Art and light: Machine Age Lamps creators seek pieces of paper mill history in Brainerd

September 06 2016 Written by Shawn Carling

 For the trio using flashlights to illuminate silenced machinery in the dimly lit, former paper mill, It might as well have been a candy store.

Gears, gauges, gizmos.

Once a tidy city unto itself with more than 600 employees, the Brainerd paper mill's giant mixing vats—formerly serving Wausau, Missota and Potlatch—sit empty. Entire chambers formerly teeming with activity are vacant, awaiting a new purpose. But the search this day was for vestiges of what once was. The older, the better.

The finds are bits of history. Pieces of industrial life that tell a story. Gauges kept in perfect order by weathered and experienced hands salvaged from industrial buildings to find a new life as works of art and light.

"People always ask 'Where do get your stuff and where did it come from?'" Shawn Carling said. Carling left a 25-year corporate management career to create what is known as steampunk lighting. Parts and pieces of agricultural and industrial machinery become one-of-a-kind lamps and tables.

Carling liked to tinker. He frequented auctions, finding things of interest to bring home. But everything changed after he created a Christmas gift for his father. The goal was to create a lamp of parts harkening back to his father's life on the farm. He used tractor parts to create the light. And it set in motion events that would change his life.

After 20 years at Best Buy, Carling left to make steampunk lights. He said he kicked himself for staying a year longer at Best Buy, deciding against taking the first offer for early retirements as the retailer downsized.

"It's a scary thing," he said of leaving something after 20 years on the job to go out on his own and think they could make a go of it. "And it's been a lot of fun."

Carling and his Best Buy colleague Bill Heil, who left the company a year before he did, teamed up to restore and then flip houses. They completed about seven homes before Carling said the lamp business consumed them.

Carling's Facebook posts provide a glimpse at how far and wide those lamps have traveled—an airport in Australia, corporate offices in Malaysia, a Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong.

"We have them all over the world," Carling said.

A friend sent him an image showing a cast member on the television comedy "The Big Bang Theory" next to one of his lamps. Carling said he's not sure how the lamp came to be part of the set but he knew it was one of his immediately, recognizing the 10-inch gauge from New York.

"It's funny how I can't remember what I had for breakfast, but I remember nearly every lamp and thing I've made," Carling said.

The Machine Age Lamps company began in Shawn and Lori Carling's garage in Lakeville. Lamps, 476 of them, came out of the garage workshop before Carling said his wife grew tired of not being able to park cars in the garage and went out and found a place they could rent. The business moved out of the garage in May. Another 500 lamps followed in short order. Carling estimates he's now up to about 1,200 counting the early lamps that weren't numbered. Now all the lamps have numbers, making it easier for customers to point to a certain style as just asking for an industrial steam-gauge lamp didn't really fine-tune a search.

They walked through the Brainerd mill's lower levels, the shop and the main floor where the paper machines used to hum with life. Heil noted they just barely touched the iceberg.

What are they looking for?

"Old, unique, anything with letters, writing that tells kind of a story about where it's from or what it was," Heil said.

They noted the old parts, down to every gear, were embossed with company names and created with pride. Carling said sometimes they get the pieces like big gauges they know have promise and then wait to decide what to do with them.

"We have two or three drill presses sitting in the shop," Heil said. "They look really cool but we just haven't figured out how to make something usable. ... Eventually it will come to you."

They hoped to have some items to indicate Brainerd for their upcoming run at the Minnesota State Fair.

"It would be kind of fun to find something here that has some cool writing on it." Carling said, noting the fair is one of their biggest shows and people stop by looking for local companies, names of cities and ties to the state. "We're always looking and always digging."

Recently Machine Age Lamps had a crew filming at their metro shop. They were using a GoPro to record images of their search in Brainerd to provide footage on how they get the pieces that go into their creations. The goal is to have their own reality TV series. They've already had some experience in front of the camera.

"'Handcrafted America' reached out to us," Carling said, adding the TV show crew flew to Minnesota and spent three days filming at their shop. They were on first season of "Handcrafted America" in episode 7.

So the trip to Brainerd provided two opportunities, to show viewers how they get raw material and to come up with those individual pieces that will make useful mixes of industrial art and light.

"It's a lot of work but it's so much fun to go and find this stuff and dig around things and drag stuff home that we shouldn't be bringing home," Carling said.

So they went, flashlights in hand, past the offices near the employee entrance by the former human resources department, up the broad stairs, down the narrow hallway and into the giant plant. Inside the plant, they stopped to look at gauges, metal name plates, those giant empty vats. A massive hole in the concrete now marks the place where one of the paper machines once stood so large it dwarfed those walking along its expansive sides.

A two-blade floor fan and an ancient computer monitor were also attention grabbing for Heil and Carling. But clear cylinder fuses, more than a foot long, containing an unknown liquid, that came from a big power area of the plant, really got their attention.

Heil said for most people it's something they've never seen before and then some old-timer will see them and say 'I used to change those.'"

It's all part of the industrial history Machine Age Lamps salvages, saves and resurrects into an art form.