Janesville Brick and Tile Co.
75 Years of Serving Southern Wisconsin
Story and Interviews by Teresa Nguyen
April 1st, 2021
75 years - it’s an overwhelming accomplishment! It’s amazing for any business to celebrate a birthday like this…We’re grateful and thankful to all of our wonderful customers and the Janesville community for all the years of support. ~ Dan Kelly, President
Memberships and Awards
Member of South-Central Wisconsin Builders Association
Charter Member of Lakeland Builders Association in Walworth County and Surrounding Areas
52-year members of the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin since 1949
Member of Westgate Corridor
Member of Forward Janesville, Inc.
Duke Kelly - Former President of the Brick Distributors of Wisconsin
Brick Homes of Distinction Award (1994)
The Belden Brick Company Sales Excellence Award (2001)
Forward Janesville Entrepreneur of the Year Award - Duke Kelly (2012)
Clinton Community School District School Bell Award (2016)
A History of Brickmaking
Like a caterpillar going through metamorphosis, emerging as a butterfly, so does clay go through a process, entering a kiln to become a beautiful brick. Just as we wonder about a butterfly’s destination, we might consider…exactly where does that brick go?
Perhaps it becomes a building piece of one of our earliest downtown businesses, witnessing so much of our history in the making. Or maybe it ends up in an eye-catching school sign, passed by dozens of Janesville students, some who grow up to become great leaders. Does it end up near a Rotary Botanical Gardens flower bed, welcoming the shoes of international visitors? Perhaps that brick will help beautify the backyard of a Janesville home, where friends gather for drinks and laughter and couples create their own sparks near a fireplace.
Imagine the dozens of uses for brick in our community and the value of having Janesville Brick and Tile Company, Inc., this wonderful, family-run brickmaking business, still here to celebrate its 75th Anniversary!
The local brickmaking business goes back even farther. Deposits from the glacial period along the wide, gently flowing Rock River bed left a clay material, perfect for brickmaking here in Rock County.
During the mid -1800s, this community grew to become one of the leading brickmaking areas of Wisconsin, especially in the post-Civil War era. The following is a brief timeline following the local brickmaking business.
1870s to 1900 - In addition to stone from a local stone quarry, brickmaking already contributed to the rapid expansion of Janesville in the mid to late 1800s.
1881 - Frederick Freese Sr. immigrated from Germany to Monroe, Wisconsin, where he started a brickmaking company. He operated the business for 25 years. Frederick and his wife, Matilda, had 5 children, including twins, Frederick Jr. and Edward.
Janesville Red Brick Company
1906 - Frederick Freese Jr. and his wife, Lena, moved to Janesville from Monroe. Frederick Jr. and his twin brother, Edward Freese, founded a brick manufacturing business. They lived in a home next to their business, located at 1725 Pleasant (currently West Court Street). Their home had been resurfaced with brick, likely from their brick company.
1907 - The Wisconsin State Gazetteer and Business Directory listed three brick companies in Janesville: Janesville Red Brick Co. (owned by the Freese brothers), Janesville Granite, Brick & Stone Co. and Silica Stone & Brick Co. The Janesville Red Brick Company was the only business specializing strictly in brickmaking.
1919 - With the rising popularity of concrete, the brick industry began to decline, but the Freese brothers persevered.
Aerial Perspective of Janesville - 1877
Janesville Brick Works
1928 - The Janesville Red Brick Company comprised eight buildings, including storage, a wagon building facility and office space. Until this time, the brothers had remained the city’s most prominent, and only, brick manufactory. The name was changed to Janesville Brick Works.
Though their company was located near the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, the red bricks made in Janesville were primarily used for local residential buildings, chimneys and interior walls.
One of their old newspaper ads read:
Janesville Brick Works
RED BRICK for all Building Purposes
1930s - Frederick Jr. left to operate Lakeshore Resort and died in Fontana, Wisconsin in 1959. The Janesville company was still owned by Edward, who had become involved in the coal business.
After the Freese brothers’ retirement, the original brick manufacturing company ceased operations and remained idle for a number of years.
Bricks of all colors at Janesville Brick and Tile Co.
The Start of Janesville Brick
April 1st, 1946 - The Janesville Brick Company was purchased by Bernard J. Wortmann and Joseph W. Zigler and was renamed Janesville Brick & Fuel Yards. The company manufactured brick and mason supplies and handled farm sewage systems, as well as coal and heating services.
1950 - The company discontinued manufacturing bricks, focusing on coal and brick distribution. Wortmann purchased Zigler’s interest and operated the business as the sole proprietor.
1964 - The name was changed to Janesville Brick & Tile Company, as it is still named today.
1970 - In addition to bricks and supplies, the company also began supplying fireplaces and accessories.
1974 - the company doubled its display room and warehouse space and added a traveling display room that could bring the variety of products and demonstrations, including fireplaces, to the customers and their homes.
April 1st, 1976 - Janesville Brick & Tile Co. at 1801 W. Court St., Janesville, Wisconsin, was purchased by Duke Kelly, President and General Manager of the company.
Douglas "Duke" Kelly
An Interview with Duke Kelly
Owner of Janesville Brick and Tile, Inc.
My grandfather was Walter Henry Kelly and his father was an immigrant from Ireland, leaving just after the potato famine. He married a woman named Winifred O’Malley, also from Ireland. They settled in Johnstown Center, Wisconsin. I can recall, only about 30 years ago, when it was reported by a national publication that, per capita, Rock County had the largest number of Irish families in the nation!
I was born in Chicago. Four of us siblings were born there and we moved up to Wisconsin when I was just 4 or 5 years old. Then, two more siblings were born up here.
Coming to Janesville
My father had taken a job down at Riverside Plating Company, he eventually became a partner in the company.
He had begun learning the trade of electroplating, as a teenager. (Electroplating is the process of plating one metal onto another by hydrolysis, most commonly for decorative purposes or to prevent corrosion of a metal. There are also specific types such as copper plating, silver plating, and chromium plating.)
Dad worked hard at that company. Later in the day, mother would take us in the car to go grocery shopping and then go to pick up Dad at work. We’d go in and there would be just a cloud of fog in there. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) would have shut that place down in a heartbeat!
Education and Early Work
I graduated from Janesville Senior High School (now Craig). As a teenager, I worked at Knotty Pine Restaurant downtown. After that, I worked at Alpine Restaurant where I was a short-order cook in the kitchen. I was around 16 or 17 years old then. Later, I took a job at the Sears Warehouse.
My mind wasn’t set on school, but my parents had decided that I was the one who would go to college. I had one choice and that was Milton College. It was a short-lived career. They bounced me out after about a year and a half. I didn’t have the desire to continue taking the courses they were offering. I had taken business law, accounting, classes on insurance and things for business, since those were courses that I was interested in, just as I was in high school.
A New Career
After college, I worked in an office at William J. Kennedy and Sons (now Rock Road Construction) because of my accounting studies. But, I didn’t really like sitting behind a desk and doing all that paper work.
A friend of mine was dating the daughter of the owner of Janesville Brick and Tile, Bernie Wortmann. My friend was aware that I was dissatisfied with my job at the time.
He told me I should go talk to Bernie because he was looking for someone to come into the business with him.
I started with a phone call to Bernie. That was in 1964. After a few persistent phone calls, he decided that he would give me an interview. So, I went in. At the time, the office at Janesville Brick and Tile was pretty small. At the end of the interview he just said, “Well, let me give this some thought and I’ll get back to you.”
I didn’t hear from him, so I kept bugging him! He finally said, “It’s quite apparent that you want to get out of what you’re doing. Why don’t you come out and we’ll talk again?”
I spent about a half hour with him before he asked me, “How much notice do you need?” I told him, “Two weeks.” Then told me to come down on Monday, the 22nd of June at 7 a.m.
Duke’s First Day
On my first day, I was briefly introduced to a few people at the company, then Bernie handed me a pair of brick tongs and asked, “Are you ready to get started? If you want to learn the brick business, this is the best way you’re going to learn.”
I went down and unloaded boxcars of loose brick from the train, 10 bricks at a time! Then Bernie asked me if I knew how to drive a truck.
I said, “Yeah, but I don’t think I’ve driven one that big before.”
He replied, “Oh, they’re all the same.”
He wanted me to drive a big flatbed over to Lake Geneva! I got in behind the wheel with my co-worker, Charlie. It had 8 different speeds and I was grinding the transmission and everything! Charlie wasn’t too pleased with my driving skills.
At the site, Charlie and I worked side by side and he was showing me how to make the stacking pile. It was 90 degrees that day, we had no water and I started seeing black spots. I told Charlie that I needed a break. Well, that old fart just kept going, working like crazy! Finally, I felt guilty and got up to help finish the load.
He told me he had to be home by dinner and insisted on driving. I said, “Go ahead!”
We hadn’t gone but a few miles when I rolled down the window and just lost it. I felt awful! That first day I went home and said, “I’ll pass on supper because I can’t move!” That’s how sore I was…just beat to hell!
Charlie came in to work and told all of our coworkers how I had to take a rest in Lake Geneva.
The next time, a few weeks later, we had a load to take out of town to Juniper Hills. Bernie asked me who I wanted to take with me. I said, “Charlie”.
Dan Kelly with a new company truck
I had rows and rows stacked up and worked so hard that Charlie was beat and this time, he needed a rest under a tree. I told him, “I’ll finish. But, when I get back, I want you to tell everybody how this went, because if you don’t, I will!”
I had a little more weight than I needed to have at the time and in about 2-3 weeks, that was gone. It took me about 10 days to two weeks for my muscles to get used to the work.
The trains used to bring in the brick up to this dock platform
Growing in the Business
When I started, all of the brick we got was either brought in by truck, dumped in the yards and palletized or it was brought in by train on the railcars and we had to go unload them.
Bernard “Bernie” Wortmann liked playing golf a lot. Meanwhile, I kept bugging him about coming into the office to learn the intricacies of the business. Pretty soon, I was coming in to do some accounting, inventory, sales and that kind of stuff. And here I am!
I’d rather be out on the road driving around and selling stuff than sitting at a desk. But, I’m lucky to be here after an accident I had once, hitting a high wire with a boom truck and getting electrocuted! This was a few decades ago. My finger was burned up and I was in a bit of shock…boy, I was juiced! It even blew a transformer out!
Alliant Energy called and I answered the phone. They wanted to check if the employee who had the accident was okay. I told him, “I think he’s fine.”
The guy asked, “How do you know?”
I told him, “Because it was me.”
He insisted I get to the emergency room right away. One of the employees took me in to get checked out at the hospital. The doctor said, “Mr. Kelly, I think you used up one of your nine lives!”
Eventually, Bernie bought a condo down in Florida where he and his wife spent a lot of time. Pretty soon, he wasn’t around here much at all. He’d just say, “Send me the financials so I can see how things are going.”
In 1976, I took over the business.
Years ago, the brick was originally manufactured at this location, but that ended several decades ago. One can tell if bricks were made around here. They have a specific look.
Today, we represent probably 20 different manufacturers of face brick throughout the United States.
Janesville Brick and Tile Company
Most of it comes from out east, from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Some come from the west like Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota.
According to the following brick making video from the Science Channel, brick is one of the sturdiest building materials. It doesn’t rot, fade, warp or dent and they’re very energy efficient. They absorb heat to help keep your house cool in the summer and hold heat to help keep it warm in the winter.
With recycled and repurposed brick, there’s still a demand for the Cream City brick of this area. There’s a difference in the clay and in manufacturing. Those bricks are quality bricks. They would build three courses of brick wide on the bottom of a wall. It was brick inside and out in some of our historic buildings. During demolition, if they hit the ground and they’re still whole, they’re marketable and valuable.
The make-up of our business is mostly residential, commercial and institutional and our customer base reaches across south-central Wisconsin. We cover Green, Rock, Dane, Jefferson, Walworth, Kenosha and Grant counties, though we’re not limited to them.
We have done work for the University of Wisconsin Campuses; Madison, Whitewater, Kenosha, UW Rock County, now affiliated with UW Whitewater and Beloit College. Being our closest and largest campus, UW Whitewater has been the most significant. Without exaggeration, we have furnished fifty plus buildings on their campus!
The Sister Company
In 1998, we purchased the Lakes Brick and Block in Zenda, Wisconsin, just south of Lake Geneva, and brought on all the employees with it. We formed an LLC with Dan, myself and the owner there. He also has a son, so a new generation coming up in the business.
They manufacture concrete block. It’s not a modern type of block manufacturing facility. But we have a lot of local business over there and he gets business here.
Together we work with the likes of JP Cullen, other general contractors and mason contractors. Now we have everything masonry related - brick, stone, concrete block, you name it. We were able to expand our product line in both locations, so it was a good move.
Challenges of the business
As we all know, the economy plays a very important part in the success of any business. It’s not always smooth sailing. The pandemic has certainly taken its toll; recently politics has everyone asking what is next? Price increases, fuel costs are rapidly rising; Clay brick is kiln fired with gas,our shipments arrive by flatbed and van loads, freight is at least one third the cost.
The challenges are more about the business as a whole, nation-wide.
Landscape flat bricks at Janesville Brick and Tile Company
I’ve probably been through 10 different up and down economic cycles. The most recent was in 2008. This year might be a little lighter.
Interestingly, last year, during the pandemic, we had a record year. There were a lot of commercial jobs going at that time, so we were pretty busy. We were lucky!
Cultivating relationships with architects, engineers, general contractors, home builders, mason contractors and the general public is what has added to our success over the years. We offer products and service that makes a statement on a completed project. Our challenge is satisfying three or more of these customers on a single project. We’re very happy when that happens.
Most of my time involves architectural sales, which I have been doing since 1967.
Veterans Memorial Plaza at Traxler Park
We support the community in various ways. We’ve been close to the City of Janesville, and support what’s going on downtown with any kind of construction.
A few years ago, we donated brick for the Roosevelt School sign and they wanted Dan to speak to all the kids. He attended Roosevelt, too, so that was interesting for him. Dan said, “Look to the kids to your left and to your right. Those could be your friends for the rest of your life!”
We’ve donated materials for various signs and projects around town. For example, we contributed to the Rock Aqua Jays sign at Traxler Park. We’ve also contributed the engraved brick for the Veteran’s Walkway at the Veterans Memorial Plaza in Traxler Park. And we’ve done work for the Janesville Youth Sports Complex and for a few cool projects at UW Whitewater.
We’re currently working on a new section at the Rotary Botanical Gardens, near the Sunken Garden. I believe the project is around a few thousand square feet. We work closely with them and give them special pricing.
On July 27th, 1963, I married Sandy Busfield at St. William Catholic Church in Janesville. Sandy worked at Parker Pen, and then became a stay-at-home mom and, by the way, she did and still does a wonderful job.
Our first child, daughter Tammy, is married to Todd Christensen, a brick layer by trade, which she met while working for Janesville Brick and Tile. Todd gave up the trade to join JP Cullen & Sons to head up their Masonry Division. Tammy spent a few years with Hufcor and then became a stay-at-home mom with sons Hunter and Logan. Today she is working part time at Craig High School in the Administrative Office.
Our second, son Dan “Heir Apparent to the Throne”, started with the company in his early teens, learning the business like his father did, stacking bricks. Eventually he was the Yard Manager overseeing and learning all about the business, which he did. Dan worked around the same time as when Tammy was here. Dan continued on.
I knew he had the potential for this position all along and trusted him with it. The siblings ran the counter together for quite a few years.
Our third, Kevin, also had a short stint with the company as a teenager, stacking bricks along with a few of his buddies. I think, back then it was piece work $0.03 per brick if you hit it hard it equated to $18.00 hr. I thought that was good money for the younger group.
Duke Kelly's grandsons - Connor, Reed, Hunter and Logan
Kevin graduated from UW Whitewater and has been employed with Lemans Corporation for 25 years as a Creative Director. In December, Kevin got engaged to Tanya Caudle-Morgan.
The family has grown to include four grandsons; Hunter & Logan Christensen, Connor Kelly and Reed Kelly. The boys are all doing different things with their lives. It’s nice to have them in the area, too.
About 30 years ago, my friend Les Meyers and I built “The Diggins”, a cabin up north in Richland Center. I love that place. Deer hunting opening weekend is one of my favorite times! We formed an LLC recently, where all the family members have an interest in The Diggins. It's 136 acres of God’s country; fun and just a great place to enjoy Mother Nature and “chill”.
I also enjoy hunting Ruffed Grouse and fishing. Years ago, I used to play a lot of handball at the YMCA. Twice a week you can find me playing golf out at the Janesville Country Club. I love it.
The cabin up north that Duke built with his friend, Les Meyers
For years I’ve been building Bluebird boxes. I started building them years ago for the Janesville Country Club and would monitor them. I’d take the grandsons out, when they were little, to help put the boxes back out in the spring. I’ve built many Bluebird boxes for other people, as well, over the years.
Rewards of the Business
I started out dealing in business with a generation I grew up with. Now, everything is changing with the times, but I feel good about that. Some of the newer, younger architects don’t have the knowledge about the products. A lot of that comes from experience, so it’s satisfying to go into a job and help them out.
I enjoy coming to work every day. They (the employees) might wish that I wouldn’t (he laughs). I love everything that I do.
“He still sells a lot of brick!” remarked Dan Kelly, Duke’s son and President of the company.
I’m absolutely proud of this business and our 75th anniversary. From day one, even before Bernie bought the property, it’s been a local, family-owned business, which has lasted all these years!
An Interview with Dan Kelly
President of Janesville Brick and Tile, Inc.
I’m the oldest of the boys. Dad had been eyeing me for the business all along. I can remember helping unload a railroad car when I was really little. Sometime in the ‘80s, rail transportation wasn’t very affordable anymore. With rail, there was quite a bit of damage to the bricks as they’d get tossed around. For every broken brick, that’s money lost.
Around 14 or 15 years old, I would ride my bike out to the business to do work. The Franklin Gardens Bowling Alley (former dance hall) in downtown Janesville was torn down back in the ‘80s. The demolition company made a deal - we would pay for the bricks and they would deliver them to the business. They also had to clean up the remainder of the trash and other items left behind at our brickyards.
From that project, we had 102 loads of brick delivered. It took them about two years to finish everything. By the time we got done, there were 30 loads of trash with it, which they hauled away. We found bowling balls and pins in those piles, too!
When Ossit Furniture came down, people came from all over the country to get a brick, because their parents worked there.
As a kid, I’d go out to these brick piles, with the other young workers, using a hammer to clean off the mortar from the bricks in the piles. Then, we’d palletize them and such. It was serious, physical work, even though I was skinny and scrawny.
I started from the backyard brick work, which I did for years, and then gradually entered into the office work, just like my dad did.
Dan Kelly out in the brickyards
From the Classroom to the Office
I was a Class of ’85, Craig High School grad. In 1986, I entered college at UW-Rock County. That didn’t work out so well. Then I went to Blackhawk Tech for a few years. I left just shy of finishing my degree. The company needed a sales person then, so I turned into Sales Person full-time. That’s how I began here.
I’ve spent 20 plus years working with and building relationships with building, remodeling, and landscape contractors in our area. We are grateful to all of our longtime and dedicated contractors, who send their customers our way for product selections.
The Building Business
We deal strictly in the material supply - landscape products, pavers, flagstone for patios and walkways and a whole variety of brick in multiple colors. We carry different colors and styles of stone veneer, concrete block, various types of fireplaces, woodburning stoves, gas stoves plus fireplace accessories.
The business showroom, office space and all the brickyards take up about a 10-acre area from Court Street all the way back to near the tracks, and west to just behind Walgreens on Arch St.
The variety of different customers you deal with on a daily basis, including different age groups, can keep us on our toes. There are a lot of inventory challenges, too.
Because we carry a wide variety of products, that can sometimes make it a little more complicated for people to make their selections.
We’re getting to the point in time where the big box stores are offering some similar products. It’s definitely a bigger issue than it was 20 years ago. Your competition is always a challenge in any business. But, we take pride in being local and in our more personal customer service.
There are many shades of brick selections at Janesville Brick and Tile
Janesville Brick and Tile carries a variety of stone veneer
One of various types of fireplaces at
Janesville Brick and Tile
Most of my pride comes from helping people and helping customers make product selections. People come in here building their homes, building their special space. I get to help them put something cool on their house or in their landscaping, to help them with this big decision in their lives.
I also enjoy working with the contractors. We get a lot of mason contractors who come in here, some who’ve worked with us for over 30 years! And we’re still friends today. Some of them are my age and we’ve known each other this whole time. That’s kind of cool.
My wife, Mary, started working out here in 2018 as our Office Manager. Mary is also Irish and was a Kelley before a Kelly! Prior to working here, she was with S C Nickols accounting firm for almost 20 years. We needed help, so Mary came in with great experience.
She takes care of inventory and the books. She keeps us in check and keeps the checks rollin’! It’s been a nice transition and pretty fun that she’s here.
Jeff Saunders is our Sales Person and a truck driver. Chris Gould is Floor Sales Person and came to us with quite a bit of experience from a brick business down in Rockford.
My son, Connor, is working at Home Depot, but now and then he helps out with the business with part time work. He and his buddies sometimes come out and do what I did in my early years, cleaning the brick and palletizing them.
Connor, Mary and Dan Kelly
It’s a small crew. We could use another person. We’re working on that.
I was 13 when I borrowed a guitar from a friend’s uncle, and I was hooked! It was an old Sears Silvertone with a lipstick pickup and white wallpaper around it. In high school I always played in a little jam band or played in someone’s house on the weekends.
The first real gig I did in front of a crowd was at Blackhawk Tech in 1987.
The band HK first started when Tony Huml came in to my office, back when he was working for Bliss. I knew Tony from school and knew his brothers. He saw a picture on my computer of my guitars hanging on the wall and we got to talking about music. He had just written a song for his kids called, “Never by Yourself”.
I asked him if he’d mind if I’d take a listen and I might just add some stuff to it. And that’s how it all started! It went crazy from there. Our band, HK (for Huml/Kelly) was formed along with the best rhythm section of JJ Johnson on drums & Clint Yahnke on bass - both veteran musicians. JJ and Clint use to be in a band called POPULATION 4, which had a big following back the day.
We did quite a few charity events over the many years of gigging together. We enjoyed it, we had so much fun. It was just easy and we didn’t care if we screwed up. We wrote and wrote and jammed...It turned into an awesome band and an awesome bunch of music! It’s music that will last forever.
I'm grateful for the special friendship I had with Tony Huml and for all the music we made.
The song, “One Blink Away” was an incredible experience, to say the least. I loved being in the studio and hope to get back. I’ve had an HK photo on my screensaver for years and still keep it there.
Art is another one of my hobbies. I started pencil drawing when I was in grade school. In middle school I had art class, but not in high school. Still, I was always drawing something!
I enjoy sketching, pastel pencils and I just started acrylic painting last year when the world shut down. I’ve painted many pieces since, and I still have stacks of old stuff from way back. Lately, I’ve been more into painting landscapes.
Guitar Icons sketched by Dan Kelly
left to right: Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton
The 75th Anniversary
75 years - it’s an overwhelming accomplishment! It’s amazing for any business to celebrate a birthday like this. Having such loyal masons, builders and general contractors all these years has really made it possible.
We’re grateful and thankful to all of our wonderful customers and the Janesville community for all the years of support!