Old King Koil factory is still a dreamland

The water tower outside the Vandalia Tower complex serves as a beacon at night. Photo by Becky Kapell

The water tower outside the Vandalia Tower complex serves as a beacon at night. Photo by Becky Kapell

It used to be a mattress factory, so you might say that the building at 550 Vandalia St. at the edge of south St. Anthony Park has always been in the dream business. These days, though, the old King Koil factory is fostering the kind of dreams that emerge when young entrepreneurs and artists stay wide awake.

Under the leadership of the First & First Developers of Minneapolis, the renamed Vandalia Tower campus is becoming a hive of activity for arts-related and creative businesses in the area’s burgeoning Creative Enterprise Zone. Vandalia Tower already numbers more than 40 tenants, and the presence of the Green Line Light Rail continues to provide impetus for further development.

Two of the anchor tenants in the Tower are Lake Monster Brewing and the Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota (IFP MN).

Matt Zanetti, director of operations at Lake Monster Brewing. Photo by Kristal Leebrick

Matt Zanetti, director of operations at Lake Monster Brewing. Photo by Kristal Leebrick

, which opened its taproom to the public in December, says they looked at “maybe 50 different sites” before he and his partners settled on Vandalia Tower.

“This place had all the attributes we were looking for,” he says. “Great aesthetics with the original brick walls and the polished cement floor, lots of space,” including easy parking and a 1,500-square-foot patio that they plan to put to good use in warm weather. And, of course, “location,” by which he means proximity to both I-94 and the Green Line.

“Our customers can enjoy themselves and then take the train safely home,” Zanetti jokes.

The beer offerings at Lake Monster are displayed in a refashioned canoe. Photo by Kristal Leebrick

The beer offerings at Lake Monster are displayed in a refashioned canoe. Photo by Kristal Leebrick

Lake Monster currently offers seven hand-crafted beers on tap. Their Empty Rowboat IPA is the most popular brew, but Zanetti reports that Last Fathom Dark Lager has been moving up fast ever since it was named “Beer of the Week’ by the Pioneer Press in January. Zanetti’s personal favorite is Untethered Sour Brown Ale, which is riding a popularity boomlet of its own.

“People’s palates are evolving,” Zanetti comments, “and sour beer is now a big thing.”

For those who want a snack with their beer, the Lake Monster website www.lakemonsterbrewing.com maintains a schedule of the various food trucks that park outside their building daily.

Zanetti and brew master Matt Lange agree that they want the pub to reflect their unpretentious, friendly values. For example, Lange says that they’re looking forward to instituting what they call “Acoustic Tuesdays,” when they’ll offer live music that’s “relaxed, gentle . . . jazz or folk.”

Lange adds that their customers are a “total mix,” ranging from college students to families to passersby from the neighborhood. Their pub even features a children’s play area where beer-drinkers of the distant future can enjoy toys and games while their parents are having a quiet lager and conversation.

We want to be part of the community,” says Zanetti, “We’re welcoming to everybody. You don’t have to be a craft beer enthusiast when you come. There’s always time to become one once you taste our beer.”

Across the parking lot from the brewery, IFP MN deputy director Reilly Tillman says their organization is also looking to welcome the community.

“There’s something here for everyone,” says Tillman, even if you don’t want to make movies.”

This neon Dreamland sign decorates the wall just outside the entry to IFP MN, one of the anchor tenants at Vandalia Tower. Pictured here are IFP’s Nancy Paul, development director; Deacon Warner, youth programs director; and Reilly Tillman, deputy director and education director. Photo by Kristal Leebrick

This neon Dreamland sign decorates the wall just outside the entry to IFP MN, one of the anchor tenants at Vandalia Tower. Pictured here are IFP’s Nancy Paul, development director; Deacon Warner, youth programs director; and Reilly Tillman, deputy director and education director. Photo by Kristal Leebrick

Although the organization does house a photography gallery, most of its members do, in fact, aspire to some sort of role in film-making. IFP MN offers a wide range of classes and technical support for those who want to learn the craft.

“One of our primary goals,” says Tillman, “is to educate people in the tools of film-making with a focus on storytelling.” IFP MN also offers a computer-editing lab and equipment rental to its members.

“We serve everyone from hobbyists to beginning professionals,” says Tillman.

Many of the students do go on to professional careers, and the IFP MN offices are decorated with posters of movies on which former students have worked. Although Minnesota’s pre-eminent film-makers, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, have never belonged to IFP MN, several members of the organization worked on A Serious Man, the locally made film about St. Louis Park in the 1960s that Tillman calls his favorite Coen Brothers production. Tillman points with pride to posters for the 2005 film Sweet Land (directed by long time IFP MN member Ali Selim from a short story by Minnesota author Will Weaver) and the award-winning Dear White People (filmed in Minnesota and edited at IFP MN).

More recently, IPF MN helped jury and organize the 2916 MNTV series of short works by Minnesota filmmakers. Although Tillman wasn’t part of the selection committee, he’s eager to put in a word for one of the winning films, IFP MN veteran Michael Forstein’s Meat, a “quirky film about a college grad who takes a job selling meat door-to-door.” Filmed under harsh Minnesota winter conditions, Meat is not only a technical tour-de-force where “snow adds to the impact of the film,” says Tillman, but it’s also a “plug for making movies in Minnesota.”

IFP MN, which grew out of the old Film in the Cities Company, has been a fixture of the Twin Cities art scene for many years. It moved from its previous location at University Avenue and Pelham Boulevard moved to Vandalia Tower complex in June 2015. “It’s night and day being here in terms of our relationship to First & First,” Tillman says. “They love artists and arts organizations. [Vandalia Tower] is becoming a hub for artists of all disciplines.”

That hub of artists includes nearly 40 creative industries ranging from small marketing groups, a recording studio, a coffee roaster, a theater group and Adventures in Cardboard, a group that leads play-focused arts workshops for kids using, of course, cardboard.

That suits Dee Horwitz. She’s the 89-year-old author of Who Made My Bed?, (iUniverse, 2010), a company history of the U.S. Bedding Company, the mattress maker who occupied the Vandalia premises from 1928 until the company was sold in the mid-1980s. Horwitz is the widow of one of the grandsons of Samuel Bronstien, the Russian-Jewish immigrant founder of the company. Like all male members of the family, Horwitz’s husband, Don, worked in the business, and Horwitz had a ringside seat on the inner workings of the company made famous by their trademark King Koil logo—an anthropomorphic bedspring bearing a scepter and wearing a jaunty crown. (See the accompanying sidebar.)

Horwitz remembers that in her day the factory atmosphere was “unpretentious, with no special offices” for the Bronstien men who ran the place. “They were a nice family . . . interested in the arts,” she says. Asked what the Bronstiens would think of the latest transformation of the building, Horwitz says, “They’d be delighted that great things are happening there again.”

king-koil-logo
How King Koil got his name

The King Koil trademark now belongs to others, but the faded logo can still be seen on an old sign at the entrance to the Vandalia Tower complex. It’s a name that has sold mattresses for close to 80 years, but the story of its origins is as memorable as anything brought to the screen at IFP MN.

According to Dee Horwitz’s account in the company history Who Made My Bed?, it was during the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s when the owners of the not-very-memorably-named U.S. Bedding Company decided they needed a catchy new brand name for their redesigned mattress. The Bronstien family hit on the idea of sponsoring a public naming contest with a $25 grand prize.

Hundreds of entries poured in from all around the Midwest, and the judges soon settled on a winner. Miss Erla Bell Thompson of North Dakota was summoned to St. Paul to collect her prize. When her train pulled into the St. Paul depot, company officers plus photographers and advertising representatives were all there to meet her. It was a middle-aged, all-male, all-white welcome committee, and when train doors slid open, out stepped a 13-year-old African-American girl.

The shock was palpable. In those distant days, diversity wasn’t exactly high on the public agenda, and no one knew that better than the family of an immigrant Jewish businessman who was never completely sure of his welcome in Scandinavian Minnesota. The plans for a publicity campaign were quietly shelved, and young Miss Thompson was sent home with her $25 prize. But the name of her winning entry, King Koil, caught on, and the rest is mattress history.

The story does not end there, however. Many years later, one of the men who had been at the train station that day was now president of the company. One day Edward Bronstien happened to flip through an issue of Ebony magazine in a doctor’s waiting room. On the masthead he saw the name of the journal’s international editor—Erla Bell Thompson. Recognizing her name at once, he sent her a note—although the account doesn’t record whether it contained an apology. Thompson responded, in Horwitz’s words, with “a warm and gracious reply” in which she “explained that the money had gone to further her education.”

 

 

When she’s not writing about community news, Judy Woodward spends her time as a reference librarian at the Roseville Library.

 

    3 Responses

    1. Laurel Larkin

      My grandmother, Marion Larkin and her son ( my uncle) James Larkin worked there together for many years. Now I live close by and sleep on a King Koil.?

    2. Buddy Bronstien

      My name is Buddy Bronstien & it was my grandfather Samuel Bronstien who started King Koil back in 1898.When he arrived in Minnesota on the boat from Russia he went to meet his cousin in Minnesota ,Milkus the butcher. Samuel had a lot of common sense so he thought,”everyone has to eat so I’ll go into the grocery business with Milkus” It didn’t work out so he figured “everyone has to sleep” so he went into the mattress business. It worked out. His next thought would have put him in the plumbing business.

    3. James Dayboch

      Amazingly accurate. Excellent job! One of the great stories neither Dee or Butch knew about (or at least never wrote about) was that in the 60’s when the company processed the cotton (upstairs), they’d throw the seeds out the window onto the train tracks which led right up to the factory. Hemp would grow freely in the cotton fields down south. So in the northern climate of St. Paul, the cotton seeds didn’t grow – but the hemp did. It was the largest, most dense field of marijuana that anyone could ever imagine. The factory workers used to refer to the area by the tracks as “The Teamster’s Garden” or would jokingly suggest we take a stroll in “the garden”. I did not participate in the book, but there’s a lot of funny (some quite dicey) stories as yet untold that I learned from the old timers working in the factory rather than “the Family” working in the office s. Anyway, probably best left untold. Sincere thanks for the great read! Best wishes from coastal Maine..

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