Under the Sun: After 74 Years, Clem Johnsen’s Kid Is Retiring

Editor’s note: Veteran Phoenix New Times contributor Robrt L. Pela writes weekly about the people and places that define greater Phoenix.

Larry Johnsen did the math and decided he’d worked at Valley Machine Works for 74 years. “I started here one summer when I was 9,” said the 83-year-old. “I worked every summer, and then I went full time in 1958, when I was 22.”

He recently sold the building at 701 West Jackson Street, where Valley Machine has done business since 1909. It was one of the first machining shops in Phoenix, fabricating and repairing every possible kind of machinery part. Larry sold the business, too.

“Well, I had two sons and they were going to take it over, as I did from my dad and uncle,” Larry said from his well-worn desk chair. Behind him, his computer screen was lit up with an article about Elizabeth Warren’s presidential bid. “But my youngest son was a diabetic and he died a year ago. His kidneys failed and he had a series of strokes that killed him. My other son works here, and he’d rather not run the place. He sold out his interest, but he’s going to keep working with the new owner.”

After 110 years in business in this same spot, Valley Machine Works is moving to 11th Avenue and Watkins Road. The old building will soon be home to Phoenix Theatre company’s set design department.

“You know, this was originally a saloon,” Larry shouted over a burst of metal clanking just beyond his office. “My grandfather was a Norwegian immigrant. He settled in Brooklyn, got married, had two daughters and decided to head to California. This would be about 1907 or 1908. He ran out of money when they hit Phoenix.”

Larry’s grandmother’s uncle, Ed Olson, happened to be running a bar called Olson and Martini Saloon, Larry said, right here where the city ended and the county began. Ed knew Larry’s grandfather was a machinist, and he set him up with a machine shop.

“He financed it, and he just added a big shop on to the saloon,” Larry said. He tapped the counter next to his desk. “I suspect this is where the bar would have been, because the original door was over there at that angled spot. Anyhow, that’s how the shop got started.”

Back then, Valley Machine operated with one five-horsepower motor that ran the early lathes and mills.

When Larry’s grandfather retired in 1945, Larry’s father and uncle took over Valley Machine. By then, entrepreneur and inventor John C. Lincoln was already using the building as an experimental shop. “He invented modern arc welding here,” Larry beamed. “His techniques are still being used all over the world. He created a lot of his inventions here. And a lot of people don’t know this, but his wife was a champion raiser of goats.”

In those early days, Larry did a lot of work for farmers and feed mills. One of his best customers was Holsum Bakery. “We repaired an awful lot of bread machines,” Larry said.

Holsum owner Ed Isley told Larry’s dad that if somebody built a machine that could slice and package hamburger buns, they’d be set for life. “Over seven years, my dad — his name was Clem Johnsen — he developed that machine. It sliced and packed 38 buns per minute. I have the patents at home. It was a complicated machine, and we built 30 or 40 of them altogether.”

But Clem didn’t make millions with his bun machine. “A few years after, we sold the patent rights to Reed Machinery in Pennsylvania,” Larry recalled. “Shortly after, the machine became obsolete because they started packaging buns in plastic bags.”

Larry’s family business used to repair a lot of cotton mills, but there’s not much left in the way of cotton land in Phoenix. “Right now we’re doing a lot of cardboard box companies,” Larry said. “And the elevator companies. We’ve got an elevator out there today that we’re building some parts for.”

He’s glad that Valley Motor Works will continue with a fourth-generation Johnsen as foreman. In the meantime, he said, “I plan to do as I please. I like to garden. And I used to like to travel. I’ve seen most of the country but I’ve never been to the South. Maybe I’ll do some traveling.”

He’s amused, he said, by news that Phoenix Theatre might be adding a small stage to his old building at some point. “They seem to like the old building,” he said. “And downtown sure is expanding. But people coming all the way down here to watch a play? I wouldn’t have seen that coming.”

Clem Johnsen's five-horse-power machine shop, about 1917.

Clem Johnsen’s five-horse-power machine shop, about 1917.

Courtesy of Larry Johnsen