Kelch as Kelch Can

Kelch as Kelch Can

By Betsy Wurm

Alfred Kelch likes to say “I wake up in the morning with nothing to do, and by night I haven’t got it half done.”

He also likes to say, a bit more accurately, “I’ve not let any grass grow under my feet.” If the rest of us could accomplish in one week what this 80-year-old dynamo does in one day, we’d be sitting pretty.

For him, sleep is incidental. He rises with the sun and stays busy most evenings. He likes to write, likes to socialize, and likes to tend to the cumbersome upkeep of his 125 acres in Mequon.

But Al loves to work on his magnificent collection of antique planes, cars, boats and motorcycles. The story of how he came to collect them could be considered the realization of the American Dream, but that phrase is far too cliche for the story of this one-of-a-kind, gifted – yet humble – gentleman.

Alfred H. Kelch Jr. was born in 1916 in Lakeview, Iowa, to Alfred and Abigail Lindsay Kelch, a remarkable pair in their own right.

In 1882, Abigail’s parents took their young family by Conestoga wagon from Iowa to the Kansas Territory where they established a prairie homestead. They built a sod house and their closest neighbors lived more than 20 miles away. The pioneer lifestyle she led as a child forged a strength of character that served her well as an adult. After her marriage to Alfred Sr., their young family grew and she turned her talent for growing beautiful flowers into a business that kept food on the table and helped Al’s three sisters through college. She was 45 years old when she brought young Al into the world, and she lived to the remarkable age of 96.

Alfred Sr., exemplified the term “self-made man.” He ordered the family’s house from the Sears Catalogue and built it himself. He owned six threshing machines which he used to thresh grain for farmers across Iowa and up into Minnesota during the fall harvest. While he didn’t complete grade school, he ordered a set of college engineering manuals – chemistry, wiring, hydraulics, light and power, ventilating and heating, electrical, telephone – and they not only educated him, they inspired him. He obtained the necessary equipment, then installed the water system, even building and maintaining the water tower, for the Kelch’s home town of Lakeview. After completing that massive feat, and after again obtaining the necessary equipment, he wired the entire town for electricity.

One afternoon, while working on electrical high wires, Alfred Sr., became entangled in them. After spending over eight minutes being electrocuted at 33,000 volts, power enough to melt the metal buttons on his overalls, he was pronounced dead at the local hospital. However, a conscientious intern saw his toe move, so the doctor rushed him north to a newly opened clinic in Rochester, Minn. Six doctors, brothers by the name of Mayo, operated for hours on him. Miraculously, he survived.

The incident left him slightly crippled and impaired his eyesight, but the brilliant man led a productive life until the age of 87, outliving every one of the Mayo brothers.

Al Jr. was raised in a household which blossomed with enterprise and ingenuity. “I had a wrench in my hand because I had a spoon,” he said. So it was only natural for the boy to tinker and create things himself from what he’d find in his childhood’s gold-mine – the junkyard. Al said, “The dump was the most wonderful place when I was a kid. Nothing was hauled away to the smelters.” When he was in the eighth grade, he and two young school friends collected parts from a number of broken down Model T’s and actually assembled a “new” one which Al drove home from the junkyard.

The defining event of Al’s childhood, though, was in 1924. He was six years old when his Uncle Percy Bricker flew into town with an airplane he purchased for $10 and a Model T. Time stood still in Lakeview whenever Percy’s plane flew overhead. The idea of a man flying over their town captivated both child and adult alike. While most of the residents had heard and read of airplanes, they had never before seen one in flight.

Al grinned with childlike enthusiasm as he recalled, “I was walking this high off the ground every day because I had an uncle who flew an airplane and I got to ride in it. The banker had to scrape to find the $10 for the ride, but I got to ride in it every day – free.”

Percy Bricker, said Al, was responsible for “giving me an incurable disease that’s very expensive.”

Soaring above his tiny town, flying over farm fields, observing wild life from high above, young Al fell in love. He fell in love with the machines. He fell in love with the sensation. He fell in love with the adventure. One day, he thought, he’d have his own plane. With his “incurable disease” and his mechanical capability, Al headed off to engineering college at Iowa State. As he had an increasingly difficult time paying his tuition, he left college before completing his degree. He did, however, possess yet another talent which served him well. Al had a flair for art which helped him to succeed in the field of advertising. He worked, very successfully, at one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies during the late 30’s and early 40’s. But the “rat race” finally wore him down – Al wanted to be creative, but he wanted to be creative on his own terms. Because he had a partner, in every sense of the word, he felt confident enough to launch his own business – the A.H. Kelch Company. He happened upon his partner while sailing his boat from the Community Pier in Geneva in 1944. For the second time in his life, Al fell in love. Almost six months after their first meeting, Al and his beautiful partner, Lois, wed. The love he first felt 53 years ago has only deepened, as evidenced by tender admiration he expresses when talking about his slender, stylish wife.

Al rented the rear section of a coach house on Capital Drive for $25 a month. It served as his workshop and design studio. He had one employee – himself – and netted a mere $25,000 in sales his first year in business. He designed and manufactured automation machinery for industries performing assembly line work, such as the automotive and home appliance industries. As his reputation grew, he created many machines in that coach house. One was a production line for the Buick brake pedals. It was so large, it had to be manufactured in different sections, which were then transported to Detroit separately. The first time it was put together was on the floor of Buick’s manufacturing plant. Despite the fact that it had never even been tested prior to that moment, Al’s invention worked.

During those varied times, in the wake of his years near the apex of Chicago’s advertising world, Al relied on both the emotional and financial support of Lois. Al said, “Lois had a good job. She was secretary to the president of a large corporation and she sort of kept the food on the table. Then I finally made it. She came back to work for me and we’ve been a team ever since.”

In 1954, Al bought the old Jung Brewery building in Mequon where he housed his young company, by then enjoying some success. He watched the businesses for which he was creating the machinery – Speed Queen, Allis Chalmers, General Electric, American Motors – reaping immense profits from the parts his machines built. This moved him to create machinery which would manufacture his own inventions.

As his own inventions started taking off, Al purchased a 125-acre Mequon farm with an enormous barn where he envisioned himself restoring antique airplanes. Al and Lois built their relatively modest home, Al said, “out of a chicken coop.” Al and Lois performed most of the construction work themselves, with the exception of the stone work for which they hired a professional. While the home itself furnishings and embellishment are quite fine.

Al developed orange traffic cones in cooperation with Bell Laboratories and manufactured them himself. Some of those first traffic cones ever made are stacked in the lower level of his barn, next to the white Lincoln and white Porsche 944.

He developed the process for casting huge molds for plastic items, such as the playground equipment found at fast-food restaurants. “Every single fast-food chain you go by, you can think of me. Because every last piece of the slide and the big Ronald McDonald statue and the “Big Boy” hamburger thing are all plastic parts.” Al said, “I devised a method to cast aluminum molds that big.” He added with a chuckle, “I had the world by the tail on that one. That was the one that really did make us successful.”

With every passing year, The Kelch Company grew. Al could sense the opportunity for realizing his fondest dream was nearing. In 1960, Al purchased his first antique airplane, a Piper Cub. The airplane was built in 1939. Since Al’s restoration of the plane, he has flown it for 27 years. It was to be the first of 16 antique airplanes, some of which he stores in his nascent air museum in Brodhead, Wis., some of which he stores at a hangar on the property of his Winter home in Florida.

He purchased his Florida property near Cypress Gardens, with the understanding that upon his retirement he would build Lois “the house she never had.” He said, “I told her, when we get affluent enough I’ll build you the house you didn’t get when you were a young bride.” When he retired, a bit over 13 years ago, he did just that. He designed and built a magnificent, gated Tudor for his beloved teammate.

Al, who was one of the earliest editors of The Vintage Airplane magazine, was instrumental in convincing the EAA to allow the Antique Classic Division entry to their organization. Al actually wrote the judging rules, and, among other things, donated the dining room at the museum in Oshkosh.

Along with the 16 antique airplanes, Al owns seven antique cars, five antique boats, and four antique motorcycles. While the meticulous process of restoring and maintaining these treasures eats up a good portion of his time, Al travels to air, car and boat shows around the globe.

When Al discusses the many fly-ins he attends each year, or his experiences as one of the leaders in the Antique Classic Airplane movement, names such as Matty Laird, “Major” Doolittle, Lloyd Stearman, and Dale Crites come up. Contrary to what people might be tempted to think, Al is not merely name-dropping. He counted all of these men, and countless notable other pioneers of flight, as friends. Crites and Laird were particularly close to Al, as was the longest living WWI Ace, Arthur Ray Brooks, who died several years ago. Of Brooks, Al said with a smile, “He was the most up guy I’ve ever met in my life.” Apparently, Brooks was rather taken with Lois, as well.

He is pleased with his cars, and fond of his boats, but clearly his planes are his passion. Al has amassed one of the finest privately owned antique aircraft collections in the world.

Among Al’s most significant plane is a Piper, which happens to be the very first one ever made. He has a Franklin Sport, the only one of its kind that is flyable, and which happens to be the second plane he obtained. He has two American Eaglets, one of which has an extremely rare engine. He has the first Corbin Baby Ace built, and he has one of the first Stearman models made.

The lower level of Al’s barn houses his and lois’ offices, and Al’s “Arthur Ray Brooks Hall of Aces” which is part gallery, part dining area. The upper level is divided into two sections. Al uses one for a workshop. Memorabilia cover the walls. Tools and engine parts cover every available surface. It smells like solvents and oils. It smells like hard work and genius.

The other upper section is huge. Airplanes in various stages of restoration hang, suspended from the 55 foot ceiling. Sheets of plastic cover his motorcycles, including an early Harley. A table his mother’s family used in their sod house sits on its side, yet another future restoration project for Al. Al has assembled a sort of museum quality obstacle course in the expanse of the room – among other things there’s his 1924 Chandler police car, old crocks, the very first snowmobile model, his childhood sled, a parlor stove, a Franklin stove, his grandfather’s anvil, his mother’s crank butter churn, old boat motors, stacks of his old magazines, and replicas of old cigar-store Indians (which he happened to make himself).

Tucked in a tiny room in the rear of the barn, shelves hold an antique meat grinder, old stovetop toasters, Al’s German Grandfather’s handmade tools, his childhood ice skates, antique toy airplanes, art prints and some remarkable old electric devices used to heat dishwater. Apparently, the lady of the house was to plug the heater into the wall and then actually immerse it into the dishwater. Al said, “Talk about dangerous – my God!”

As he made his way around the room, he said with a smile, “I never let go of a thing. I’ve collected so much stuff over my life, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. I’d haul this stuff home (as a kid) and drive my folks nuts. Now I drive my wife nuts.”

Lois and Al never had any children of their own, but they have a number of young people who fondly call them “Uncle Al” and “Aunt Lois.” And he has created prolifically. He has made works of sculpture and painting. His restorations, which he does completely on his own, from the hammering of the metal for the seat, to the sewing of the plane’s cloth and upholstery, are a sight to behold. Each restored vehicle is buffed to a glossy sheen. And of course, there’s always his ingenious machinery. “My machinery, believe it or not, was an art. It was an art that nobody else could do. I made machines that made Speed Queen parts around the clock seven days a week for 14 years. I designed the parts and the machine itself.”

Can a man’s life be considered a work of art? Shakespeare wrote with wonder, “What a piece of work is man.” By even the most rigorous standards, Al Kelch is a wonderful piece of work.