Made in the Tri-States: For longtime Dubuque manufacturer, evolution a key to longevity

Given its extensive history in Dubuque, one might assume The Adams Co. has been a model of consistency for the past 130 years.

During that span, however, the company’s path to success has been marked by frequent and significant changes. Adams Co. moved its location across town earlier this century and, at various points, overhauled its business model.

Company executives speak about this change with a sense of pride.

“We have evolved substantially from what our roots were,” said President and CEO Steve Arthur.

Today Adams Co. is located 8040 Chavenelle Road in Dubuque. The business employs 70 people and custom-manufactures gears, shafts and power transmission parts.

The company’s history dates back to 1883, when it operated primarily as a foundry out of a facility near Dubuque’s Ice Harbor. It continued to serve in that capacity for more than a half-century.

Other areas of focus have come and gone.

For the better part of 20 years, spanning the late 1800s into the early 1910s, the company also was in the business of car manufacturing. It produced multiple vehicles under the name Adams-Farwell but ultimately left that line of work when the likes of Henry Ford carved out a massive market share in the industry.

Adams Co. also created decorative fireplace accessories for about three decades until selling off that portion of the business in 2008.

While its focus may be narrower today, the company’s methods continue to evolve and leaders are continuously looking for ways to improve in an ever-changing market.


Adams Co. creates products for a wide range of clients spanning multiple industries and geographical areas.

The business primarily creates gears and shafts for customers in the ag, oil and construction industries. Its reach extends well beyond its Midwest roots.

“We have customers in nearly every state,” said Pat Meehan, a sales coordinator who also works in the tooling and methods department.

Meehan noted that Adams Co. has some customers in Canada and one in Europe. Meanwhile, many of its domestic customers disperse parts from the Adams Co. across the globe, meaning that the Dubuque-based firm has more of an international reach than meets the eye.

Generally speaking, Meehan said most products created at Adams Co. go through a similar process.

The company receives steel in large bars, measuring from 20 to 30 feet in length. Employees then saw the steel into the preferred lengths.

From there, the parts are taken to the “blanking department” where they are transformed into the general configuration that is desired.

Parts are then sent to the tooth-cutting department, where the “teeth” of the gears are etched into the product. Afterward, the products get “burred,” a process that involves removing the sharp edges.

The parts are ultimately sent to an outside facility where they undergo heat treatment. This process ensures a hardened and more durable surface.

While many products follow a general path to completion, Meehan emphasized that each part is tailored specifically to a client’s needs.

“Everything we make is per our customer’s designs,” Meehan said.


For more than 120 years, Adams Co. called the Ice Harbor home.

In the early 2000s, however, efforts to reshape the Port of Dubuque into a more tourist-friendly location precipitated an end to this lengthy run. Officials from the City of Dubuque and Adams Co. worked in conjunction on a relocation plan that ultimately prompted the company’s move to Dubuque Industrial Center West.

In 2004, the company moved into a newly constructed, 50,000 square-foot building that sits on 9 acres along Chavenelle Road.

The company now has resided in that same facility for 15 years. However, the equipment and processes within continue to change rapidly.

“With what we do, there is a constant evolution in the types of tooling being made, the material they are made out of and the coatings on them,” said Meehan. “It affects the type of equipment we invest it, how we make the parts and how quickly things get done.”

Arthur said Adams Co. now employs about 70 workers and said that number has remained relatively stable in recent years. The productivity of the company has continued to rise while the workforce total remains level.

“Employees are more efficient because the processes are more efficient,” said Arthur. “We’ve been able to increase our levels of work without increasing the workforce.”

Like many American manufacturers, Adams Co. continues to be impacted by foreign competition.

Arthur acknowledged that the company is acutely aware that it is operating in an “international market.” As a result, it will continue to emphasize innovation.

“We are always looking to apply our knowledge to other types of industries and product lines,” he said. “As the world changes, you have to change with it. We will continue to try to evolve.”