Monday, August 30, 2004


On Thursday of last week I spent a fair part of the day visiting with Karl Elder, Fessler Professor of Creative Writing and Poet in Residence at Lakeland College, getting a tour of the campus, meeting the school's president and the vice-president of academic affairs, seeing the room I'll be teaching in this fall, Room 26 in Old Main. Karl is the fellow who put my name out as the one to teach Writing Creative Nonfiction this fall for Lakeland's writing department. Karl and I had corresponded twenty-five or thirty years ago when I was publishing Margins: A Review of Little Magazines & Small Press Books, and sporadically since then - most recently when I accepted a poem of his this summer for this past Saturday's "Saturday's Poem" feature. Karl took me out to lunch as part of my visit, too - thanks, Karl! We had twenty five or thirty years of news to catch up on, so neither of us was in any particular hurry to move along.

At every turn on campus I felt warmly welcomed, whether I was at the Library finding out how to put materials on reserve for my students or was in one office getting the roster of fourteen students I'll be teaching or in another office getting the Faculty/Staff Parking Permit I'll need. Without fail the people I met said "glad to have you aboard." They said it warmly, they meant it, and I felt welcomed.

I have to tell you, too, it takes an Iowa farm boy's breath away to see his name on the ol' course list: Montag, T. WRT 304 Writing Creative Nonfiction. M-W-F 1:25 p.m. 3 cr.

As you might imagine, for the past several weeks I have been hard at work preparing my lessons for the course. At the moment I'm ready with seventeen of them, out of forty. I have divided the semester into four main areas of study: (1) Writing about self/Memoir; (2) Writing about others/Profile; (3) Writing about place; and (4) Writing about process, event, or day-in-the-life. In addition, I will be discussing a range of topics, tools, and techniques that support the writing of good creative nonfiction: keeping a writer's journal; "learning to see;" story shapes/frame; central metaphor or image or theme or arc; endings; beginnings; people/places/scenes; interviewing; dialogue; overheard conversation; characterization; place as setting; telling in scenes; imagery; time; transitions; description; point of view; voice; language; mood; memory; imaginative research; humor; and revision. I wake up every morning wondering what I have left out. If you see anything that's missing from my list, let me know. We'll shoe-horn it in somehow. As I say, I've got seventeen lessons prepared, but already I feel like I have six weeks more material than I have time available.

I'll be teaching a course in how "to write" creative nonfiction, yes; but more than that I hope to teach the students how "to read" creative nonfiction, so they can see exactly how it has been constructed, which tools and techniques have been employed, how the seams have been soldered. If I can succeed in teaching them to read in this way, I think I will have taught them how to teach themselves. And that's always what the best teachers teach, isn't it - don't they teach you how to teach yourself?

As I told Karl on Thursday, the students will have to work hard in the course - very hard, I expect.

Yet I envy them, the fourteen students who will be circling around me at that first class on Wednesday, September 8. They will have an enthusiastic and supportive teacher, one who wishes that, when he was in college many long years ago, someone would have shown him exactly what I'll be showing them. That wouldn't have made me a "writer," necessarily; but the guidance sure would have made learning to write a lot easier in the long run.


June 16, 2004 - continued

I have been visiting LTM Manufacturing, four miles south of Smith Center; LTM makes components for the RV (Recreational Vehicle) market. I have been speaking with Todd Haven who manages Operations at the company. LTM was founded and developed by Mike Nebel, formerly president of Excel/Peterson Industries, but it has since been sold to Lippert Industries.

Even with the Lippert affiliation, Todd indicates, each plant is still responsible for its own sales. "Corporate takes care of mass advertising, but we're in charge of our own area. When they bought us, we already had a large customer-base in Indiana, which we kept."

Todd projects that "we're going to be more of an assembly place." The parent company "talks numbers," and things don't feel as "personal" as they used to. "We started out catering to the small guys," Todd says, "and Lippert is interested in the big orders. We still try to take care of the small customer. If you cater just to the big ones, you allow someone else to get started taking care of the small customers."

LTM's founder, Mike Nebel, is the company's salesman. Nebel is also in charge of research and development and new products. Part of what Lippert bought when they bought LTM was some of Nebel's patents.

"The people out in the shop have been here four or five years," Todd says of the workforce. "They know what has to be done. They don't have to be governed a lot. When we write up the order, we write up the invoice for pricing, the packing slip for shipping the finished product, and the workorder showing what needs to be done. Employees know what parts need to be made, what needs to be assembled. They shear it, punch it, bend it, paint it, assemble it, send it to shipping."

A typical workload in the plant?

"This week twelve orders are due on Friday," Todd says. "Thursday and Friday are our busiest days. Monday has three orders. We'll usually have ten to twenty orders shipping each day Tuesday through Thursday."

We have one woman who does our billing and backorders," Todd says. "She works three days a week. And we have one woman who does payroll, material purchase orders, and secretarial work. Everybody else is manufacturing."

Todd's main responsibility is plant operations but he also helps with plant management and handles purchasing, pricing, bill of materials, and "I take care of problems. It all kind of runs together. I even take calls for parts orders and warranty problems in the field."

Todd spent most of his childhood at Cedar, Kansas, about ten miles southwest of Smith Center. "I moved away from there when I went to college," he says, "and worked for UPS sorting packages after midnight while I was in school, and later worked as a driver for them. Mike convinced me to come to Smith Center when he was president of Peterson Industries [Excel]. When he sold his interested in Peterson, we moved out here and gave it our own shot."

"We're about as big as we're going to get," Todd thinks. The 24,000 square foot facility is bounded on all sides - by the golf course, the highway, the creek, so there is "no room to grow."

"We had forty-eight employees at one point, when we built everything from scratch," Todd says, compared to the thirty-eight employees currently. "Lippert wants to see more outsourcing. We reduced our workforce by attrition, not by pushing anybody out. Mike likes to see jobs created."

Todd describes the company's founder as "a very giving person. He gave production bonuses. We still have them, but not like they used to be. And when he sold the company, for Christmas he gave all the employees a bonus from himself personally, not from Lippert, as a thank-you for helping him build the company."

To be continued....


AUGUST 28, 1998

Rainy last evening. A cool, gray morning - late light and sluggish birds.

Sometimes, when I'm passing through some town while traveling, I almost think they create the particular experience for me - the slap of water against the boats tied up at the pier, the discussion by two locals in the ice cream shop about Mrs. Mahler's trip to the hospital, the unbearable politeness of the youngsters in the grocery store. Then I realize that this is no "experience" for them, this is their life.

At that, I wonder what people see as they come through this village. What sense of us do they take away with them? Did they have a tourist experience of us?

Sometimes I think I'm having a tourist's experience of life. I stand back a lot, and watch from a distance, don't I? I look at everything I do and everything done to me as a potential sentence, line, paragraph. It is the physicist's quandary - how do you watch without changing what you watch, record it without shaping it to something else? How do you watch it without being changed by it and changing it accordingly?

A kind of musk in the morning air that would make pioneers say this area is not healthy and we should be moving on - heavy, moist, vegetable, end-of-summer decay. That kind of air, this morning.

Some villager somewhere is out working in front of his garage, tinkering with something as he usually is. You should not wish to tell another's secret, but you believe he is outside to get away from a nagging wife. He is an old man and has no intention of divorcing the woman. His accommodation is to get away whenever possible. He tinkers and does odd jobs.

As I head north on Highway E, there is moisture spattering the windshield - that's how thick the air is. The farmsteads in the distance disappear into a gray roll of sky. It's not fog exactly, it is air so thick it obscures the vision.

There are fields of corn - they must be field corn - starting to turn. Another field of sweet corn has been taken; rough litter is all that's left.

North of Five Corners, sitting on a telephone wire, a pair of mourning doves look wet and unhappy, quiet as the hidden sun.

Saturday, August 28, 2004


by Karl Elder

This guy must
think he's got guts,
the rush and gust

of a pickup truck
honking at a wedding party
poised to cross on the steps of the church.

My wife and I pull over at the edge of town
to cut his dust
as much as to switch off.

The wind says wow
in cedar and birch
like a quiet caterwaul.

What lay ahead or, for that matter, lies
are behind me now.
Now, arrival is everything,

Karl Elder lives in Howards Grove, Wisconsin, where he is Poet in Residence at the nearby Lakeland College. Elder is a Pushcart Prize recipient included in The Best American Poetry series. His fifth book, The Geocryptogrammatist’s Pocket Compendium of the United States, is available from Several of his poems are archived at Poetry Daily [] and Beloit Poetry Journal [].


I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About seventeen of them, by our current count.

o Harriet Brown, "Speaking Midwestern" and "Where We Went" -
July 10, 2004
o Robin Chapman, "By the Wisconsin River" -
June 12, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" -
May 22, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Bright Waterfall of Angels" -
August 14, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" -
June 5, 2004
o Karla Huston, "Night Swim" and "Summer Storm" -
July 31, 2004
o Loren Kleinman, "Formaggio" and "Jetsam" -
July 24, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" -
May 15, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" -
May 29, 2004
o John Rezmerski, "What I Am Trying to Tell You: Prairie in My Mouth" and "Some Good Things Left After the War With the Sioux" - August 21, 2004

o Robert Schuler, "Thaw, 2003, Stanton Township" and "The American Millenium" - June 26, 2004
o Judith Strasser, "Apostle Islands History" and "County Road" -
July 17, 2004
o Marilyn Taylor, "Surveying the Damage" -
June 19, 2004
o Complete index to poems here

Friday, August 27, 2004


Phil Hey is one of the featured readers on Saturday at the South Dakota Book Festival in Sioux Falls. We'll take copies of the book of his I've just published, How It Seems To Me: New & Selected Poems; Phil will read; I'll make sure people have a chance to purchase one of his books. We'll attend some readings and discussions by other middlewestern writers I admire: Phil Dacey, David Allan Evans, Jeanne Emmons, William Kloefkorn, David Picaske, Linda Hasselstrom, and others.

I'll put up "Saturday's Poem" tomorrow, August 28, if I can gain access to a computer; or on Sunday, August 29, when I return.

I'll be back to blogging as usual on Monday, August 30th.



Last night all three of the finalists for Poet Laureate of Wisconsin - John Lehman, Denise Sweet, and myself - got an e-mail from Cathryn Cofell-Mustschler, chair of the Poet Laureate Commission, saying: "I know by now you are ready to throw a book at us for the LONG delay. Please forgive and trust that we are very near to the end of the process. Governor Doyle does have the recommendation and has promised us a decision within the next couple of weeks, so please be patient just a bit longer!"

The purpose of the e-mail, in addition to urging patience, was to inform us that "In the interim, we are beginning to plan for a reception to honor all three of you, and Ellen Kort [retiring Poet Laureate of Wisconsin], to be held at the Governor's residence some time in October...."

Though waiting for the Governor's announcement is just about killing me, I'll be patient a bit longer. The Great Wheel turns; I'm booked for the full ride. Whatcha gonna do?


June 16, 2004

It's Wednesday morning. I'm at the Second Cup Cafe at 8:00 a.m. again, sitting where the As the Bladder Fills Club gets filled. Ivan Burgess is saying: "I've got to work today. She hasn't called me in weeks and she called me this morning and wants me to come in. Well, when you're poor, you go in when she calls. There's not much I can do about it except complain to my wife."

One of the other fellows says: "We're thinking you're gonna complain to us til 9:00 a.m."

Ivan: "I can't do that. I've got to take Momma to her hair appointment at ten minutes to nine."

Other fellow: "Good. Then you can't be complaining to us."

Later Ivan calls out to a red-headed high school girl who is over at the pastry counter with another girl. He says "Rachel. Rachel."

He says louder: "Hey, Burgess!"

The girl comes over to stand next to Ivan. Her name is Burgess but she is not relation to Ivan - which is obvious because she's good-looking. She is also a basketball player.

"Every day I want you to practice fifty shots with your right hand, and fifty shots with your left hand," Ivan says.

"And another thing," he says. "Out on the basketball court, you're too nice. I want you to be mean out there. You can be a nice girl, but on the basketball court, be mean. I mean it. Now remember: fifty shots every day with each hand. And be mean."

The girl smiles and puts up with it. You can tell she's been well brought up. And perhaps it's not the first time she's had to take advice from Ivan. He's not shy about saying what he thinks. But she listens politely, then when he's done she goes back to the business of getting herself a sweetroll.

After she's left Ivan says: "That girl could score thirty points a game but she passes the ball too much. You should be a team player, but sometimes being a team player means taking the shot. She's just too nice out there."


LTM Manufacturing stands south of Smith Center about four miles, abutting the community's golf course. Like Excel's plant, this one appears unassuming on the outside, with all manner of work going on within.

Mike Nebel founded LTM in 1996; he had formerly been president of Excel but he and that company had parted ways.

Todd Haven has been with LTM since its founding. In fact, in the early days, the company was Mike Nebel and Todd Haven. Those are the roots from which the manufacturer has grown. Todd manages operations at LTM and assists with plant management.

LTM builds a variety of slide mechanisms for rooms that slide out of RVs, as well as slide-out battery trays, storage trays, and LP trays for the RV industry. In addition the company has been making stabilizer jacks. The company sells to firms in Indiana, to Northwood Manufacturing in Oregon which makes the Monaco Coach ("the million dollar motorhome"), and to another manufacturer in Kansas which makes the HitchHiker.

Nebel's company was bought from him by Lippert Components, Todd tells me. The association with Lippert brings "marketing clout. We are Plant #41. They have a huge piece of the pie in the RV market."

"Their main business was building frames for mobile homes, and then for RV manufacturers," Todd says of the parent company. "Now, with us, they are trying to break into the accessory side of the RV market."

One item that LTM makes for Doubletree RV is a storage tray that slides out either side of the RV to 66% of its length. The company also makes a mechanism for a bed that folds up to reveal storage space at the foot end; and folds up, too, at the other end so you can sit up and watch TV in bed. The whole bedroom slides in and out on the LTM slide mechanism.

King of the Road has a web site that shows LTM's patio deck which slides under the fifth wheel trailer when not in use, and slides out when you need a place to sit that's up and out of the mud and dirt.

LTM makes a "jumbo" slide for a fourteen-foot room on a trailer. It makes smaller systems. And now it fashions mechanisms for slide-outs of pick-up-sized campers.

There are thirty eight employees at the plant. Most employees come from Smith County, Todd says, "and some of them are farmers. Farmers have a good work ethic. Right now we have a good group. Whenever we've had problems, it seems those people came from out of the area or out of state."

"A farmer knows how to figure it out," Todd says. "Most of them already know how to weld, they know electric motors and hydraulics. It's easy to teach them. They already have an idea what's going on."

To be continued....


AUGUST 27, 1998

The chiffon sky of the early morning has evaporated - it's clear air, now, and blue sky, the long lay of sunlight. A peacefulness in the village I don't think you'd find in the city, a morning's quiet meditation before the work day breaks loose here. I enjoy the peacefulness of it. I'm sure there are others who would be bored to tears with so much as a week of these days. Part of what you get from a place is what you make of it. If you want to think you need more you will believe this is not enough. I was born to such a pace. I wonder if someone else, out of a more hectic background, could grow to love this leisurely amble of a day?

Moisture on the windshield. Perhaps the chiffon is not yet entirely gone from the sky - there is a light gauze of haze yet in the distance. The morning is bright in spite of it.

In downtown Fairwater, Laper's Garage is open and ready for business; the flags are flying at the Post Office; the lights are on at Stellmachers' lumberyard. All is right with the world.

Driving home from work last night I saw a hawk - it was perched south a mile from the usual place, on the other side of the road. Was it our hawk?

Half the field of beets is still in the ground. The leaves on the plants are turning more and more rusty.

Remember - if it's not what you want, you can't be sure anybody will want it.

Thursday, August 26, 2004


I have been interviewing Troy Lorenzen from Smith County Implement, the John Deere dealer in Smith Center, Kansas. We've been talking about small rural communities - the challanges, the opportunities.

"There are probably people in the community who have never been out of Kansas," Troy suggests, "who are out of touch with the larger world, who have never thought outside the box."

"Everyone," he says, "should go to a Broadway show, should dig a ditch, should put shingles on a house - see some other part of life."

"I wouldn't ask an employee to do anything I wouldn't do," he says.

Everyone needs to have culture in their lives - and he means both Broadway shows and ditch-digging.

"We should see things our parents haven't seen," Troy says. "Our children should see things we haven't. I went to New York City two years ago. I didn't want to go. We went for a wedding. We were there for seven days. I was intrigued. If I had it to do again, I'd spent a year in New York City right after college. You can sit in a New York City subway and see the guy in the $1000 Armani suit, and people dressed in everything else. What they had in common was pride in what they were doing."

"You need pride in a community," he says. "Our daughter went to New York with us. It's amazing what her eyes saw. From her level she saw different things than I saw. She brought something back to Smith Center that few people in her class will have the opportunity to see."

"The community needs to be diverse," Troy says. "It needs something to offer to everyone. But you get wound up going a hundred miles an hour and you don't get to do everything you should."

How would you describe the people of this area?

They have "a high level of integrity," Troy said. "How many places can you make a $100,000 deal with the shake of a hand. There is trust here, integrity."

"People are loyal," he says, "and at the same time clannish - this is my group. We all have some of that. The difference belongs to those who can overcome it, who get new people into the inner circle."

"Phillipsburg has more industry that Smith Center," Troy says, "but they face the same issues. It just hasn't hit there as hard yet."

"My customer base here looks mainly at cropping," he says. "In Phillipsburg, they are more concerned about livestock. The difference between crops versus livestock - I can draw the line at a specific county road, the Agra to Kirwin road. You have to put a different hat on to work with the people on the other side of that road - they have different needs. Over there we have to specialize in livestock - herd management - instead of crop management."

The Agra to Kirwin road is right on the 99th Meridian, by the way, for those of you aware that I define the western edge of the middle west at the 100th Meridian.

"My wife's father was an attorney," Troy says. "Her mother taught in a community college. My wife knew nothing of agriculture. She was anxious to learn about this business. She's married to the biggest farmer in the area, and to the smallest farmer; to the most efficient farmer, and the least efficient. I deal with them all. She needs an understanding of what I do, and what I have to do."

"My business is providing solutions," Troy says. "Overhaul is one of the choices. It's not just about selling equipment. You have to be part equipment salesman, part mind-reader, part therapist."

What brings him joy in his work?

"What brings the smile to my face," he says, "is when I got out and get a guy started and he's happy with what he got, and satisfied with it."

"As an equipment dealer," Troy says, "my direction has to change to meet the customer's needs. My sense of it be different next week, it will be different next year - what are the needs?"

"It's not the sale," he says, "so much as solving the problem."

"There are wonderful opportunities here that my children will be able to enjoy," Troy says. "There are also opportunities they will miss out on growing up here. But the positives overwhelm the negatives. You can go see some of those other things, but then you can come back to what we've got here."

"The fast-pace commuting through a city, you can't get that here," he says. "But you can take your kids there and teach them to be aware of their surroundings, teach them that not everyone will be your friend. But then you can bring them back here where it's safe."

"We need to give our children the opportunity to see that there is more to life than just this spot on the map," he says. "The lack of those experiences can make them adults who are narrow-minded and have difficulty functioning in society."


AUGUST 26, 1998

What is shelter? Shelter is protection from the elements, something between me and where I am. It can be as thin as a piece of sail cloth put up for a tent; it can be as thick as the walls of a sod house. We speak of the sheltering mountains, sometimes, when they interrupt a storm headed east; we speak of the sheltering trees. But mostly shelter is house or cabin or tent - a wall between us and the other of the land around us.

Mary's mother was born into the shelter of a sod house on the cold plains of Montana, north of Malta, within walking distance of the Canadian border. I was born into a drafty farm house in the corn country of Iowa - protected each winter by a row of straw bales set two layers high. Some others were born into high and mighty mansions which have about as much relation to shelter as a Corvette convertible has to basic transportation.

We are glad for the shelter, of course. The women folk among the settlers moving to the Waupaca area in 1850 were certainly glad to have the big covered wagon to ride in by day and to curl up in for sleep at night.

House - just plain house - by itself has become more than "shelter." It is status symbol, emblem of success, a marker that separates me from thee, mine from thine, my worth from your worthlessness.

The very environment around our shelters, actually, protects us. The earth, even at its extremes, is the hospitable planet; consider staking a tent on Mars or Mercury.

Dew, this morning. Long shadows. A cool blue sky. Go away far enough and you're gone and come back.

Garbage cans have been set out for weekly pick-up. Think about Fairwater the way an anthropologist thinks about the world.

Finally - a field of sweet corn has been harvested from the west side of Highway E, just south of where the hawk should be, adjacent to the field where the canning factory keeps its harvesting equipment this year.

You can see a little haze in the light to the east - it is the kind of day you surely would put in your pocket, to exchange for next January 12th, let's say, when the sky is not anywhere near so pleasant. Now - hold yourself to that prediction!

At Five Corners, I look to the northwest. A thin smear of cloud, like a trail of smoke. It might indeed be smoke, I just couldn't prove it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


If rural America has an optimistic face with a realistic outlook, it belongs to Troy Lorenzen. Troy is the manager and a part-owner of Smith County Implement, the John Deere dealer at the west edge of Smith Center along Highway 36.

"I'm here by accident," Troy admits. "My wife grew up in a town of about 25,000 people. I grew up in a town of about 2,000 a few miles from there. We met each other in college. I got a degree in industrial technology with specialties in metallurgy and power mechanization. We moved here thinking this would be a short-term deal. I'd get some experience and - bam - move on to some place else."

"Now we joke," Troy says. "I ask my wife if she wants to move to a big town. She says No!"

Troy's wife, Susan, teaches school in Smith Center.

"I think it does take a village to raise a child," Troy says.

"I have this bond with customers here," he says. "I look at them as friends. I'm here to help them."

"My dad grew up on a farm," Troy says, "but he worked for a construction company. My mom worked for a bank."

"I could have worked at the construction company my dad worked for," he says, "but I wanted to put my own mark on the world. At fourteen, I started working at John Deere in my home-town. Now I'm part owner of two dealerships - this and Phillips County Implement in Phillipsburg."

"We have two children who like it here," he says.

"For most folks," Troy says, "Smith Center is their circle of the world. I live in Smith Center but I'm part of multiple communities. I bring a lot of neighboring communities here."

"I like to accomplish things myself," he says. "I don't look to others. I want to be self-sufficient."

"We belong to the Smith Center Chamber of Commerce," he says, "but we belong to the Chamber of Commerce in other communities too. Because I'm so busy, most of my contribution to the Chamber is financial."

"I try to do things for the schools, too," he says. "I'll take out ads in their publications, to put my business in front of them. I'll take an ad in the Kensington yearbook as well. We try to participate there, too."

"Yeah," Troy admits, "my relationship to this place is probably different than that of those who are born here, because I chose it."

"Where I grew up in southwest Kansas, I saw a larger community sucking the life out of my hometown. I came here with my eyes open. I can stand outside the box. There's an adage that things are greener on the other side of the box. I've been other places and know that's not always the case."

"I see opportunities," he says. "Cattle prices are at record highs. Grain prices are favorable. We've been going through a drought that would rival the 1930s yet we don't have the dust storms of the 1930s. Farmers are much smarter, much better stewards of the land."

"Last year," Troy says, "our sales were off drastically, down over a million dollars. That has made me a better business person. It makes me pay attention to details. It's easy to herd cattle when they're going the direction you're going. I challenge people to move forward when things aren't going well. I want to move forward."

Troy attributes the loss in sales to the drought. "Last year," he says, "everything after the good wheat crop went to hell in a hand-basket."

"Things have rebounded now," he says. "There are opportunities in agriculture. The main variable is rainfall. We don't have the water to irrigate."

The challenges that Smith Center faces?

"The answer is the same as it was fifty years ago," Troy says. "We want more people in the community. The question is: how do we get them here?"

"My customers are getting bigger," Troy says. "They want it faster, better, and more efficiently. And they are buying more now than thirty years ago, in terms of real dollars."

"More, more, more," he says. "Once you are in it, if you are not going forward you are going backward."

Where does his growth come from?

"From Mom & Pop operations going out of business," he admits. "There are fewer, bigger John Deere dealerships now. One dealership may have several locations."

If more people is what you need, how do you get them to come here?

"That's the million dollar question," Troy says. "First, you need to retain what you have. Next, the quality of life here is not well enough depicted to people. We should sell quality of life. Third, we should capitalize on our workforce. Our work ethic is good. These people have a drive to get the job done. There must be work in the big corporations that could be done here, and done cheaper because the cost of living is less. The cost of real estate would be cheaper. The bottom line of corporations would be helped."

"Communities need to take a little risk," he says. "It's tough to control your destiny without taking risk. Build an office building. Invite business in rent-free for three years, with a note for them to buy after that. Instead, we ask 'Who's gonna put a business in Smith Center, Kansas.'"

"Self-reliance," he says. "We can't depend on someone to come in on a white horse and rescue us. It's not gonna happen."

"There'll be continual attrition in the number of farmers," Troy believes, "yet they'll be farming the same total acres. Those customers will be even more demanding than they are today."

Troy thinks the community is "segmented, with different outlooks and attitudes about life."

One segment is "progressive, willing to take their future in their own hands."

Next, "we have some pessimists. The earth is going to open up and swallow us up. We'll never make it."

And, finally, "there's a segment of people sitting on their porches waiting for the buy in the white horse to rescue them."

"In twenty-five years," Troy says, "only the first group will be left."

To be continued....


AUGUST 25, 1998

We do not have any more power over the selection of our neighbors than did the settlers in the 1850s on the Big Nemaha River at Tucumseh in Nebraska territory. You staked your claim, and whoever staked a claim nearby - and kept it - was your neighbor. Which would bring you joy, or not.

Many of the pioneers there were single men. As a result, the women on the prairie had to search each other out if they could were to enjoy female company. A woman might be of stout heart and quick wit out on the plains and thereby have an easier time of it; or she might fear the wolves, the open sky, fierce storms.

Most often, I suppose, the choice to pioneer in new territories was not made by the women, but by the men, so the men had a vested interest in success and might be blind to their own desperation. The women - with no such investment - could see foolishness. Perhaps, in the face of testosterone foolishness, women did need to see other women, did need feminine companionship in some deep and essential way. Still, they had little control over who settled nearby, and little control, too, over whom they settled next to.

There are a lot of sad women, perhaps, buried in pioneer graves.

Dew on the grass, this morning. Moisture on the windshield. An unhappy squirrel in the tree along our driveway. Blue sky. Love.

Downtown Fairwater - a migrant worker sits at a picnic table having morning coffee. The table is one of a couple set under the trees along the railroad tracks. He works at the canning factory and lives in the dormitory just east of Fairwater on Highway 44. Often I see the men walking into town to the Village Mart for coffee or treats, then walking back to their temporary home. They are old men and young men, doing the jobs the canning factory cannot find local employees to do.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004


I have toured the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide has been Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We walked through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together; now I'm in the office of Bryan Tillett, president of Excel. This concludes my visit to the plant.

"Vaughn Peterson was about 42 years old in 1983 when the plant burned to the ground," Bryan tells me. "He collected enough insurance money that he could have retired. But he felt a commitment to the community. It hit me then - this commitment to community. None of us would be sitting here if Vaughn had taken the money and retired."

"In the fire," Bryan says, "every drawing was lost. The morning after the fire everyone showed up for work. If you were a cabinet maker, you sat down and drew out the dimensions of the cabinets you built. Other people were pulling air tools and hand tools and cat-walks out of the rubble. We had a 50-foot by 80-foot building that had been spared. We started building frames in it. We had five other places in town where we built other parts. One month after the fire had destroyed us entirely, the first unit rolled out the door.

"This is not something that could be replicated today," he thinks. "Things are more complex."

"I was a line-worker back then," Bryan says. "That fire created such a sense of unity. Everybody pulled together and made it happen."

How did a line-worker become president of the company?

Soon after he finished school, Bryan had started his own construction company, building houses and small commercial buildings. But "we had fourteen carpenters in town," Bryan says. Just before he closed down his business, he built a plant addition at Excel. "About Christmas-time I asked Vaughn for a job. He had just laid off eighty people. That was January, 1980. I started out welding frames. Then I went to the trailer line. I became supervisor of the trailer line in 1985. When a purchasing position opened up, I accepted that. We weren't computerized yet - we had the computer, but not the software. I researched the software and set up our manufacturing inventory control."

"There were two owners back then," Bryan says, "and I felt like we needed a third. I started a three-year process of becoming an owner and in 1989 became a partner and owner."

"In 1992 we were left without a sales manager," he continues, "and I took over Sales. In 1996, Mike Nebel left the company. He had been president. I took over that role."

"Vaughn is still the major shareholder of the company and is chairman of the board," Bryan says. "Vaughn's wife, Duana Peterson, is secretary of the board. Curtis Peterson, a distant relative of Vaughn's, is vice-president. Kelly Lyon is production manager and treasurer. The four people who own the company now are Vaughn, Curtis, Kelly, and myself."

"We are proud of the fact," Bryan says, "that out of one hundred fifty manufacturers in the US, and for six years in a row, our dealer-based product has been the #1 in terms of quality, durability, and highway safety. That's according to the RV Consumer Group, a nonprofit watch-dog organization."

That sense of quality and excellence, where does it come from?

"It comes from years of experience and the ideas of a lot of different people," Bryan says. "The basic core philosophy started with Vaughn, and a lot of people have added to it over the years. Vaughn learned a lesson from John Deere. John Deere always had a good quality machine, and when times got tough, John Deere survived."

"The lesson is," Bryan says, "if you build a good quality product and stand behind it, the customers will buy it."


(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Lyle Morgan breathed the farmer's lament last Monday morning at Paul's Cafe," Ivan wrote. "Morgan said, almost to himself, 'I wonder what I'll break today.'"

"Arloa Barnes, with the statuesque form of a Greek goddess, showed she did have some flaws and human frailties," Ivan reported. "Last Wednesday Barnes showed up at aerobics with two different shoes on. When it was pointed out to her, she did say that she thought she noticed the left shoe fit a little more snugly than the right. But it wasn't a total loss. She had a pair at home just like the one she was wearing."

"Well," Ivan said, "I've got er figgered out. I can see the hand writing on the wall. I ain't gonna accomplish anything earth-shattring or significant in my life-time. So now my goal is to live long enough to cast a vote for Hillary for president. Not a very lofty goal, I'll admit, but it's mine, all mine. The reason I want to vote for Hillary is not because of who she is, but who she represents. The women of the United States. If ever a group got the short end of the stick it is the women of this country. When the west was settled it was the women that done the drudge work. Kept the family together and done without. If you want to know about women, just read Gone With the Wind. See who kept the plantations running. Or if you really want to know about women, read The Grapes of Wrath. The women of the U.S. have done all the dirty work. Now they are beginning to be rewarded. But they really deserve to have one of their kind be president. I hope I get to put a woman in the White House."

"This soft city living will get you every time," Ivan said. "Former country girl Joanne Runyon was going to have fried chicken. None of this chicken from the supermarket - real country fried chicken. So, even though her husband Francis volunteered to chop the chicken's head off, Joanne said No, she had pulled the head off many chickens in her day as a farm wife. She pulled all right. Pulled the muscles in her back. Laid up for a week and is still walking kinda gingerly."

"Lindsey Barnes made her parents happy one day last week," Ivan reported. "She came and got her dog and took Felix back to Lawrence."

Ivan said: "Stan Hooper observed that the Thornburg Road needed to be a really good road. Stan said a lot of people from Nebraska buy stuff here in Smith Center. I don't know where he got his information but he talked like he knew what he was talking about. Back in the '30s, the Thornburg Road was one of the bootleggers' roads. You would see cars from Russell and other places in the oil patch come through Smith Center heading for Brownie's in Riverton. As far as I know no one ever got arrested. The local law enforcement would occasionally put a local bootlegger in jail for a few days. There was one bootlegger in Smith Center that never got arrested. He was Jess Cook. Jess furnished booze for the Methodist drinkers. And the Methodist didn't want their bootlegger molested. So he wasn't. I remember Star Barron telling about buying some booze from Cook. Star complained about the price. Cook told him all he wanted was legitimate profit. So the local boys started calling him Old Legit."

"The boss said to the new employee, Are you a good worker and where did you work," Ivan wrote. "The guy said he had been a lumberjack in western Kansas. The boss said, there ain't no trees in western Kansas. The guy said, 'Not any more.'"

"Jack Benn showed up at the As the Bladder Fills Clug last Tuesday morning. Jack and Arlene spent most of July fishing in Canada. When I and Linton Lull asked for a fishing report, Jack said, in kind of a snarly voice, 'you have to ask Arlene.' Wav Scott said that one day Jack caught a 33-incher, which was good enough for fourth place for that day. Where Wav got his information I don't know. But Wav seems to be full of it. Information, that is."

"I can remember Doc Eustace, a doctor from Lebanon," Ivan said. "I don't think he thought much of fried food. I heard him tell Jess Bell that more wives had killed their husbands with a frying pan than they did with guns."

"I listened to the Democratic Convention last week," Ivan said. "It sounded to me like the Democrats promised to fix everything but the Thornburg Road."

"Wednesday's Quote of the Week," according to Ivan: "Francis Runyon said last Wednesday - 'This rain is really messing up our drought.'"

"I attempted to play golf last Thursday afternoon," Ivan said. "I hit the ball 56 times in nine holes and had one decent drive to show for my afternoon's labor. I'm always hearing critics say - 'I thought you played golf for exercise. Then why do you ride in a cart?' To those people I want to say - if you crawl off and on a golf cart 56 times in nine holes, you are getting exercise."

"Was it Mike Hughes who said he was in the seventh grade for two terms - Eisenhower & Nixon's. I don't know if it was Mike or not, but it sounds like something he might say."

"Preacher told a lady that her husband had walked out of church last Sunday," Ivan said. "The lady said she wasn't surprised because he did walk in his sleep."

"Find the dog star in the night sky," Ivan said. "Check Smith Center's football schedule. Watch Smith Center play. Notice how befuddled the other team is. Stay ahead of the posse."


AUGUST 24, 1998

The weekend brought hot, sticky weather. I am expecting it will be a hot one again today under blue sky. Fans pulled cool night air into the house but that will not last the course of the day, I'm sure. Most people have air conditioning. We do not - partly because of what it might cost to cool such a big old house as this, and partly because I'm not sure it's right to separate oneself so completely from one's environment. We were in Milwaukee on the weekend, visiting our daughter, and her air conditioning confused me. It was pleasant enough in her apartment, oh sure, but it was another thing entirely when we stepped outside.

Perhaps, too, there's a little German suffering I have to do.

A heavy dew. Blades of grass bend under the weight of it. Wetted grass, weighted grass. A whole month slipping away from me, a whole summer. Kids are going back to school. Back in the saddle. Back to being saddled.

I am surprised at how little haze hangs in the distance this morning. A very heavy dew indeed.

Swallows and black birds seem to be flocking. There is a long line of black birds on the electric wire along Highway E this morning. You see them in the evening as well.

All the lovely flowers at Five Corners. Ah, world! It's a scruffy earth pock-marked with beauty.

In Ripon, a fast little squirrel with a big nut in its mouth crosses the street in front of me.

Well, school has started - you see school buses like lady bugs. It's a lady bug picnic. I'm not ready yet for the end of summer.

Monday, August 23, 2004


You may remember that I had poems laminated and attached to Budget Bicycle's Red Bikes as part of the Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf program in Madison, Wisconsin. Another part of the project is publication of a hand-sized book of poems to be placed in the glove compartments of vehicles at Community Car. Well - success here, too! Both of my poems have made it into the glove compartment. Here's the substance of a letter I received from Shoshauna Shy of Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf:

"Your poems 'Simply Morning' and 'Lecturing My Daughter in Her First Fall Rain' submitted to the Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf program have made the cut, and will be part of the collection of hand-sized books placed in the glove compartments of Community Car. Community Car is a car-sharing club with over 150 members in the Madison, Wisconsin area. Every time a member reserves and receives a car, they open the glove compartment to fill out a travel log, and that is when they will be given the opportunity to read the book of poems. The poems will be about walking, biking, running and an appreciation for nature by 12-15 poets from all across the country."



I have toured the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide has been Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We walked through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together; now I'm in the office of Bryan Tillett, president of Excel..

Then Dave introduces me to Bryan Tillett, president of the company. We talk in Bryan's office. I ask Bryan about Excel's impact on the local economy. Bryan wants to compared Excel's annual sales to the Smith County wheat crop, so Dave calls the local extension agent to get current figures on wheat production in the county: 150,000 acres of wheat have been certified; a yield of thirty bushels per acre sounds about right for the droughty conditions Smith County has experienced; and the wheat will be worth about $3.50 a bushel. So this year's wheat crop in Smith County will be worth about $15.75 million. Excel has annual sales of $17-18 million.

"Our annual payroll is more than $3.5 million," Bryan says. "We have a hundred sixty-five employees. More than half of them are women. When fit and finish really count, you want women doing the detail work." A lot of the employees are farm wives.

How much do people in the area know about Excel's operation?

"We have an open house for the public every year," Bryan says. "A lot of people from town have been through the plant."

Is the company's location ever an issue?

"Almost all the goods we order come in by the truckload," Bryan said. "A lot of materials come from Indiana, which is the RV capital of the world. We have our own semi to pick up freight as well."

"We are probably about as vertically integrated as we can be," Bryan thinks. "I can't imagine having more than two hundred employees. As we max out the employment pool, we'll have to outsource more."

Fortunately, he notes, technology allows you to do more with less.

"We're a progressive company," Bryan says. "We feed all information to the plant from the office via a fiber optic network. There's a fiber optic line from here to the plant and everything is networked together.

"We've interfaced our AS/400 system with the PC network so orders are integrated. CAD (Computer-Assisted Design) sends orders over to update the bill of materials. Every board that is taken for use is cut according to optimized-use instructions. Parts are nested for optimum yield at the router."

Why is Excel located in Smith Center, Kansas?

"Because our founder was born and raised here," Bryan says. "Being away from the hub forces us to build a high-quality product. We can't compete on price because of the freight factor and we don't have the labor pool to mass-produce. So we compete on quality."

How do you develop a good crew of employees to produce quality work?

"We are selective in who we hire," Bryan says, "and we train them. We don't hire just anyone. The rural work ethic is so good. We have a lot less turnover than other companies. We train people and keep them. And we have core people like Rachel Favinger to help the beginners."

"We want building the size of the company to be a slow process," Bryan says. "The demand on the available labor pool and the demand for our product grows slowly as we increase the size of our dealer base."

How good a community is Smith Center as a location for the business?

"See how progressive the hospital is," Bryan says. "You can get almost any service you want at the hospital. There are fifteen or sixteen consulting physicians who come to Smith Center."

"And the school system," he adds. "It employs a lot of people. We have a tremendous school system."

"How many places in the U.S. can you go to sleep with the keys in your ignition?" he asks.

"It's sad that we export our youth," he says, "but there are not a lot of white collar jobs here."

"We are an aged community," he adds. "A lot of money has been made in the county. Sons and daughters move away and when the parents die and they will the money to their children, it leaves the county. We lose that money."

Would Excel ever move from Smith Center?

"Not as long as I'm one of the partners in the company," Dave says, "and I think the rest feel that way too. This is my home. Once a month we'll get a letter from somebody wanting to buy our company. We just throw them in the trash."

To be continued....


from the "Married To Prairie" series, Middle Ground
(in the voice of a pioneer woman on the tall grass prairie
who has lost her husband)

The merciful day ends and I would count
my blessings: two strong daughters and a handsome

son, a pair of untiring horses and one
cow heavy with milk morning and evening,

a barn loft full of hay and a cellar
stocked for winter, the good apples hidden for

the Christmas stockings, a thick bolt of bright cloth
for a new dress, winter clothes already sewn

for the children, the warm sun all day today
taking the edge off the autumn wind, enough

wood from our grove cut against winter and piled
in the shed, a good well with good water, and

these busy hands of mine, these busy strong hands
and a good strong back. These are my blessings, these

and a sturdy house, the fireplace giving back its
warmth, this comfortable chair. What more could I want?

Oh, husband, there is an emptiness tonight!

Sunday, August 22, 2004


I have been touring the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide is Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We've been walking through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together.

We have stepped off into another area to look at couches when Rachel comes over to ask if Dave told me about "the fire."

There was a day in 1983 when the plant burned to the ground. Everything was lost.

Rachel said she asked Vaughn "What are we going to do?"

"Well, you're going to come to work tomorrow," Vaughn replied.

The company re-built and has expanded every few years since.

A lot of the specialized equipment needed in the plant was designed and built in the plant. One such piece is the device that compresses cushions so that buttons can be put on them. The machine will compress a set of three cushions for the back of a sofa; a needle is poked through the center of the compressed area; the needle has a hook at the end of it; the hook pulls a piece of thick thread back through the cushion. The button is attached to the cushion with that piece of thread.

Joetta Wright, who has been with Excel for nine years and who had experience with other companies as well, is showing me how the buttons get attached. She says "Somebody told me this machine was designed by Vaughn. You can't order it from a catalog." She tells me about another machine they use to suck the air out of foam so it can be inserted into fabric.

Then Joetta is showing how the buttons are made. Scrap fabric is layered several times and a machine cuts circles of the material. A circle is placed in a machine with a metal top, the fabric gets folded around the top, and a plastic bottom is added to hold everything in place. When Joetta attaches the buttons to the cushions, she selects those that best match the fabric at that point. If it's a dark spot in the cushion, she'll choose a button with like, dark fabric.

"The denser the foam, the longer a cushion will last," Joetta says.

Dave adds that "Vaughn doesn't like to build things that have problems in a few years."

He also says that Excel will soon start padding the chairs in-house for the Limited Edition models, instead of having them brought in.

Then we step into a Limited Edition model that's near the end of the production line. Some women are adding the finishing touches and doing a final clean-up. I feel like an intruder in someone else's dream. The trailer has a fireplace, a TV, five surround-sound speakers, a computer desk. Oh my.

We leave the women to their work tidying up and enter the service department. Steve Ellenberger runs Excel's service. Dave introduces me to him. Steve tells me about taking care of customer needs - "I have a lot of customers who are 'two-way' customers," he says. "They stop in going south; they stop in going back north." Steve tries to make them happy "because a happy customer is your best advertising. Customer service is what builds customer loyalty."

And then with our typical middle western modesty, he shares the credit: "I'm just building on what my predecessors created."

Steve's family had originally staked a claim in the Kirwin area back in homestead days, Steve says. His father worked for the government and Steve lived all over the country. After his parents divorced, Steve came back to Kirwin to visit his mother, he met his wife, "and I never left. I'm a true flatlander now."

Steve schedules service for about seven customers a week during the summer months. "We also have some drive-ins we try to get to," he adds. "Some we just can't get to, and they go to their dealers for service when they get home."

"We have customers who bought Excel trailers specifically because other customers told them about our service," Steve says. "They couldn't get that kind of service from their other manufacturer."

Where did this push for quality, service, and excellence originate? Steve and Dave think it started with Vaughn. "He wants things done right, so there aren't problems."

I say good-bye to Steve. Dave and I stop in the counter lounge for a moment and Dave shows me the end of the video of the 2003 gathering of Excel customers. At the end of the get-together, the whole bunch of visitors line up their vehicles and head down Main Street Smith Center honking and banging pots and pans and everything imaginable. This is block after block of mostly retired folks making an awful lot of noise. It's the Noise Parade - old folks getting to act like kids again.

To be continued....


AUGUST 21, 1998

I saw a sky last night that makes me want to live forever. A sunset with clouds and color and a patch of sky like eyes that are window to the soul.

It was not just the light, the sky. The air was so heavy the wind had to crawl on its belly. The incipient evening dew - God's sign how much he loves the world. The thick vegetable aromas - the smell of swamp for miles along Highway E last night, the smell of matter transforming itself, of matter transformed.

The light, but more the stories the light shines on, illuminates. Sometimes I want so much to know the stories of all of us. I could taste that, last night.

This morning, a cool, grey mist around us, softening the edges of things. The quiet murmur of a day getting started. Our old friend the sun on the other, the eastern horizon. Grace is a gift; and this morning is grace.

Sometimes we argue overmuch when what we should do is shut up. Take it, don't rate it. Shut up and live.

A squirrel on the lawn. Moisture on the windshield. The neighbor's pick-up in the backyard with a trailer. He has been hauling in dirt for a flower bed. Each day is an adventure.

In some places in the country this morning the fog is serious business. Elsewhere, the day, she picks up her skirt and runs; she is wearing smooth, blue panties, the color of sky. The sight of it, or the heavy air, makes it hard to breathe.

Saturday, August 21, 2004


by John Rezmerski

Predicting tomorrow’s weather is chancy business,
       let alone a five-day forecast.
No matter what the TV says, taking an umbrella to work
       is thinking on your feet.

Catching by eye the lifting of red-winged blackbirds
       in the evening,
I continue my daily exercise along a busy road,
       foot by foot.

I have a friend who remembers when he was a child
       in a bathtub
keeping his legs still, under water and bubbles,
       fearful of seeing his bare feet.

He kept fixing the shingles on his roof, which
       leaked half the time regardless.
He sought professional help after the ladder slipped
       and he fell twenty feet.

The floor sloped. He got out his saw and went to work,
       tired of tilted coffee in his cup.
Making a permanent decision, he temporarily trimmed
       two of the table’s feet.

The land where he lived was flat, and that’s how
       he wanted everything else.
He wanted someplace he could say it’s where he stood
       on his own two feet.

The prairie in my mouth, stem by stem, corn crop
       and bean harvest, fat pig,
is the place I call my own, a place where I like
       to think there’s solid footing.



by John Rezmerski

My eyes welcome high grass,
green going yellow
shooting up
from old old earth
fed with hard-earned blood
and bled sweat.
This soil now marked by tractor tires
fed Amos Huggins in 1862
and feeds me now,
feeds you,
and the blood it has swallowed
never spoils the corn.
It is the magic of that blood,
red cells and white cells,
and clear yellow fluid
falling on the warm black earth,
that keeps legs pumping
up the valley and over the bluffs
to mourn the innocent,
to cherish the giving,
to pray with fast breath
to the breath of the land,
nitrogen rising
from remains of quiet and boastful alike,
seeping into the roots of rosebushes,
the strength of wheat,
the warmth of beans,
the sweetness of corn and pork,
the plumpness of lovers,
into children of grass and grain
and the spirit of the blood,
hundred-proof blood,
drunk-making blood,
man-making blood,
blood contaminated only by blood,
into the children of the eye,
of the spleen,
of the brain and the voice,
into the welcomers of grass,
welcomers of dawn
on the blue and brown earth,
welcomers of silence
and forgivers of fire and the plow and old murders.

"Some Good Things Left After the War with the Sioux" is reprinted from Heartland II: Poets of the Midwest, ed. Lucien Stryk, Northern Illinois University Press, 1975; reprinted by permission of the poet. Writer and storyteller John Calvin Rezmerski lives in Eagle Lake, Minnesota. Red Dragonfly Press recently published his "The Sheriff Next Day Answers the Reporter" as a chapbook. His most recent full-length collection, What Do I Know? New and Selected Poems, is available from Holy Cow! Press, P.O. Box 3170, Mount Royal Station, Duluth, MN 55803.


I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About seventeen of them, by our current count.

o Harriet Brown, "Speaking Midwestern" and "Where We Went" - July 10, 2004
o Robin Chapman, "By the Wisconsin River" - June 12, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Bright Waterfall of Angels" - August 14, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" - June 5, 2004
o Karla Huston, "Night Swim" and "Summer Storm" - July 31, 2004
o Loren Kleinman, "Formaggio" and "Jetsam" - July 24, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" - May 15, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" - May 29, 2004
o Robert Schuler, "Thaw, 2003, Stanton Township" and "The American Millenium" - June 26, 2004
o Judith Strasser, "Apostle Islands History" and "County Road" - July 17, 2004
o Marilyn Taylor, "Surveying the Damage" - June 19, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" - April 17, 2004
o Complete index to poems here

Friday, August 20, 2004


I have been touring the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide is Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We've been walking through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together.

From the time that welding starts on the frame until a completed unit rolls out the door, it takes about two weeks to build an Excel trailer, according to Dave. He said the company usually has orders in hand for trailers about two or three months out.

We need some lead-time to get everything together for a unit," Dave notes. "Everything has to come together at the point you need it. It's like a concert."

Foremen continually turn in reports of what materials have been used so those can be re-ordered, Dave says. "Unfinished trailers cost us money. Getting materials in here when we need them is very important."

The company has a computerized production order; the same information goes to all departments so they are building the same trailer. You don't want a thirty-six foot chassis coming together with thirty-two foot side walls, for instance.

"We try to group runs of trailers of the same size," Dave says. "Sometimes, though, we just can't get away from the occasional 'one-sies.' We do have special orders and customizing that we have to accommodate."

Over here every day the same people put each trailer's wiring into a harness. Over there, the same people install the harnesses in the trailers.

"Some manufacturers have people pull wires," Dave says. "We get uniformity of installation with these harnesses."

We walk through the area where refrigerators and TVs for the trailers are received and stored. We stop at the shelving where the scrap fiberglass is kept waiting to be used as storage doors. One-inch foam insulation is attached to the fiberglass.

We meet another Excel sales rep out in the plant. Dave introduces Randy Vaughn who is originally from Lake Placid, New York, and how lives in Kirwin, Kansas. Randy is a convert to Kansas - he says "I'm a transplant and I'm here to stay."

Then we're watching caps and roofs being applied to the trailers. These pieces are actually manufactured by Arlwin Manufacturing, a company owned by one of Vaughn Peterson's cousins and situated just a few hundred feet east of the Excel plant.

All the windows and trim parts for a specific trailer get put on one cart and the cart is labeled for which trailer it belongs to. "They know they're not done," Dave says of those installing the trim, "until they've installed everything on the cart."

An overhead rail system allows one person to handle a cap, to pick it up and move it to the trailer for installation. "That system is handy," Dave says. "It's safe, and it's efficient for the workers - a plus for everybody."

"The furniture is built over here," Dave says as we enter a quieter area of the plant. "We make our own sofas, mattresses, windows, treatments, curtains, bedspreads, valances."

I'm introduced to Rachel Favinger, who is working at one of the tables. Rachel started with the company in 1969. She ended up the head of sewing; she retired; she came out of retirement to work part-time. Dave suggested that maybe she worked for the enjoyment of it, not the money. Rachel admits "I did forget to pick up my check here a few weeks ago."

"I started the sewing department with Mrs. Peterson," Rachel recalls. "I was a supervisor here for thirty years."

"They brought the sewing machines in and set 'em down and said 'here you go,'" Rachel remembers. "I made them go."

"They brought in a computerized machine in 1990 and set it down," she said. Nothing about it made any sense to Rachel. There were no instructions. "I sat down and cried. I went to Vaughn and cried. Vaughn said 'Get away from it,' so I went home. But when I came in the next day it was still here."

"I got on the phone to the manufacturer," Rachel says. "I got instructions in how to make it operate. Turns out they didn't send all the parts. We got the parts and got it going."

"I was terrible," Rachel said. "I used to go into furniture stores and turn furniture over to see how it was made."

Change orders drove her crazy. She'd have to tell sales reps "you just changed everything we just got done building."

"This work," Rachel says, "is a lot more complicated than people think." Now that she is a sewer part-time, the pressure is off her.

"But she has a lot of experience," Dave says. "She's an expert on the crew that newer people can turn to."

Typically Excel will have five patterns that customers can choose from for their matching sofas, bed spreads, curtains, etc.

A lot of manufacturers, Dave says, offer "queen-size beds, but the one question some customers have is whether it is a 'real' queen. You'll see 'short queens' from a lot of manufacturers - 60-inch by 75-inch. We build only the full queen - sixty-inch by 80-inch. We buy the springs for the mattresses but do the rest of the work ourselves."

To be continued....


AUGUST 20, 1998

About 5:00 a.m. a rain storm rolled through, rolled quickly through, dropped a heavy shower in but a moment. It is all blue skies now, sunshine, bright August day. If it warms up, it might be steamy.

What a view of the country you'd get if you could surf a storm front in from the west coast or the far north, all the way inland to Wisconsin. You'd swirl and blast in the mountains and, if you ever broke free, you'd sweep like a broom across the Dakotas, drag your toes in cool Minnesota water, brush against Wisconsin pines. Of course, there are times when the weather doesn't change much; then you might be like a sail boat becalmed in the middle of the lake.

I see that a woman in Fairwater has her underpanties pinned to the clothesline, one, two, three. They seem pretty skimpy out there, and too colorful to be middle western underpanties. Aren't ours usually white, cotton, baggy?

The sun rises so noticeably later these days and hangs lower in the sky as I head to work. That alone tells me the season is winding down, to say nothing of the cool nights, the evening dampness. The field corn isn't turning yet but that can't be far off. Soon, too, there'll be color in the trees and a different song in our heart - the great green uprising has slowed. Soon, it will once again be like counting days til the end of a jail term.

Thursday, August 19, 2004


I have been touring the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide is Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We've been walking through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together.

There is room on the frame for a generator if the customer wants to make the unit entirely self-sufficient. The customer can install his own generator if he wishes, or can order one installed by Excel.

There is a white tank set onto the trailer - that's for drinking water. The black tank is for sewer. The grey tank is for wash water. The water tanks are set over two layers of insulation. Heating ducts also channel warm air from the furnace into the water tank area, to keep things from freezing. "This is a standard feature for us," Dave says. "It is not standard in the industry." If the unit has thermo-pane windows, Excel guarantees the water tanks won't free up down to zero degrees outside temperature. Lower-line models without thermo-pane windows are intended for customers who are not going to live in them year around, including the cold weather.

The frame of the trailer is 2"x10" box steel. The box steel, Dave says, "is more resistant to twisting and buckling than I-beam or C-channel steel because there are two vertical pieces of steel instead of one. It makes a stronger frame."

"Our frame is a Z-frame," he says. "What he means is that the back piece of frame comes to within several feet of the front of the trailer, and the front piece starts under the back piece and extends out in front of it. This provides greater ground clearance in back, where you need it, and it brings the front down to reduce wind resistance. It also lowers the center of gravity for the trailer and results in less side to side momentum.

"The trailer is like a race car," Dave suggests, "in that you want it as low as you can reasonably get it." If the back end is too low, it will drag and hit the ground. Yet you want as little wind resistance as possible and the Z-frame is a good compromise.

"We've been using the Z-frame since 1991," he said.

The spare tire for the trailer gets tucked up in the frame at the back.

"We put a boat-receiver hitch on the frame as an option," Dave says. "We can do that because we have the box steel frame. Being able to hitch a boat to the trailer - that separates the strong frame trailers from the weak frames. We'll put the boat hitch option on any of our trailers."

The "Limited Edition" Excel is the classiest line the company makes. The "Classic" is one step down - the difference is in the cost of the trim - real oak versus oak-styled paper over a wood core. Both the Limited Edition and the Classic are intended to be set up in RV parks. The "RT" Excel is for "RV trekking." It is made less expensively, but it is just as strong as the higher-priced models. The RT goes places you wouldn't take the Limited Edition or the Classic, "although you never know where they're going to put them."

None of Excel's competitors put a boat hitch on their trailers in the RT's class, which shows how strongly the RT is made.

Competitors to Excel's Limited Edition and Classic models would be companies such as Teton and HitchHiker. At the RT level, Dave says, "there are a thousand different companies. We want to be known as the strongest-built in the price range. Some companies' trailers in the lower price range are cheapened in a lot of areas. We still want our trailer to have a lot of strength."

"We weld our own frames," Dave says, "and paint them in an electrostatic paint booth. We buy the axles, rims, and tires, and put them onto the frames ourselves. We use heavy duty tires on big rims. Most brands buy the chassis frame. We build them ourselves."

Wilson Performance Flooring is standard in the Limited Edition Excel, linoleum for the Classic and RT models. An extra thick padding is used under the carpet in the trailers, to give the feel of home carpet.

The water-lines in the trailer run through the heat ducts. "Other brands build a sub-floor for the water-lines," Dave says. "I've never heard of our water-lines freezing up. This is what separates the cold weather trailers from the non-cold weather trailers."

It's what separates the real thing from the wannabes, I would say.

To be continued....


AUGUST 19, 1998

Why does a place need its poet? The poet names things. Who names things is the poet, whatever those around should call him, or her. The poet allows us to see this place, and to pick up pieces of it to carry with us. If we could not do that, all places would be the same to us; we would be like the animals.

Another cool morning. I am told it's supposed to get hot and August-like this week, but we haven't seen it yet. What I am getting as actual I much prefer to any forecast - even if it's a 100 degrees, even if it's rain. Stop talking about it. Show me the money. Move it or milk it, as we used to say in Iowa, pretending that the other fellow ought to get his cow out of our way.

It must have spit just a little rain last night - there is evidence of it on the windshield and the hood of the pick-up - but not much. A greyness rolls away, riffles on the dark pond, a breeze in the trees and bushes. There should be a taste of lilacs in the air on a morning like this, but of course it is much too late in the season.

A truck full of sweet corn heads into the village. The swallows flying at Weinkauf's are perhaps discussing the possibility of rain. A neighbor - fired from his job where I work - passes me heading north to another job wherever. His wife has left him. For another woman, he tells the people in the bars. A helicopter is spraying sweet corn right along Highway E; it pivots right above the road, right in front of me, drops down behind the power lines and sprays some more.

Some mornings I think every word should be a poem. Some mornings I know better. Today I sit on the edge of the razor contemplating the smoothness of its cut.

They are painting their ladies again, the owners of those old Victorian houses on Watson Street in Ripon.

Sometimes what you get is what you make of it.

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