Banjo Equipment is still in operation

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Sarah Melsha, Administrative Director at Banjo Equipment, oversees repairs on Monday, December 20, 2021 at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS – The heavy, stocky machine sitting on a shipping pallet has the rounded edges and clean lines of 1940s industrial design, but it looks new in a coat of gray paint.

“There’s something from the 40’s all rebuilt and ready to go,” Ron “Pub” Melsha said. “This takes time.”

The machine is a pump used to circulate ammonia in an industrial scale refrigeration system.

Clean and efficient technology proven for over a century is still used to cool cold storage spaces in meat, dairy and frozen food processing plants.

Older pumps such as the one in the old warehouse in Melsha can continue to function reliably if maintained – this is where Banjo Equipment Co. comes in.

“We have been in business for over 100 years,” he said. “We have a lot of parts, so we sell them all over the country.

“This is our niche. Our niche is buying and selling second-hand items, and we’ll do small jobs.

Melsha’s grandfather, Robert Melsha, the son of Czech immigrants, founded Refrigeration Equipment Co. in 1918, after observing businesses in his neighborhood.

“It was Crystal Springs Ice,” Melsha said.

“That’s where he would sit and look at the factory, and he got a job, and then he got another. This is how he left school quite early and fell into the profession.

The original sign for the Melsha family’s first company, Refrigeration Equipment Co., hangs in the Banjo Equipment offices on Monday, December 20, 2021, at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

The old Banjo Equipment sign taken from their old location can be found outside the new company building on Monday, December 20, 2021, at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

In addition to Cedar Rapids’ huge Sinclair packaging plant and local dairies, Melsha’s company outfitted the ice makers who supplied household coolers before the development of kitchen refrigerators.

In 1933, the company moved to an office and warehouse building at 509 Fourth Ave. SE, where it operated until two years ago.

This is where most local residents who are not in the business may have heard of Banjo.

The entire 500 block of Fourth Avenue SE has been sold to developers who are freeing up space for a $ 49 million project that will include 244 mixed-income multi-family housing units.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart speaks at the unveiling of the Annex on Project Square on the so-called Banjo Block in the 500 block of Fourth Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids on December 15. The project is expected to be completed in January 2024. (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)

The project takes its informal but widely recognized name, the “Banjo Block”, from the long-standing occupant of the plot.

Melsha hopes the new building will have a new name.

“I don’t want my name to be used,” he said.

“If you want to buy my name up front, that’s fine. I just let them go, but once it’s done, Banjo is still there. We are still in business.

Melsha has spent the past two years moving Banjo’s inventory to her new headquarters in one of the oldest buildings in town.

The limestone block structure from 1882 was a cold store for the Sinclair factory, one of the largest packing plants in the world.

“They put all these walls about 12 inches thick and they had ammonia coils,” Melsha said. “In the basement, they had brick floors and they salted the hams.

“This room next door was a cooperage. They built the barrels and salted the hams. You look around some posts and you can see where they would collide with the barrels.

Melsha’s father, Leon “Tunnie” Melsha, bought the building when Sinclair’s successor, Farmstead Foods, went bankrupt in the early 1990s.

Leon Melsha also gave the company its current name after Robert Melsha’s death in 1981, when the company broke up and another brother kept the name Refrigeration Equipment.

“My dad used to go to a place called Banjo Steel and Iron in St. Louis,” Melsha recalls.

“We were going to call it Good Old Boys Refrigeration, but my old man said, ‘There’s a name that’s going to stick. We will call it Banjo Refrigeration.

Léon passed away in 2018, leaving the business to his son. From more than 70 employees in the 1980s, Banjo has only five because its industrial market has changed.

“It used to be in the state of Iowa you had 100, 200 little meat crates, you had 100 dairies,” Melsha said. “Now there are three, four main dairies, but the little lockers all of a sudden through this pandemic have appeared like mini-breweries.

“We installed the refrigeration there in the Millstream brewery in 1985. It was the first start of the microbreweries.

The old warehouse withstood about four feet of flood water in June 2008.

The August 2020 derecho severely damaged the north wall of the building, now a wood-frame replacement that Melsha hopes will be temporary.

“I want to make it as original as possible,” he said. “We kept all the beams so we could put them back in place. “

Banjo also has a warehouse in Bellevue.

“We have a warehouse full of the same equipment up there, it’s like an overflow,” Melsha said.

“We have a hundred years of inventory. The minute you throw something away, a month later, someone will call you and they want something.

As long as these customers keep calling, Melsha and her team will keep them cool.

Do you know of a business in the Corridor that we should showcase? Let us know via michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com.

Banjo Equipment Co.

Owner: Ron Melsha

Address: 705 16th avenue SE

Call: 319-362-7258

Website: banjoequipment.com

Sarah Melsha inspects machine technician Tyler Pender’s repair work on Monday, December 20, 2021, at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Machinery Technician Tyler Pender poses for a portrait on Monday, December 20, 2021 at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Machinery Technician Tyler Pender performs repairs on a used pump on Monday, December 20, 2021 at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Machinery Technician Tyler Pender performs repairs on a used pump on Monday, December 20, 2021 at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Before moving into their new location, much of their warehouse was destroyed in the derecho on Monday, December 20, 2021, at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The company is seeking grants from the historic Cedar Rapids society to carry out repairs. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Banjo Equipment’s warehouse is full on Monday, December 20, 2021, at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

Machinery Technician Tyler Pender performs repairs on a used pump on Monday, December 20, 2021 at Banjo Equipment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox / The Gazette)

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