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Never a dull moment

St. Peter couple has had a colorful life together, with a good helping of culture and a sprinkle of danger

By Carlienne A. Frisch

DeVon Esau of St. Peter is no stranger to danger. Growing up in Mountain Lake, he flew one-seat experimental gyrocopters and has survived several accidents that resulted in fuel spillage. He has owned three gyrocopters—all single-seat planes. He would like his next one to have two seats so he can take grandchildren up with him.

DeVon and Sheryl Esau in their 1950s-themed basement area in St. Peter. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

His wife, Sheryl, takes part in activities that are not dangerous but also offer a challenge, including opening their home to 12 foreign exchange students—two at a time--over five years. The couple also enjoys quieter activities, such as woodworking and quilting. She said, “I consider myself an experienced quilter. I have made well over 100 quilts. All of our beds have one quilt on them, but most quilts are given away as soon as they are done. We always say we got our creativity from our parents. At age 88, my mother still embroiders and loves giving hand-made gifts, and my father still does wood burning and learns a new craft every year—one he can do with his now limited ability.”

The Esaus also have opened their home for numerous Bible studies in their home.

“The Bible is our owner’s manual,” he said.

Guests in the rural St. Peter home may be invited to enjoy a 1950s experience in the basement--complete with a jukebox filled with vintage music and a soda counter stocked for making ice cream sodas and sundaes. The couple has done all of the construction themselves.

DeVon began his working life early. While in elementary school in Mountain Lake, he worked in his father’s auto body shop. In high school, he worked long hours as a building mover. He studied auto mechanics at the vocational school in Pipestone while doing maintenance work on night shifts at Pipestone County Hospital, where, he recalled, “I had lunch with the nurses at 2 a.m.”

The military draft ended DeVon’s formal education, taking him first to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training, then to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he trained to become a track vehicle mechanic. During his posting to South Korea, he maintained and repaired tanks and drove military personnel to their destinations. He also transported handcuffed inmates to Inchon Prison.

“My life was threatened many times by prisoners,” he recalled. “And I got lost many times, but always somehow found the way out of the narrow streets. There was no one to ask for directions and no signs in English.”

After his discharge in December 1972, DeVon returned to Mountain Lake and went to work moving buildings, including houses of every size, churches, barns, elevators and more than one railroad depot. That occupation provided a variety of dangers.

DeVon Esau sits in one of his one-seat gyrocopters that he flew in the 1970s. A gyrocopter is a type of rotorcraft that uses an unpowered rotor in free autorotation to develop lift. Contributed photo

“A couple of houses fell while I was under them, a barn dropped while I was working a point under it, a house hit electrical high lines while I was riding the roof, and 60 feet of timber fell off a hook and pinned me to the ground,” he said. “That time I got only a broken leg.” He eventually moved to the relative safety of managing an auto body shop for four years.

DeVon said his interest in flying developed from watching the TV program “Whirly Birds.” While growing up, he built five line control model planes and flew them, even upside-down.

“I exceeded the limits of what they were designed to do—and, therefore, they crashed,” he said. “I rebuilt them and flew them again.”

In 1974, when he was 23 years old, he built the first of three gyrocopters. He mail ordered the kits and had to do the measuring, cutting, drilling and riveting before flying them. By definition, a gyrocopter is a type of rotorcraft that uses an unpowered rotor in free autorotation to develop lift. Forward thrust is provided independently by an engine-drive propeller.

DeVon learned to fly by having the gyrocopter pulled behind his father’s car, with the plane’s engine off. He said he learned to take off and land without the plane’s engine being turned on, and although it may sound nearly impossible, he explained, “that’s what I did. The only way you can get it licensed is to show that you can take off and land, so that’s what I learned to do while being pulled behind my father’s car.”

DeVon was always intrigued with aircraft.

“I started building a gyrocopter with a 90 horsepower engine. I enjoyed experimental flying for quite a few years in the Mountain Lake area and then in the St. Peter area.” He has survived several accidents and credits his safety and survival to miracles.

He described one accident in detail. “I was flying a gyrocopter one day in 1978 near Windom. There was a hole in the gas line, so high octane aviation fuel was spraying on me and on the engine. The throttle broke at almost full throttle, but I managed to fly back to the airport and descend to 10 feet, shut the magneto switch to kill the engine and dead-stick the landing without power. I found that the lower engine mount bolt had been removed even though the bolts are safety wired with locking nuts. It was possibly because of sabotage done just for fun by someone who often watched me work.”

In Mountain Lake, DeVon took off from alfalfa fields, gravel and asphalt roads and driveways—wherever he could find a little landing strip.

“I flew by the seat of my pants,” he said. Later, he availed himself of a small airport that was just a few blocks from the Esaus’ home in St. Peter. He taxied to the airport on a road, which he said, “wasn’t quite legal.”

DeVon, Sabine Scherb (intern), Karin Jakob ( intern), and their son, Ryan, at Oktoberfest in Munich, during our visit that the girls lined up for us. Contributed photo

The various jobs DeVon has done include managing an apartment building in Mountain Lake. There, he met Sheryl Franz, a teacher who lived across the hall from him. They married in 1979 and moved to St. Peter the following year. There, they purchased licenses for professional office and home cleaning businesses, which they sold in 2015, when they began their own cleaning business. They had bought their rural St. Peter home in 1988 and did some remodeling, including putting a 1950’s era cafe in the basement, complete with juke box and soda counter.

The couple also has been creative in their parenting. After having two sons, they adopted a three-month-old daughter from Korea and later had a third son. (Sheryl grew up with a brother who had been adopted from Korea.)

“Our daughter has the same birthday as I have—that was our sign,” she said. “We had prayed for a sign that we would get the right child. We had the same social worker through Lutheran Social Services as my parents had when they adopted my brother.”

Between 2007 and 2012, the couple hosted 10 foreign exchange students and two interns from Germany who spent time with Sheryl’s employer, Rolls Royce Solutions America in Mankato. The exchange students, all girls, came from Venezuela, Germany, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Thailand and Spain.

“All of the girls spoke English well, some better than others,” Sheryl said. “We hosted two at a time because we had two empty bedrooms upstairs, and it made sense to have them used. Each girl had her own private space, but they also had each other with whom to do things. In 2010, we had a houseful, with Anna from the Netherlands, Fon from Thailand, and the company interns Karin and Savine. Every year we took the girls to the Minnesota State Fair. The four girls who have returned to visit us wanted to go to the fair again. Two girls surprised our youngest son by coming to his wedding, and we have visited Anna’s family in the Netherlands and the families of the two interns in Germany.”

There’s no question that DeVon and Sheryl Esau have had interesting experiences, with an element of danger in some of them. Sheryl said of her husband, “He likes living an exciting life.”

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