History of Freeland Industries

Family pride is what drives us. We have always delivered quality products to our customers. Our main product line for the farm features livestock watering and feeding products in galvanized or poly-tuf plastic able to stand up to barnyard use. We also have added specialty products like doghouses, lawn sprinklers, compost bins, earth anchors, leak-sealer tape among other lawn and garden items to our product line. 


Freeland Industries celebrated their 100th Anniversary in 2009
The second century has brought change to the company.
James Alvin Van Epps passed away on Oct. 12, 2013. His wife Leone passed on Sept. 26, 2014.
James L. Van Epps II retired from the company on January 1, 2015.
Lynn Van Epps heads the company as President - CEO.
Freeland Industries continues to thrive in the second century due to its commitment to adaptability, product improvement and the introduction of innovative items like our new three-sided galvanized tank. Freeland Industries is proud of its history and commitment to the creative process!


In 1893 the Lloyd Freeland Family formed the Pioneer Tank Co. In Middlebury, IN. In 1902, the Freeland Steel Tank Co. was formed in Sturgis, MI.

Lloyd Freeland
Lloyd Freeland 1933

A Tale of Two Families
Lloyd D Freeland and Frank L. Van Epps, Sr. were brothers-in-law.
Lloyd Freeland worked for Freeland and Sons Co. in Sturgis, Mich. Frank L. Van Epps, Sr. worked for the railroad, where he was a respected conductor. Frank Van Epps married Lloyd’s sister, Lora, who was a telegrapher for the New York Central.
Frank Van Epps joined Lloyd Freeland at the Freeland operation. Both were talented men with many abilities and an entrepreneurial streak. These men were up to taking risks; risks to which they gave every well thought out consideration.
These two gentlemen made a good impression each on their own, but their ability to function well together contributed to an impression that was excellent in its totality.

Lloyd Freeland and Frank Van Epps began to develop a fresh plan for the Freeland enterprise. Sometime during or before 1909, they became convinced that they would be in a better position where logistics and transportation were concerned, and be open to more opportunities, if their business and assets were relocated in a more western site. The western portion of the United States had opened up and matured; the frontier had been closed, the railroads operated coast to coast and the web of rails increased in length and complexity. There was a market for their steel products in the growing agricultural areas of the West.

Lloyd and Frank began a search of western sites. Many towns and cities in the West and Midwest were growing speedily, and certain communities began to campaign in order to lure businesses to their area, much as is done in our day. 

The City of Portage, Wisconsin (often called “Portage City” in the nineteenth century and early days of the twentieth) grew out of what had been one of the most advantageous geographical positions in North America. Here the Wisconsin River nearly meets the Fox River, and here it was that Native Americans brought their canoes “up” the Fox river (one of the few rivers that flows North), and carried their craft and provisions from the banks of the Fox approximately a mile or two to the banks of the Wisconsin. The trail from the Fox to the Wisconsin (referred to as the “Wauona” trail) is considered one of the oldest utilized walking trails in North America, of which some say has been in existence for 10,000 years.


As Europeans began to explore North America, they learned from Native Americans the way to the “Portage”. To powers such as France and Britain, it meant that the interior of the Mississippi Valley could be gained. From the Atlantic to the St Lawrence, and then to the Great Lakes, they would flow on the Fox to the “portage”, where they “made the portage” to the Wisconsin River and from there floated down to the Mississippi. In this way had Portage early on established itself as a transportation center.

The United States Government had established Fort Winnebago near the “portage” in the 1820’s (it was sited on the banks of the Fox, where the portage began). Officers such as Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, and other rather notable figures of the US Army were stationed there. The area was considered such an asset that this fort was deemed necessary, (in addition to Fort Howard at Green Bay, and Fort Crawford at Prairie Du Chien), to keeping secure this wilderness “key” to the Mississippi.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a canal was built to facilitate river traffic between the Wisconsin and the Fox. Commercial use of this canal was short-lived, as the railroads became more prevalent and efficient. Portage naturally became a railroad and transport center, and this was not unnoticed by Freeland and Van Epps.

The City of Portage had formed the Portage Advancement Association in order to attract more business. At the turn of the century, Portage was in the process of establishing institutions such as a library, and chapters of the B.P.O.E (Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elk, of which the Freelands and Van Epps would become active members), and other fraternal and civic associations were formed. The city’s two largest businesses were the Portage Hosiery Plant and the Eulberg Brewery. The population in 1901 stood at about 5,500. *1

Freeland and Van Epps approached Portage as well as other communities:

…..Messrs Freeland and Van Epps stated that they have a number of propositions under consideration for the location of their plant but were so favorably impressed with Portage that they at once signed contracts in which they agree to place a forfeit of $4,000 that they will make good their part. The company now operate(sic) a plant at Sturgis and is situated in what they term the eastern freight division, and it is the purpose of the concern to establish a western division. This is the plant they want to build here. ……According to the contract entered into by the Advancement association the building and site is to be ready for operation July 15th. *2

As Freeland and Van Epps were impressed with Portage, it would seem that Portage was impressed with them and their methods of operation. A committee was sent to Sturgis to investigate the Freeland operation:

At the special meeting of the common council held Saturday evening, Mayor Downey (of Portage) presiding … definite action was taken. ……. the committee appointed by the Advancement association to visit Sturgis to investigate the plant and financial standing of the concern, made their report which was to the effect that they found everything as represented by Messrs. Freeland and Van Epps and that the factory and people connected with it were in high standing….

Gentleman: Your committees sent to Sturgis, Mich., to investigate the … Plant for the manufacture of steel tanks, beg leave to report as follows: We arrived in Chicago on Saturday night, having been met at Chicago by Messrs. Freeland and Van Epps. We spent the evening in consultation with the members of the firm and business men of Sturgis. Upon inquiry we found the firm to be in excellent standing in the city, both financially and socially.

….The next day we inspected the plant and witnessed the methods by which the output of the institution is constructed, and while the same work being produced there will be produced here,………the Portage shop will be equipped with new and modern machinery………There were 25 men employed about the shop and busily engaged in the erection of tanks……Upon inquiry we found that all of the men in the employ of the company were homeowners in the city and many of them had been employed many years by the concern at wages averaging $2.50 per day.

…… The work accomplished by the plant depends upon the number of daily orders received. The custom they employ is to build each day all of the orders received each day, so that if a batch of orders comes on the morning, the finished output is loaded on cars and shipped at night. An examination of the books of the company…demonstrated the fact that the daily orders were sufficient to keep the plant in constant operation. While orders were short some days, they were heavy other days, so that the employees of the plant were in constant service. *3

While there was no doubt that the US economy had been growing expansively since the end of the Civil War, many factors had periodically caused economic damage. Major financers and institutions (insurance companies, for example) of the time governed the means to grant loans of which funds were too many times utilized for purposes of speculation. *3  Freeland & Sons enjoyed their best year ever in 1906-1907, but the Panic of 1907 affected their output for the year 1907-1908.

The year 1906-1907 the firm manufactured 10,782 tanks, 779 troughs, 1,387(*?) tank heaters, 987 feed cookers…. The year 1907 was the banner’s year business of the firm; the year 1907-1908 was the poorest year and the cause attributed was the business depression resultant from the panic. *3

Mr. Freeland and Mr. Van Epps had impressed the representatives of the Portage community with their industry and integrity:

Your committee can say further that every representation Messrs. Freeland and Van Epps made to the Advancement association committee was found by your committee to be just as represented. We found the members of the Freeland firm to be active, enterprising people, and in our judgment men of good business ability. As an illustration of their confidence in their own business, we were told by the president of the Sturgis Advancement association that when their Advancement association induced them seven years ago to move their plant from Middlebury to Sturgis, several of the citizens of Sturgis took part of the Stock of the institution. This stock that was taken as an inducement has all been bought up by the Freelands, they paying for the same 25 per cent per annum to get it back. … your committee will strongly recommend that this factory be procured for Portage…We believe as it is, it is a good thing to have. In saying this, we take into account the reliability of the concern. The great and growing demand for the staple output of the factory, the character of the labor… and the property addition that such a plant will necessarily bring to Portage. *3 

By May 6th of 1909 it was announced that the contract between the City of Portage and the Freeland concern was now closed…..

The sum of $4,000 was deposited by Mr. Freeland with City Treas. Koplin as an evidence of good faith…….Mr. Freeland will return to Sturgis and the shipment of machinery to Portage will be commenced at once. They intend to have the plant running about the middle of July. Work on the buildings will be commenced at once. *4

It was reported on June 29th:

Machinery for the new factory is commencing to arrive and it is expected that the plant will be in operation within a very short time. *5

The Company took root quickly in Portage. Its products were for the most part, as always, agricultural products, but the company was quick to adapt where an opportunity presented itself, and was fortunate not only in the engineering skill of its management, but also in the deep well of skills it found in its employees in Portage.

Employees of 1911 including in the front row from left to right- Lloyd Freeland,
Freeland Van Epps, Frank L. Van Epps, Sr.

The main production of the firm involved feed tanks and troughs, tank heaters and feed cookers. This led to tanks of all types, including those used in the threshing process, and tanks and conveyances utilized for the harvest and processing of canning crops. Just prior to WWI canning companies such as the Columbus Canning Company had increased production. It was indicated in 1909 that the harvest of early peas would begin the first week of July. *6 The importance of the harvest of early peas and other canning crops would lead to the development of Freeland products such as the “Pea Tank” which protected the peas at harvest and during transport.

In addition, barn cupolas, kerosene tanks, cisterns of different types, and sheep dipping vats were developed and produced. Creep feeders and hog feeders were always in a state of evolution, and improvements never ceased.

Even the production of boats would result from the company’s willingness to be creative and consider projects that would add to its resiliency and repertoire.

Elevator installed in addition, built in 1912 to access the basement storage


The Philippines and the Catamaran
Soon after the move to Portage, the Freeland concern took part in a project of the United States Government. The army had need of a small boat that could navigate in rivers, streams, and “bayou-like” bodies of water. This craft would be a prototype built in conjunction with the Portage Boat & Engine Co. Freeland constructed the body of the craft, which was developed with intent for use in the Philippines.

After the defeat of Spain in the Spanish American War (beginning in August 1898, the treaty signed in December of the same year), the United States became responsible for the Philippine Islands after its attack and defeat of the Spanish forces there.

A movement for independence existed while the Spanish ruled there. Armed guerilla fighters were a part of this movement, and cooperated with the US forces. Many of the Filipino groups working for full independence remained active after Spain’s defeat. There was a debate in the United States as to whether or not she should take full control of the Philippines, and for numerous reasons, amongst those being the idea that the Filipinos were unprepared as yet for self – government, the United States opted for full control.

For a short term there continued to be guerilla attacks and unrest. Over several years, as reforms were made, the situation became more settled. It was necessary for US forces, however, to insure stability in the countryside as well as in principal cities. In addition to this consideration, there was a need in the Philippines for better access to the populace, which was spread amongst many islands and isolated places on the main lands. The geography of the Philippines was immensely complicated. The catamaran was a project that grew out of a concern of the government and military to increase their effectiveness and control of the Philippines. The craft was shipped to Manila on July 10, 1911.

Catamaran made entirely in Portage, WI for the War Department
Craft in the form of steel rowboats would begin to be included in the Freeland product line.


steel row boat
Freeland Ind. Steel Row Boat as it appeared in the Sears catalog


1914- A Time of Change Begins

Lloyd Freeland was a man of energy and ideas. By 1914 he decided he wished to involve himself in other projects. Being an adventurous soul in addition to his other facets, he longed to travel and explore opportunities world-wide. He had decided to sell his interest to his partner, Frank Van Epps. Lloyd traveled to Saskatchewan, Canada, where he operated a business. He would eventually accumulate much valuable real estate there. Lloyd returned to Middlebury, Indiana for a time where he organized a clock company that enjoyed success. Lloyd would travel to the Philippines, China, and South America, amongst other locales. He settled eventually in California, where he owned at one time a tungsten mine.

heating system
Production floor looking east, showing the overhead
forced air-heating system designed by Lloyd Freeland

Frank Van Epps had two sons, Frank L., Jr. and Freeland. The sons would be brought more and more into the operation of the Freeland Co.

WWI began in Europe in 1914. The United States would not enter the war until 1917, but the war, especially at the time of US involvement, was a catalyst to the American economy.

The Panic of 1907, mentioned previously, was one of a series of economic downturns experienced in America. Speculation, among other factors, contributed to these crises. Since 1901, important financial reforms had begun to be taken seriously, and this would begin to keep the economic “pulse” more steady. It took WWI to get the US economy on a track of growth, and Freeland gained from this growth that would only cease in the “Great Depression”.

company baseball team
Freeland Steel Tank baseball team from 1915

Its strong line and its quality of product were the major factors. Two customers had begun to take on immense importance. These customers would become legendary among the American public: Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. By the early twentieth century, Sears, Roebuck would reach annual sales of $11 million. *7

The catalogs of these companies still enjoy fame and familiarity in the United States. It was in these catalogs that the products of the Freeland Steel Tank Co were featured. Feeders and farm products of different types made their appearance. Inclusion in these catalogs served the purpose of not only increasing sales, but of making the Freeland name somewhat more familiar to a greater part of the country. Certainly, special projects were always welcome at the plant, but the catalog products carried the day-to-day business.

Production floor looking west

The Loss of Frank Van Epps, Sr.

Frank Van Epps, the man who, along with Lloyd Freeland brought the company to Portage, died October 2, 1930. The local paper reported as such (note that Freeland employees were pallbearers):

Funeral services for the late Frank L. Van Epps, prominent Portage manufacturer, who died last Thursday afternoon, were held Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock, in Murison’s funeral chapel. The Rev. J.V.E. Berger, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, conducted the services. Pallbearers were employes (sic) of the Freeland Steel Tank works, of which Mr. Van Epps was president. The large seating capacity of the funeral chapel was entirely filled with friends and relatives of the late manufacturer. Great numbers of flowers almost covered the casket. Burial, in Silver Lake cemetery followed the services. Frank Leslie Van Epps was born in Hudson, Mich., on April 22, 1858. His parents were Hollanders. He was united in marriage to Lora S. Freeland of Middlebury, Ind., on Nov.26, 1890. They had two sons, Frank L., Jr., and Freeland.

From The Depression To The War

Frank’s two sons were now running the company. The Great Depression had its effect, and business had weakened. Yet still the company persevered, and thanks to patient management and a host of talented employees, work and sales continued. Agriculture and the livestock business, upon which the bulk of the business was based, still needed to be supplied.

Frank L. Van Epps, Jr. began to be concerned that the company was becoming too reliant on its two main catalog customers. This would lead to the company eventually printing its own catalog, and developing its own list of customers. Additionally, the effort to be more resilient in its research and development were also the emphasis of Frank L., Jr. and Freeland Van Epps.

Line shaft driven production machines
Line shaft driven production machines and stockpiles of angle iron and strap iron.


James L. Van Epps, the son of Frank L., Jr., and his wife, Nellie, worked for the company in High School. He and his wife to be, Leone Crawhall, both graduated in 1940. James (known as “Jim”) would briefly work for the Railroad (an industry in which his ancestors played roles), but when war broke out, he applied for the Army Aviation Cadets. It was 1942. That same year he reported to Texas to begin training, and eventually became a bombardier and navigator.

Leone and Jim were married in 1943. Their first of five sons was born in 1944. Jim was sent to Hawaii where he participated in a run to attack Japan. His plane was hit, and he and a fellow crew member were stranded in the Sea of Japan, fortunate to be alive, yet still more fortunate to have been rescued from the sea.

After his discharge from the military, Jim became a salesman for the company his father and uncle ran. The business had now grown to cover the greater Mid-West, a goal of Frank Van Epps and Lloyd Freeland when they brought their enterprise to Portage for better access to more “Western” markets.

The year 1946 would mark the death of Lloyd Freeland in Oakland, California on September 1. Lloyd had immersed himself in many personal projects, as well as having worked in a defense plant involved in producing components having to do with the atomic bomb. Lloyd had received a commendation from the government for the part he played in the project.

Meanwhile, Steel had been scarce during the war years and production was slowed at the Portage plant. Contracts had been gotten to manufacture steel roofing panels and other products. In 1951, the firm had investigated buying groups such as Mid-States Distributors, which led to long-time business relationships with such companies as Blain’s Farm & Fleet Stores and Mills’ Fleet Farm Stores. Freeland’s tank business grew substantially in the 1950’s.

The company’s catalog was no longer an idea that took root in the 1930’s, but an established and experienced fact, with a product line that included boats and other non-agricultural products. In 1958, the name of the company was changed to Freeland Industries, Inc., to reflect the fact that its product line was varied.

The stockpiles of galvanized steel sheets used in the manufacturing of the stock watering tanks
and other products

Frank L. Van Epps, Jr., the son of Frank van Epps, died in 1965, leaving his son, James L. Van Epps to run the company with his uncle, Freeland van Epps. In 1969, James would purchase the interest of his uncle, and take the reins of the company.

James L. Van Epps and wife Leone would have five sons: James L. II, Lawrence, John, Lynn, and Jeffery. James L. II would join his father at Freeland as Plant Manager, after returning from the service. Lynn F. Van Epps would join them as Sales Manager in 1974. Lawrence, John, and Jeffrey would all be involved on the Board of the company. All the sons have engineering experience, except John who is an accountant and entrepreneur.

While the fourth generation began its involvement with the company, the following achievements have taken place:
1970 – Freeland purchases the manufacturing facilities of Badger Corrugating Co., and moves these to Portage.
1974 – Line expanded to include cattle bunk feeders, mineral feeders, galvanized steel feeders, and welded hog troughs.
1979 – Introduction of Gravity Hog Watering System.
1983 – Freeland Trucking, a transportation division, is added, with authority as an irregular route common carrier in 48 states.
1990 – Freeland purchases additional property east of its plant with an eye on future expansion.
1991 – Patent obtained for plastic livestock watering tank, the basic product having been improved by Freeland research. Plastic line of this type now is of several sizes.
1992 – Freeland purchases equipment and machinery to produce galvanized steel tubing it utilizes in its processes.

Pea Tank

The fact that the company continues as a healthy enterprise after 100 years proves that the relationship of Freeland Industries and the City of Portage has been mutually beneficial.

James Van Epps
July 31, 2006 James Van Epps receives award from the city of Portage, WI
for their continued commitment to bettering the community