Behind the beautiful Streamline Moderne neon sign in the industrial part of Northeast Minneapolis sits one of the most resilient and adaptive companies in Minneapolis. Brede (pronounced Bree-dee) Exposition Services has been in business for 115 years—60 years at the current location.
They are a pioneer in the tradeshow industry and for decades have played a role in shaping Minneapolis’ urban landscape through the installation of outdoor advertising and Christmas decorations. Brede also has a rich history with two of the state’s great celebrations, the Minnesota State Fair and Minneapolis’ Aquatennial.
The Early Years
Hans Martin Brede, the founder of what is today Brede Exposition Services, was a Norwegian immigrant that “had a flair for engraving and lettering.” In 1898 he went into business for himself, producing rubber stamps and real estate signs out of his garage in Northeast Minneapolis.
He also lettered commercial signs on buildings throughout the city. Sign production and lettering became the main business lines during the company’s first twenty years, prompting a name change to Brede Sign Manufacturing Company by 1913.
Sign production also led to Brede’s main endeavor today—designing, building, and furnishing large tradeshows and conventions for associations, organizations, and companies. At the 1921 Radio Show in Minneapolis, a customer that had previously purchased business signs from Brede needed a sign for a local tradeshow. When William (Bill) Brede, Martin Brede’s son, brought the completed signs to the convention, he noticed that some of the other exhibitors required additional chairs, tables, and decorations to make their exhibits more inviting. Seeing an opportunity, Bill Brede brought these items from his home. Nothing was off limits, and his wicker chairs, Persian rugs, and even his dining room table were offered for rent to exhibitors. Soon after, Brede began building a stock of such items to rent at other events.
“Tradeshows at that time were simple events, showcasing basic wares from pots and pans to coffee grinders, allowing local merchants to stock up on the latest products,” says Bill Casey III, current president of Brede. In the 1920s, however, exhibitors began to look for more ways to stand out from the crowd.
Conventions: The Pioneer and Leader
It was clear early on that Brede had found an unmet need in the convention business. The company jumped on this opportunity and performed swimmingly. By 1925, convention contracting had become a central part of the Brede business. To reflect their new broader base of services, the name was changed from Brede Sign Manufacturing Company to Brede Inc. After experiencing success in the local market, Brede saw an opportunity to expand their convention services nationally.
In 1925, Brede took on its first national account—the Interstate Post Graduate Medical Association and became one of the first convention contractors to organize and decorate conventions in a state other than the one in which they operated their business. In the first eight years of their interstate business, Brede set up shows in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chattanooga.
Brede Inc. is recognized as a pioneer that helped shape the convention industry. In 1986, the Convention Industry Council inducted William H. Brede (1896-1977) into their Hall of Leaders posthumously. Only eleven people preceded Bill Brede in earning this honor, most famous among them being Conrad Hilton, found of the Hilton Hotels.
Bill Brede took over the company from his father in 1916 when he was only 19. Under his leadership, he developed Brede Inc. into one of the top three largest convention decorating businesses in the nation. An innovator in his field, Bill was the first to travel to sites across the country with equipment and staff to organize conventions for national associations. The company was also the inventor, during his leadership, of two key items still used at tradeshows today.
Until the early 1930s, convention booths were created out of heavy, hard walled booths, which were time and labor intensive to set up and not easy to haul long distances. Bill Brede soon created the system of “pipe and drape”, which was hollow metal pipes over which fabric is draped to decorate an exhibit space.
The introduction of pipe and drape cut down travel expenses considerably and reduced the amount of space needed to store exhibit booth items in the warehouse. In 1969, Bill Brede also introduced the first clear plastic registration badge holder, a staple at nearly every conference today.
As the convention business matured further, Brede Inc. took on more client responsibilities, reducing the amount of work associations, businesses, and individuals had to do for conferences and exhibitions. In 1962, Bill Brede stated, “If the exhibitor wants to pay for it, all he has to do is bring his own cigars. We’ll take care of the rest.” Brede today carries this role forward, designing and building convention layouts and furnishing all the equipment needed for a convention or exhibition. Brede has produced over 20,000 tradeshows and their list of clients is impressive: the American Medical Association, American Dental Association, Professional Photographers Association, the AFL-CIO Union Industries Show, the National Boat Show, and Super Value Stores, Inc.
The outdoor sign business grew alongside the convention business. In the 82 years Brede Inc. was in the sign business their repertoire expanded to include billboards as well as electric and neon signs. The evolution of outdoor advertisement was dramatic during this time. Billboards and signs became bigger, brighter, and sometimes more controversial in order to stand out from the competition. Outdoor advertising also had to contend with stricter sign regulations.
Like most industries in their infancy, outdoor advertisement followed a simpler business model in the beginning. In the early years, a salesman scouting for billboard locations outside of city limits would meet up with farmers to inquire if they would allow a billboard on their property and pay for the use of their land. Compensation offered for use of the farmer’s land varied depending on the product the billboard advertised, and ranged from money to a bottle of hooch or a case of beer. Once a year, the Brede representative would check in with the farmer to renew the contract.
Brede Inc. grew to become one of the major outdoor advertising and sign manufacturers in the Midwest region. They completed billboards and signs for many of the area’s largest companies including Dr. Pepper, Grain Belt, Hamm’s, Minnegasco, Old Home, and Powers Department Stores.
An example of their work still remains in the ghost sign reading “Central Organization Warehouse” on the Holden Building in Minneapolis’ North Loop Warehouse District.
By the time Brede sold their outdoor advertising business to Naegele Outdoor Advertising in 1980, they had 1,200 highway advertising board locations in eight states.
The Roots in Northeast Run Deep
In its 115 year history, Brede has had three company locations but has always maintained its roots in Northeast Minneapolis. For the company’s first 40 years, Brede operated out of Martin H. Brede’s garage at the back of a residential lot at 1938 Ulysses Street Northeast.
When Martin started his business in 1898, the same year that his son Bill was born, there were very few homes within a few block radius. By the time Brede Inc. decided to build a new facility in 1938, however, most of the 5,000 square foot lots around the factory had been built out. Martin H. Brede’s house remains at 1938 Ulysses Street Northeast, but the factory was torn down and newer residential structures from the 1950s sit in their place.
In the 40 years that Brede operated on Ulysses Street, there were at least three building expansions to accommodate the company’s growth. In 1938, with the company’s continued success, the Great Depression lightening up, and perhaps complaints by new nearby residents, Brede Inc. decided to build a new factory and warehouse facility in an industrial part of Northeast. They built their new building at 1720 New Brighton Boulevard, which is where the Quarry Shopping Center is today.
The expansions and growth continued at this facility. Over the course of the 15 years that they were located on New Brighton Boulevard, they completed at least three building additions.
In 1953, Brede Inc. outgrew their space and decided to build another new facility less than a mile away to accommodate an expansion of their sign and convention business. For the last 60 years, 2211 Broadway Street Northeast has been the company’s Minneapolis home. The beautiful Streamline Moderne sign—naturally constructed by Brede—that greets people at the entrance was installed the same year that Brede moved into the building.
Brede’s Other Businesses
Aside from Brede’s more well known endeavors, the company has also been involved with a variety of other interesting businesses. A 1962 feature on Brede in the Minneapolis Star summed up their business ventures well, “Some companies are like icebergs: What the public sees may be only a portion of its business.”
During World War II diversification was particularly important. According to a 1953 Minneapolis Star article, World War II “shot to pieces” Brede’s convention and outdoor advertisement business. During this time, Brede became a subcontractor, making everything from jungle hammocks to pup tents for the armed forces. In addition, they completed truck body painting, sandblasting, and car refurbishing.
“Consumers weren’t able to buy new cars during the war,” explains current owner Bill Casey III. “But refinishing older cars gave them a new look and feel.” By 1947, with World War II over, Brede Inc. once again returned primarily to two business lines: sign manufacturing for the Midwest area and convention decorating on a national basis.
Brede, a fan of great celebrations, has been involved with some of the area’s biggest traditions and events. From the early 1930s through at least the 1960s, the company decorated Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall, East Hennepin Avenue, and Lake Street with Yuletide decorations. Brede also built the Minneapolis Aquatennial parade floats for many years.
Brede’s longest involvement with a celebration is the Minnesota State Fair dating back to 1908, when the Brede Manufacturing Company exhibited there. Brede’s big break at the fair came in 1933, when Bill Brede was awarded a contract to operate a beer garden, which stayed in the family until 1999. The success of the beer garden led to countless other ventures at the State Fair, the most popular being Pronto Pups and the Giant Carousel.
Bill Brede was responsible for introducing the Pronto Pup to the State Fair in 1947, which was one of the first hot State Fair foods served on a stick. In 1946, Bill was on a trip to Chicago where he encountered Jack and Gladys Karnis selling this deep-fried wonder food on the Chicago streets. The Karnises had recently purchased their Pronto Pup franchise. After some heavy salesmanship, including offering to pay the Karnis’ salary for the first year that equaled their Chicago revenue, Bill Brede was finally successful in convincing Jack and Gladys that they should move to Minnesota and set up shop at the State Fair. The Brede family maintained the license for Pronto Pups until 1991, when it transferred it to the Karnis family. Today, the Karnises still run eight Pronto Pup stands at the fair and are doing quite well. In 2012 they went through 25 tons of hot dogs and 115 tons of batter to keep up with demand.
Another connection with the State Fair is Brede’s ownership of the Giant Carousel. Built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and set up at the fair grounds in 1914, it is considered one of the finest carousels in America. It operated under private ownership at the fair for 74 years.
In 1949, Brede Enterprises purchased the Giant Carousel and operated it until 1988. That year, the nonprofit organization Our Fair Carousel purchased the carousel and moved it to St. Paul’s Town Square. It was moved to Como Park, its current location, in 1993.
Brede Inc. stayed within the Brede family until 1990, when it was sold to another family that has been in the exposition business. Bill Casey’s Exhibit Aids of Washington D.C. was growing, and the acquisition of Brede provided the private company a fifth location. Casey decided to unite all of the branches under the well-respected Brede name. Today, Brede Exposition Services employs 400 full-time people nationally and over 4,000 part time employees at six locations. They maintain their family oriented atmosphere with many second-and third-generation employees and continue the longstanding tradition of designing and outfitting exceptional tradeshows.
Sources and Credit
Thank you to Brede Expositions Services and the Hennepin County’s James K. Hosmer Special Collections for their assistance with this post.