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Prime Focus

Fairbanks Morse Co.

And The Great Migration

Story by Teresa Nguyen

May, 2020

Maple Avenue and Poole Court neighborhood was the only area blacks could live when they came up from The South to work at Fairbanks Morse. There was serious housing discrimination, which is how the Fairbanks Flats came to be.

~ Activist, Wanda Sloan

1938 Aerial View of the Fairbanks Morse Company, Beloit, WI

The Founding of the Company


1834 - Thaddeus Fairbanks invented the first platform balance scale and opened a business with his brother, Erastus.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Leonard Wheeler designed a durable windmill called the Eclipse windmill. 

1850 - Company employee, Charles Hosmer Morse, became a partner in the Fairbanks Company, opening a Fairbanks office in Chicago, expanding the company’s territory of operation and widened its product line. Morse brought Wheeler and his Eclipse Windmill pumps into business with the company.

1865 - Fairbanks, Morse and Company opened its headquarters in Chicago.

Late 1860s - Wheeler set up shop in Beloit.

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Thaddeus Fairbanks
Charles Hosmer Morse

1893 - Fairbanks Morse Engine successfully marketed a gasoline engine in the United States.

The Great Migration

Fairbanks, Morse and Co. traveled to the south for mass recruiting as they needed more man power to complete government contracts.

1917 - The Great Migration brought African Americans northward as they fled oppression, lack of opportunity and poverty to find jobs in the north.

As the trains rolled into Beloit, the citizens were happy to welcome the new recruits until they saw their skin color. Many were put back on the trains and were told they would be able to return "when housing was available". The landlords promising housing to Fairbanks Morse would not allow “colored people” as tenants.

The Fairbanks Flats

Col. Morse, went against the city council, which had plans to create park space along the river. Fairbanks, Morse and Co. purchased the land along the west bank of the Rock River, building what was supposed to be temporary housing.

The Fairbanks Flats were cinder blocked buildings. Morse then sent for the southern recruits to come back to Beloit.

Post WWII - Fairbanks Morse continued to build diesel and gas engines, as they did through the first half of the twentieth century. They also produced pumps, engines and products for farms, factories and mines.

1980’s - Export offices were established in Brazil and in Mexico.

1928 Fairbanks Morse Engine

Saving The Flats


There was a city council discussion that The Flats might be demolished to make way for townhouses or single-family homes. It would economically outpace the African American residents who would likely never be able to buy any this riverfront property.

A group of concerned citizens and community leaders, like Wanda Sloan and others, started having meetings. They soon had a large, organized group of activists fighting against the demolition of The Flats.

1983 – Through their activism, The Flats were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The activists had attended City Council meetings and went to the Rock County Board. Former Beloit City Manager, Larry Arft, was supportive of the group’s effort.  

Girl on Yellow
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 Fairbanks Flats Historical Marker, Beloit, WI
Wanda Sloan
Dr. Sharon Kennedy, Wanda Sloan & Lula Belle Brown, oldest surviving resident at The Flats in 2008
 Grand Opening

An architect named Gorman, who specialized in historical preservation, took on the challenge to renovate the Fairbanks Flats.

2008 - The remodeled Fairbanks Flats had their grand opening.

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2012 - A Historical Marker was placed at the location of the Fairbanks Flats.

2019 - Fairbanks Morse, which built engines for more than 120 years, was sold to Arcline Investment Management, a private equity firm


 Newly Remodeled Fairbanks Flats in 2008 - Beloit, WI
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