Not all factory workers are treated by the boss’s wife to egg coffee and homemade cakes, cookies and other sweets for their morning and afternoon lunch, 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. breaks. But so it was for the maximum of 30 employees of Dokken Machine Works in Benson.
Neil Dokken, contributed photo
The birthplace of the once great-in-demand Dokken Box, Dokken Machine Works, was the culmination of Noel Dokken’s years of innovation and perseverance. Farmers highly regarded the self-unloading wagon; especially for silage. Alwood Dokken, the lone survivor of Noel’s family, tells the story.
Noel Dokken grew up in Pope County’s Langhei Township, graduated from Starbuck High School, and attended Hanson Auto Electric School in Fargo, N.D., to become a mechanic. In 1932 he opened an auto repair shop named Little Crow Garage in Sunburg, Minn.
After his marriage the next year to Agnes Vinge, also from Langhei Township, he moved to Benson and worked as a mechanic and salesman for Peterson Motor, the Ford dealer.
During World War II, Noel served in two ways. One duty, as a civil defense air raid warden, was to make sure all the lights in the city were out at night. He also managed Peterson’s defense plant, which was located in the rear of the present Breen Drug. There he made forming dyes for 30 and 50 caliber bullets, which he delivered to the arsenal in Arden Hills every Friday. Alwood recalled riding with his dad on those Friday deliveries, after which Alwood would be rewarded with an inexpensive toy from Kresge’s in downtown Minneapolis. The high acceptance rate of Noel’s work earned him the bonus of a drill press. “My dad always said, ‘If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.’”
Noel then went into business for himself by setting up shop in their home on 11th Street South, where he worked on a hay stacker for which he received a patent in 1946. Located on the first landing to the basement, the welder was covered when visitors appeared. “Dad was welding in the basement of the house.”
The hay stacker was Noel’s second invention. His first was a grocery cart child seat. His two business partners at the time refused to pay their share of the patent fees. He dissolved the partnership.
Noel moved his shop into the former Janson Auto Electric Building located on 14th Street North, where he worked on a front end loader, or manure loader, for which he received a patent.
Elmer Dalen’s Shop on the west end of Benson was his next location, where he built loaders and hay stackers. Alwood held his dad’s handmade wood casting pattern for hay stacker drive gears and asked, “It has 90 teeth. Can you imagine the time it took to make this?” He also told this story: “Made of cast iron, a drive gear would weigh around 100 pounds. Dad would say to a visitor in the shop, ‘Look at this casting.’ And ask the guy to lift it. Of course the guy couldn’t. Dad would then ask, ‘Do you want to see one tough kid?’ He’d ask me to come lift one.” Around 10 years old, Alwood knew which one was the identical looking wood one.
Building a 50-foot x 100-foot shop on the north side of Benson on Hwy. 9 was the next and final move for Noel’s business. “That’s where the Dokken Box was born.” The shop eventually was doubled in size, with an office in the front. The shop came first; the Dokken home second, on the same block.
Besides, Agnes’ baking for the employees, the family business also included daughter Marlene, who for some years contributed her secretarial skills. Alwood began working for his dad at 8 years old by supplying a bluegrass farmer with 500 three-quarter inch round steel plugs for bluegrass strippers. Every day the customer would check on Alwood’s progress and give him a bottle of orange pop from the Benson Bottling Works. In junior high or younger, Alwood hated painting those boxes with creosote paint; he told Erling, his older brother by three years, who suggested missing a few spots. Shortly after, Noel suggested that he quit painting. Erling’s interests lay elsewhere and chose an accounting career in Minneapolis. Alwood chose to stay with the firm.
Alwood Dokken with a casting pattern made by his father, Noel Dokken, who invented the Dokken Box a self-unloading wagon, especially handy for silage. The Dokken Box was produced in Benson at Dokken Machine Works. Photo by Arlene Quam
In his Benson shop, Dokken was building PTO self-unloading wagons designed by a Morris, Minn., firm. The Morris firm preferred selling the boxes over building them. In 1950, Noel bought out the firm and redesigned the wagon to eliminate silage “bridging” during unloading. The first boxes were made of wood; later, steel with wood floors. Noel’s invention of the hydraulic running conveyor proved key to the wagon’s success.
“A patent is only as good as the amount of money you can spend defending it,” said Alwood. To use in gravel transport, a big business infringed on Noel’s hydraulic conveyor patent.
Two main wagon models were manufactured: the rear unloading and the side (right and left) unloading for feed bunks. Two sizes were made of each model. It would take one day to make one large Model #730, but seven of the Model #660. Says Alwood of the #660, “We could have an inventory of 200 sitting in the shop, and they’d disappear in no time.”
One day three semi loads of angle iron were emptied by manpower. With no forklifts, Alwood and the other employees moved and placed the 40,000 pounds of angle iron neatly in the proper place more quickly than a front end loader; moreover, a front end loader would still require manpower for proper placement. The company bought sand castings for gear boxes and bought steel directly from steel mills.
During the winter the company also manufactured two sizes of manure spreaders. Later production also included two models of snow blowers: one with two augers; another, three. The Viking’s profile on the snowblower decal is Noel’s profile. “Exactly,” said Alwood. In total, Dokken Machine Works manufactured 12 different Noel Dokken-designed equipment items.
Asked to go on the road, Alwood did as told and towed a Dokken Box behind a company truck. Prospective buyers would ask if he was having trouble. His first sales venture failed.
A few years later, he was again asked to sell. Alwood agreed, but only on his terms. His requirements were new suits, sports coats, a new car, new briefcase and no questions asked about his expense account. He got all that, but he wasn’t ready to go until the week before Christmas. “Today’s the day,” he announced. Loaded up with Christmas gift calendars, he took off and did not report to his dad while gone. He returned home at noon on Christmas Eve and received a call. “Did you sell anything?” Noel asked. Alwood said he should come over to see. Noel came, Alwood headed for the shower and told his dad to check out the briefcase.
Returning from his shower, he saw Noel grinning from ear to ear. “I had sold 70 of the biggest units. In a couple of months we were behind 100 units.” Although he succeeded as a salesman, Alwood was also wanted to be in the shop. “My dad wanted me to know all about the machines.”
One of the designs from Neil Dokken. Contributed sketch
“Every year was a good year except election year,” said Alwood. “People were uncertain of what would happen.” The firm had 150 dealers in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and northern Iowa, with some activity in Wisconsin. The wagon evidently sold internationally. Kenneth Amundson, of Benson, recalled a movie on farm practices shown in junior high school in which a Dokken Box appeared being used in Holland.
Alwood became a partner with Noel in 1959 and later bought his dad’s share. The production of Dokken Boxes became unprofitable with the rapid and huge changes in farming practices and machinery. At the end of production, serial numbers were in the 5000s. The use of a Dokken Box is nearly obsolete; however, to this day, Matheisen’s Disposal in Benson uses one for sorting.
In 1969, Dokken Machine Works was sold to Lorenz Manufacturing of Benson. Lorenz continues to build the snowblowers.
Noel Dokken was more than an inventor and businessman. As his pen and ink drawings attest, he was a pretty fine artist. Very involved with his church, he served on Our Redeemer Church’s building committee back in 1958 and contributed his handiwork in areas of the structure. An affable and soft-spoken guy, he easily made friends, whom he’d invite over for his wife’s home cooking.
Asked what it was like working for his father, Alwood answered, “The harshest he ever got was to say, ‘What were you thinking?’ He was the neatest guy I ever ran across.”
Noel Dokken died in 1974.