Joe Ettinger: Dovetailed Into Cabinet Crafting

By Jo Ann Vrabel, Feature Writer

In 1962 the notable citizens of Warsaw celebrated and honored Joe Ettinger, of 818 East Main St., Warsaw, by naming him the town's man of the year.

During his lifetime in Warsaw, Ettinger served on numerous community boards including the American Red Cross, Cardinal Learning Center, Kosciusko County Mental Health Association, Alcoholic Beverage Commission and was director of the Warsaw Chamber of Commerce. He has been a long-time member of the American Legion, County Historical Society, Warsaw Kiwanis and Walnut Creek Church.

Not least among his achievements is the fact that he was the president of Zimmer-USA, (then Zimmer Manufacturing Co.) andd aided Justin Zimmer to found the firm in the 1920's

But throughout his industrious life, as he worked with Zimmer to build the company and as he bolstered the community by serving on town and county civic boards, Ettinger prudently preserved his own private domain by creating and crafting cabinets and furniture of every description; butternut and walnut wood jewel cases, smooth, polished tables and silver chests skillfully, constructed and fit for any king or queen.

Life Begins
Born in Bourbon on Sept. 17, 1895, to Frank and Maude Ettinger, he moved to a farm south of Warsaw, near Walnut Creek, in 1900, before he was five years old. In that Walnut Creek area, on County Road 200 South, one-half mile west of the Walnut Creek Church, young Ettinger spent his child and adolescent life.

During those early years, he attended the Walnut Creek Grade School where he was taught by four instructors whom Ettinger considers outstanding teachers including Bertha (Wilderson) Redman, Rosa (McKrill) Cool, Bertha Zimmer and Lillian (Haines) Scott.

It is difficult to know what inspired young Ettinger to create the fine wood pieces he began to build. But it was sometime between 1908 and 1912, when he was attending Warsaw High School, that he realized his woodworking interest.

"My brother and I would drive into town in a horse and buggy at noon time and I would habitually loaf at a German's cabinet making shop which was located where the old Cumberland Hardware store once stood in Warsaw," reminisces Ettinger. "This German cabinetmaker was Robert Hitzler. He knew cabinet making from A to Z and I'd ask him all kinds of question about woodworking and he would always answer. He was very patient."

Court Furniture
Ettinger adds that Hitzler built some of the furniture in the Kosciusko County courtroom including two large desks which Ettinger repaired and refinished for the county during his recent retirement years.

Beside hobnobbing with Hitzler, Ettinger enjoyed his noon visits with George Schrom, at Warsaw's Oram's Carriage Shop.

"Schrom was a carriagemaker and he was always good to me," recalls Ettinger.

"It seemed like I was drawn to woodworking. I'm sure as anything that woodworking is just born into you," contends Ettinger.

Though his farmer-father never crafted wood pieces, Ettinger's great-grandfather, Daniel Pittenger, and grandfather, John A. Pittenger, owned a now abandoned sawmill near Walnut Creek from as far back as 1836. Ettinger believes the ancestoral sawmill may also have influenced him to build with wood.

"I still have the roaming of that old mill," he says. "My grandfather and father would always encourage me and give me a board from there to use. Everybody who knows me still gives me a board!" he laughs.

Woodcraft Hobby
With pleasant memories of the sawmill and noon visits and conversations with Hitzler and Schrom, Ettinger began crafting fine wood pieces in his spare time during his high school year and while he attended Winona College in 1912 and 1913.

After completing his first full-time year in Winona College, he began a teaching career, in a one-room county schoolhouse where the old Swihart School was once located, near Warsaw. There for one and one-half years, Ettinger taught all eight grades to 22 pupils. He estimates he had 40 different lessons to teach per day. And during the first three summers of his teaching work he continued to take courses at Winona College.

In December, 1914, the then Wayne Township Trustee A. JU. Wiltrout asked Ettinger to instruct manual shop to seventh and eighth graders at West Wayne School (now Washington School), in Warsaw. Besides teaching the shop class
Ettinger was further contracted to instruct fifth and sixth graders in general courses.

Ettinger states he enjoyed teaching the woodworking classes which were some of the first vocational course offerings in the Warsaw schools.

Students Disciplined
"The students in West Wayne toed the mark and had the finest discipline you can imagine," recalls Ettinger.

He attributes the remarkably good student behavior to the leadership in the 19-teens of the principal of West Wayne, Foster Jones.

"Foster Jones was one of the top teachers I ever associated with," says Ettinger. "He had a personality that is seldom equaled. The kids worshiped him."

Jones later principaled in the Warsaw West Ward School.

For approximately three years, Ettinger, taught in the West Wayne School. Then World War II shook Europe and the United States and Ettinger enlised in the army in 1917.

One month before he actually entered the army, Ettinger drilled in the local national guard in the Warsaw armory. He then stayed in a temporary camp in Warsaw, which was located which was located where the Litchfield Creamery presently stands. The temporary camp was a gathering place for soldiers preparing to leave for Fort Harrison, Indianapolis, where they would be combined with others to form regiments and fight in the war.

"Wife's Stabilizing Influence"
The night before Ettinger entered this temporary camp, on "Aug. 4, 1917, he was united in marriage to Nellie Hahn, now deceased. Ettinger attributes the successful life he led during his working years to his "good wife", whom he states was always a "stabilizing influence" on him.

After spending September, 1917, in Fort Harrison, Ettinger was shipped to Camp Shelby, Miss. On Oct. 1, 1917. Becoming a second lieutenant in the army field artillery, he continued to move with the military for 18 months going from Mississippi to Camp Taylor, Louisville, Ky., and ending his service in Fort Sill, Okla.

When he first entered the army, in the fall of 1917, Ettinger had fully intended to return to the teaching profession. But during those 18 months in the service he began to change his mind. School teaching was not lucrative though he enjoyed the work "as much as anything I've ever done.

Turns Farmer
Besides, at that time, in 1919, Ettinger's father-in-law, Jacob Hahn, asked him to farm the Hahn stead, located south of Warsaw. Ettinger accepted his father-in-law's offer and terminated his teaching career, though one daughter, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren have followed Ettinger's early footsteps and are currently school instructors.

From 1919 to 1922 Ettinger cared for the Hahn farm, a typical homestead for the '20s which contained a few sheep, horses, cattle, hogs and grain fields. On that farm Ettinger's two oldest children were born: John Ettinger, presently in South Bend, and Evelyn Barnhart, residing in Indianapolis.

In 1922 Ettinger moved his family to Warsaw where he procured a winter job making cabinets in a furniture factory where Kinder Company is presently located.

"Making cabinets in that furniture factory was the only time I've used my knowledge of cabinet making to make a living," states Ettinger with a smile. "When I was a farmer I'd rather build a fence or fix tools. But, to tell you the truth, I didn't like to sit behind a team of horses and plow; I thought it was boring."

Probes New Endeavors
Though he loved the "cronies and friends" at the factory, Ettinger continued to investigate new opportunities to support his family which later expanded to four children when Esther (Ettinger) Lackey, of Warsaw, and Bill Ettinger, of Mentone, were born in 1925 and 1928 respectively.

One day Ettinger's neighbor suggested he see a young man named Justin Zimmer about a job. Young Zimmer was, at that time, sales manager for DePuy Manufacturing Company, Warsaw. DePuy founded in 1895, is a manufacturer of orthopedic equipment.

In March, 1923, Zimmer hired Ettinger to sell DePuy's splints throughout Ohio and Michigan and also in Indiana and Pennsylvania. For four years Ettinger traveled across states and sold DePuy's goods.

"Then early in 1927, around February, Justin Zimmer called me into his office and much to my surprise said, 'I'm going to start my own business and I want you to be my factory superintendent'," recalls Ettinger.

Answering Zimmer's offer, Ettinger replied, "All right. I'll go with you. I've tried to talk you out of this before, but this time I'll go with you."

Zimmer Firm Born
From that conversation, Zimmer aided by Ettinger, and backed by William Rogers and William Felkner, began to build the Zimmer firm, presently a multi-million dollar business which sells orthopedic equipment and goods to more than 100 countries throughout the world.

Within the first two to three months after Zimmer determined to build his firm, an amazing amount of work was completed. The first tasks were to develop a line of orthopedic equipment and to lay out a catalogue of items which the company would offer to sell.

Ettinger was handed the extremely difficult job of designing arm and leg splints and fracture beds which Zimmer would market in competition with other orthopedic equipment companies. Ettinger and Zimmer both agreed they would not copy orthopedic splint patterns used by DePuy and so the little cabinet maker began building and designing original Zimmer products in his basement, where his woodworking shop is now located.

Also Dr. C. F. Lytle helped arrange the first Zimmer "catalogue" and offered suggestions for refining the line of orthopedic equipment that Ettinger was designing. With Dr. Lytle's suggestions, and aided by mechanics, Ettinger produced a Zimmer line of arm and leg splints and fracture beds which were later patented.

Ready for Market
"In May 1927 only three short months after Justin Zimmer first announced the birth of his company, a display of samples that the Zimmer Company would offer for sale, was presented to doctors in Washington, D.C.

"We ran a one-horse show at first: from a few persons and nothing," states Ettinger. "But from the beginning sales were good because Zimmer had sales managing ability and a good line of products.

Originally the Zimmer Company "employed" only four persons, Ettinger states. The first workers included Mrs. Roy Cox, bookkeeper; Justin Zimmer, who assembled the sales force; Ettinger; and Dr. Lytle.

Later in 1927 Ettinger met Raymond Zimmer, a distant cousin of Justin Zimmer who was a mechanical genius, according to Ettinger. Among Zimmer's mechanical talents was his skillful ability to weld and solder aluminum, an unusual knowledge in the 1920s. Ettinger states the mechanic Zimmer was invaluable to the company because of his expertise in handling aluminum for the orthopedic goods.

Basement Shop Moved
Since Zimmer sales were good from its beginning, the company's shop soon moved from Ettinger's basement to the corner of Detroit and Arthur streets, Warsaw. And Ettinger began buying tools for the company shop's new home. The first Zimmer factory contained only a punch press, sheet metal forming equipment, a welding torch and various small tools such as hammers and tin snips.

"The company worked with a minimum of equipment," explains Ettinger. But from the time the firm was created it "grew like tops," Ettinger says, adding that another valuable participant of the early Zimmer company was Bob Delp. Even during the depression, which began in October, 1929, the firm continued to sell its equipment.

"During 1930 though 1932 Zimmer sales dipped, but not too badly. There was never a time that employees at the company worked less than 40 hours per week, except for two weeks in 1933 when we asked them to only work 35 hours per week. Much of the time, even during the depression, employees were still working for overtime pay. And the company met payroll every week exept for one time during the depression," reports Ettinger.

Amazing Growth
Ettinger admits amazement about the little company which grew from a basement workshop in 1927 to an international firm, currently with subsidiaries in Paris, France; Brussels, Belgium; Toronto, Canada; and North Carolina; and three locations in Warsaw including Boggs Industrial Park and Detroit Street.

"Zimmer-USA has exceeded the wildest dreams of its originators by continuing to grow at a fantastic rate," explains Ettinger.

What is the secret of Zimmer-USA? Why has it been so successful? "Any successful company must have quality accounting and manufacturing and a good sales force," answers Ettinger. Any firm that's weak in any of those areas is headed for trouble. It's like a three legged stool; it must be sold on all three sides."

Farming Unprofitable
Beginning in 1932 while working full-blast at Zimmer, Ettinger farmed his father-in-law's stead which he had purchased. Though his four children loved the farm, Ettinger decided to move back to town in 1936 because the stead proved to be a rather unprofitable venture.

Holding practically every office in the Zimmer company, Ettinger became president of the firm in 1951, when Justin Zimmer died. In 1954 Ettinger retired from the presidential position, accepting chairmanship on the corporation's board of directors until the late 1950s when he completely detached himself from business duties. James Hartle succeeded Ettinger in 1954, followed in 1969 by current president J. Alan Morgan. In 1972 Zimmer-USA merged with Bristol-Myers.

"I often said I wanted to retire early from Zimmer," exxplains Ettinger, "because I had lots of things I've wanted to do. And the main thing is cabinet work; it's my hobby, it's my outlet. Just like some people play golf, I like to do woodworking," he smiles.

Changing City
Besides witnessing the growth of Zimmer-USA, Ettinger has watched changes occurring in the complexion of Warsaw.

"I've seen everything from the first pavements built over cobblestone in 1900 or 1901 in the main part of town to the radical change of the business district here, though Warsaw has not changed as much as a good many town," notes Ettinger.

"For a long time Warsaw was industrially static," explains Ettinger. "Then somewhere between the first and second world wars, industry began to be attracted to Warsaw. I believe it was the lakes that did it: they were desirable places for company employees to live. I have been amazed at the building around the lakes here. For example, before World War I, Wawasee was nothing. The lakes were there all the time but nobody seemed to notice them until between the two world wars.

Content In Shop
Though changes continue in Warsaw Ettinger, the grandfather of 17 children and great-grandfather of 15, is content to work quietly and busily in his basement shop, complete with bench and filled with hammers, chisels, planes, vices and tools of every description. Recently he has expertly created 50 walnut jewel boxes for gifts to relatives and close friends and has begun carving a tawny-brown eagle simply "for my own edification," he says.

With a dove-tail joint as his trademark, the work he does now is a continuation of the first boards he crafted when he felt the roaming of the old Pittenger sawmill; or when he carefully built the blonde-wood silver chest for his wife, Nellie, during their courtship in the mid-19-teens; or when in the 1950s, he built the chancels and cabinets for the Walnut Creek Church.

Though Ettinger values the leadership positions he's held in business and community organizations, in his golden years he's chosen to return to his gentle woodworking craft because:

"It a fine recreation," he smiles, then pauses. "I've done woodworking all my working life. When I get down on my bench I can just work and forget about the world."

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