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Cranked Up: Cape Girardeau business knits together success

Updated: Oct. 29, 2019 at 9:07 PM CDT
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CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (KFVS) - Some call it one of Cape Girardeau’s best kept secrets.

You might not know it's there, but people across the globe sure do.

“We’ve shipped as far away as Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland,” said Grayson Erlbacher.

So, what is the secret?

To figure that out you have to first go back to the 1960s.

Erlbacher Gear and Machine Works was founded by a man named David "Pee Wee" Erlbacher.

He set up shop on the south side of town in an old bus station.

"We started making gears and sprockets for the racing industry," said Grayson Erlbacher-David's daughter.

They make even bigger gears now.

“Most of our clients are large, publicly traded companies,” said Erlbacher.

Space X even uses their gears.

Even with that success, it hasn't always been easy.

"In 2008 the economy wasn't so great, and it affected our industry"

So, "Pee Wee" Erlbacher decided to take a chance.

He saw a 1924 antique knitting machine and thought he could make one.

"I thought he was absolutely crazy," said Grayson Erlbacher.

Grayson, the rest of the family and the workers in the shop were all along for the ride.

They spent 13 months developing a prototype.

"We tried to keep it as authentic as the original one was," said Erlbacher.

They spent about $35,000...taking a big risk in a recession.

When all was said and done, they reverse engineered their own knitting machine.

It's something they continue to tweak and fine tune.

"We're creating a product that people love," said Erlbacher.

Pee Wee Erlbacher definitely had some forethought with the machine.

“I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to buy one...well, boy was I wrong,” said Erlbacher.

They have about 1,500 knitting machines out in the market today.

There are so many orders coming in, there's a backlog.

Some of their most current orders will be shipped to Ohio, Maine, Illinois, Utah, North Dakota and France.

They have a map in the office that showcases where all the knitting machines have gone.

The knitting machines are perfect for creating socks and hats.

They are quite popular with the crafters out there who thrive on farmers markets and online shops.

"We have one lady who put three kids through college with this," said Grayson Erlbacher. "She has a shop and she makes socks and sent her kids through college with it."

Pee Wee Erlbacher lived long enough to see his vision become a reality.

He passed away a few years ago, but his legacy remains.

His ingenuity and creativity still inspires workers like, Darrel Schwarz.

"I'm a third generation machinist," said Schwarz.

He has worked there for eight years.

“There are days when all go to work that we don’t like going to work,” said Schwarz. “But, that ends quickly when you actually get here. Everyone’s great to work with. Everyone’s willing to help each other out at the drop of the dime. You don’t get that at many places.”

It's a small, family owned business with seasoned veterans, to high school seniors who are interested in this type of career.

"I haven't had a job in a shop yet so this is a really good experience and I've really enjoyed it," said Erin Huff.

Huff had the opportunity to try her hand at sanding, grinding and welding...putting her fingerprints on a product that's touching nearly every corner of the globe.

They’re proud to say their machine is made in America.

“We could farm out this, and we could have these made in China by the boatload, but that’s not what we’re about,” said Grayson Erlbacher.

Their customers from around the world even make a trip to Cape Girardeau.

Every spring the business hosts an open house, and what they call a “crank in.”

Crank in held in Cape Girardeau

Did you know world-famous, handmade knitting machines were made in Cape Girardeau? Read more about the Erlbacher Knitting Machine Company, and the hundreds that gathered to celebrate it, here>> https://bit.ly/2CZLnqV

Posted by KFVS-TV on Friday, April 5, 2019

"A lady came from Japan and she brought her machine," said Grayson Erlbacher.

At the event they can meet with the workers who handcrafted their machines, and get a chance to tell them what they could do to make the machines even better.

For a company that does very little marketing, they're doing pretty well.

"Word of mouth," said Erlbacher.

That chance the late owner took about a decade ago proved to be pretty wise.

Showing that sometimes...you've just gotta trust your gut.

"That's our story, and we're kinda stickin to it," said Erlbacher.

To find out more about the product, or how you could place your own order, click here for a link to the company.

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