From bricks to cars – the story of the Veneklasens


The Veneklasens were generational entrepreneurs.

Berend Veneklasen has become a well-known brick maker. He was born in the Netherlands in 1828 and immigrated with his parents, Jan and Alice Van Linger Veneklasen, to Holland in 1847.

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In 1848 Jan and Berend opened a brickyard near what is now 24th Street and Country Club Road. The clay was dug with a pickaxe and shovel and placed in a cart pulled by horses or mules.

Then the clay was crushed and mixed with sand and put into wooden molds, then left in the sun to dry for three weeks, then baked in an oven. The color of the bricks – brown, red, orange and white – was determined by the clay and how long the bricks fired.

As the local economy developed, these bricks were used not only for fireplaces, but also for houses. In 1851, Andries Steketee’s house at Paw Paw Drive and 112th Street was probably the first house built of Veneklasen brick.

In 1853, the Veneklasens moved their operations to the area now known as Old Groningen, near Paw Paw Drive and 106th Avenue. In 1857, Van Vleck Hall at Hope College was probably the first large building constructed of Veneklasen brick.

Needing more clay, in 1872 the Veneklasens moved their farm to the area now known as New Groningen in West Zealand. It was fortuitous because after the Great Fire of 1871, people wanted to build with brick.

At that time, the Veneklasens were making a million bricks a year.

In 1873, Berend Veneklasen built his house on the hill along Chicago Drive. In 1893, the Veneklasens were making 40 million bricks. By 1903, the Veneklasens had brick factories in Hamilton, Cloverdale, Rudyard, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo.

Berend died in 1905. His son, Roelof, was to invest in several companies, including a shoe store, the Zeeland State Bank and the Holland Sugar Company. His other son, John, invests in the Colonial Clock Company.

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The brick-making business closed in 1923, the victim of competition on a larger scale and at lower cost.

Berend’s great-grandson Howard grew up in a house next to the Big House on the Hill. In 1925, when Howard was four years old, his father died, leaving his mother, Adrianna, to raise Howard and his brother, Robert.

During World War II, Howard served in the US Air Force and was in Iwo Jima when they hoisted the American flag.

After the war Howard first worked for Hart and Cooley, then started West End Auto Sales near the Big House on the Hill. In 1946 he added an auto parts company, Veneklasen Auto Parts, and later a 24 hour towing service.

When parking cars near the big house and along Chicago Drive was no longer welcome, Howard purchased land along Lakewood Boulevard in Holland Township.

His son, Howard N. Veneklasen, was born in 1948.

In 1970 Howard N. graduated from Hope College. In January 1972, he bought the business from his father.

In 1975 Howard N. attended his first Automotive Recyclers Association conference. It was a defining moment. In the mid-1980s, Howard became president of this association.

In 1984, Howard N. visited a self-service salvage yard in Los Angeles. This was also a watershed moment.

In 1987 he bought M-21 Auto Parts on Chicago Drive and U-Wrench It was born. It was the first self-service auto recycling facility in Michigan, and also the first computerized.

In 1994, Howard N. opened a U-Wrench It operation in Kansas City with five partners. In 1997, he opened U-Wrench It of St. Louis, Missouri, with three partners. In 2002, he opened U-Wrench It of Columbus, Ohio, and Virginia Beach, Virginia, with three partners.

Individually, he opened Veneklasen U-Wrench It locations in Kalamazoo in 2004 and Grand Rapids in 2006.

By 1995, Veneklasen had developed a fluid evacuation system, which allowed self-service facilities to recover thousands of gallons of antifreeze, lubricants and fuel per year. Collectively, U-Wrench It facilities have recycled over 50,000 vehicles per year.

In 2005, the four jointly owned U-Wrench It operations were sold to a California-based public company owned by Schneitzer Steel of Portland, Oregon.

In 2006, Veneklasen sold Michigan’s U-Wrench Its and Veneklasen Auto Parts to LKQ, a public company with more than 100 recycling facilities across the United States.

Information for this story comes from,, Robert Swierenga, Michael Douma,, The Holland Sentinel, and interviews with Howard N. Veneklasen.

– Community columnist Steve VanderVeen is a resident of the Netherlands. Contact him via


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