Tuesday, August 31, 2004


I turn 57 years of age today. Where have the years gone? They have run away like wild horses; they do not come back when I call them.

As my sister says: "Getting old got you down? Consider the alternative."

I "retired" from a career in the printing industry at age 55 so as to give "my last ten good years" over to writing. Mary has supported me in this; she keeps us in groceries and medical insurance and sees that I get to write.

I have used up two of those ten good years already, and what have I done: I have interviewed 160 people in my twelve Vagabond focus communities; I have written upwards of 250,000 words in the Vagabond Journals. I have been wonderfully received in the communities I've visited, have met some wonderful people. Some of the material I've gathered has already been shaped to essay or profile; and the rest of it stands available, as I have the time. It is a terrific project I'm embarked on.

In the meantime, I've also been selected as one of the three finalists for the Wisconsin Poet Laureate appointment; I've been tapped to teach Writing Creative Nonfiction this fall at Lakeland College; I have given many readings, presentations of my Vagabond materials, and writing workshops. I am getting to live my dream of being a writer, a dream that had to be deferred during those years of raising and supporting a family.

Before I retired, I took naps at every opportunity; it was a joke with the family. Since I retired, I've napped maybe twice: there's so much I want to do. There's so much I want to do that in retirement I still rise every day between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. to get started on it. Sometimes I'll still be at it at 10:00 p.m. You might say I'm a man obsessed with what he's doing.

And what am I doing? I am trying to hold on to some of what we're losing; to hold it up examination and admiration; to record it for future generations, so they might know us; to make a mark that lasts, so they might know that we were here.

Some days I feel like Don Quixote, and some days like the wisest man on the planet. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, and I think mine does, as I pass this Mile Marker #57.


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.

The company started in a small barn Mike Nebel owns just south of the plant. "We expanded the barn a couple of times," Todd says, "until October, 1999, when we moved into the new building."

We stand looking into the barn now. "It got pretty cold in there," Todd says. "We had only this one hanging heater for the whole place. And the place was pretty crowded for a while."

Then we enter the current manufacturing facility. It smells like a factory. That smell must be a mixture of the odors that come off new welds and fresh paint, with a little oil mixed in.

"Steel comes in one end, over there," Todd explains. "Tubing is cut to size on the band saw. Flat sheets get sheared. We buy our angle iron already angled. After it is cut down, sheet stock goes to the turret punch to get holes put in as needed, goes to a brake press to be bent. A woman is running the turret press, which is computerized and programmed to put as many as thirty-two holes in a sheet of steel, at the proper place, of the proper size.

"We program the computer," Todd says. "The operator does her own programming. Once you figure it out, it's pretty simple. You have to be able to read drawings, as all the people in the machining area do, so they can program their machines.

Pieces are welded together down the center of the building.

Todd shows me a storage tray mechanism that has been completed. It rolls out both ends, with a stop each way to keep it from going too far. The tray can handle four hundred pounds evenly distributed "and a couple hundred pounds on the end, extended."

One customer, who shot in competition, had his entire tray filled with his shot-gun shells.

Pieces get welded, Todd shows me, then spray-painted. "Some products go out for powder-coat paint," he says. "It is thicker and more durable for outdoor weather, a more expensive paint, to keep a piece from rusting."

He shows me how the slide-out LP trays works. It brings the tanks out where you can pick them up easily.
The battery tray will hold two batteries. Loaded, it slides in and out easily.

Here is a bed-slide mechanism: the bedroom will slide in and out, either electrically or hydraulically, as the customer prefers.

Todd tells me about "toy haulers - the latest and greatest thing on the west coast. You transport your motorcycles in back, you have living quarters in front. We build a bed that raises up the ceiling. It is lowered when you are ready to sleep."

We step into the assembly area, "where whatever needs to get put together gets put together." Todd shows me a "Flex Guard," which is used to keep wires and tubes from slide-out rooms from getting cut when the room is moved. "That's one of the patents that Lippert wanted."

I'm amazed by the stabilizer jack that Mike Nebel has designed. A single motor runs both legs, and the legs create the illusion that they are working independently. They work together, with one rod threaded left-handed and the other threaded right handed. Pressure on one leg pushes down the other leg until both are on the ground and have equal pressure on them. Hence, on uneven ground, you don't have to use blocks to level your trailer. The legs find their own center and level things themselves.

Steel makes a big loop through the plant, circling clockwise, and eventually the finished piece arrives back at the shipping dock to go out where it came in. Todd and I had made the same loop through the plant, and now it was time for me to go out where I came in, too.

A little ingenuity, some steel, some paint. It's a wonder - what they're punching out, out there on the prairie.


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

"Heard some local farmers say that the hot weather has made the milo heads pop out," Ivan wrote near the beginning of August. "I guess milo is one crop that needs hot weather."

"Gene Conaway wuz a-tellin' about how good the air conditioner was in his tractor," Ivan said. "I think he was V-Bladin' or whatever he was doing. He said he didn't even have to turn his AC on full blast to keep cool even on those hottest days. Meanwhile, less than eight blocks from where he was a-braggin about the tractor air conditioning, his wife Arleta was a-wrassling a front-end tiller in their front yard. The only protection from the heat that Arletta had was a large straw hat."

"Dennis Lambert said he had been in Red Cloud recently and one feller asked him if he knew the Old Indian," Ivan wrote. (Portions of Echo Echo appear in the Red Cloud paper with Ivan's "Old Indian" by-line.) "Dennis reluctantly admitted that he did. The guy told Dennis that I ought to put up a booth on Street Car Days so people would get to see what I looked like. Well, once years and years ago I won a Harry Bellafonte look-alike contest. Now I kinda resemble Oklahoma State basketball coach Eddie Sutton. And, fortunately, I am better looking than my picture on my driver's license."

"Justin Bingham, Idaho native who grew up somewhere between the Lolo trail and Jackpor, Nevada, will be a Smith Center citizen for a year," Ivan wrote. "Justin, his wife, and four children have rented a house on Second Street just across from Paul and Ginger Pletcher. Justin, a graduate student at Kansas University, is writing his doctoral dissertation on Plains Culture. Bet you didn't know we had culture in this part of the country."

You know we have an eleven digit telephone number," Ivan said. "When me and Momma was first married, our telephone number was 623."

"Mike Hughes was a-tellin' me about one of his old girlfriends," Ivan said. "Mike said she was so fat that when they went down to the creek she didn't go skinny dippin'. She went chunky dunkin'."

"Stan Smith has a used police car sitting on his lot," Ivan reported. "I wish he would put the thing out of sight. Every time I go by there I look at the police car and automatically step on my brakes. It's just a reflex action, because I'm not speeding."

"I still would like to get Roger Barta, Leo Tuxhorn, and Jack Benn in a moseyin' contest on Old Settlers Day," Ivan said. "I'd put those three mosey-ers up against any trio of mosey-ers in any county seat town in the state of Kansas."

"Reporter asked a 100-year-old man what he thought it was that let him live so long," Ivan said. "The man said, 'You gotta jog every day and if you keep it up long enough you live to be a hundred.'"

"I'm around old people most of the time," Ivan said. "And I hear them talking about the proposed grade school building project. They always say, in various forms, what do we need a new school house for when we are losing students all the time. Then all the rest of the old folks say 'That's right.' Then they lean back in righteous indignation. What they have said is true. We are losing students. But does that mean that the ones who are left should have inferior facilities?"

"Did you know that the C is silent in rap music," Ivan asked.

"Had a first last Wednesday afternoon," Ivan said. "The Smith Center Country Club went to grass greens in 1975. Last Wednesday afternoon was the first time I won any money since we went to grass greens. Won two bucks."

"Linton Lull bought the coffee for the As the Bladder Fills Club last Thursday," Ivan said. "Birthday - 81st. Everybody there who knew the words to the song sang Happy Birthday to Linton."

"LaDonna Weltmer was using her considerable maintenance skills when she replaced several light bulbs in the Sale Barn Cafe last Thursday morning," Ivan wrote. "Eileen Peterson served in an onlooker capacity. She did offer several suggestions but she soon learned that LaDonna wasn't paying any attention to her. So she quit talking and just watched."

"Oh, while thinking about it - there probably won't be an Echo on Sept. 6th," Ivan said. "That's Labor Day and the union members who work in the news room are taking off."

"You know, in my lifetime I have eaten a lot of garden stuff," Ivan wrote. "Most of it I have grown tired of before the growing season was over. But I don't ever remember getting tired of vine-ripened tomatoes."

"Casey Edell had work to do when he got through drinking coffee and picking up knowledge at the As the Bladder Fills Club," Ivan said. "Casey had piannas to tune and middle C to find."

Ivan told that "Last Friday morning Arven Lyon said it was grocery shoppin' time. Arven said if he didn't eat, he wouldn't have anything to do. That's just about it for us old folks. Pulling up to the table is about the only exercise we get."

"When I was in grade school," Ivan said, "all we had to buy to get ready for the school year was a Big Chief tablet, a number two lead pencil, and a soft rubber gum eraser. Now the kids have a whole backpack full of school supplies and already medical science has proven that the backpacks are going to cause back problems when the kids get older."

"Jack Knight is having his fourth lifetime muffler installed on his Buckskin pick-up," Ivan said. "You know you are getting right up there in years when you are putting on your fourth lifetime muffler."


AUGUST 31, 1998

The observer turns 51 today.

Birthdays are reminders that one must enjoy - suck in and suck dry - every moment left. Here I am, left to enjoy this place - the village of Fairwater, the State of Wisconsin, the United States of America, Our Planet Earth, this solar system, our Milky Way. These days shall not come 'round again. I must watch, listen, soak up.

There are plenty who simply walk by the beauty of the ordinary. The observer must not dismiss the world but embrace it, so the expression of the world is part of the world. If I walk away from the assignment, I walk away from everything. Everything depends on what happens to our hawk, what happens to the lithe-limbed, raw-boned youngsters getting on the school bus, what happens to the weeds in the fenceline, to the fenceline, what happens to this piece of earth, the water moving on it, the sky above it. The sun fingering the rough bark of tree. Seed pods aching to split and spill. Leaves wishing to rehearse for the final beauty. Dried stalks that will poke up through snow, a thin shadow, barely a study in black and white.

Only if you invest greatly in the moment, in the place, in the conjunction of forces which has spun this planet to this point with me crawling upon it - only if you invest greatly will you be rewarded greatly. It has taken another birthday to remind me of this. This is birthday gift enough at 51!

Ah, bright sun. Ah, sins not yet committed. Lawns stippled with shadow, trees caught in the deepest green of summer, a drier sky that lets us see for miles and miles, the sour smell of corn.

I wonder how much lives change when harvesting changes the countryside - does the hawk find an easier supper, do the mouse and the pheasant struggle for cover? It looks like some beans are thinking about turning color; others - planted after peas were harvested - are just flowering now. All the beets have now been taken. There are a couple of fields of corn with color now around the ears, which says this is field corn.

You walk upon your piece of ground enough, it takes your soul; or perhaps the truth is, it gives you the soul you were born without.

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 Amazon.com. Several of his poems are archived at Poetry Daily [www.poems.com] and Beloit Poetry Journal [www.bpj.org].


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 tmmontag@dotnet.com . 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.

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