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Monday, 06 January 2014 11:40

Helena Sheet Metal Works on Main Street closes its doors

Superman was only a man of steel. Hank Bomar and Greg Pollack of Helena had all the metals covered.

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For decades the dynamic duo used old-fashioned techniques to reshape sheet metal into functional pieces of equipment. Copper, steel, tin — you name it and they could make something out of it.

Need a chimney cap? They had you covered.

In the market for a time capsule? Just give them a couple of hours.

What about a mock SA-6 Russian missile? Why yes, they created three of those.

But time passes, and so did Greg Pollack, last April. His death left a vacant spot in the hearts of Bomar, as well as Pollack’s sister, E. Betty Pollack, who in recent months decided they no longer could keep Helena Sheet Metal Works open.

The business originated in 1885 and operated through 1910 as Rummel’s Tin Shop, Betty Pollack said. Several different owners ran the shop — which had been renamed as Helena Sheet Metal Works and relocated eventually onto Main Street next to Capital Tire — until Betty and Greg’s dad, Barney Pollack, became the sole proprietor in 1945.

Helena Sheet Metal Works specialized in fixing and selling Rudy furnaces and other heaters, sheet metal molding, roofing and cooling systems. But if anyone needed a custom-made item — like copper pots for the Parrot confectionary — they did that, too.

Greg Pollack started working at the Main Street shop when he was 10 years old, sweeping the floors and doing other odd jobs to earn an allowance. He took over the reins in 1964 and hired Bomar in 1969.

Betty Pollack notes that, together, they kept families warm in winter and cool in summer in communities from Lincoln to Boulder and Avon to White Sulphur Springs, as well as all points in between.

“Now, I’m packing up stuff,” she said with a hint of sadness in her voice. “Customers always knew they could call day or night, holiday or weekend, and we would be there to solve their problems. Our motto was that customers were friends first and business second.”

Bomar adds that with the proliferation of the big box stores, which sell many pre-bent sheet metal products, there’s not as much of a need for a small sheet metal company.

“The art of this is kind of fading,” he said.

Today, when stepping onto the checked linoleum inside the shop’s front door, the scent of fuel oil still lingers in the air, a reminder of its years fixing oil furnaces.

A collection of thermostats hangs on the south wall of the office above a desk, near the homemade metal filing cabinet.

“Those thermostats are ones I changed out over the years; I never threw them out, but put them in a box. It got so full I couldn’t move it, so I decided one day to hang them on a wall,” Bomar said.

“And call it ‘souvenirs,’” Betty Pollack added, smiling.

The clocks still work on most of them. The oldest thermostat, in the upper left corner, is draped with chains that ran down through holes on the floor to the damper of a coal furnace. Heat was controlled by pulling on the chain.

On the adjacent wall, historic furnace emblems hang next to the door into the shop, showing the wide variety that they’ve replaced.

It’s clear that inside the shop is where Bomar is most comfortable. The top of a workbench on the southern wall is cluttered with pliers, metal snips and other tools, and a variety of shiny, flat metal sheets are filed below. Two steel tapes hang off the wall, as do dozens of patterns, especially circles of various diameters with a pie slice taken out.

He picks up an “S-lock” and deftly demonstrates how it holds together two pieces of metal. Over near two odd-shaped anvils, he shows how easily the metal bends. He laughs when asked how often he cuts himself on the sharp edges.

“Over the years, I’ve noticed that sometimes I cut myself two or three times a day for a week or so, then I go three months without a cut,” Bomar said. “It’s amazing the things you can build.”

In the middle of the room sits a 10-foot long machine for bending metal, and nearby is a pipe threader, used often when installing furnaces. Above the florescent lights, long ladders hang from the rafters, used back in the days they installed tar roofs and metal gutters. Small empty tanks that capture Freon from refrigerators litter the floors and black blower belts in a wide range of sizes are suspended on the north wall.

Stairs lead to a second-story storage area, where the exterior balcony wall has two calendars posted on it from 1988. The posters feature a young woman hawking Makita tools while clad in short shorts on one and a swimsuit in the other.

“She was at Power Townsend,” Bomar recalls. “We went down there and talked to her, and I got a hug from her and Greg got a hug from her. So naturally, we had to buy some new equipment.”

Betty Pollack, who is wrapping up her brother’s estate, said they don’t want to sell the name because after 128 years in business, Helena Sheet Metal Works has a good reputation that she doesn’t want tarnished.

“Plus, the family has had it for so long, we feel kind of selfish about it; we don’t want anyone else to use the name,” she said. “I’m very sad to see it go, but the time has come.”

She’s contacted some of their competitors to see if they’re interested in buying the machines and remaining inventory. Other items are being stored or put up for sale.

Bomar looks around the shop when asked what his future holds. He’s worked here for 45 years and never thought about the next chapter.

“Maybe I’ll get a part-time job in a warehouse; there’s a distributor opening up in Billings,” Bomar said, gently shaking his head. “But I don’t have any plans really. This” — he looks around at the tools being packed up — “This is still brand new.”

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