There was a time that I worked for a company in Sun Prairie Wisconsin called The Wisconsin Cheeseman.
They were a Sausage and Cheese catalog place. I did various jobs there, including driving forklift, working on the shipping dock and pulling small list orders. I was chosen for my dock work out of 6 of us that started that day due to my (some would say annoying) neat printing. It saved me from working in several areas I wouldn’t have survived in.
On slow days I was asked to do “duties as assigned” by my boss.
On one particular day I was asked to help move the stuff from some offices to storage. This required loading and unloading desks and chairs and file cabinets onto a flatbed and driving them to a dusty hellfire hole in the factory know as “The Attic”. It was above the sales offices and you had to climb a ladder to get up there. It was a scary place where everything that was unused went to drown in a sea of factory dust. It was hellish work and I was filthy and nasty by the time I was done. The silver lining however was a chance to look at the stuff in there. Some of it was amusing. There was a chuck-wagon style cart that they had likely used in a local sales situation. No idea how they got it up there. There were piles of old catalogs, some from the inception of the company. They also sold crocks and other novelties that accompany the cheese and sausage; trivets, cutting boards and knives and other oddities. These were piled in boxes that were in various states of disintegration.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed something on the way out that made me stop. It was a reel-to-reel tape. Not a great one, but the fact that it was here at all was surprising. I went over and investigated. There was a dust covered box under the tape and I peeked inside. There were lots of tapes! What the heck were they doing here? A quick inventory of the nearby boxes revealed that there were several boxes of tapes and there were tape player/recorders too! Now, it’s not like they were Akai or Sony or anything you would die for, they were old and beat up and some were clearly non functional. They were however just sitting around in dusty boxes in storage at the Wisconsin Cheeseman.
When I was done with my task, I asked my boss about the tapes and equipment. He had no idea, but he suggested I ask Mr. King. Mr. King was (as I recall) the plant manager. If it happened at the factory, he knew about it. Of course he knew about the tapes and players. He gave me the history.
Back in the day, these machines were used to take orders. People would call the order line and read their order, which was recorded by these reel-to-reel tape recorders. In the morning, the tapes would be rewound, and someone would listen to the tapes and write up the order and hand it off to an order filler to go to the floor and pull it, bag it, box it, and ship it. These machines were used heavily for years, and so were the tapes. At least the first 5 – 10 minutes. When they started to sound crappy they were tossed into the dusty boxes in the attic. The working machines also went there to die when they eventually stopped using the tape by phone system and went with 20th Century technology.
Eventually The Wisconsin Cheeseman and I parted ways. I had been working at a rental warehouse for a while driving forklift. This was a weird time in my life. Our office was made of pallets of crock for the walls and flat foldable boxes for the roof. There was no heat and we huddled around the office and its fire hazard of a space heater when it was slow. Eventually they closed that warehouse and we went to another to clean it out. Two weeks of loading truck and that one was empty too. When that was over I was offered a short term job picking orders, which I took and hated. Then the work was over.
I got work at Marshall Erdman and tried to erase The Wisconsin Cheeseman from my mind.
Years later, while recounting some of my Wisconsin Cheeseman horror stories, the memory of all the tapes and players popped into my head. I wondered if that stuff was still stored there, and if it was, would they part with it. I hit the phone book and called The Cheeseman and took a shot that Mr. King was still there. He was. When I got him on the phone I told him who I was (he didn’t remember me) and what I was interested in (he didn’t recall the stuff) and what I would pay for it. He took my number and said he would look to see if the stuff was still there and call me back. At first I thought he was never going to call me back. This was after all small potatoes, and he was a busy man. He probably thought I was nuts. He eventually did call me back. I was amazed he did, and even more amazed when he told me the stuff was still there. We set up a time for me to come have another look at it all and if I was still interested, pay him.
I drove to Sun Prairie and met with Mr. King. He escorted me to “The Attic” where we looked over the tapes and machines. They were exactly where I remembered them but the dust had been disturbed. I’m sure Mr. King had checked out the stash to see if the $50 bucks I had offered him was for some secret treasure that was worth far more. Clearly, he considered all the stuff junk and probably thought I was someone he was making $50 bucks from for garbage. It was a win-win. I loaded up the dusty as hell tapes and equipment and used a flat bed to wheel it to my car. I loaded up and with a smile on my face drove back home.
At home I took everything out of the boxes and laid it out in an inspection line and put the dusty cardboard coffins outside.
First I examined the tapes. They were mostly like the one in the picture below labeled Jimi Hendrix Request Show.
There were in all about 45 intact tapes and boxes. Some were in yellow boxes like the one above. Some were in red boxes. Provided they were usable, that right there was worth the money. I had purchased a few reel-to-reel blanks from Radio Shack (the others in the picture) and they were about $12-15 each. I figured I may have to cut off the first bit of the tape with the phone call recordings, but that was fine.
The recorders themselves were in pretty bad shape. They LOOKED like they were used in a factory. The mainly metal outer containers were banged up. There were 5 in all. One was straight up broken. I suspect they kept it for parts, because that’s what it was in. Then there were 3 others and one that was a different style altogether. I set up an assembly line of equipment and powered each up in succession. #1, no good. #2, no good. #3 powered up. The odd machine powered up but within minutes got crazy hot and the reels wouldn’t turn. That left # 3 as the most likely candidate for actual use. It was banged up and I was determined to see it in action. It was a good way to test the tapes too. So I hooked my headphones to it, spooled a tape and turned it on.
The tape started with a growly man’s voice ordering cheese trays and knife sets. Then another man ordering sausage and a woman ordering, and on and on and on. The sound was garbage. My heart sank. Did I just actually pay $50 for crap? I stopped that tape and picked another. The back of the box indicated the dates that the tape had been used, but when I put it in it was blank. My heart sprang. I grabbed one of my Radio Shack tapes that I had recorded Janes’s Addiction on and spooled that one. The sound was garbage again. I immediately stopped the tape. Clearly it wasn’t the tape that was bad but the heads. I removed the cover over the heads and I found out why the sound was garbage. The heads were like a text book picture of “don’t do THIS to your tape heads”. There was gunk and parts of the heads were missing even. I have no idea how they could have done this accidently. Of the two that didn’t power up, I took the best head block and tried to Frankenstein that one and the “good” one together. No dice.
So out of the 5 reel-to-reel machines none were worth saving. I sadly deposited them in the trash. I wish I had taken pictures of them, but wasn’t on the history train yet. I don’t even know what kind they were. Farewell my $50 dollar friends. It was worth a shot.
On the other hand, the tape I originally tested, when played on my Sony reel-to-reel didn’t have any sound issues. In fact none that I tested did. All of the full tapes were either blank or had only 5 -10 minutes of recordings on them that I recorded over with no ill effects. I filled all these tapes up in a month or so, using them for special recordings. The kind that you sat and paid attention to and absorbed while they were playing, and were even MORE special because I was listening to them on reel.
This was the glory days of the reel-to-reel.
It was a staple of the stereo setup and I loved to get the kids to bed and select a reel and spool it and lay on the couch quietly listening to my sacred recordings in the dark. The VU meters bobbing left to right in time with the music.
Now I only have the 3 tapes left…
But they are still sacred.