A tale of two junkyards

junkyard-wreckerI was raised in the 1980s and early ’90s on a family-owned junkyard along the storied Iron Range Highway 7 on the edge of the Sax-Zim Bog. Two trailer homes rested upon these swampy grounds: one filled to the ceiling with hubcaps and the other which housed my family. The steam cloud from Eveleth Taconite filled the northeastern sky while Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range trains rattled behind our house throughout the day and night.

The place was called Brown and Sons Salvage. Grandpa was Brown. A portly ex-trucker and underground miner with a silver mustache, Pops did the wheeling and dealing. My dad, site manager and eldest of the Sons, was a wiry whip of a man who wore a holstered pistol every day during what everyone calls “the bad years.” (I mostly recall him smoking Winstons as he laughed maniacally while reading Garfield comics to me every night before bed). Various other uncles, family friends, and transient roadside roustabouts were fixtures of my childhood. A surprising number of these people are still alive today.

Our junkyard was by nearly every account a massive failure — not just economically, but to the very depths of the human experience. The closure of the place was mourned only by “Sanitary Harry,” the proprietor of the bar and off-sale liquor joint down the highway. As a kid, I’m one of the very few who holds positive memories of the place, which was for me a playground of steel, mud and a pop machine that grandpa always plugged full of nickels for us.

These memories came flying back into my mind this week as I read not one, but two junkyard-related stories in Northern Minnesota newspapers.

The first, which ran Saturday in the Hibbing Daily Tribune, is a feast of rhetoric:

NASHWAUK — A business described as “extremely unique,” “cutting edge” and “state of the art” may set up shop in Nashwauk.

And the Nashwauk City Council showed support of the efforts of John Fedo, an economic development coordinator, and his clients, Ken and Ben Kapella, during a meeting Tuesday. Ken Kapella owns and operates an automotive repair shop in Hibbing, and Ben is his son.

Goodness, what could that be?

The business the Kapellas are interested in starting in Nashwauk would specialize in recycling automotive parts. Fedo said the business is profitable because when insurance claims are used for damaged cars, recycled parts are used instead of new ones.

A father and son extracting parts from old cars and reselling them? Hail, hail the vanguard has arrived!

Now, the story goes on to explain a fairly typical Iron Range econo-political arrangement by which the city helps get tax-forfeited land from the county and money to extend utilities across a major highway from the IRRRB. Nashwauk gets a new business and really has nothing to worry about until it realizes at some distant point in the future it can’t afford the vast infrastructure network outside city proper while the downtown continues to decline. But that, kids, is a story for another time. (Incidentally, the Kapellas run a reputable automotive business in Hibbing, and I have nothing against them.)

The cutting edge junkyard idea in Nashwauk bears remarkable resemblance not only to my family’s salvage yard, but also to the oldest one in the whole region, which also made the news.

This morning Candace Renalls of the Duluth News Tribune has a front-page feature on the last days of Twin Ports Auto Parts, a junkyard in Superior, Wisconsin, across the bridge from Duluth. I attended college in Superior and held an early radio gig there. Superior was also one of the destinations of all those trains going by Brown and Sons Salvage back in the day.

Dave Penney, owner of Twin Ports Auto Parts, wants to retire and none of his six kids have much interest in taking over the salvage business. Attempts to sell the place have been unsuccessful. Several items in the story reminded me of the old days:

Dave Penney became the sole owner in 1985 when his father retired. Penney and his wife, Darla, raised six children in a house across the street where the couple still live.

“We played there as children,” [daughter Jamey] Ritter said of the junkyard.  “We went there when we were bored. You’d go to the junkyard and hunt through cars looking for treasures. Money was the object, but people left stuff under seats all the time.”

Messing around in the cars was the best, once you get past the constant threat of tetanus. Another interesting tidbit from the story: there are only three junkyards like this in the area — the others are in Cloquet and Hermantown.


According to Penney, he has the oldest salvage yard license in the state, going back to the early 1940s. Over the years, he’s seen the number of junkyards in the area decline.

“There was a time when there were a lot,” he said. “Then one by one, the person died, or sold out. A lot went out of business. Most were getting too old to operate anymore. They went out of business, because they were not taking care of it.”

Fewer “do-it-yourselfers” says Penney. So, either there will be a lot of demand for the new junkyard in Nashwauk, or less than imagined.

In any event, junking is hard business. Metal prices matter as much as they do for the mining companies. To all who attempt it, godspeed. May your wrecks bear fruit. Meantime, I wear the badge of my junkyard upbringing: I went to college and quit drinking. It’s working out OK.


  1. Independant says

    I remember Sanitary Harry from when I was a kid tagging along with my dad and we would stop in there for a pop. From what I can remember he was one interesting fella, what a flashback to see that name in print!

  2. John trott aka John Kessey says

    Its to bade that all of the old junk yard,s are gone. I worked for a towing comp in superior all of our parts came from twin ports honest dave kept us going rain snow or shine if our truck broke down. U can bet i went like i was on fire to twin ports to get our roll back back on the rode and dave allwase hade our parts. At. Half the cost of new i retierd from towing now and i needed a computer for a 2006 kia rio yup u gest it to twin ports i went. And honest dave found me one for super cheep and to boot i go a set of tires for super cheep to dave ur going to be mist buy a lotta people. I WILL BE ONE OF THEM. Vary hart braking day for me. I lost a good friend. The junk yard. Whare u could look at a car a wonder whare its been who hade it and ware its going. Iall we will never finedanother twin port like the one in superior.

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