Beske Implement of Minnesota Lake, Minnesota
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the March/April 2000 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
Blue Earth County, located in south-central Minnesota, derives its name from the bluish-green color of the soil which was once used as a pigment by the native Sioux tribes in the area, long before the coming of the white man. (Warren Upham, Minnesota Geographical Names, [Minnesota Historical Society: St Paul, 1969], p. 57.) Indeed, the bluish-green tinge of the soil led the French explorer, Pierre LeSueur, to believe that the soil contained copper. After his initial exploration of the southern Minnesota area in 1695, LeSueur returned to France and made plans for another trip to the new world, this time with miners in tow who were to establish Fort L’Huillier in Blue Earth County and to commence mining the copper that was sure to be there. This expedition to the new world was mounted in 1700; however, as history reveals, no copper was ever found in Blue Earth County. Thus, Fort L’Huillier and France’sattempts at settlement of southern Minnesota came to an inglorious end.
Indeed, it was wealth of quite another sort located in the soil that attracted permanent settlement to southern Minnesota very early in the history of the State. It was the dark rich humus soil, now renowned as being some of the best soil in the world. Among the earliest settlers were four families from Scotland: David and Mary (Reid) Ogilvie; James and Hellen (Coutie) Ogilvie; Archibald and Anne Cardle; and Andrew R. and Jeanette More. They were attracted to the area by the rich soil and settled in what was to become Pilot Grove Township of Faribault County, the county immediately adjacent to Blue Earth County on the south. The Ogilvies, Mores and Cardles took up land near Weasel Lake. While James and Hellen Ogilvie took up a piece of land adjacent to the lake, David and Mary Ogilvie took up land to the north which was not adjacent to the lake. On June 5, 1867, a baby girl was born to David and Mary Ogilvie. They named her Jeanette More Ogilive, after their good friend Mrs. Andrew More. (We will meet Jeanette, or Nettie, Ogilvie as a mature woman later in this story.)
Settlement, based on agriculture, in southern Minnesota was successful beyond all expectations. Towns sprang up all over, with businesses to serve the agricultural community. One such town was Minnesota Lake, located directly on the boundary between Blue Earth and Faribault Counties. Conveniently located on the Chicago-Milwaukee and St Paul railroad line, Minnesota Lake was lopsidedly settled, with more of the village in Faribault County than in Blue Earth County. In 1890, the population of Minnesota Lake was 340. Ten years later, the population of the town had grown to 518. In 1877, Gustavus A. Beske immigrated with his parents from Germany when he was only 8 years and settled in Minnesota Lake, Minnesota. In 1902, Gus, or G.A., Beske, Andrew Petrok, and Ben Engibrittson bought a hardware business from the estate of C.W. Appley. The Appley Hardware store had been financed by Peter Kremer, the largest holder of stock in the 1st National Bank in Minnesota Lake. The three new partners, however, were able to continue this financing of the hardware store under their names. In 1904, the hardware store began selling farm machinery manufactured by many different companies.
After a few years, G.A. sold his interest in the hardware store to his partners and went to work for the International Harvester Company, traveling far from Minnesota Lake. Ultimately, however, he found that life on the road did not compare with the small town life of Minnesota Lake. Upon the untimely death of Ben Engibrittson on April 6, 1909, G.A. took the opportunity to return to his home town and bought out Ben Engibrittson’s share of the old hardware store. He also met Lydia Fischer, whom he married on June 31, 1909.
Once back in the hardware business, it became clear that G.A. Beske was the real force behind the partnership. It was G.A. Beske’s true element. He was a natural at sales. It was said that G.A. could sell anything, just by talking to people. Eventually, Andrew Petrok also sold his share of the hardware business to G.A. Beske Hardware truly fit the tradition of the general store in American folklore. It served as a place where the men of Minnesota Lake would gather daily around the coal-burning, pot-bellied stove in the middle of the store and converse. The Beske Hardware also began selling New Idea farm equipment and Ford cars.
In 1912, two significant events happened–G.A. and Lydia had a son, Woodrow, and G.A., as sole proprietor, undertook a franchise agreement to sell John Deere equipment out of the hardware store. So it was, that one of the first John Deere dealerships in the state of Minnesota was established in the tiny community of Minnesota Lake. A farm machinery dealership was an enterprize with great promise in 1912, but there were also great risks, as the next 80-year history of Beske Implement would show.
Beske Hardware had been in the business of selling John Deere machinery for some time when, in 1923, John Deere introduced the Model D tractor. Introduction of the Model D pleasantly coincided with a mild up-turn in the farming economy following the severe depression of 1921 through 1923. (Regular readers of the Belt Pulley will remember that in the past, this author has contended that the Great Depression for farmers began in 1921 and continued all the way to the entry of the United States into the Second World War. However, as pointed out by Larry H. Gay in a letter to the editor in the May/June 1999 issue of Belt Pulley, p. 11, this is a very broad picture of the economic history of the United States and obscures many important smaller turns in the economy–one of which was the recovery of 1924 through 1929.) During this mild recovery, farmers began buying John Deere Ds in ever-increasing numbers. The production figures for the Model D reflect this growth in sales: 50 in 1923; 764 in 1924; 3,997 in 1925; 8,516 in 1926; 10,975 in 1927; 16,478 in 1928; and 23,806 in 1929, the peak year for sales of the entire production run of the John Deere D. (Two-Cylinder magazine, March/April of 1997, p. 5.)
With the coming of the tractor to the farming scene, there was suddenly a need for dealerships to offer repair and overhaul services to the purchasers of tractors. This usually meant that hardware stores, and other similarly situated businesses who sold tractors and farm machinery as a sidelight to their business, usually had to expand. Indeed, John Deere began offering all sorts of incentives to their franchise holders to try to get them to completely drop what had been the mainstay of their businesses prior to obtaining their franchises. Sometimes this “incentive” became “pressure” which would force the franchisee to make this change. Thus, in the mid-1920s, G.A. purchased the building next door to his hardware store and established his John Deere dealership as a new and separate business–Beske Implement–and the hardware store retained the franchise to New Idea farm machinery and Ford cars.
To help raise capital for the new business, G.A. sold two-thirds of his hardware store to A.A. Heise and E.F. Minks. At this time, Beske Implement rode the crest of the sales of the Model D into the late 1920s. With 15 hp. at the drawbar and 27 hp.at the belt pulley, farmers found that the Model D tractor was comparable to the International Harvester 15-30 in the three-plow category and superior to the two-plow Fordson. (J.R. Hobbs, “Early Model ‘D’ [1923-1927]: A Good Investment in 1923, a Good Investment Now,” Green Magazine [October 1996] p. 23.) This boomlet of sales in the late-1920s allowed Beske Implement to get established prior to the coming of the very serious down-turn in the economy in 1929-30. Nationwide, sales of all machinery fell off as 1930 rolled around. The decline in sales of the Model D is reflected in these production figures: 14,118 in 1930; 5,635 in 1931; 319 in 1932; and only 485 in 1933. (Two Cylinder [March/April 1997] p. 5.) Like other John Deere dealerships, Beske Implement had the Model D to thank for the economic boost it received just prior to the Great Depression. The Model D allowed Beske Implement to survive the worst part of the depression when many farm equipment dealers across the nation were not so fortunate.
Beske Implement suffered through the worst years of the Great Depression along with the rest of the country. However, although sales seriously declined, Beske Implement still managed to sell some tractors. In 1931, one of the 5,635 Model D’s, fitted with an optional power take-off shaft and shield, rolled off the production line in Waterloo, Iowa and was loaded onto a flatbed railroad car of an Illinois Central train. (An advertisement of the optional power take-off shaft on the John Deere Model D tractor is shown in a 1929 advertisement which has been recently reprinted, titled John Deere Tractor Model D.) By prior arrangement with the Deere and Webber Company of Minneapolis–wholesale distributor of John Deere equipment for the state of Minnesota–this particular steel-wheeled Model D tractor was destined for Beske Implement. The train headed out of Waterloo on the Illinois Central tracks running northwest out of Waterloo to the border town of Lyle, Minnesota (1930 pop. 453), and continuing on to the transportation hub of Albert Lea, Minnesota (1930 pop. 10,169). Once in Albert Lea, the flatbed car containing this particular John Deere D was transferred to a train heading west over the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (nicknamed the Milwaukee Road) tracks to the little railroad junction town of Wells (1930 pop. 1,795). At the Wells junction, the flatbed car was then connected to a train that was headed north up the Milwaukee Road tracks toward Mankato. The first stop on that railroad line was the town of Minnesota Lake, where the 1931 Model D was unloaded and delivered to Beske Implement.
Once at the dealership, the tractor was “prepped” for delivery to the purchaser–John T. Goff, of Mapleton, Minnesota (1930 pop. 862). John T. Goff at that time operated a 240-acre farm south of Mapleton. The picturesque Goff farm was known in the surrounding neighborhood as “the farm with the round barn.” John (or “John T.” to friends and associates) had built the round barn to ease the task of feeding livestock. The milking cows were placed in stanchions in a circle in the barn. All calf pens were located in the center of the barn and hay was fed to the calves and cattle from the center of the barn. John T. tried to keep his farming operation as modern and as up-to-date as possible. His ambition was to have the most modern farming operation possible. These ambitions extended to his plans for the house where John T. lived with his wife, Dora, and his invalid mother, Augusta. They employed a nurse, Blanche Hayes, to help look after Augusta. To ease the burden of caring for Augusta, over the years John T. had added all of the latest conveniences to the house. The house on the Goff farm was one of the wonders of its day. In the pre-Rural Electric Cooperative (REA) days, it was an electrified house, accomplished by means of a gas-operated generator and batteries in the basement. Also, the house had a pressurized running water system, hot water, and a bathroom with a commode and bathtub!
John T. had purchased the John Deere D to perform all the plowing and heavy work on the farm, leaving the horses for the lighter jobs. Along with the 1931 Model D, John T. also purchased a three-bottom No. 5 plow with 14″ bottoms from Beske Implement. The new John Deere Model D was then put to work in the fields on the Goff farm, plowing with the new No. 5 plow.
The new tractor was also used for belt power. That same year, 1931, John T. together with his neighbor, Earnest More, who lived 32 miles to the northwest of the Goff farm, returned to Beske Implement to purchase a new PAPEC Model 127 silo filler. (See “The PAPEC Company Part II” in the January/February 1996 issue of Belt Pulley, p. 17.) As related in the above-cited article, the Deere and Webber Company was the statewide distributor for PAPEC as well as for John Deere. Thus, most John Deere dealerships serviced by Deere and Webber also carried the full line of PAPEC silo fillers. Beske Implement was no exception in this regard. When first purchased, the Model 127 silo filler was fitted with a large 16″ Rockwood pulley. The reason for this option was that the new John Deere D was intended as the primary power source for the silo filler. John Deere had designed its Model D with the belt pulley mounted directly on the crankshaft of the engine. Thus, the tractor pulley turned fast and delivered a high rate of feet per second to any belt-driven machine. Increasing the size of the belt pulley on the silo filler was a means by which the speed on the belt could be reduced to keep the silo filler within its normal operating range of 400-700 rpm. Later, when Earnest More purchased a Farmall F-20 which would then share duties on the belt of the silo filler, the large belt pulley would present no problems. The F-20, with its geared-down belt pulley, could be throttled up to allow the silo filler to operate at its proper speed. John T. and Earnest More not only filled their own silos, but did some custom silo filling for their neighbors to supplement their families’ income. The Model D transported the silo filler from farm to farm in the summer at its road speed of 33 mph. (C.H. Wendel, Nebraska Tractor Tests [Crestline Books: Osceola, Wisc. 1993], p. 60.) The tractor worked fine and continued its duties through 1932 and 1933.
John T. had ordered the two-speed Model D with the optional power take-off shaft in the rear. Although at the time John T. had no farm machinery which was power take-off driven, it was clear that he intended to use this third source of power for some new machinery that he had in mind to purchase; perhaps a new tractor-powered corn picker, tractor-powered corn binder, or a tractor-powered grain binder. Whatever his plans were, events would soon prevent John T from carrying out these plans. (Regular readers of the Belt Pulley will see a 1937 picture of John T. standing behind the 1931 John Deere D which is hitched to his converted horse-drawn Deering corn binder on page 20 of the January/February 1996 issue of the Belt Pulley. Even as late as 1937, there was no PTO driven machinery on the Goff farm.)
John T. was unable to continue improving his farming operation because of the deepening economic depression which brought corn prices down to 154 a bushel, hogs prices down to 54 per pound, and beef prices down to 2.54 per pound. (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933 [Boston, 1957] p. 175.) Furthermore, in 1933, his mother’s health continued to decline. Finally, John T. decided that he would have to retire to the town of Mapleton and rent out the farm. Thus, he began to inquire about a family that would be willing to rent his farm. Blanche Hayes, after being made aware of John T.’s intention to rent out his farm, told John T. of a family that she knew about that had been forced to move from the farm they had been renting for more than ten years. Blanche related that this family was now living on a farm two miles north of the unincorporated village of Huntley, Minnesota. This was the Howard B. and Ethel (Buck) Hanks family. Howard Hanks was the son of Jeanette (Ogilvie) Hanks, who, as noted above, had been among the first settlers in southern Minnesota. Indeed, Howard and Ethel and their family of five children had been forced to move from the “Foss” farm southwest of Winnebago in Verona Township on March 1, 1933, when that farm was sold to a new owner–another family who intended to operate the farm themselves.
Like so many farm families during the heart of the Great Depression, the Hanks family’s situation was becoming increasingly desperate. It made no difference how long a family had been living in an area, the economic depression could easily make hash of all your best-laid plans for the future, and you would soon find you and your family rootless with nowhere to turn. The Hanks family was currently renting the Slater farm that offered only a temporary reprieve. The Slater farm was owned by the First National Bank of Winnebago and they had rented it to Howard and Ethel for only one year–from March 1, 1933 until March 1, 1934–because the bank intended to sell the property. Come March 1, 1934, the family would again be homeless. Adding to the problems faced by Howard and Ethel was the accident in which a truck, speeding down the road past the Slater farm, struck one the family’s favorite horses–Old Jess–and killed her. Furthermore, Jess had been pregnant with a colt at the time, so it was a double loss. Indeed, this seemed to be the very bottom for the Hanks family. Things could hardly be worse. Nothing it seemed could be done to prevent the worst from happening. Seven-year-old daughter, Marilyn Hanks, saw her father cry one of the few times in his life, after the loss of Old Jess and the unborn colt. At another time during that summer, 10-year-old son, Fred, found his mother in the barn in the middle of the afternoon, sitting alone on the steps to the hayloft crying silently in despair. Indeed, a bus trip past the Slater farm in July of 1997–some 64 years later–would evoke tears from the children of Howard and Ethel at the memories which came flooding back of this heartbreaking time.
However, suddenly there was a change. One day during the summer of 1933, Ethel was kneeding dough for some bread she was making. She had been tormented by thoughts of hopelessness and had silently said a prayer–a plea for help. Then, there was a knock at the screen door of the kitchen. She turned around and saw “a most peculiar looking man” standing at the screen door. It was John T. Goff.
John T. had driven over to the Slater farm to contact Howard and Ethel to see if they would be interested in renting his farm. After visiting the Goff farm, Howard and Ethel readily agreed. The Hanks family would begin renting the Goff farm effective March 1, 1935. The Hanks family could hardly believe their eyes and ears. They would be moving into the large Goff farm house with all its modern conveniences. Furthermore, the Goff farm had a fine barn, silo, calf barn, chicken house, a smaller house for a hired man and his family, and other out buildings. Additionally, there was a full line of modern machinery, including the 1931 John Deere D and the new No. 5 three-bottom plow. For the next year, the family existed as best they could. However, their eyes were firmly fixed on March 1, 1935, when they would be able to move onto the Goff farm. Once established on the Goff farm, the two-speed John Deere D was employed by the Hanks family for the heavy farm duties, like plowing. Howard Hanks also kept up the arrangement John T. had made with Earnest More and supplemented the family income by doing custom silo filling in the neighborhood.
During these years, John T. continued to be involved in farming by regularly driving out to the farm in his 1929 Oldsmobile regularly to help out, especially during harvest season. However, he made less and less frequent trips to Beske Implement. Instead, Howard often made the trips to Beske Implement for repair parts and other purchases for the Goff farm.
Meanwhile, some changes had occurred in Minnesota Lake. G.A. and Lydia’s son, Woodrow Beske, had grown up and graduated from Minnesota Lake High School in June of 1930. He then enrolled at the University of Minnesota where he studied Business Administration. However, just as his father had years earlier become lonesome for the small town life of Minnesota Lake, so too did Woodrow. Consequently, upon graduation in June of 1934, Woodrow returned to Minnesota Lake, and on January 1, 1935, he accepted a position working in the Farmers National Bank.
Although his position at the Farmer’s National Bank kept Woodrow busy, more and more often he would help his father in the afternoon at the implement dealership. The help was definitely appreciated, because over the years, G.A. had become more and more involved in other community activities. G.A. became President of the Farmers National Bank, became active in the Minnesota Lake Community Club, was a life-long and active member of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, and served a number of terms as an elected member of the school board. As Woodrow became more intimately involved with his father’s business, he began to meet the regular customers that came in to the business. Oftentimes these customers were of a newer generation than those with whom G.A. had built up a relationship. Consequently, Woodrow–who currently lives in retirement in Mankato, Minnesota–still remembers Howard Hanks, whereas he does not remember John T. Goff, indicating that John T. Goff was probably an associate of G.A. Beske rather than Woodrow.
In the early 1930s, the John Deere Company began making short motion pictures for advertising and showing them at their State Fair exhibits in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and other midwestern states. The movies proved to be a very popular medium for advertising, and soon all the major farm machinery companies began making movies to advertise their products. Eventually, John Deere began offering the movies to dealerships for them to show. At first the movies were silent movies with subtitles. One of the silent movies produced by John Deere in 1934 was called “Four Sons” which dealt with the four grown sons of the fictional Martin family, gathering for a family reunion and talking about their experiences with new John Deere tractors and farm machinery. In 1935, John Deere produced “Partners,” its first sound-track movie. “Partners” continued the concept of centering the movies around a fictional family–this time the Sheppard family. Sound was a vast improvement. No longer would the audience have to read subtitles to understand what was being said. With the new dimension of sound and with the concept of a family plot, “Partners” was a real success. It attracted large crowds wherever it was shown. Consequently, in 1936, John Deere sought to repeat the success by producing a second Sheppard family film–“Sheppard and Son.” (These movies, including the 1934 silent film “Four Sons” and the 1935 movie “Partners,” are now available on VHS videotape from the Two Cylinder Club, P.O. Box 10, Grundy Center, Iowa 50638-0010, Tel.  345-6060.)
In 1936, John Deere began encouraging its dealerships to show its movies as part of an “open house” type of event held annually on a Saturday in February. This new advertising concept coincided with the mild revival in the economy which occurred in 1935-1936. Based largely on government spending, the economy seemed to be recovering. By 1936, net farm income had quadrupled from the level of 1933. This may not be saying a great deal, but, nonetheless, confidence had returned and “the smell of prosperity was in the air.” (William Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal [New York, 1963] p. 194.) However, in the spring of 1937, the Roosevelt Administration began to fear that the continued high level of government spending would cause inflation and damage the economic recovery. It was hoped that the private economy was sufficiently stimulated by public spending that government spending could be curtailed and the economic recovery would remain on track. Consequently, in June of 1937, the Roosevelt Administration drastically cut back funding of the Public Works Administration in the Interior Department, the Works Project Administration, and the other economic relief programs of the New Deal. However, the private economy was still too fragile to carry itself without help from the government, and by September of 1937, the economy once again headed into a recession. This downward turn became known as the “Roosevelt Depression.” Adding to the difficulty for the farming public was the bumper crop that was harvested in 1937. The bumper crop, of course, meant surpluses and low prices again. In early April 1938, President Roosevelt became convinced that the economic recovery was in real danger and once again started funding the relief programs as a way of priming the economy. This time it worked, or at least it bridged the gap until the declaration of war in Europe in September of 1939 when the demand for United States goods began to grow.
Meanwhile, Woodrow Beske was becoming involved in his father’s implement business during this period of time–a period which witnessed the optimism of the mid-1930s, the dashing of hopes for prosperity in 1937, the slow recovery until 1939, and then the final return of prosperity in 1941 when the United Sates entered the Second World War. It was an up-and-down, unstable time which tried the patience of all businessmen involved in selling farm machinery. For Beske Implement, the open houses every February were an important time to meet with their customers. Some years the John Deere movies would be shown at the Minnesota Lake School Auditorium and other years they would be shown in the second floor ballroom over the hardware store which would be converted into a make-shift movie theater. Free hot dogs and baked beans would also be offered as an added inducement to make the event a family affair. Following the end of the war in 1945, John Deere began officially designating the February open houses as John Deere Days, and John Deere Days become an annual institution across the nation at John Deere dealerships. The farm economy had improved substantially during the war, even though farm machinery sales had been restricted by rationing enforced by the government. At war’s end, when the rationing restrictions were lifted, the pent-up demand of the farming public created a boom in farm machinery sales which the equipment manufacturers were hard-pressed to meet.
On September 15, 1938, Woodrow married Grace Latourelle. In 1940, the young couple had their first son, Grant; in 1945 another son, Dwight, was born; and a third son, Curt, followed in 1951. In 1945, G.A. sold part of his interest in Beske Implement to his son, Woodrow, and the company became known as the G.A. Beske and Son Implement dealership. Woodrow left the bank at this point and went to work at the dealership on a full-time basis. G.A. Beske still remained active in the affairs of the Beske Implement dealership. After a life-long membership in the Minnesota Implement Dealers Association, the association honored G.A. in 1954 for his 50-year involvement in the implement business. On October 2, 1955, G.A. died at the age 78 years. Woodrow continued to operate the business himself until his second son, Dwight, came of age and began helping out, just as his father had done before him.
In 1974, Dwight bought out the entire dealership and, in 1981, moved it to the edge of town. However, the continuing tight competition of the farm machinery business as well as a period of inflation and fuel shortages caused termination of many farm equipment dealerships–Beske Implement being one of the casualties. At an auction conducted on December 18, 1991, by Gehling Auction Company, everything at the dealership was sold–even the used machinery. In the used machinery lot, a nondescript 1940 John Deere Model B tractor (Serial No. 83,894) was sold to Gerald Brocker of Ellendale, Minnesota. The history of this tractor involves another dealership and is a story that will be related in the future.