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All in the Family

Sunrise Metal Shop Continues an Ongoing Legacy

Story & Photography Provided

Sunrise MetalIn 1958 brothers Clarence Slabaugh and John Helmuth saw a need for metal work in their community. That year the pair opened Topeka Metal Shop. John’s investment provided equipment, but their father Jake ran the shop with help from Clarence when he was free from his full-time work in construction. The brothers provided their father with the meaningful work he sought after retiring from his saw mill. After a few years Jake replaced John as an owner, and Jake’s daughter Katie joined the business. Initially the family focused on providing feeders, fountains and ventilators to the local farming community. They provided supply tanks for the early iconic Shasta RVs and plumbing implements. Around this time Clarence departed to focus on his construction business, and Katie and her new husband Enos Kuhns partnered with Jake.

Enos was working full time in a factory. After work he would come home and spend time with his wife and children. Each evening he headed out to work in the shop. Enos took on the more complicated tasks and precision work that had become too difficult for his father-in-law to complete. He often worked late into the night when there were pressing jobs that needed to be finished.

Every nook and cranny of the shop was packed with equipment, sheets of metal and jobs in progress. John Kuhns recalls spending time in the shop as a young boy. Many evenings in a corner of the shop Enos would be soldering at his work bench. At 5 years old John was happy to hold an old gas lantern so dad could see his work. That was 1967, and that project became one of the earliest kitchen range hoods the shop produced.

In 1971 the name was changed to Sunrise Metal Shop. During those early years the maple industry was thriving, and requests would come in to repair or replace maple evaporators. In 1972 they built a large custom pan for a local sugar bush. The pan is still in use today. Through the years evaporators would become a larger part of the business. Techniques would change from soldering to more precise welding. The shop’s products grew with the needs of the community, and the materials changed to focus on stainless steel, as well as brass, zinc and copper.

In 2009 the shop moved to its current location. The business produced complete maple syrup evaporators, commercial water bath canners, dog feeders, outdoor kitchens, and a variety of custom jobs designed to meet the needs of customers. Around this time more requests came in for larger and more elaborate range hoods. The process started on paper – first a basic drawing, then something a little more complicated. With their ideas worked out on paper, the team began the prototype process. They experimented with creating smooth curves with the roll forms and different angles, honing their craftsmanship along the way. They always returned to pencil and paper for new ideas. Designs with new materials eventually led to their technique of aging different metals, and applying new and unique finishes.

That same year expansion began on the shop. The Sunrise Metal team began to focus on increasing productivity, with new manufacturing techniques and improvements in efficiency. Brainstorming began for new products to offset the uneven production year created by the high demand for maple products in the fall and winter. In the first meeting, John’s son Devon suggested that they consider designing and building a grill. The initial idea was dismissed, as no one on the team could imagine building run-of-the-mill grills. A few months later talks started back up. Devon returned to the idea of building a grill. John says that this time he understood. Unwilling to compromise on quality, John knew there was only one side of the market their grill could fit in, and that was the highest end – a grill that would outlast generations and keep going.

Sunrise MetalThe entire Sunrise Metal team began work on the first designs for what would become the Silver Rocket Grill. Many iterations came to life on paper. Eventually the initial design was settled on. With four generations of experience, persistence and dedication to craftsmanship, the original grill looked very much like the latest model. This is not to say that improvements haven’t been made – the vents have been moved to the front, the top exhaust was redesigned from a straight-pipe exhaust to its current cone-like design, efficiency has improved, and gasification makes the most of the lump charcoal used.

With the success of the first grill came new additions and features including the smoker-baker attachment, the cold-smoke hopper, and the flat-top griddle. These are just a few of the new features, with designs being worked up for new upgrades constantly. New ideas don’t just come from the shop. John, and the entire team, have the utmost respect for their customers and dealers, and will always listen to ideas and suggestions. Those suggestions don’t always make it past the pencil-and-paper stage, but the ones that do will always add value.

Through the years products and techniques have changed. What never changes is the persistent desire to provide something of value, of high quality, that improves the lives of customers.

In 2004 Enos Kuhns passed away. The family started the conversation of what the next step would look like for them and for the shop. From these discussions a new partnership was formed between John and Susie Kuhns, their son Devon Kuhns and his wife Inez, as well as their son-in-law Lee Miller and his wife Edna Fern. This partnership was a new dawn of the legacy that is Sunrise Metal Shop.

That legacy reaches further as John and Susie’s other children have come on board. Marilyn works at the front desk, always happy to greet anyone who comes in. Steven provides customer service, and helps answer the phones and whatever questions arise. Delmar and Galen work in production at the shop, mastering the craft their great-grandfather passed down. At 16 years old, John’s Grandson Kevin, working in production, is the first of the fifth generation. Family accounts for more than half the employees at the shop. Sunrise Metal’s story is not the story of any one person, but of a family and their devotion for God, their love for one another, and the quality of work that this can create. In the families’ own words, it is a blessing and a gift. John, Devon, Lee and the entire family invite you to visit the shop and get to know them, and discover what they make that will add value to your life.

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