The Gift of Experience

| June 01, 2005

Bob Elsholtz (center) with his son Matt and brother Bill after another succesful day.

Handing down heirlooms from generation to generation is part of the life of strong family. So is handing down knowledge.

The Elsholtz family of Minnesota’s Twin Cities is loaded with outdoors experience, and passing it on to the young people is a family tradition.

“Hunting and fishing, being in the outdoors, that’s been something we’ve done as a family since my grandfather,” says Bob Elsholtz, 67. Most of the adults in the family started as little kids, and now they have little kids with them when they head to the family hunting camp in northern Minnesota or on fishing or hunting trips in or out of state.

Elsholtz is president of Overnite Express, based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. His father and uncle started the company, and today two of his sons help him manage it. Back in the late 1920s Elsholtz’s father Willis and his uncle Art started a trucking business out of high school, using a straight truck to haul from Detroit Lakes, Minn., to Fargo, N.D.

“They’d haul it all, soup to nuts. Uncle Art would be driving, and my dad would be sitting there with a typewriter on his knees typing out the freight bills they’d need when they got there. They hauled swinging meat in the back simply covered with cheesecloth, and there’d be flies on the cheesecloth. That’s how meat was shipped in those days. The rules were not as strict in those days, totally different; sometimes there were no rules.”

Art was the older brother, Willis the younger, and their first joint effort was known by the family name until it grew into Midnight Express. It steadily expanded and the brothers’ trucks were crossing the Rockies and running up into Winnipeg in Canada. By 1931 they had opened a terminal in the Twin Cities.

“When refrigeration first arrived, it involved nothing more than running air past some wet rags. Then I can remember going with my dad in the summer and seeing it was almost like raining under the trailer there was so much melting ice. Maybe the ice lasted until we got to Chicago, maybe it didn’t. But with refrigeration they started hauling from the Armour meat plant in Fargo to the Twin Cities and run back LTL.”

The company trailers were all 28 feet long, the legal maximum then, but the Elsholtz brothers set to work and built some of the first metal-sided trailers to roll across America. The company, says Bob, was a profitable success, “until deregulation when it became worthless overnight.”

But while Willis and Art Elsholtz were building a family business, they were also building an extended family that remains a single unit to this day. And life in the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing, were a key part of that construction.

“There’s a long legacy of family hunting and fishing together,” says Bob. “My father, who turns 94 in June, my grandfather and my uncle would hunt and fish together, and we all have ever since.”

One of Bob’s favorite stories was of the three men going north into Canada to hunt moose in 1931.

“They were guided in by water – there were no roads – and hunted for about three days, and no moose. My uncle had to come home then, and the guide brought him back out. My dad and my grandfather waited and waited for the guide to come back as he was supposed to. But he never showed. So they had to find their own way out. They knew to walk straight south, and eventually they came to the railroad. And they found a station and a station man. They stayed with him and decided since they’d come to hunt moose, they’d hunt moose. They got two and dragged them out of the woods with the station man’s horses. Finally the guide came back and found them with a story about engine trouble.”

The moose heads came back to the Twin Cities, but Bob’s mother would not have them in the house. They were displayed in the company offices instead. And those offices continued to do bigger business. The family company grew into Overnite Express (1947) and Twin City Freight (1949). The latter was sold in 1987, but Overnite was actually the larger company.

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