North Dakotan was the genius behind the 20th century's boom in plastics
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Gilmore Tilmen “Shelly” Schjeldahl.
FARGO — In the 1967 movie "The Graduate," Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, is pulled aside at his college graduation party by a friend of his father and given advice. The advice to Ben was “just one word — and the word was plastics.” Ben did not see plastic in his future plans and ignored the advice.
However, there was a person who did embrace plastic in his future and he was born, raised and educated in North Dakota — Gilmore “Shelly” Schjeldahl. Shelly received 16 applicable patents involving plastic that had major impacts on industries involving food processing and storage, medicine, communications, housing, airplane travel and space exploration. However, unlike Ben, Shelly did not graduate from college, and, in fact, he didn’t even graduate from high school.
Gilmore Tilmen “Shelly” Schjeldahl was born June 1, 1912, in Esmond, to Ole and Anna (Bentley) Schjeldahl. Ole, an immigrant from Norway, worked at a number of different jobs, and while Shelly was still an infant, his family relocated to Mott. When employment opportunities in western North Dakota failed to materialize, the Schjeldahls moved to Northwood, Anna’s hometown, when Shelly was 8 years old. There, Ole was able to land some part-time jobs, and Anna worked as a laundress until being offered the position of supervisor at a retirement home.
Shelly “wandered the streets of Northwood endeavoring to learn the why and how of everything. Local businessmen became his private instructors.” The local car garages let Shelly closely observe how they repaired automobiles, the tinsmith and blacksmith allowed him to use their tools, and the pharmacist provided Shelley with chemicals to conduct various experiments.
Shelly also spent time at a print shop observing how everything operated and he worked part-time at the Northwood Gleaner newspaper office “where he designed and built a static eliminator.” In addition, he ran the movie projector at the Roxy Theater. The one place where Shelly spent the most time was at his grandfather’s farm where he became fascinated by how all of the various farm machines worked.
Because of his interest in working with machines, Shelly dropped out of high school and, in 1933, enrolled at the State School of Science in Wahpeton to take courses in electrical machinery maintenance. After completing those classes, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps for two years as a drafting assistant and then moved to Fargo where he spent time working as a salesman.
After saving up a little money, Shelly enrolled at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) as a part-time student. His intent was to major in civil engineering. Besides taking engineering classes, he also loaded up on courses in chemistry. The one extracurricular activity that he loved taking part in was the annual entertainment performances put on by the Blue Key Honor Society. Shelly served as the electrician and lighting artist in several productions. The reason he was only a part-time student was that he found a steady job working at the Armour and Company meatpacking plant in West Fargo.
Shelly’s oldest sister, Irene, had a roommate at NDAC, from Christine, named Charlene Hanson. Shelly met Charlene in 1938 and they started dating. The two got married on Oct. 4, 1940, and less than two weeks later Shelly registered for the draft, as the war in Europe threatened possible U.S. involvement. Shelly continued attending classes at NDAC and working at Armour.
On March 12, 1943, he was drafted and then trained for nine months at the Virginia Polytechnical Institute in Blacksburg, Va. Although trained as a scientist, Shelly was transferred to the 84th Infantry Division as a combat soldier and shipped overseas to take part in the upcoming massive invasion of Europe.
The 84th landed on Omaha Beach during the first week of November 1944 and, as the soldiers advanced, they were involved in some heavy fighting pushing the Germans back into Belgium. The Germans then mounted a desperate counterattack in December in what has become known as the Battle of the Bulge. During the battle on Dec. 23, Shelly was in a foxhole with a good friend when an American tank ran right over the hole. He was buried and his friend was killed.
Shelly’s son Peter, a noted poet and art critic for New Yorker magazine, wrote of another incident. “My father was a radio operator until ordered to take a radio to a cutoff platoon, he and another soldier came under mortar fire. They dived into a hell hole. A near-hit wounded his partner. Making a break for it, my father helped the man and lugged the radio, which, when they reached the platoon, was found to be wrecked by shrapnel.” For his heroic action, Shelly was awarded the Bronze Star. Peter also wrote that his father later had nightmares and likely suffered from post-traumatic stress for the rest of his life.
Shelly was discharged on Sept. 28, 1945, and returned home to his wife and two young children in Fargo. Even though he had enough college credits at NDAC to graduate, he was missing a course or two in other fields. At the age of 33, he felt it would be a waste of valuable time to take those courses, so he moved his family to Chicago where he was quickly hired as a chemist for the Armour Laboratories. While there, he learned about a plastic named polyethylene.
Although polyethylene had been in existence for 50 years, practical uses for it had only recently been discovered. Because it was lightweight, strong, highly pliable and transparent, Shelly reasoned that it would be ideal for packaging food. However, there was one major problem: it could not be sealed. Through experimentation at home in his kitchen, Shelly and his wife Charlene found out that by using a hot knife, sheets of polyethylene could be sliced and sealed.
“This process would one day revolutionize the food packaging industry.” He then showed this process to executives of Armour, but they were not interested.
In 1948, Shelly moved to Minneapolis and found employment with the Bemis Brothers Bag Co., one of the largest manufacturers of food bags in the world. The executives at Bemis were also not interested in Shelly’s invention, so he decided to put out feelers for his product and received a large order for plastic liners for pickle barrels. Unfortunately, Shelly did not have the capital to purchase the materials to manufacture the bags. He then brought in a partner, Herb Harris, and they formed the company Herb-Shelly Inc.
The two men set up a small factory in Farmington, Minn., and began making plastic liners. In 1949, Shelly invented a process to bond plastic with paper, and an idea occurred to him that airline companies would be interested in having leakproof air sickness bags. He contacted Northwest Airlines and they loved the idea and put in a large order. Soon other airlines also wanted them.
The first major food-producing companies to order Shelly’s plastic bags were bread producers and, by 1954, Herb-Shelly was one of the fastest-growing companies in the Upper Midwest.
We will continue the story of Gilmore “Shelly” Schjeldahl next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.