Where Past Meets Present

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Focus In: 2018 History Makers Award Recipients (Part 1)


The 2018 RCHS History Makers award recipients contribute to the historical preservation and betterment of the Rock County communities of Janesville, Beloit and Footville. The following are the stories of three of the six award winners, receiving the Generations, Community Pride and The Phoenix awards. Read Part 2 of this series.

The Grafft Family: Recipient of the 2018 History Makers Generations Award

The Grafft Family

The Grafft Family

RCHS History Makers Generations Award

The following answers are by James G. Grafft, Chairman and CEO of Certified Parts Corporation; Founder and Owner of Grafft Investments Real Estate Development.

How did you all become involved in this business and when did it all begin?

I moved to Janesville in 1974 and started CPC in 1982. My children have always been involved with the business by working during the summers throughout high school and college, but each of them started their careers with CPC as they finished their schooling.

The Generations Award is given to an individual, family or business as Lifetime achievement for using history to improve the quality of life in Rock County. Why is preserving historic places important to you and your family?

I was a History major in college and took a liking to architecture and saw the opportunity with other cities that had great architecture that had been revitalized after falling on hard times. Felt same thing could happen in Janesville.

One question I always like to ask of those who take such risks for the benefit of the community is ‘What motivates you to give back?’

Our company motto is “Improving Janesville One Building, One Business at a Time.” We believe deeply in preserving the past and repurposing buildings and businesses for the future.

In your opinion, what is the value and meaning in teaching and preserving the history of our community?

Hard to believe Janesville is a registered trademark that we hold through our Wisconsin Wagon Company. Every wagon we produce shows reverence to the past and the handcrafted quality that made Janesville what it is today. As a major stakeholder in the community, we feel honored to have assembled some of the most recognized landmark buildings in the community. We have preserved these landmark buildings so that their character can be enjoyed and appreciated by this generation and for the generations to come.

In pondering the changes you’ve seen over the years, how do you see our community today, do you see us moving forward?

I see Janesville as a thriving community that has a well diverse population and business capabilities. Janesville is well positioned geographically with an enormous amount of expansion capacity to bring in and accommodate new endeavors and initiatives that require a well-seasoned workforce.

What does this History Makers Generations Award mean to you and your family?

We are honored to be recognized as a family that cares for historic buildings and the community that we call home. We enjoy keeping buildings and businesses that our past generations created and making them relevant for this generation and future generations to come.

The following answers are by Britten Grafft Langfoss, Vice President Business Development of Certified Parts Corporation; Project Manager of Grafft Investments Real Estate Development.

How did your family become involved in the business?

My father moved to Janesville and started Certified Parts Corporation in 1982. Since that point in time, he became involved with a variety of recreational vehicle companies to whom we continue to sell new old stock parts. We also do manufacturing and sell those parts. We are doing all of our manufacturing parts out of our Edgerton facility here in the Rock County Community.

But, what a lot of people know as our family business is the real estate side of things because that’s the more visual part of what people can see in the community. Our other businesses are more behind the scenes and the parts get shipped out all over the world. There’s no retail location in Janesville, so people don’t really know about that side of it.

The parts business actually has a historical component, as well, because there are a lot of old companies that have discontinued parts and we become the only source of those discontinued, original factory parts for recreational vehicles. It’s interesting because a lot of people don’t know about that side of our business.

The first building my father bought was the Olde Towne Mall with Bill Wood, and that’s how the Grafft-Wood partnership developed. My dad then bought a couple of other buildings with Bill Wood and then after Bill Wood passed away, some became partnerships with Jackie Wood and others we just bought outright. We started to build our portfolio and add buildings to real estate our portfolio.

Both of those businesses are cyclical, the Certified Parts Corporation and Grafft Investments. Sometimes the real estate is doing well, and sometimes it’s the recreational vehicles, so that’s part of diversifying our portfolio, these two different companies that really don’t relate to each other but we can have them working kind of side-by-side.

All of us went away to college at some point. But, we grew up knowing a lot about the properties and what not because those were our Saturdays, our Sundays, hanging out with my dad, checking things out. We had a scrap yard and we’d go down there. We all worked in the family business, doing lawn care, property maintenance during summers when we were off school.

That’s how my father and mother instilled hard work into all of us kids. We were not spared doing these really not fun tasks just because we were the children of the owners. Our father wanted us to do that, to understand that and all the hard work that goes into owning and maintaining the properties.

Who all is involved and what are your roles in the business?

My oldest brother Jay bought the Comet division of Certified Parts Corporation. So, he is not as involved in the real estate side of things, but he is involved with the Comet Clutches, a division of CPC. I’m involved with the real estate as the Project Manager.

I actually have an undergraduate degree in architecture, which comes in handy. I can read the blueprints and look at things and make structural changes to things. I can visualize a space beyond a plan, looking at it and knowing what it could be, having that visualization. I’ll do simple draw ups for smaller projects, but anything that needs a stamped architectural set, I can’t do because I’m not a registered architect. But, we have someone that we work with for that, and I share ideas and we go back and forth.

I’m mostly project focused. My brother Riley is involved in the business side of things, lease negotiations, all of our financial records, taking care of the tenants, meeting with them. Our brother, Charlie, who is the youngest of the four kids, he does the maintenance. He is the go-to guy and is still learning how to do certain construction techniques from other workers that we’ve had over a long period of time. My mother helps me out with interior designing. So, we are all involved!

We never do new construction but are more interested in remodeling and reusing the historic buildings that are already here.

Why is restoring historic places important to you and your family?

To me it’s important because it’s something that already exists. Janesville has so much history and the historic architecture, especially in the downtown, is second to none in the state of Wisconsin. We are incredibly lucky to have this building environment that has generally been spared, even in spite of the downtown fire near the turn of the century, an explosion and the flood of ’08.

We are extremely lucky. We’ve had some buildings that have had unfortunate renovations done to them, but there’s not much you can do about that. Perhaps something can be done to them in the future.

We’ve always been conscious of preserving buildings to a certain period of time. If a building needs to be torn down, my dad really likes to collect pieces so that they can be reused in a similar project later on where those features might be missing. They might not be original to that building but they’re original to that time period and it still is more appropriate to have those than something in new construction. We have a plethora of pieces to be able to put into our projects.

It’s important to us because history is important to preserve. The character of these old buildings is just incredible. I’ve always had a very strong pull to historic architecture as opposed to new construction. That’s why I chose to purchase a house in Courthouse Hill. If I would have pursued an advanced degree I would have gone for a dual degree in architecture and historic preservation.

It’s an interesting opportunity to be able to use my degree from architecture and business. My job is project focused, but I have other things during the day and week that I’m busy with that aren’t as exciting. It’s a fun opportunity. And I wouldn’t have been afforded to have this much decision making if I were working for a company in a larger city.

We found cute little artifacts while restoring The Venue, like an old coupon from Dubes Jewelry with a 5-digit phone code on it. It’s that old! It just kind of sat there entombed.

These little things that we find in our projects just makes you appreciate all that has happened in these buildings throughout the years. In one of the apartment that we renovated that I lived in for a few years, under the floorboards was a little old coin purse. There was nothing in the purse, but it was a neat find, a hidden little thing. We like to hold on to these items and showcase them. They tell a story.

What changes have you seen over the years in terms of where we were to where we are now in downtown Janesville?

Obviously, my father and Bill Wood have owned Olde Towne Mall for quite a long time, and I remember the downtown Christmas parties there and the nostalgia of what was. I’m very involved in what is going on downtown now and done a lot of research about these different things.

People are expecting us to be in Year 20 of bringing it back, but realistically we’re in Year 2. It’s difficult for me because I have a vision of what it could be. And, yes, it’s never going to directly on the path of what I’m anticipating, that’s never how it works. But, we’re going in the right direction. There is more progress being made every single month, every single year.

The things that are happening with the downtown Square can really be great revitalization tools for investing back in the community. Our family decided to invest in this project so we bought four of the most prominent buildings surrounding that project. We just renovated The Venue with Voigt Music Center on the first floor. We’ve owned Olde Towne Mall for quite a significant period of time, we bought the Hayes Block and we’re doing minor renovations and touching up to the building.

Our next big project is going to be the Riverfront Center. That will be renovated to become about 6,000 square feet of retail space and about nine high-end apartments on the second floor with interior parking for it. That’s something that lends itself nicely into the plans of the area. We need better housing for the downtown.

People have not wanted to invest in the second-story apartments. And having retail development right on the river like that is second to none. We’re trying to breathe new life into that building that hasn’t changed in so long.

You talk about motivation to give back, at least for me and I think I can speak for all my family, we truly feel Janesville is our home town. Every project we do, every decision we make we ask, “Is this going to make Janesville a better home town for us, for the community and for future generations?” We see us being here for the long haul and there’s no reason to not make it better for the future. There’s something so great about Janesville, it’s a great place to raise a family.

On our family business sign, it says, “Improving Janesville One Business, One Building at a Time.”

What does this History Makers Generations Award mean to you and your family?

A lot of people don’t see the positive impact that our family has had in this community. So, for the Rock County Historical Society to acknowledge and recognize that really means a lot. We know we’re trying to do the right thing in everything we do, but some people focus on the one project we haven’t done.

We have invested significantly in historic buildings of the downtown and not a lot of people are willing to take that risk. If you look at The Venue, it didn’t make a lot of sense to do it. But, something was missing in our community. When we toured that building, we thought, “Wow, this is it!” We had no idea this amazing building was here and all that history is still there! It sat vacant for 50 years.

For a while, people weren’t into historic buildings and were doing awful things to the structures. I really find it very fortunate that they had a business on the first floor and were leaving the second and third stories alone for the right people, which happened to be us. And now it’s being used all the time!

It’s really great to see an organization accept that we are trying to move all of our projects forward. It just might not be the project that everyone wants us to do in the time frame that everyone wants us to do it. It means a lot to us that some can see beyond the one project.

Katherine (Kay) Demrow: Recipient of the 2018 History Makers Community Pride Award

Katherine (Kay) Demrow

Katherine (Kay) Demrow

Katherine (Kay) Demrow is the Archivist and Treasurer of the Luther Valley Historical Society.

RCHS History Makers Community Pride Award

How did you get involved in preserving local history?

When my husband and I retired from the supper club and restaurant business in late 1979, I did “catch up” work on my home projects: lawn work, golfing, family photo albums, etc. My parents also asked if my husband and I would drive them out east to Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut to visit the areas where my father’s ancestors lived.

After we returned home, my father asked if I would type up the information he had gathered to add to the family genealogy. Dad’s ancestors arrived in Boston October 3, 1635, so there was a lot of history to digest. I became completely convinced of the need to save and share that history!

I then joined the Rock County Genealogical Society and began ‘reading’ cemeteries. Two burials in the Grove cemetery led me to Ella Dunbar and the Luther Valley Historical Society where I found scrapbooks with information that solved the problem. Ella Dunbar asked if I would consider indexing the scrapbooks. And I did. The scrapbooks are a treasure!

The Community Pride award is given to an individual, organization or business who has made significant impact on Rock County using history in the past years. Tell me about your recent renovation project at the Luther Valley Historical Society.

The Methodist church history began in Footville in 1846 and there has been an active church on the present site since 1856 until closing in 1995, almost 140 years. Our LVHS decided in September of 2014 to save the church and its history, and July 2016 we became the owners of the abandoned church/storage building.

We plan to have a museum that will house local artifacts on the main floor and will use the basement with a kitchen as a community center. We are still working to complete the restoration with hopes of being able to open it later this year.

Why is preserving the history been so important to you?

Our society is a society with ‘paper’ holdings. It is a great source for genealogists on how our ancestors survived in a new country, the challenges the pioneer faced, how they made a living in the early 1900’s, when so many new innovations and inventions appeared, as well as the impact from the wars. All this should be remembered and cherished. The town records of formation of school districts, abstracts, clubs, business activities, and family pictures should be shared. Our focus is to share our history via programs, newsletters, the museum and more.

History should not be buried in a box in an archive, in your home or only in your memory. Sharing is important!

Tell me about some of the projects and programs you’ve done.

My first project was reading the stones and indexing about 18 local cemeteries. I have indexed our holdings. I have presented several one-hour programs to our Society and other area groups on the following:\

  • Avon History
  • Luther Valley, Where Is It?
  • Orfordville Beginnings
  • Orfordville Families
  • Social Life at the Turn of the Century; Honoring the ‘Players’
  • Footville’s Centennial & Footville in WWII
  • Footville Telephone Museum & Dial Building
  • Newark Township History; Lodges and Secret Societies
  • Norwegian Early Settlers

I have compiled the following books:

  • The First 25 years (1921-1945) – Orfordville High School History
  • Plymouth, the Early Settlers & History – Vol I” (432p) and “Vol Il”(460p)
  • Plymouth Cemeteries (3) (394p)
  • Magnolia, the Early Settlers & History (404p)
  • Footville, the First 150 Years (158p)
  • Grove Cemetery (365+p)
  • And just released, Center, the Early Settlers and History – Vol 1 (364p)

I take photos, or use photos from the archives, for a calendar each year as a fundraiser. I have scanned several thousand portraits and snapshots, transcribed several diaries and published the Luther Valley News (quarterly) since 2000. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, including the challenges!

What does the Community Pride Award mean to you?

It is an honor! It is a great feeling to know that others appreciate the value of saving and sharing our history. I stress the importance of each of you saving and sharing the old scrapbooks and photo albums that have been in your attics. . . your family stories. They are all important! OUR HISTORY depends on US. Thank you so much!

Diane Hendricks: Recipient of the 2018 History Makers Phoenix Award

Diane Hendricks

Diane Hendricks is the Chairman of ABC Supply Co., Inc. and Hendricks Holding Co., Inc.

RCHS History Makers The Phoenix Award

The Phoenix Award is given to a community leader who has brought back a historic structure or building from ‘the ashes’ and reused it to spur economic development, or to improve the quality of life in Rock County. One question I always like to ask of those who take such risks for the benefit of the community is, ‘What motivates you to give back?’

This community has been here for me. The words “give back” mean that as you are blessed and have achieved certain things, you absolutely have a responsibility to give back. One of our seven core values at ABC Supply Co. is “Give Back”. And we don’t just talk those words, we really walk that walk, and it’s expected.

What makes a community great is for people to give back however they can, whether it’s in time, products, or through financial support, but giving back is just so important.

Why is preserving historic places important to you?

First off, old buildings are beautiful. We don’t build buildings the same anymore, they used different products than we do today. Additionally, a lot of the craftsmen were immigrants who brought with them their skills that created incredible work … curved doors, stone and brick interior to provide strength and aesthetics, and beautiful carved glasses – This type of work is not available today.

Buildings took longer to build, but they were built to last for longevity. They told a story. They were representative of the people in that community that built them. You can’t capture the incredible craftsmanship in a picture, you just can’t see all the detail. Development is different today, buildings are not built to last forever. And that’s okay, it’s a different time with different needs. But I still believe we need to hold onto our history through old buildings as we continue build new ones

But, when you take an old building, and we’ve restored over a dozen of them in this community, you start uncovering the facades that have been built over throughout the years. You uncover the beauty of what was there originally, it’s unbelievable! It’s a gift. It’s exciting!

I often get called to job sites and they say, “Diane, you have to see what we just discovered.” It’s like treasures. They’re treasures of the past that you can restore and share, and everybody loves them. There’s warmth in them, there’s strength in them and beauty. It’s fun to bring it back. It’s more than a picture.

Have you always been interested in history? What is it about history that appeals to you?

I do like history. And I’ve always loved real estate; I’ve been in that industry since I became an adult. I LOVE old buildings. But I love new buildings too, as they represent a new era. I believe they both have a significant purpose today.

Why do I like history? It tells a story. In every community you can see the history of a town by driving through Main Street and looking at the houses. The downtown has one set of styles, generally, then you go into the residential areas and it will tell the story of who was there, the houses that they built and why they built them at that time. It tells about the labor force, and how they attracted masses of people to work in particular industries, which resulted in neighborhoods of small, quaint homes that tell a story about the community.

Who has been a role model to you in the historical arena, how have you been inspired?

I don’t know that I had a role model so much. I go back to my father who maintained our buildings on our farm. He taught me that it’s really important to care for the buildings and not just tear them down.

Ken and I worked together from the time I was a young adult revitalizing many buildings. It almost started out as a necessity to buy old buildings because that was what we could afford. It was more affordable to renovate verses buying new. This allowed us to utilize our own skills and labor to complete the renovation and save on costs.

I can’t remember a specific person, but I can remember going on trips. My family traveled, I mean little trips, as I’m one of nine girls. They’d take two or three of us kids at a time in a car trip and go to different areas. I remember seeing the different architecture driving through the cities. Every city had its own story and its own personality. So, I learned to look and appreciate the history of cities and buildings on these trips.

I don’t think I’ve ever driven through a new community, and not looked up and said, “Oh my gosh, look at that old building! Isn’t that beautiful?” You either like it, or some people just don’t notice it the same way. But I do believe most people really appreciate it when it’s been maintained.

I was in a small town the other day, eating lunch, and out the window I noticed an old historic, yellow brick building. I looked up and saw that the soffit of the building was breaking. I thought, “Oh, I hope somebody does something!” because it can still be saved. I trust that someone in that community is going to spot it because I know there are many people like me that appreciate the importance of preservation.

What are some of your newest projects?

We are restoring several other buildings here in downtown Beloit; we’re restoring a building that will soon be the Goodwin Hotel, kitty corner from the Ironworks Hotel. It’s an unbelievable building on the inside. We don’t keep our projects a secret. People ask, “What are you doing over there? You have crews there.” We’re completely restoring that building to bring the old back. There’s old brick and ceramic on the inside to display, it’s so exciting!

What does this award mean to you?

First, I have the highest respect for Jackie Wood, who is an RCHS Emeritus Board Member. She’s a wonderful person. This woman has given so much to Rock County. Anything needed, you can always count on Jackie. She’ll do what she can, she’ll be a voice, and she’ll get involved. So, when she called to ask me about the award, I had to say, “Thank you!”

This award means a lot to me. I believe that I will be remembered at some point in time, when I’m not here, as someone who did a lot to bring back the old. For examples: My past home the old Parker Pen home in Janesville, the Beloit College Performing Arts Center downtown, the Phoenix building, my involvement in the Beloit College Powerhouse Project (which is currently under renovation).

And of course, the old Beloit Corp, that we call the Ironworks Complex which now houses over 2,000 new jobs in those walls. Those buildings all have a story inside of them and I hope my work will help continue telling stories throughout history. I love sharing our community’s story.

Maybe I’m telling a story, my story, the community’s story through these buildings. I love them. Buildings can talk. They’re just buildings until people get involved in them. So, every building that we restore becomes part of economic development. Then new people come into those buildings and give them a new life, with new stories to be told … and the story goes on.

That’s just what we do. My development company, Hendricks Commercial Properties and my construction company, Corporate Contractors Inc. have helped make these stories come to life. I consider my passion to renovate old buildings as a tool to give back and help spur economic development, while at the same time adding beauty and history back into the city. I like it. And I love what we do!