Garver Feed Mill story by Jim Gempeler

Jim Gempeler, a residential architect, worked as the unofficial night watchman for the Garver Feed Mill and built a living space for himself into the upper loft of the building. Jim recalls memories of the bats that inhabited the building, chasing the occasional youth visitors out of the building at night, and hosting parties.

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    Eric Schafer: Okay. This is Eric Schafer. I'm at the Garver Building on November 2, 2019. I'm speaking with Jim Gempeler. Could you please spell your last name for us [inaudible]?

    Jim Gempeler: Certainly. Jim Gempeler, G-e-m-p-e-l-e-r.
    Eric Schafer: All right. So, do you have a story you want to tell about Garver?

    Jim Gempeler: Oh there are so many. Well, I'm an architect and I lived here in the Garver Feed Building for about six and a half years. That was back from I want to say '85 to '91, if memory serves. Specializing in residential architecture, I like to live in places that really have an effect on how you look and how you feel about things. And back in those days, being a starving architect, I just started my practice in '84, '83 actually, and at that time I was living in Dr. Jackson's estate south of the Beltline. It was a Frank Lloyd Wright house that Marshall Irwin built. And they had rented that out to residents, but there was no residents who wanted to live there, so I stumbled upon that and that's where I started a business out of.

    That was moved to Beaver Dam, which is a tragic end to that story. So after living there, I certainly couldn't stand living in a "normal" house. And then knowing this building and appreciating it for years and playing softball. There's an old ice skating rink just next door that was a softball field in the summer months. I'd look at that and go, "God, that'd be awesome to live there. Wonder if that can happen?" So as an architect, I looked at the zoning and could see it was a manufacturing zone. And as such, a night watchman could live there. And that was the only person that could live in a manufacturing zone. So, I pounded on the office of Garver Feed and talked to Wayne Wendorf. Asked him if he wouldn't mind me living there and being an unofficial night watchman.

    Furrowed brow [laughs], "Why would you want to live here?" kind of thing. And I said, "Well, I know which end of the hammer to hold. If you've got some space, I'd love to, you know, build a loft space." And he says, "Sure." So he showed me around. And I ended up in the second story on the east end of the building. Had its own little rickety old staircase that went up there. So off we went and did that. Then my fiancée at the time, we lived there before we even got a bath and shower and kitchen in there. We had to shower down in the, before the workers got here, there's a little shower for the workmen down in the first floor. We'd sneak down there early in the morning. So it was rather challenging for a while. And then making the improvements up there. It was just a big space, tall ceiling, built partial height walls.

    I wanted to take down the, there's a suspended ceiling up there that's about ten feet, so there's about four feet above that. And I took one panel down and looked and could see all sorts of daylight. And knowing what can get in there, I decided, no I'm not going to take that ceiling down. We went outside, you can see in the evening, just streams of bats going out of the building, just bats. So I left that [the ceiling] in place. There'd be an occasional bat come down, which had lots of silly happenings with bats in the middle of the night. So that was always exciting when they would visit. As far as the night watchman unofficial post I had, it wasn't nearly the...what security issues that you'd think.

    I mean, it was a very safe place to live really, because nobody would think of breaking into my loft looking for, well number one they didn't know it was inhabited or what was there. But if you're wanting to steal expensive TVs or something of worth, you're not going to be looking at the Garver Feed Building, right? So about the only people that I would run into would be kids breaking in. Several of those were where they'd tip the pop machine over and steal change and [I'd] come down and chase them away. One time, it was a Saturday morning, I'd played golf and I was coming back. And looking right at the building just coming over the railroad tracks looking at the big arch, the main entrance there. And as I'm looking at it, driving over the railroad tracks, wham, this tremendous crash and two tines of the forklift exploded right through the door. And the door just, holy cow, somebody is in there and I doubt that it's anybody, from Garver because they just exploded through the door.

    So I parked the car and yelled up for Linda to call the cops. And she did. And I ran around the outside of the building in the back and there were kids pouring out like rats. And I grabbed a couple by the scruffs of their neck and held them there, which was kind of silly what could have happened. But they're just kids, 12, 13, something like that. And the cops came shortly thereafter, but I don't think anything happened to them. They're just kids doing what kids do at that age. So that was about the only unofficial night watchman duties that came involved in the whole thing. That was about the extent of that, yeah. But the other things that we'd do, there was lots of wings of the building off this main space that were unused by the feed mill at the time because they had big sugar beet equipment in there yet.

    So there was literally a couple inches of fine dust covering all these things. I mean, it looked like some horror movie set. And for Halloween parties and stuff, we'd go down through those. You'd think that Bela Lugosi would be spreading his cape shortly. So that was a great place for Halloween parties. The grain elevators were still in place, so Fourth of July we'd get the brainy idea that we'd crawl up to the top of the grain elevator to see how many firework shows we could see from around the area, which, it's a spectacular view up there. It's like being in a helicopter. So it was quite a time, quite a period. Fantastic area—the gardens, the lake. It was just a really, really fun place to live.

    Yeah, great chapter in my life. And so glad to see this building saved because, you know, being an architect, this place was just, I thought, past it. It looked like it was from a World War II movie set of a bombed out building. And there'd be some interest and I would suggest some things to do with it, but the city really wasn't interested back in those days. So I moved on and was busy working trying to support myself. When Baum got involved and Bryant and the job they did and all the design team and the construction on this, I take my hat off. I mean, it's just fantastic. A lot of memories flood back to be able to walk through this place and see it again, so it's a very cool project and my hat is tipped for everybody involved who pulled it off from everybody at the city and the neighborhood that got behind it and made it happen.

    So, very cool.

    Eric Schafer: Thank you so much. That's a remarkable story.

    Jim Gempeler: You're most welcome. There's so many, so many I could tell. No, maybe I shouldn't (laughs). But it was great to see Jim again, the owners. Sadly Wayne's passed. And Don, who was a worker at the time. Yeah, it's cool to see these people again. It's a great slice of history for Madison. It really is and for the state as well. I mean, sugar beet factory, there's not too many that are in the U.S. I don't know of any more that survived. Could be, but this is a very cool project to have here in Madison.

    Eric Schafer: Yeah. And not to have it end up torn down.

    Jim Gempeler: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It's fantastic. I'm sure it'll thrive and hopefully more things get built around here to increase the critical mass that's now been achieved and it's all good. So, yeah.

    Eric Schafer: Okay. Well, thank you so much.

    Jim Gempeler: Oh you bet. I appreciate it.

    Eric Schafer: I'm going to turn off the recorder here.