The view from on high

Joe Helming, owner of Helming Brothers, fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a steeplejack.

“I was born in Schilling’s Saloon.”

So says Joe Helming.

Don’t know Joe? He is the owner of Helming Bros. in Jasper. The company’s tag line is “When Craftsmanship Matters,” and truer words were never spoken (or written, as the case may be).

Helming Bros. restores the old to the original — not as in grandpa’s pocket watch or a kitschy yard sale lamp, but the roofs on courthouses and steeples atop churches. Their services go beyond that, to complete roofing systems, architectural restoration, copper and other metal fabrication, lightning protection and surge protection systems, copper and zinc roofing and wall systems, stained glass and custom restoration — the list goes on and on.

In addition to restoration work, Helming Bros. will fabricate and install replicated items on both existing and new structures.

So how does a guy born in a saloon morph into a dedicated historic preservationist willing to scale tall buildings and hang from steeples to make something beautiful again — or maybe for the first time?
It might possibly be genetic.

Schilling’s Saloon, by the way, was located on Ferdinand’s Main Street, originally called Ohio Street, where Uebelhor TV now stands. For future generations reading this, the current address is 1445 Main (too often places are described by what was there before, with no clue to exactly where that may have been).

While Joe was born at home in what had been a saloon, he presumes Doc Backer dropped by to make sure everything had gone as planned.

“The bar was still there. Dad had his shop in the front of the building and there was an earthen stable underneath. They had carved the stable out of the dirt from the back,” Joe recalls. When it was Schillings they had rooms to let and the numbers were still on the doors.

“My parents (Bernie Helming and the former Dorothy Messmer) bought the place. There was a gathering area around the wood stove and one communal bathroom.”

And what, pray tell, did Bernie create in his shop? Bernie Helming was a metal fabricator who was known for making really superior stills.

Yes, you read that right. Stills in which to cook moonshine.

Former Ferdinand News editor Roy Haake considered Bernie Helming to be his best friend. He loved to tell the story about when Indiana State Trooper Paul Wilgus moved to Ferdinand. Wilgus was driving around one day and spotted Bernie crafting something from metal in front of his shop. He hightailed it down to the News office, figuring he could get an honest answer out of Roy, and asked what Bernie Helming might have been making.

Roy kept his poker face and provided an early instance of fake news. “He’s building a wash boiler.”

Wilgus was grateful for the information and said it had worried him because that wash boiler sure looked like a still!

Bernie likely learned his craft from someone in Dale before leaving for service in World War II.

The year was 1944 and Bernie was already age 32.

“He seemed to be fearless,” Joe says. “But the process changed his life considerably.”

Remembering Bernie Helming is highly appropriate with Memorial Day on the horizon. Bernie was a volunteer who spoke both high and low German fluently — in other words an incredible asset to the Allies and the United States Military.

He was a member of what would become the very first United States Special Forces Unit, known as the Devil’s Brigade, organized in 1942. His language skills were definitely an asset. One night Bernie climbed a telephone pole, intersected a German communication line and spoke to the German soldiers in a nearby camp. The maneuver resulted in the surrender of the entire enemy camp.

A diary was found on the body of a German lieutenant, an officer in the Hermann Goering Division’s Alarm [scout] company who was killed during one of the patrols. In it was written, “The Black Devils are all around us every time we come into the line, and we never hear them come,” and thus the special forces until for which Bernie Helmingmserved now had a name, The Devil’s Brigade.

The Brigade fought in major battles in the Aleutian Islands, Rome, Monte Cassino, and the invasion of France. These men were true heroes.

In 2015, more than 70 years after the Devil’s Brigade disbanded, the unit was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, presented during a ceremony in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill.

However, like many of his brethren, Bernie survived the war and returned home to Ferdinand without ever receiving any accolades.

Joe explains, “My mom was fairly young, working in a telephone office in Louisville. I wish I knew more about how they got together.”

His mom was the daughter of Joe and Caroline Messmer, also of Ferdinand, and it’s a safe bet she was swept off her feet by this handsome returning soldier.

Joe is the sixth of Bernie and Dorothy’s seven children. Sadly, he never got to ask those questions children always wish they had asked. His father was accidentally electrocuted on a job when Joe was just seven years old. Joe’s oldest sibling was 14 and the youngest five and a half. And while Joe didn’t exactly grow up learning the trade from his father, it would seem he inherited his father’s love of metalwork.

“There was a coal stove in the shop and I would throw a piece of sheet metal in to soften it up and make it pliable to create something,” Joe says. This would have been when he was a tot, not yet seven. “I started turning valves when I was four or five.”

Joe remembers, “Other kids wanted to be a fireman. I wanted to be a steeplejack.”

Joe started and completed his schooling in Jasper, graduating from Jasper High School in 1972. He went to work for Bernie and Tony Striegel, who had started a similar business in 1936 when he came to Jasper to work on the steeple at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

Does Joe have a fear of heights?

The answer is yes, but as long as he feels safe he is fine.

In 1981 he bought the remnants of the Striegels’ business. He also bought his current home (with his wife Kathy) on Portersville Road.

He was driving home from a job and decided to follow the Patoka River as best he could. He passed the house and fell in love, despite its need for tender loving care. Two weeks later he spotted an ad in the paper for the property and thought it had to be the same one.

“I bought the house and the business in ‘81. I had bought an old used car and was late on a couple of payments and wanted to buy a panel truck [for the business]. Dubois County Bank said no and Jasper State Bank just opened, so I went there. Alvin C. Ruxer was even sitting there. They were happy to loan me the money.”

That turned out to be a wise decision as Helming Bros. has flourished ever since.

So where are the brothers?

One brother started out with him but didn’t have the same passion. Another brother helped with the scaffolding when Joe was replacing the roof on St. Michael’s Church in Cannelton, but much preferred to be down under, as in down under working on the plumbing.

Early in his ownership Joe was called to replace the copper roof on St. Ferdinand Church. He had not lived in Ferdinand since early childhood and the powers that be were skeptical. They contacted Bernie Striegel and asked him to come over and give assurance this young whippersnapper could handle the job.

Bernie told the priest, “He should be able to, he cut his eye teeth on tin snips!”

In the next 40 plus years, Helming Bros. has worked just about everywhere in a 250-mile radius.

As he talks about various jobs, “Replacing that cross on the steeple in Ado, Oklahoma was a fun project,” or “I went to Michigan alone and made arrangements to have a crane so I can replace a finial on top of the cross.”

Helming believes metal fabrication began with the advent of the industrial revolution. Artisans have been smithing copper for thousands of years and in the 1870s they would have been galvanizing metal. Today many metal roofs require a bag of screws and a caulking gun. Joe says Europeans, who still install metal roofs the old fashioned way, call what is done on this side of the Atlantic “American solder.”

Years ago he took his crew to Charlotte, North Carolina for additional training and became a trainer himself, traveling to Ontario, Canada, Chicago, Illinois and other sites to train.

Joe had a stem cell transplant eight years ago so today he leaves much of the high work to his staff and believes one of his employees, Kyle Cook, and Joe and Kathy’s daughter, Jenny, will eventually take over. Kyle has worked for him for 26 or 27 years. In all he employees five full-time and two part-time workers. Jenny focuses on stained glass and decorative work.

While Joe Helming is truly an innovator, he practices his craft in a time-honored way that will hold up for years to come.

The tagline on his website says it all: “We offer the highest quality of restoration and renovation while preserving the architectural integrity of the structure on every project. Our artisan craftsmanship shows in every project we do.”

This story is part of a series called Entrepreneurs and Innovators designed to highlight the stories of some of Dubois County’s businesses and the people behind them. We hope it inspires the next wave of entrepreneurs and innovators in this area. If you are ready to take your idea to the next stage, there are many resources and mentors to help you. You can start by contacting the Jasper Chamber of Commerce at 812-482-6866 or chamber@jasperin.org and they can provide assistance and also put you in touch with their partners at Dubois Strong and the Indiana Small Business Development Center.