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Vanes Boiler Works business closes doors after more than a century

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Top: Submitted photo

Founded in 1873 as the John Vanes Boiler Works, the family-owned business, now known as Vanes Boiler Works, closed its doors on Jan. 13.

Bottom: Ivy Herron photo

The building as it looks today.

Founded at the same time as Brazil, Vanes Boiler Works, the oldest family owned and operated business in the city, closed the doors to the public in January. The business spanned five generations.

Shirley Vanes and her three sons, Bill R., John R. and Greg D., recently talked to The Brazil Times about the closing and a special member of their family.

The company has a rich history.

When Brazil was incorporated in 1873, John Vanes, a boilermaker, arrived in town to work his trade. Acquiring three patents in the United States, and possibly a fourth in France, for technological advancements in the manufacture of boilers, the company was a busy place.

In the early years, the company employed more than 50 people, but in the past few years the men of the Vanes family have been the employees, with William "Bill" Vanes at the reigns.

Recognized by Lt. Gov. Frank O'Bannon as one of the five oldest family-owned businesses in Indiana, Bill wanted nothing more than to be in the office of Vanes Boiler Works every day of his life.

"It was his joy, and his pain," Greg D. Vanes said of his father's devotion to the family business located at 114 W. Montgomery. "He wanted to be in that chair every day."

Learning to weld when a teenager in the 1950s, Bill shared the tradition with his sons.

"He'd hand you a welding helmet and a welding rod at 13 and say "If you have any questions, ask me,'" Greg said, laughing at the fond memory. "He wouldn't let you hurt yourself, it was just the way you learned."

There was work to be done whether you welded or not, according to son, Bill R. Vanes, who worked in the office during summers.

Vanes Boiler Works was a man's world. It was dirty work. It was man's work, and that was made clear by Bill to the women of the family.

"Although I took him his lunch each day and was a 'gofer' every once-in-a-while, the shop was his," Bill's wife, Shirley, said. "The house was mine."

As time and technology moved forward, repair work on boilers slowly faded away as a source of income.

When boilers stopped being manufactured in the mid 1950s, fabrication work, steel sales and a few repairs for local steel bridges, clay plants, coal mines and trucking companies became the main revenue for the business.

March 7, 2005, was the last full day Bill would spend in the office with his customers due to failing health.

"He lived his whole life to see the doors were opened," John R. said, who helped manage the shop before and after his father's death last May.

The end of an era arrived upon his father's death, but John struggled to carry on the legacy.

Walking inside of Vanes Boiler Works is like stepping back in time. The three son's recognized the need for new technology to upgrade the business before their reluctant father's death, but now came the question of cost feasibility. With more competition for repair work, rising health insurance premiums, operating expenses and soaring steel prices, deciding how to carry on was a tough decision.

"It really hurt, and it took a long time to think it through. Insurance was skyrocketing and I needed to be concerned about my retirement," John said of the decision he had to make with regards to his own future. "I talked to mom about closing up. Sure, there was some reluctance about the day, it being Friday the 13th, but it was the practical decision."

A part of Brazil's history is closed and William "Bill" Vanes' grandsons, the sixth-generation, are finding technology jobs more appealing than the family business.

With the future in question, the Vanes family say they may have closed the business doors, but not their hope for the future.

"It's just dormant for now," the three sons answer. "We can re-open at anytime."

Although its only been a few weeks since the business closed, there's a hole in the hearts of the Vanes family. They miss the regular customers, the people stopping by to visit a spell and reminisce about the good ol' days.

"I miss just going in when I felt like it. Especially in cold weather like this to stand next to the old coal stove and warm up," Shirley said. "But it's just no fun standing there by yourself."

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