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Car of the Week: 1929 Klondike truck

92-year-old grandfather has a penchant for rescuing and resurrecting big, old trucks, such as Macks, Internationals and the sole surviving Klondike.

By Barb Steinhorst

Car of the Week 2020
Gilbert Burmester with the 1929 Klondike that he and his wife restored.

Gilbert Burmester with the 1929 Klondike that he and his wife restored.

“A one-of-a-kind,” says Jean Prince when describing her 92-year-old grandfather, Gilbert Burmester, of Loganville, Wis. Her description comes from her grandfather’s serious obsession with local history, and his lifelong passion for rescuing and resurrecting big, old trucks, such as Macks, Internationals and the sole surviving Klondike.

Phillip Thieding, the original owner of the 1929 Klondike, pictured with the truck, which was the last from Kohlmeyer Truck Co.

Phillip Thieding, the original owner of the 1929 Klondike, pictured with the truck, which was the last from Kohlmeyer Truck Co.

The life of the last Klondike

Way back in Loganville’s history, before Gilbert was born, the busy little village in Sauk County, Wis., had a reputation in the area as a truck-building town. In 1915, Fred W. Kohlmeyer, a mechanical genius of renown, and also a neighbor of Gilbert’s parents, built his first Klondike truck in a cement-block shop in downtown Loganville. Edward Burmester, Gilbert’s father, worked building trucks for the Kohlmeyer Truck Co. The company prospered for about 15 years, producing a total of 27 Klondikes, most of which were sold to local farmers who needed reliable, heavy-duty vehicles for hauling. The last Klondike truck built in Loganville rolled out the door in 1929, before the Great Depression caused the company to close. Edward Burmester helped build that last truck in the same year that his son, Gilbert, was born — March 12, 1929, to be exact.

A Loganville farmer, Phillip Thieding, bought the last brand-new Klondike truck. Years later, Thieding needed to buy a manure spreader, so he made a deal with a farm implement dealer near Sauk City and traded in his Klondike. The implement dealer had intentions of restoring the old truck, but he passed away before a restoration could begin.

The 1929 Klondike, as Gilbert and Jean Burmester found it in 1983. Jean bought the truck that year as a birthday present for Gilbert.

The 1929 Klondike, as Gilbert and Jean Burmester found it in 1983. Jean bought the truck that year as a birthday present for Gilbert.

Its next owner was another businessman who also intended to restore the Klondike. His idea was to put the rare truck on display at the annual Sauk County Steam and Gas Show near Baraboo. For unknown reasons, that plan failed. Forgotten for a second time, the Klondike truck spent the next 20 years abandoned on a hill, unprotected and unrestored. The passing of time and the relentless wrath of Wisconsin weather took a toll on the Klondike’s wood-and-metal carcass.

Klondike finds two saviors

During all those years, Gilbert Burmester had been busy growing a successful beekeeping business that eventually totaled 1,500 hives. Beekeeping was the kind of work that he had been doing since he was 12 years old. In 1961, Gilbert met Jean McNett at a get-together. Later that year, they were married. Jean eagerly joined her husband on his truck restoration projects, working alongside him as his “number one” helping hand.

During the 1980s, Gilbert and Jean heard rumors about an old Klondike truck that was wasting away on a hill near Hillsboro. Gilbert felt a strong personal connection with that neglected truck that had been built in his birth year, in his hometown, partially by his father. He decided that he needed to save it, because it was a one-of-a-kind survivor and a part of Loganville history. The owner was reluctant to let it go, even though it looked more like a pile of junk than a truck. Jean stepped in, and because of her persistence, she finally convinced the owner to sell it to her, just in time for Gilbert’s birthday in 1983.

Gilbert recalled that it took a long time to get the rusted wheels loose so he could raise the body out of the dirt. The motor, a Wisconsin 2Y engine built in Milwaukee, was frozen and needed replacing. They were able to find an era-correct Wisconsin 2Y engine in an old fire truck in Beloit. When Gilbert needed to move the truck before the engine was installed, Jean steered it while he pushed or pulled it to where it needed to be. Jean handed him tools and helped carry and lift heavy parts. She joined him in the search for parts, then helped put those parts into place. The original wooden cab had rotted away over time, so Gilbert constructed a new one and Jean helped varnish it. When the truck needed painting, Jean helped prepare it.

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Fifty-four years after Gilbert’s father had helped build it new, Gilbert and Jean had built it all over again. It had taken three years of dedicated work, but by 1986, the 1929 Klondike was like-new once more. Following the completion of the restoration, Gilbert, Jean and the Klondike appeared at area truck and tractor shows, and steam and gas shows. They brought it to the Iola Old Car Show, where the Klondike was displayed inside the theme tent. Hometown parades were also a part of the Klondike’s journeys during those years with Gilbert at the wheel and Jean riding along.

About 10 years ago, Gilbert and Jean decided that it was time for a rest. The Klondike joined the diverse collection of big old trucks housed in Gilbert’s large garage, where it was pampered, protected and not forgotten.

After a decade of repose, in the summer of 2021, the 92-year-old Klondike truck proudly rolled down Loganville’s Main Street once again with 92-year-old Gilbert at the wheel. The occasion was the village’s annual Fireman’s Festival parade. Unfortunately, Gilbert was solo since Jean had passed away on May 21, 2020. Her absence in the passenger seat made the parade debut bittersweet, yet pleasant enough for him to make plans to be in the parade again next year.

On fair weather days, Gilbert drives the Klondike out of the garage for a short but special ride to the cemetery to visit his beloved Jean, and to relive their memories that include a forgotten old truck wasting away on a hill.

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