John P. Hiniker Story

Sand plant

John Hiniker's new Sand plant, 1942. Jim Gamble standing on top.

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Rt. 1, Box 139 Le Center, Minnesota 56057

I often wonder why my ancestors settled in southern Minnesota with its harsh winters and sometimes very hot, humid summers. But they say that our ancestors came to America to find a place just like back home. During the 1850s many German immigrants heard of southern Minnesota with its vast hardwood forests and fertile black soil, very similar to much of Germany. John Peter Hiniker from Bavaria (part of Germany) had heard of this area and decided this was where he would stake his claim. He more than likely came down the Minnesota River from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the bustling young town of Mankato, Minnesota. John Peter farmed northeast of Mankato on 80 acres in Lime Township, located within Blue Earth County. There he and his wife, Mary, raised eight children.

In 1881, Joe Hiniker was born to John Peter and Mary. Then in 1903, Joe and Barbara Wagner were united in marriage and moved to an 80-acre farm in Belle grade Township just north of Mankato. Joe was a hard-working and industrious man in all ways. He got down to the business at hand by starting a family. Eventually, the number of siblings would number 12: six boys and six girls. On April 20, 1916 John P. Hiniker was born to Joe and Barbara. John would grow up to inherit his father's work ethic and mechanical abilities.

Joe was raising a large family and was always on the lookout for ways he could earn more money to feed all those hungry mouths. In the early 1920s Joe began a mobile custom sawing business, sawing discarded railroad ties into suitable lengths to be used for firewood. He converted a 1910 Buick touring car into a railroad tie cutting sawing. The car frame was lengthened with a mandrel and saw blade mounted on the rear. It featured a power feed and fold-up elevator for piling up the sawed chunks. Joe traveled from St. Paul to Worthington, Minnesota, a distance of approximately 150 miles, each summer from May to October. He would be gone for up to three weeks at a time. During this time, he would eat and sleep in a bunk house that he pulled behind the car. This was very hard and rigorous work. Joe didn't like being gone from his family, so in 1930 he quit the tie sawing operation. (John still has the 1910 Buick car engine and saw rig.) Joe and his son Harold then decided to go into the turkey raising business. Each year the turkeys would be fattened for market and then shipped by truck to Chicago; this operation lasted until 1936.

In 1936 Joe bought 160 acres of river-bottom land on the north side of the Minnesota River in what is now North Mankato. At first Joe farmed the land, but after plowing the land, Joe noticed that he was turning up gravel. After investigating, Joe decided to start a gravel pit. During this time the boys were helping out wherever help was needed. John was running the farm while his dad Joe was working the sand and gravel pit. In 1940 John decided he wanted to get into the gravel business with his father. It soon became clear this was going to be no ordinary gravel pit. Being on the low riverbottom land, the water table was quite high, within a few feet of the top. As the men dug gravel out of the hole, the remaining void began to fill with water, so now what to do?

A method was derived for retrieving gravel from the watery depth. It was called the slack line cable way method. It consisted of a cable anchored at the far side of the pond and then attached atop a 70 foot mast on the opposite side of the pond. The dredge bucket was attached to the main cable by means of a trolley. A second cable was attached to the front of the bucket and ran up to the top of the mast also, and then both cables ran down to the ground to a stationary power unit and double winch. Both cables were controlled by the winch. When the cables were left to go slack, the bucket would drop into the water to the bottom of the pond and the second cable would pull it forward along the bottom, filling it with gravel. It then would be lifted out of the water and brought ashore to be dumped onto the stockpile.

John, however, was not spending 24 hours a day thinking about sand and gravel. In 1941 John married Ann Neubert, daughter of Joe Neubert, a North Mankato carpenter. They set up housekeeping a short distance from the gravel pit.

In 1942, because of the high demand for washed gravel used in the making of concrete, John built a small gravel wash plant. The pond was an excellent source for water which was pumped into the wash plant and then recycled back into the pond. When the wash plant was completed, the dredge bucket then dropped its load of gravel directly into the top of the wash plant.

Shortly after the new plant was finished, John received his draft notice for WWII. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the Navy Sea Bees on December 6, 1942. He left behind his wife and 41/2 month old son, John Jr. John was sent to Camp Perry, Virginia, which was the naval construction training center. One of the first days John was there, one of the officers in charge of his group asked if there were any guys from Minnesota who knew how to saw lumber. Of course, John had always heard that you never volunteer for anything in the service. No one volunteered. So, that night John got to thinking about it and thought why would they want someone who knew anything about sawing lumber? He did know something about sawing lumber, as his brother Elmer had a sawmill back home. John thought to himself that it might be a good idea to check into the sawmill offer the next day. So he did. After talking to the officer about the proposal, John was immediately put in charge of the camp sawmill. For once it paid to volunteer. For the next 22 months John sawed thousands of board feet of lumber, used mostly for boardwalks within the camp. Other tours of duty while in the Navy included assignments in California, and for the last six months of the war he was stationed in Okinawa. At both locations John operated heavy equipment, which would give him more skills to bring home to his sand and gravel operation. John was discharged in 1945 and returned home to his wife and son. John and Ann were to have one more child, a daughter, Frances, born in 1947.

After the war thousands of men returned home to farms, and southern Minnesota was no exception. With these young men came ideas of bettering their farming operations. Many bought their own farms and wanted to improve their grain and livestock operations. Improvement meant spending money in the form of, possibly, a new cement stave silo, a new building with concrete footings and cement block walls, or even a new concrete feeding platform for hogs or cattle. For all the concrete that was to be poured, it needed three basic ingredients sand, gravel and cement and John could provide two of them. Also the Mankato and North Mankato area was growing. Being a county seat town, with many schools, a college, and much industry within its city limits, the demand for John's products mushroomed.

In 1946 John's father retired and John bought the business, supplying area farmers, contractors, road builders, and his brother Harold's block and tile plant with washed sand and gravel and pit-run products.

The old 1942 vintage wash plant was becoming overloaded and could not keep up to the demand for the washed gravel product. By 1949 John had another idea. He decided on the Sauer man drag scraper method of retrieving gravel from his watery pit. This method consisted of a dead man post anchored at the far side of the pond with a pulley on top. A cable was strung around this pulley, back across the pond to a stationary engine powered winch. In essence, it was an endless cable similar to a drive belt powering a sawmill. Then to this cable was attached a scraper type looking device similar to a small earth moving scraper without wheels. With the endless cable type operation, the winch would power the scraper in both directions. Each scraper full of gravel would be dragged on shore and dumped into a hopper. At the same time, John decided to upgrade his wash plant. John built from scratch many of the parts needed for his new wash plant. A belt conveyor was used to transfer the gravel from the bottom of the hopper to the top of the new wash plant. This whole new operation greatly improved his output, and John was able to keep up with the demand for washed gravel. This same basic operation was used by John up until the mid 1970s. By this time in the 1970s, one million cubic yards of gravel had been removed with the pond covering 18 acres and on the average 18 feet deep.

In 1952 John became interested in flying. After the coaxing of a friend, John took flying lessons and received his pilot's license. He flew several planes during the time he had his pilot's license, which was from 1952-1967. The planes he flew included a Cessna 170, Globe Swift, and a Cessna 172. John enjoyed flying over the scenic Minnesota River valley and the lush green cropland which surrounded the river on both sides. He flew for both recreation and business, sometimes flying out of state to look at some piece of construction equipment.

The sand and gravel business demanded that John devote a lot of time and energy to the business. But John always had an appreciation for the early agricultural tractors, especially the John Deere model D. He knew of one sitting south of Mankato in rough condition. At this point in time John got to thinking that maybe he should kick back a little and do something fun for a change. John bought the 1928 John Deere D in 1965, and little did he know that it would start a hobby for him that would last a lifetime. After getting the John Deere restored, John was visiting with his friend John (Jack) Klaseus, who was also starting to get bitten by the tractor restoring bug. Both Johns knew of a huge 35-70 Minneapolis gas tractor parked in a pasture west of Mankato. Jack approached the owners, Lyle and Al Seppman, who told Jack the story of their father who bought the tractor new in 1921 and drove it home from Lewisville. The tractor had been used for custom threshing, powering a huge 40 inch cylinder Minneapolis threshing machine. John and Jack were able to strike up a deal with the Seppmans and were then the proud owners of the machine. It was no small task getting the eleven ton, eight foot high steel wheeled tractor home to John's shop. Once in the shop it was completely dismantled down to the bare frame. Major engine work was required to get it back into running condition. With the two men's expertise, the job was accomplished right down to the bells and whistles (literally).

From then on John Hiniker began to collect and restore many old farm tractors, steam engines, and crawler tractors. Some of the machines that John has restored include: 80 Case, 50 Case, and 25 Minneapolis steam engines; 60, D7, D6, RD6 Cats and T-20 IHC crawler; and at least 20 other tractors including Case cross motor, OilPull, 39-57 Minneapolis, 10-20 Titan, Fordson, Rock Island, Oliver Hart-Parr, five model D John Deeres, and various IH tractors, plus several gas engines and various machines. John's restored machines have graced the covers of Gas Engine Magazine, Iron Men Album, and Red Power Magazine.

One of John's problems of restoring tractors in the 1960s was the fact that no one was supplying the proper decals for these old tractors. John recalls on one of his parts-hunting trips that he stopped at an International Harvester dealer in Rogers, Minnesota. There on the shelf he noticed an envelope with 10-20 IHC tractor decals inside, the last original set the dealer had and no more available. John bought the set and located a printing company in Minneapolis who would duplicate the decals. At that time John had sets made up for the 10-20 and 15-30 IH tractors. This is another of John's endeavors that would follow him well into his retirement. Today John supplies decal sets for over 70 models of tractors and crawlers. John advertises his decals in several of the national antique tractor magazines. Thousands of decal sets have been sent all over the U.S., Canada, England and Australia.

In the 1960s and early '70s, Lower North Mankato began what we now call 'urban sprawl' and John's pond was beginning to be surrounded by homes. It was also becoming more difficult and more expensive each year to get the permits needed to run his gravel business. In 1975 the city officials of Mankato approached John and offered to purchase his property from him. John was nearly 60 years old at the time and the offer was good so John decided to sell. The city gave him three years to vacate the property and by 1978 not a trace of sand and gravel business remained. John watched as the city transformed his once thriving gravel business into a 38 acre recreational park. The pond is used by thousands of people each summer for swimming and fishing. John's pond is now called the 'Hiniker Park Pond.' Today John keeps a watchful eye on the happenings at the pond from his home overlooking the park.

As John's hobby of restoring tractors progressed, he learned of several antique tractor shows in the area. In 1977 he attended the Le Sueur Pioneer Power Show held on the Dave Preuhs farm located seven miles east of Le Sueur, Minnesota. 1977 marked the first year of existence for the Pioneer Power Show, although it had been held three years prior, just as a neighborhood gathering. John eventually joined the association and over the years has been instrumental in helping with major projects taken on by Pioneer Power. He helped with the setting and restoration of a large stationary steam engine donated to the club by a creamery in Luck, Wisconsin. John donated a large 125 HP Kewanee boiler to be used to supply steam to this engine plus several more that the club now owns. He built and installed the 40 foot smokestack for this boiler using the 1/2 yard Unit shovel with crane attachment that he donated to the club. This is the very shovel he used in his gravel business during the 1940s. John worked many hours, along with several fellows, on the huge 65 ton three-cylinder McIntosh-Seymour diesel engine that was donated by the city of Le Sueur from its power plant. When the club was donated a 50 HP Case traction engine, John was the one who volunteered to restore it, and the list goes on. John's tractor collection now resides at the Pioneer Power show grounds.

A highlight for John was when Pioneer Power hosted the summer convention of the national Historical Construction Equipment Association in 1996. Construction equipment enthusiasts from all over the U.S., Canada, and overseas converged on Pioneer Power for a weekend of watching and working with all kinds of antique construction equipment. John could be seen working with his 1/2 Unit shovel just as he had some 50 years earlier in his own yard.

John gives tirelessly of his talents and efforts to promote the hobby that he loves and the old machines he knew and worked with. Now 82 years old, John rarely misses a monthly Pioneer Power meeting. He continues to be a wealth of information for the rest of us interested in restoring antique machinery.