Gibbon man takes a road trip, helps build Habitat home
During the past two years, whenever Walter Lehrke, 82, of rural Gibbon gets on his Honda Goldwing Trike 3-wheel motorcycle he thinks about his deceased wife, Darlyne.
And then he heads off to his next adventure. Last summer that adventure included a solo motorcycle trip that covered 5,000 miles, with memories of his beloved wife riding along and an opportunity for him to fulfill a desire to help others.
Darlyne died in January 2015, and Walter said he misses her companionship as they often rode together on motorcycle trips. “She loved traveling out west and riding to new places,” he said.
Walter began riding motorcycles in the mid 1970s, and in 2001, he bought a Honda Goldwing Trike. With Darlyne sitting behind him, they saw the country going coast to coast and usually put 8,000 to 10,000 miles a year on the Trike.
Walter Lehrke, of Gibbon, likes to explore new places. Last summer, he took his 3-wheel motorcycle on a road trip and helped at a Habitat for Humanity work site in Montana. Lehrke has traveled more than 78,000 miles on his Trike since 2001, including 5,000 miles on his drive to Montana. Contributed photo
The 5,000-mile journey began with Lehrke’s plan to use his wood and metal working skills to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity. He was inspired after reading a Thrivent Financial newsletter which was looking for volunteers to work in their Thrivent Builds program.
“Thrivent was sponsoring a couple of building crews to go to Montana, and I was going to travel that way for a vacation, so I thought it would be a good chance to ride my motorcycle out there to help with the project,” he explained.
After getting more information and applying, he joined a crew in Kalispell, Mont., where Habitat for Humanity was building three houses. The crew consisted of about 20 people of ages from Lehrke down to 19 year olds.
He left Minnesota in early August, and a week later, he was the first crew member to arrive at the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp, where he stayed with others from Connecticut, South Dakota, Illinois and Pennsylvania who came to Kalispell to work on the project.
Lehrke’s lifelong farming background, mechanical experience and a variety of skills in woodworking and metal fabrication immediately made him a valuable volunteer for the project. Recognizing this, the contractor assigned him to the second-in-charge carpenter to help finish up jobs that other crews didn’t get to complete.
“I’ve pretty much done it all, so they paired me up with him to build interior divider walls and a staircase in one of the houses,” Lehrke explained. The three houses were built in a northwest section of Kalispell, and the new homeowners were required to help work on their future homes.
Once a house is finished it’s not just given away. Instead, Habitat sells it to a partner family through an affordable mortgage. The homeowner’s monthly mortgage payments are made to Habitat and then used to help build even more homes from the ground up.
After completing his week of work in Kalispell, Lehrke climbed back on his motorcycle and continued his westward trip, driving out to the Pacific Ocean near Florence, Ore. “I just kept going until I ran out of road,” he joked.
It took him a week to return home from Oregon after stopping at Crater National Park in the southwestern part of the state and going through majestic Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. “Some of those places you’re able to drive 20 miles to get to the top of a mountain range and then you can look about and see 20 miles below you,” he said.
Lehrke said he likes to see the countryside when touring on his motorcycle. “Of the 5,000 miles I traveled less than 500 miles were on the interstate,” he recalled. “I don’t use a GPS as I enjoy looking at a paper road map to find my way,” he explained.
Walter stands next to a unique large wooden crane-like bird named “Igor.” He made the bird in his wood shop and won a Grand Champion ribbon at the Sibley County Fair. Photo by Steve Palmer
Back home Lehrke continues to live on the farm where he was born and grew up, which is located a couple of miles north of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Moltke Township. He lives in the same house that was built by his parents, Andrew and Anna, when he was 2 years old in 1936.
The only time he’s been away from the farm for an extended period of time was from 1955-57 when he served a two-year hitch in the Army. “It was a good time to be in the military between Korean and Vietnam conflicts,” he noted.
Walter and Darlyne were married for 56 years, raised six children on the farm, and he now has 12 grandchildren. In 1982 he added a family room on to the house. The beams that run across the ceiling came from trees in the farm’s grove. The bricks that make up the fireplace came from some old chimneys.
He milked a herd of 35 holstein cows for many years until 1992 and then raised cattle for another five years. During that time he made some conveyor equipment used to feed the cattle, and among other things, he built four metal 500 bushel corn gravity boxes that were needed during the harvest season.
He retired from active farming in 2001 and now rents out his 320 acres of crop land. But he continues to help a neighboring farmer with spring fieldwork and at harvest time in the fall.
And he’s never stopped using his God-given creative talents. Inside his church at St. Peter’s are several pieces of wood work he’s built and donated. Inspired by his deep faith, he also made an impressive, large intricate wooden circular composite that hangs on the wall in the new addition. It depicts various biblical features, scenes from the 10 Commandments, a Star of Bethlehem and other religious symbols.
Meanwhile, during the summer he mows the grass at St. Peter’s Cemetery and enjoys bringing excess garden produce to the church to share with others in the congregation.
Most of the time you can find Walter in his woodshop on the farm where he’s spent many hours making tables or benches, cabinets for his house and numerous wooden toys or other gifts for his grandchildren. One of the unique items he’s proud of is “Igor” the Crane, a large wooden imaginative bird sculpture with a long neck out of walnut, ash, mulberry and ebony and zebra wood. He exhibited it at the Sibley County Fair and won a Grand Champion ribbon.
Walter said he’s always had a love for art, and the more complicated the project, the better he likes the challenge of making it look good. He likes to work with metal projects mostly during the summer months and focuses on woodworking projects during colder months. He gives most of his creations away to family, friends and church. Very seldom does he sell his pieces.
Walter Lehrke stands next to the 32-foot-tall windmill he built and erected on his farm site as a memorial to his late wife, Darlyne. Her name is written on the tail of the windmill. Photo by Steve Palmer
A unique project that he completed in May 2015 was a 32-foot tall metal windmill that he designed and erected in memory of his wife. “I saw one once that I liked while traveling through Missouri,” he explained. “I had the tower already finished before she died and then I built the turbine later. Her name is painted on the tail of the windmill. We held a dedication open house after it was put up on the south side of the farm site, and about 125 people came to see it,” he remembered.
Walter is grateful for all the motorcycle trips he and Darlyne enjoyed, and those thoughts come back often whenever he makes plans to add more miles to the 78,000 already driven on the Trike since he bought it.
Most of the time Walter says he just “rides by the seat of his pants” when he takes off on a trip not knowing a particular destination and often travels 100-150 miles on a nice weekend day.
He said he’ll keep riding his cycle for as long as he’s physically able. “I know people who are 20 years younger than me who have trouble getting around, and I thank God for my life. I believe that every day is a celebration, and by working with Habitat for Humanity, I feel I’m giving something back by building a house for others and helping out with my talent and time,” he explained.
He believes in living life generously and trusts he has more years left to ride on his cycle and continue with woodworking hobbies and gardening. He’s already looking for a new Habitat for Humanity project to travel to and work at next summer. “It was such a satisfying experience, and as long as God keeps me healthy, I’m ready to go.”
He agreed that Darlyne probably would like that.