Max’s Auto Wrecking Company

Posted by Anita on October 9, 2018

(written by Anita Taylor Doering, Archives Staff)

What "gearhead" who is into classic and custom cars wouldn't love to go back in time to get their hands on some of these vintage junked cars?

Max Bemel, who moved to La Crosse from Winona, Minnesota, started Max’s Auto Wrecking Company in 1934.  This business was located in the former Wisconsin Pearl Button Works building located at 726 3rd Street North just south of the La Crosse River.  It was principally an auto wrecking and scrap handling firm, and in 1949 Bemel sold his interest to Harry B. Locketz who maintained the name.


Taken August 31, 1961, "showing motor vehicles parked in front of the premises formerly known as the Pittsburg Plate Glass Co., and presently (1961) occupied as Max's Annex; west side of Third Street North"

The scrap yard included expensive equipment, such as a tin baling machine that crushed automobile bodies into flat steel pancakes.  Cranes loaded with electric magnets made loading scrap metal easier.  A railroad spur line of the Chicago & North Western Railroad to the east of the property was how Max’s got scrap metal to steel markets located in the eastern United States.  Locketz diversified the company over time to include liquidations and close-outs, such as winter coats or discontinued paint.  A distributor of auto parts, classic car enthusiasts often called Max’s to obtain hard to find automobile parts.  Appliances also joined the selection for shoppers.


Taken Sept. 11, 1961, "rear of 726 North Third Street"

By the 1970s, Locketz acquired a $200,000 mobile cryogenic processing plant for freezing tires for recycling.  The process involved immersing discarded tires in a vat of 1,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen, which froze them until they reached glass point.  The frozen treads were then crushed in a mill and the component parts are separated.  Locketz received an environmental quality award from the Environmental Protection Agency for the pollution-free process.  Cryogenics Recycling International, Inc., became Maxco International yet the Max’s Auto Wrecking Co. was still in use for part of the operations.

As early as the 1960s, however, many saw the salvage yard so close to downtown as an eyesore.  The police received numerous complaints about the unsightly vehicles parked out front and piled within the three blocks of the business.  These photos were taken in the 1960s by Herman Rick of the La Crosse Police Department to document the scene.  The Police Chief established a “no parking” zone in front of Max’s in the 700 block of North 3rd Street in July 1965 as a result.


Taken July 21, 1965, "rear of 726 North Third Street; showing junked cars and litter along the west side of subject block." 
That VW bus would be worth a lot of money today!

Rumors started about the city potentially taking over the “blighted area” as part of a renewal effort in 1964.  However, it wasn’t until 1982 when the building finally came down.  The La Crosse Redevelopment Authority bought Max’s Auto Wrecking Co. for $768,400 and relocated Maxco International to the 1500 block of Caledonia Street.  The Authority also purchased the Saegar Co. for $55,600, La Crosse Waste Paper Products plant for $140,000, and the Chicago & North Western Railroad spur for $240,000 so the C& NW tracks across the marsh could be closed.  By doing this, a railroad bridge across the La Crosse River would not have to be replaced when Lang Drive was reconstructed.

map_from_newspaper_1981_resized_440_px_tall.jpgMax's was located on the upper part of the map image that is labeled "Maxco."
Map image courtesy of The La Crosse Tribune, June 24, 1981, p. 21

On the site now at 750 3rd Street North  is an office building owned by Luisco LLC which houses a law firm, a title company, an architectural firm and an engineering firm.  River Architects at 740 7th Street North also built on the east part of the former Maxco property.

The La Crosse Public Library Archives has more photographs of Max's Auto Wrecking Company if you are interested in seeing them, and a few of the Wisconsin Pearl Button Company which was the original owner of the core of this building.