Explosive 1982 Thonet Fire Devastates Sheboygan Furniture Plant

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Once known for its thriving furniture industry, the city of Sheboygan was forever changed by a catastrophic explosion on April 19, 1982. The incident at the Thonet plant, triggered by sawdust, resulted in the plant being leveled to the ground.

According to the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, the explosion was caused by a combination of circumstances. The boiler, which normally used natural gas as fuel to fire the dry kilns and provide heat, had been converted to burn sawdust or wood scrap. This change created a perfect storm for an explosion and subsequent fire that swept through the entire complex.

Employees at the plant described the explosion as a deafening force that shook the entire building, likening it to a powerful wind or tornado. The blaze was so intense that it shattered windows on the first floor and smoke was visible as far away as Milwaukee. Despite the chaos, many employees bravely rescued finished furniture from the flames, although nine individuals sustained injuries.

Firefighters from five different departments in Sheboygan County rushed to the scene, utilizing 6 million gallons of water to extinguish the massive blaze. Sheboygan Fire Chief Walter Wagner expressed concerns about the fire due to the wooden structures of the Thonet Industries plant, which consisted of two wood-frame buildings and two brick buildings.

Chief Wagner highlighted the volatile nature of the finishing department, which housed chemicals such as lacquers, thinners, stains, and paint, posing a serious risk of explosion. The future of the company in Sheboygan came into question, with discussions arising about whether the firm would rebuild and remain in the city.

Ultimately, Thonet President John Reiderer announced the phased closure of the local operation by the end of 1983, relocating production to the company’s plants in other states. The decision was a devastating blow to the 180 employees who had hoped for the company to rebuild in Sheboygan.

The Thonet Industries complex, which dated back to 1888, held a significant place in Sheboygan’s history as a premier furniture maker. The company had undergone various transformations over the years, with a shift in focus to bentwood furniture following the fire that closed its Sheboygan location.

Today, the block that once housed the bustling woodworking trade is scattered with multiple housing units, marking the end of an era for furniture production in Sheboygan. The impact of the 1982 explosion is still felt in the city, serving as a reminder of the fragility of industrial operations and the resilience of the community.