchased in the 1970’s by Helen Byrn of Warsaw. She dealt in antiques and found them to be unique. 

Part of the uniqueness of this collection is that some of the sets are full and they are found attached on the original cardboard displays they were shipped on. 

On the top of each cardboard display, ‘A Jenkins Product’ is printed. On the back of one of the cards McAfee purchased, the name ‘Jenkins Manufacturing Company, Woodcraftsmen, Kahoka, Missouri’ is printed. 

After doing some digging and finding no information online about this business in Clark County, I reached out to the Paul Rowe Historical Museum. 

The museum has a few of the buttons from the Jenkins Manufacturing Company and a copy of an article that was published back in 1936 in the Quincy Herald Whig about the button factory and who owned it. 

From the 1930’s to the 1940’s, the Jenkins Manufacturing Company produced handmade wooden buttons, bracelets, pins, ornaments, buckles, broaches, and many more products in the area. These products were made by Herbert C. Jenkins of Kahoka and a few of his employees. 

Each of the items were handmade with a penknife, ice pick, and an electric soldering iron. Individual pieces could take a few minutes to make or more detailed pieces like monogram pins could take up to two and a half hours to make. 

Herbert Jenkins lived on a farm near Kahoka with his wife and two children. He ran his business out of his home in a basement workshop. 

In the Quincy Herald Whig issue from Sunday, December 13, 1936, Fred J. Baldwin had the opportunity to interview Herbert Jenkins about his button factory. Baldwin titled the article, “Turns a Hobby into Business.” 

Mr. Jenkins explained to Baldwin how his business started in the article and how he made the handmade wooden products. 

“There’s nothing remarkable about how I got started at this,” Mr. Jenkins said. “I have always liked woodwork and just grew into the button business. I formerly made lamp bases and they sold well for a time but at last the business dropped off. Then, just as a hobby in my spare time, I started making wooden ornaments and buttons. The work interested me so I tried to see how many different kinds I could make.” 

“One day a girl who worked in my mother’s store in Carthage and whom I knew in school, asked me why I didn’t sell them. She advised me to send samples to the Edgewater Beach Needlecraft shop in Chicago, which I did. I didn’t hear from the shop and after writing a couple of letters I went to Chicago to see what had happened to my samples. I called at the shop and the manager told me they had sold practically all of my samples and wanted more, so that’s how the button business was started.” 

During his years of business, Jenkins sent his products throughout the Midwest and to many Eastern states as well. 

According to Baldwin’s article, in 1936, Jenkins made around 300 varieties of buttons and around fifty patterns of pins and ornaments. These products were made out of different types of wood, including maple, walnut, cherry, magnolia, red gum, and coffee bean. 

“His most unusual woods come from foreign countries, including three rosewoods, from South America, East India and the Philippines, zebra wood, primavera, ebony, three kinds of mahogany, purple heart from British Guinea, sissoo and coco bola,” Baldwin wrote. 

Each pattern for the button, broach, or other product was cut from a piece of cardboard. The pattern was then placed on a desired piece of wood that Jenkins would use to make the product. The patterns would then be traced and cut out by a band saw or jigsaw. 

“Then the detail work with the penknife is begun. A small, pointed and razor-sharp blade is used in the work, and with painstaking care the figure is smoothed and cut to the exact size needed, together with the ornamental carving necessary. After the button is reproduced it is smoothed on a sander and then given a coat of paint or lacquer, according to the shade required. Many of the buttons and ornaments are left in the natural wood finish,” Baldwin wrote in his article. 

Customers would stop at the factory and buy some of the products that were readily available. 

Other customers would place orders for items or orders were received from other towns or states and sent back to them when completed. These customers would send in a picture of a dress, or part of the dress material and describe what buttons or buckles they wanted made for their dress. 

Mr. Jenkins had dealers located in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Quincy, Aurora, Moberly, Kirksville, and other cities. These dealers would carry samples of his products for customers to look at. Word of mouth was also very helpful to Mr. Jenkins and he sold a lot of products across the United States. 

Two assistants worked for Mr. Jenkins in 1936. They were Emmett Zinnert of Kahoka and Roderick “Buster” Druse, who previously worked in Fort Madison, IA. 

Mr. Jenkins’ daughter, Marianne Jenkins helped with all the typing and correspondence for the business. His son, William Ted Jenkins, also helped design many handmade products. 

A lot of products are made in many different ways today and these wooden creations are unique to the Clark County community. These pieces of history from our small town are interesting to look at because the craftsmanship and dedication it took to make these wooden products is remarkable. 

Shawn McAfee will be donating the collection to our local museum and it will be nice to see these pieces of history back in the area.