RACINE — The late Herb and Frank Nelson and Cliff Strom would doubtless admire the work being done today at the machine shop that still bears their names.
And present owners David and Mary Kay Hall fully appreciate the history of Nelson Bros. & Strom Co., still kicking after 93 years.
The couple recently took the company a step further: They bought the former Racine Metal-Fab plant, 2137 Roosevelt Ave., for $900,000 and moved the business into that much larger building from the former location at 1620 Racine St.
The Halls came to Racine and bought the company 20 years ago and have made it their business to learn its history. They said it was formed when the Nelson brothers and Strom were sitting on the Sixth Street bridge one day and decided to go into business together.
They started a machine shop on Sixth Street in a building that apparently later burned down.
Nelson Bros. & Strom was involved in historic work such as doing the prototype work for the original InSinkErator, the Halls said.
But it was more than just a machine shop. The Nelsons and Strom also devised and manufactured their own stoker, a machine that crushed coal, mixed it with the right amount of air and fed it into commercial boilers. And they manufactured their own pressure-cooker which they eventually sold to Presto.
David Hall, a professional engineer, previously designed heating and cooling systems for a mechanical contractor in Madison.
“What drew us to Nelson Bros. & Strom was just the business — the fact that it was a service-oriented company,” he said. “The fact that it was a machine shop didn’t matter.”
As the new owner, David Hall said, he learned the business from the late Norman Merz, shop superintendent who worked there from age 17 to 79.
When a manufacturer had a piece of equipment break down or wear out, David Hall said, “(Merz) would say, ‘Bring it by; I’ll take a look at it.’ ”
He was the shop’s problem-solver.
Today, Nelson Bros. & Strom is a full-service machine shop with about 300 customers. Most of the parts it shapes are used in manufacturing. Its top five customers include Racine Railroad Products and Spokane, Wash.-based Spokane Industries, a foundry that sends the Halls castings for the mining industry.
“We have parts that weigh 5,000 pounds,” David Hall said. On Racine Street, “We were too packed in to safely move those parts.”
They’ve gone from about 17,000 square feet of usable space there to about 45,000 now.
They still have only 10 employees, but David Hall is trying to hire three more.
Service work is an important part of the business: repairing, and sometimes redesigning, manufacturing parts for clients including SC Johnson.
“We update the machinery to their needs,” David Hall said.
Not infrequently, they do reverse engineering to make the needed parts. He said, “We take things apart, we fix it, we put it back together.”
Just as the shop has always done.