The fabrication of real things

Have you ever started along a path only to encounter a remembrance that sends you off in a different direction?

It recently happened to me — again.

I wanted to write about the W.D. Benjay Co. They recently built a new building in Alpena, on Cavanaugh Street, next to the railroad tracks. I live not far away and commonly pass that location, but I had no idea what they did there. I wanted to find out.

But, with all the conspiracy theories floating around, one can’t be too careful when seeking information. Lies — some real whoppers — are being fabricated and promoted as truths. So I decided to take a novel approach: I would ask the people who work there — people who actually know.

But I got sidetracked by that remembrance — an incident described in one of Robert Haltiner’s books on the history of Alpena, one that occurred at the exact location now occupied by W.D. Benjay’s new building.

Here’s the scoop from the July 21, 1924 edition of The Alpena News.

“2 Slain, Girl Knifed,

“Knudle House Burned

“The curtain rang down on the final act in the varied and extremely lurid life of one of Alpena’s famous characters of the underworld at 11:00 o’clock Sunday night when a double tragedy ended the lives of Mrs. Nancy Knudle and Andrew Forthoffter and brought Ethel Wood, a maid in the Knudle home, to the brink of the grave.

“To put the finishing touches on the whole affair, a kerosene lamp was emptied of its contents on the floor of the sitting room near the stairs, a match was applied, and in a few minutes, the Knudle home was a funeral pyre for the two victims of the tragedy.”

Nancy Knudle had been in the News before:

“A few of the bad ones were roped in last night.

“The police last night gathered in a few of the city’s disorderlies with the result that the library fund will be materially increased. Two houses were raided, and six people in all were gathered into the net.

“George L. Hughes and his wife Alice were arrested on a charge of keeping a house of ill-repute. Two of the inmates, Nellie Wilson and Nancy Noodles (sic), were fined $5 and costs — $10 each.”

— Alpena Evening News, 11/04/1902

The customers’ names were not given.

Judgments mandating the payment of fines and costs from adjudicated “disorderlies” continue to bolster our library’s finances, but now we have “orderlies” threatening to jeopardize those finances unless their moralistic judgments are mandated.

But enough digression! “From the ashes –”

A new building has arisen, housing a different business model. Though the people of W.D. Benjay are involved with fabrication, it’s not false hopes and dreams they fashion. Instead, their objects are real — they fabricate things of steel!

Dave Seifferlein is the vice president; Seth Taylor is a mechanical engineer; and Amanda McEwen is the human resources director. We all gathered around a conference table in Dave’s office. W.D. Benjay employs 50 highly skilled people, six of whom are degreed engineers. Michael Ableidinger owns the company.

I told Dave I thought I would need about half an hour, but I was still perplexed after an hour and a half. Despite my limitations, I was comfortable knowing our meeting wouldn’t end before I grasped the essentials, for Dave’s office floor has no carpet. When I asked when it would be installed, he said it wouldn’t.

One might attribute a carpet’s absence to an aversion to vacuums or an allegiance to the shop broom. But I sensed Dave’s dedication to smooth surfaces and flawless outcomes was what dispensed with it, a commitment that gave me comfort and, ultimately, a grip.

W.D. Benjay Co. owns one of the largest lathes in northern Michigan. With it, they can machine stock with a 34 1/2-inch diameter 20 feet long to a tolerance of 0.0002. They produce axles weighing 13,000 pounds for use in stone-crushing machinery. But they also machine dowel pins that measure ½-inch by ¼-inch.

With these capacities, they have no need to rely on preconceived notions of what a measurement is believed to be.

W.G. Benjay has six locations in and around the city, each performing a different function in the conception, engineering, creation, manufacture, fabrication, and finishing of the products they routinely produce and the custom works they create.

And they can make about anything, all the way from those giant stone-crusher axles and pneumatic screw conveyors that move heavy materials to custom hydraulic cylinders, tiny dowels — and about anything in between.

Some of you may remember Bill French; he was our community’s repairman. Bill passed away in 1986. Betty Werth wrote a tribute to “Mr. Fixit” in her Alpena News column, The Writer’s Block.

“– and Bill was fixed in the minds of all who came to him with broken 50-year-old whatchamacallits and watched with wonder as the mechanical wizard worked his magic.”

I’m happy to report, and I’m confident Betty will be pleased to learn, that Bill French’s spirit is still with us.

In the neighborhood where Nancy Knudles once made her presence felt, where innovation is now being fabricated to close tolerances, Bill’s creative know-how and ability to fix whatchamacallits lives on.

W.D. Benjay has the magic.

For thousands of years, humans believed the sun was being dragged across the sky behind a chariot pulled by celestial horses and steered by a god.

We’ll believe anything if it’s convincingly expressed, and truth need not be a component of what we find convincing. For truth to convince us, people of good intentions are required.

How refreshing it was to spend time at W.D. Benjay Co. with the fine people there and the real things they create.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs monthly. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.


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