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Blue Collar History Lessons {Part 1}

December 1, 2013

Ten months ago, I was nudged to head out to eastern Colorado, to the farms and the edges of America’s “Heartland”, and learn about life out there.  The nudging came from a professor (dare I call it nagging?) who insisted that the God Made a Farmer commercial from Superbowl Sunday was the most epic thing to happen to American media in a long time.  In all honesty, his nagging was the best thing that could have happened at the time.  Yes, Dave Neligh. I am thanking you.

What was the result?  An entire education on the philosophy of a generation so completely opposite of mine.  An appreciation for hard work, for stability, for roots that run deep, and for the heritage of this country.  I sought out old cowboys, farmers, and men from rural America, and learned so much more from them than I ever could have predicted.  I feel like the education I received from riding around in a ’36 Ford Coupe, an International pickup truck, and a combine is priceless.

I started to share these stories some months ago, talking about Dave Belke (who is photographed below), and would like to continue with the stories today.  For my multiple trips out to Julesburg, Dave Belke acted as my host and chauffeur.  He started telling the other guys that if being a photographer looked tough, you should see how tough it is to set it all up!  I don’t think he has EVER used his cell phone as much as he did during those weekends I spent driving around with him, calling up all his buddies.

The most prominent life lesson:  Everything is about relationships.  Slow down a bit (oh, life moves SO much more slowly), breathe, take some time to “visit”, and listen to people’s stories.  You never know what you’ll stumble upon.



KathrynBronn_007-3This is Red Heidemann.  He is 87 years old, and has worked in Heidemann and Sons Machine Shop since he was 10 years old.  Back in the 40’s, it was run by his father and 3 other brothers, he is the last remaining son.  He can hardly hear, or see anymore.  Last year, he was using the polishing wheel over by his old forge, and the wheel popped off.  It hit him in the chest, broke several ribs, and punctured a lung.  He got up, walked himself home, and told his wife that he thought he was dying.  They made him stay in the hospital for a month, and by the end of it, he was so bored that he practically begged to go back to his shop.  Red told me that he was taught to work hard, and be steady.  He wishes now that he might have spent a bit more time with his family, but that just “wasn’t the way things were done” back then, and he is proud of the life and legacy he has built.  My favorite part of visiting with Red was going up to his office.  He can tell you any part of any tractor, truck, car, lawn mower, or piece of machinery.  He knows exactly what you need and where to find it in his part books, as well as in his warehouse.  He had a computer sitting in a corner– about 12 years old and covered in dust.  He said he never liked those things.



George runs the mill in Julesburg.  He has sat in the same tiny office at his desk for 57 years.  He is a World War II veteran, married the prettiest girl in town (over which there is still some remaining controversy), and is life long best friends with the barber, Lee, across the street.  George is the picture of frugality, of responsibility, and humility.  He was not too keen on getting his photograph taken, so I was pleased when I at last convinced him to stand in front of the silos.

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And this is Lee, the town barber.  He took me in his old-fashioned barber shop, and showed me a photograph on his wall of him with his business booming, all the way back in 1947.  He has remained successful throughout the years, and still works hard.  His shop is attached to the old Ford garage, which he has turned into a museum of sorts.  Lee gives tours to people when then pass through town, and to the school children.  I loved hearing his war stories as well, and he even brought me up to the VFW hall and showed me his navy blues from 1945.  Sadly, he does not take any new clients, so I couldn’t get a trim when I was in town.

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This is Ivan. He is a trucker out of Big Springs, Nebraska, and drives loads to Sterling twice a day.  He is a man that by normal American standards should be retired, but work is his life, and he loves it.  Honestly, one of the things I have taken as a great lesson from all these men is to do my work faithfully, and to the best I can.  This man demonstrated how a handshake is as solid as a written contract.  How honesty is simply expected, and once you break trust, it is gone forever.  My favorite thing about visiting with him was that he is this trucker, whom I expected to be rough and tough.  However, he took me in the back of his shop, and pulled out his old records from the 50’s.  His very favorite song ever written?  Clair de Lune, by Claude Debussy.  The experience of standing in a truckers garage, surrounded by the smells of engine oil, diesel, and old books all around, listening to the scratchy sounds of a well loved record– priceless.


Bert Guenin– buffalo rancher, third generation, the essence of a good American man.  I mentioned earlier that George married the prettiest girl in town, but the real trouble was when Bert came waltzing into town off the ranch, and swept the other prettiest girl off her feet and off to his ranch.  It is quite charming to hear men in their 80’s still reminiscing about the bitter loss they suffered decades ago when handsome Bert was bolder and faster than the rest of them!  Bert showed me around his ranch, as well as the homestead his grandparents built when first settling the land in the late 1800’s.


KathrynBronn_003-3 KathrynBronn_005-3 KathrynBronn_002-3Dave and I quite enjoyed the history lesson from Bert, as well as some time with his horses–



Lastly, I would like to introduce Bruce Gerk.  He was kind enough to give me a lesson on how to dry corn, and how the combine works.  Well… we don’t have many combines in southern California where I grew up, so it was pretty unfamiliar territory to me.  I was up before dawn to catch just the right light on his silos and receive my “how stuff works” lesson before they headed out for the day to continue the harvest.KathrynBronn_004

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Life lessons– I learned that honesty is as good as gold.  A handshake is all you need.  Hard work is absolutely necessary.  There are no easy routes, no handouts.  No matter the politics, this is a good country to live in.  Once you earn someone’s trust and respect, they will offer you the shirt off their back.  These are good people, and I am so incredibly grateful to have spent time on their farms, ranches, and in their shops.  It was a delight.

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