Ulrich Sielaff and David & Shelley Hamel

Garver Feed Mill story by Ulrich Sielaff, David Hamel, and Shelley Hamel

Ulrich Sielaff, David Hamel, and Shelley Hamel describe their experiences renting space for their manufacturing business in the Garver Feed Mill building. They describe the building's poor physical condition and cleaning their office space for use. The group discusses the yacht that was built in an adjacent building, an overloaded semi that delivered bolts to the building, and the sale of their company to a competitor that was building "knock-off" structures.

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    Catherine Phan: This is Catherine Phan. I'm at the Garver Building on November 2, 2019, and I'm speaking with Shelley, David, and Ulrich. They're going to introduce themselves right now.

    Ulrich Sielaff: I'm Ulrich Sielaff. U-l-r-i-c-h S-i-e-l-a-f-f.

    David Hamel: David Hamel. D-a-v-i-d H-a-m-e-l.

    Shelley Hamel: Shelley Hamel. S-h-e-l-l-e-y H-a-m-e-l.

    Catherine Phan: So Shelley, David, and Ulrich, what memories or stories do you want to share with us about this place?

    Ulrich Seilaff: This is Ulrich. I guess I'd like to start just by giving a little overview of what our connection was to the Garver Feed Mill here. I'm a designer and at one point I had an idea for making a—I think it actually started earlier—I designed a little toy for a company that had the shape of a little geodesic dome. And I realized that if I scaled it up to a larger size, it might be something that might be sort of a bigger project for perhaps selling for backyard buildings and so forth. And when I had that idea, I had the good fortune of having two friends, Shelley and David, and I think we were a good match. I was a little bit more of a designer and David was a manufacturing engineer with lots of clever ideas. And I also realized that Shelley was probably the glue that held us together with knowing how to do word processing for example.

    And many other things that kind of kept us organized. So I think we were kind of a good match. And the product ended up being a set of metal plates that made the joints of a very simple geodesic dome building. The thing that was nice about it was that it was a very simple shape where all the pieces of the wood, of the struts, were all exactly the same length. And so basically there were fifteen pieces of two-by-four of any length and I think it was eleven plates that held these pieces together. And by making just the variation of the length, we could make buildings of basically any size.

    David Hamel: The date when all this became a venture was 1981, we began. And by 1982, we were selling sets of star plates and had an office on Monona Drive and renting warehouse out on Femrite Drive. And the move to Garver gave us an opportunity to have our own shipping department and office all in one location. That office is what Jim Gempeler took over after we left it in 1985.

    Shelley Hamel: I think the way we found out about Garver was knocking on the door of the little brick building, which was the office. And Wayne Wendorf I think was there. And Ulrich, it just might have been you and me. I don't remember David being there, but we said is there a place that we could have new offices and where there's a loading dock so that we could assemble the boxes that had to be shipped out? And he said, "Well you can go look at it," and gave us the key, and we walked up those green stairs that were attached to the outside of the building, opened the doors, and it spoke to us. [laughter] But the thing I really remember about it is it stank in here. I don't know if either of you guys remember that, but I think it was the molasses that was left over from decades ago. But it really had an off aroma. That was a memory of mine.

    Ulrich Sielaff: Actually, I was impressed with in what rough shape the entire building was in. It was in stunningly bad shape actually. And the fact that this room was a room that we occupied was on the second floor, kind of took it away from kind of the ground floor where all the real wet and damaged stuff was. But I'll never forget. The room was a beautiful room except it looked terrible. It had great big windows on both sides. I remember that clearly and the walls were basically blackened brick and junk everywhere. So our first task when we got in here was to kind of clean it up as best we could and renting a large airless paint sprayer. And we spray painted the entire, not the floor, but the walls and the ceiling, all white with white paint. That was the extent of our decoration.

    David Hamel: It was interesting to hear Jim Gempeler say that the false ceiling concealed a bat rookery. I was never aware of anything behind the ceiling. I guess we just never were there at night.

    Catherine Phan: Where exactly were you? You were on the second floor? [multiple speakers] [inaudible]

    David Hamel: Well our warehouse and shipping department was the ground floor that Lynn Hellmuth moved into when we departed. And upstairs was the office that Jim Gempeler moved into after we departed.

    Shelley Hamel: So the loft apartment was our office, looking nothing like the loft apartment that Jim Gempeler later created. One of the things I was asking David about this morning was, where was the bathroom? I don't remember at all a bathroom. There must have been a bathroom. It was not in our office.

    Ulrich Sielaff: No it was on the lower floor. It was, you know, not a very nice bathroom, but it was down on the lower level. I'm assuming it was still, because there was still some people, there might have been an old maintenance person or I think there were two people, two men that worked here and I think there was still somebody, there was one person in the office that was holding down the fort. And I don't know if there was any business still happening then, but I think the smell was more of a grain smell because they did all different kinds of grain here. So maybe it was—and then, of course, by that time everything sort of had started being mixed with water. So I think that probably had to do with the smell too.

    Shelley Hamel: We had some employees. We had, if you remember, Dale Melius was our accountant, so he came from somewhere in Madison to our offices here. Jana Fothergill was an artist who came. David remembered, um...

    David Hamel: Mary.

    Shelley Hamel: Mary, who was also an accountant. And then one great memory of mine is I decided to have my birthday party in that office because it was perfect. I didn't want to celebrate my fortieth birthday because I just didn't want to. But on my forty-first birthday, we hired Rockin' John McDonald of WORT to be the D.J. And so there must have been fifty-five people. I mean, I don't even think I know fifty-five people. But it was just going to be such a cool thing to have my birthday party rock and roll dance up there. [laughter] And that's one thing I really remember.

    David Hamel: The shipping department on the ground floor depended on a loading dock for semi-trucks to back up to. And it was really a rickety thing made out of two-by-tens or, you know, lumber, nailed together, but we had an aluminum plate, apparently, that made it possible to roll our pallet jack in and out of a semi. When we began it was pretty much hand labor. But the business exploded and we did a large business in heavy sheet metal product. And I remember one time a semi load of carriage bolts from Taiwan arrived, that was so overloaded, it had had to stop and get three or four tires replaced on the way from Milwaukee where the ship had unloaded.

    Ulrich Sielaff: I can expand that story a little bit. One of the parts that we hadn't talked about was kind of how the business developed and what was happening. It turned out that there was actually a company that...We had a patented idea of this, and it was quite a success. We were selling it in lots of home centers all around the country. But at one point we went to a trade show in Chicago to sell our product and it turned out that a company from Minnesota had knocked off the idea and showed up right close to our booth in McCormick Place and had our product be the centerpiece of their display. And of course, that's a long story, but we ended up, to settle that issue that they were violating our patent.

    We in effect sold the company to this company that knocked the product off. That didn't end well because it turned out that we were actually better at marketing that product than the new company. But what happened was another employee that we had not for a long time was somebody that we thought could help us with importing the product. And we never imported the star plates themselves but, as David mentioned, we did buy carriage bolts that held these legs to the two-by-fours from China, and we hired somebody or we got the help of someone who fancied themselves as an import/export expert.

    David Hamel: In 1981, or [198]2.

    Ulrich Sielaff: So we were, as David said, we were kind of buying carriage bolts, and they were loaded on trucks that had to be basically forty thousand pounds, and there were many of these containers that came over. Well when this whole thing went down with being knocked off and selling the company, there were still two containers that were on the water that we couldn't basically turn off. And when this all came down, this new company acquired the business, we had nothing, we had nothing to do with these two containers of carriage bolts. I think I calculated one time that each container had about a million bolts or something like that. It was a staggering number of bolts. And when I mentioned a minute ago that Shelley was one our saviors and organizers, what were we doing? And what reminded me of the story was that we were trying to move these huge pallets that were incredibly heavy and they were in boxes that were kind of falling apart kind of boxes.

    And every time we tried to move anything, either the pallet jack would barely crunch across the terminal floor. But finally, Shelley managed to come up, and I don't know what this program was, but somewhere she found out that there was some government program that would accept hardware that could be used for some other applications, and it was either to be donated or who knows what black hole it went into. But I do remember that there was eighty thousand pounds. I think it was more than a container because eighty thousand pounds of carriage bolts were down there. And one day, a semi or two showed up and we bumped it into the semi and they took those carriage bolts and they disappeared, and I actually think we got money for it, which was really amazing. [laughter] But that was one of the funny memories there.

    Shelley Hamel: That's why we have three people here. I don't remember that at all. What I thought you were going to go to was pulling the load of carriage bolts by the pallet jack was, David—do you remember this, Ulrich—slipped his disc [laughter] carrying him down the stairs and we had to take him to the hospital where he was in the hospital for two or three days.

    Ulrich Sielaff: That I don't remember. All right, well that's funny.

    David Hamel: I wedged myself between the stack of carriage bolts and a load on the pallet jack. Trucks that parked on our dock ended up on a slope, so we had to push things up a little bit of a slope to get up and out of the trailer.

    Ulrich Sielaff: I don't even remember that.

    David Hamel: And it was the next day when I sneezed and I knocked myself to the floor. [laughter]

    Shelley Hamel: There are two other things before we wrap up here. And one is, Ulrich, you must tell the story about the hunter. And also Jim Peters who did build a sailboat in a building that was behind Garver. I guess it's no longer here now. That was what they were talking about.

    David Hamel: The sheet metal building.

    Shelley Hamel: The sheet metal building. But we did see that boat. I mean it was a yacht. It was an ocean-going—

    Ulrich Sielaff: Really? [multiple speakers]

    David Hamel: Well over 40 feet.

    Shelley Hamel: So that was another part. But anyway tell about the hunter.

    Ulrich Sielaff: I wouldn't say it was hunters, but there was, as I mentioned, there was—I think that there two men that worked here and I'm assuming they might of even been here tonight or today. But I think it was kind of a regular occurrence, if not every day, certainly every other day, we always heard gunshots. And it was funny to be working up there and typically during the day, there'd be five or ten gunshots that we typically heard. But it turned out what it was, was a rifle that was down on the lower level and outside around the building, there was somebody shooting off a twenty-two rifle. And it turned out that over the years, the woodchucks had invaded the area, both probably inside and out of the building. And they were so destructive and so prolific that they dug under the foundation and actually caused damage where the bricks were falling in.

    And this was not uncommon for them to do. But the thing that was notable was how many of them there were. And so the day might have started with these guys where one of them would go out and check out if they could shoot some woodchucks that day. And it happened a lot. So one of my memories is always hearing the twenty-two go off for the hunting that was being done outside the building.

    Catherine Phan: Anyone else have any favorite spots or other memories or senses of this building?

    David Hamel: No.

    Ulrich Sielaff: I'm just amazed first of all at having seen the building in its state of disrepair. And kind of hearing the history of the business and realizing what incredibly rough shape it was in, and kind of having been kind of a building—well, David and Shelley as well, have done renovations and things, we realize what's involved even on a tiny scale compared to this. So the result of the work here is just stunning to us and we're just so happy that in some way we could have been a little part of it.

    Catherine Phan: Are there parts of this that you still remember as being the same, or parts that you aren't shocked at how different it is?

    Shelley Hamel: The beautiful brickwork on the outside is still magnificent, and it's really a huge building and beautiful.

    Ulrich Sielaff: Yeah, yeah.

    David Hamel: And the space that we occupied as an office is unchanged except that now it's clear story to the ceiling.

    Ulrich Sielaff: And the bricks exposed and beautiful and the windows are wonderful. [laughter]

    David Hamel: And tight. [multiple speakers]

    Ulrich Sielaff: Or, it was just a great—it was a chapter in a business and it was a chapter that was really fun when you think back that that was one of our connections in the past.

    David Hamel: And you know those two partners had to be real open-minded people to consider renting a fraction of their square footage. It wasn't a big deal, but they let us come and go and do the remodeling we needed to do, no problem. A great couple of guys.

    Catherine Phan: Thank you so much. Those were really wonderful stories. Thanks so much.