My wife and I were recently returning from a road trip when we passed through the small town of Balaton, Minnesota. I happened to espy some old tractors, which naturally meant that we had to stop so I could take a closer look.
I can't help it: I am drawn to old iron like, well, a magnet to iron. My wife dropped me off at the lot where the tractors sat. The shop next to the lot looked grungy and greasy and timeworn. Encouraging signs indeed!
I strolled into the shop and inhaled the aroma of well-aged grease and vintage motor oil. Tractors in various stages of disassembly occupied the shop, creating the distinct impression of disorganized organization. It was wonderful.
Within moments of entering the building I was greeted genially by a couple of guys, one of whom appeared to be in his 60s, the other in his mid-20s. Their hands were calloused and grimy and I quickly deduced that they are the driving forces behind the operation.
The older guy was Glenn Mitzner, owner of Glenn's Service Center. The younger one was Jordan Hively, Glenn's hired guy. Both men are very outgoing and companionable and it wasn't long before I felt as if I were yakking with long-lost pals.
I asked Glenn about the history of his establishment.
"I started working here in 1965, when this place was a John Deere dealership," he said. "I was sixteen and my uncle, who was their parts man, gave me a part-time job. I've been here ever since."
So what happened with the John Deere dealership?
"When they closed the dealership in 1978, a business partner and I bought this building, lock, stock and barrel. My partner was later diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away. I told his family that I would run the place until the end of that year and would see how things went. I ended up buying his share and became the sole owner."
As we chatted, the occasional customer drifted in looking for an odd part or seeking advice regarding the repair of an older piece of equipment. Glenn and Jordan made a point of visiting with their customers, bantering and sharing tidbits of local news. Everything was so relaxed and friendly, it seemed like I had shot through a time warp and had stumbled into a Mayberry RFD fix-it shop.
I asked Jordan about his history.
"I grew up on a farm three miles outside of Balaton," he said. "I took diesel mechanics at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, then came to work for Glenn. A lot of my friends asked why I didn't take a job at a big dealership. I would rather work in a small shop. Plus I really enjoy the small town life."
"We don't have customers, we have friends," said Glenn. "We feel it's our duty to get to know all the people who walk through our door. If you don't take care of your customers, that's when you get into trouble."
I noted an ancient breaking plow and several vintage John Deere riding lawnmowers occupying the former showroom floor.
"I tell people that the lawnmowers are my retirement program," said Glenn with a smile. "Truth is, I have a weakness for those old mowers."
Are there still any leftover parts in the parts bins?
"There are a few, but they're all obsolete," said Glenn. "The real treasure is in the old parts books. We continue to find hand-written notations in them. Every day is an education!"
I see numerous colors of machinery in your lot.
"We'll fix any breed of machine," said Jordan. "But we don't work on anything automotive. Even so, we're booked solid for the next six months."
As customers drifted in and out, it became clear that the denizens of Balaton see Glenn's Service Center as an integral part of their town, a place where one can seek advice about installing a new trailer hitch or just sit and enjoy some pleasant jawboning.
"Jordan and I feel it's our duty to give back to the community," said Glenn. "That's part of the reason why we both became volunteer firefighters."
As if on cue, their firefighter radios began to squawk. Glenn and Jordan dashed out the door and the shop was summarily left in the care of Glenn's wife, Sharon. A retired schoolteacher who spent more than three decades in the classroom, Sharon is the bookkeeper at Glenn's Service Center.
"Every morning Glenn wakes up with a smile on his face," said Sharon. "He can't wait to get down to the shop. I guess it's true what they say: if you love your job, you'll never work a day in your life!"