By Chris Pederson and Kelly Pederson
Photo credit: Michelle’s Portrait Design
In the spring of ‘79, two brothers with little experience but plenty of gumption came together as a family to open Highway 55 Rental. Having grown up off of Mohawk Drive, the Pederson boys, Reg and Jeff, were well-acquainted with the Hamel area and its residents, though were more familiar with drag racing and horses than rental. Despite the shaky start, the brothers were able to use hard work and determination to propel the fledgling company to 41 years of success serving customers across the Twin Cities metro and being part of the greater Medina community. They celebrated their 40th anniversary last July with a blowout BBQ in their parking lot that was “a real town affair,” as one attendee put it.
In the beginning, it was apparent how much the Pedersons needed to learn. Reg recalls the time a salesman stopped in two months after opening. The store had not seen many customers that day or even that week and it seemed an opportune time to gain insight from the sales rep. So they asked, “When is the real busy time supposed to start?” The salesman blinked back at them in confusion and said, “Right now. It’s June. You should be busy right now.” With it being the start of summer and its many outdoor projects, a store renting trailers and lawn and garden equipment should have been hopping at that time. It was clear the company was not gaining the customers it needed to endure.
Part of the problem was driven by the location itself. Although beautiful, the population of Medina was miniscule in comparison to suburbs closer to the city. There was also little incentive to drive people west on Highway 55 aside from the Medina Ballroom and Peg’s Countryside Café, or the “Yellow Café” as some locals called it back then.
Selling Dirt and Pushing Snow to Keep the Doors Open
Thankfully, Chippewa Topsoil was there to help support Highway 55 Rental in the early years by selling black dirt. Chippewa Topsoil was founded on the Pederson farm off Mohawk Drive with their father Harold in the early 70s and continued on through the 90s. It was there in a large dirt pile behind the farmhouse where industrial sized excavators would pull dirt out of the ground while giant bulldozers and large front-end loaders would transport the dirt into semi-trucks to be hauled away.
At it’s peak, Chippewa Topsoil was selling black dirt to most of the nurseries on the west side of town and with clients like the City of Minneapolis, the business helped keep the nascent rental business afloat. Reg ran Chippewa Topsoil while Jeff was in charge of the rental store. As Reg’s son, I personally remember my dad coming home on many late Saturday and Sunday afternoons in my early childhood. He was totally covered in dirt from working in the ‘pit’ all day. The dirt on his hands was as black as his beard with lighter streaks on his forehead and neck where the sweat cut through. At 6 foot 5 inches with dark features and a relentless work ethic, I remember thinking, ‘He is the strongest man in the world.’ His consistent care for the company’s financial health, our employees’ well being and fair attitude towards customers have made HIghway 55 Rental a step above the rest and taught my brother and I a lot in the process.
Even today, Jeff, younger brother to Reg by eight years, can still be seen working hard through a morning rush at the tool store or helping knock down tents after hours. Jeff is the type of guy that will be there to help whenever needed, even meeting customers at 55 Rental when the company is closed. Jeff recalls back in 1982, “I was at home and got a call at 11 pm from the head custodian at Wayzata Schools – Greenwood Elementary’s pipes were frozen and needed heaters and LP that night. We both rushed to 55 Rental where we loaded eight 100 pound propane tanks into our trucks. The windchill was 70-80 below, we could only be out a few minutes at a time or our faces would freeze! When we got to the school the pipes were bursting and water was running into the classrooms and hallways, yet we managed to save a lot. I’ve always liked to help people, it makes me feel good to know I made a difference.”
Their late father, Harold “Pete” Pederson, was a big part of making Chippewa Topsoil successful but it was mainly the two brothers who built the rental company. Though that didn’t stop my Grandpa Pete from always referring to himself as “the director.” He did so up through his 88 years on this earth spending some of his last summers greeting customers waiting in line on a busy day in June or driving between the two stores in his pickup making sure everyone was working. He taught me how to drive the fork truck by setting two five gallon buckets on each fork – full of water – and making me drive the truck around our bumpy parking lot without spilling a drop. It was basically impossible. Maybe that was the point.
Winter was especially hard for rental as Minnesota’s biting winters strongly discouraged doing much work outside. To supplement income, the brothers utilized equipment from the tool store to start a snow plowing business in the early ‘80s. While most were sleeping, Reg and Jeff could be found outside with a measuring stick, waiting to see if the snow was deep enough to fire up the plows. If so, the boys would take their small fleet and work through the night to remove snow for customers by dawn.
The Party Store
As the population of Medina started to increase, the Pedersons were finally starting to see a return on their rental investment. Reg recalls, “As the population grew in the area, the business grew and because we always tried to take good care of all of our customers along the way, it seemed the word finally started to get around.” As the customer base increased, so did the company’s operations with an expansion into a separate event and party rental division in 1988. It started small, mainly renting tables, chairs and a few tents for local, residential events. Although the brothers were only dipping their toes into the waters, it didn’t take long for the “party store” to show promise and while Jeff brought his step-son Darren in to manage the store, Reg brought his first son (me) on board as one of his employees in the early ‘90s.
At first I was mostly motivated by Reg insisting I work to afford more Nintendo games, yet the foundation was forming for a family business at 55. I remember feeding chairs through a chair washing machine and spooling up volleyball nets, while calculating how many hours I needed to work to buy my next video game. As I entered my teens, Darren, myself, a few full timers and some high school summer help would spend a lot of time playing the games we rented. Lots of foosball, in fact. Reg and Jeff would catch us playing so much that my dad once threatened to light the foosball table on fire in the parking lot if we didn’t stop playing games on company time.
Passing the Torch
As time went on Reg’s two sons – me and my brother Jon – and our friends, and friends of friends and their brothers would ultimately create a 20 year chain of summer staff at the party store continuing to this day.
Jon and I now run the party rental store as we slowly learn about the rest of the business. Jon manages the day to day operations of the party store, payroll, hiring and training while I handle marketing, PR and business development. Our plan is to eventually take over the business when Reg and Jeff decide to retire. That day remains to be determined as Reg still enjoys running the numbers each week and combing through P&L sheets while Jeff can still be found hooking up trailers and negotiating equipment purchases. Even after all these years, the Pederson patriarchs work with their signature traits of perseverance and grit.
A Loyal Staff
Over the years many staff have come and gone. But our most notable, loyal staff includes Gary Goodrich, Jim Koehn, Ferris Peterson and Sam Vogt, all working with us at 55 Rental nearly 20 years or more.
Ferris, who ran the back shop for many years and has recently moved to the counter, is the company’s unofficial chef, curating delicious spreads during the holidays and keeping customers laughing with his unique sense of humor.
Gary, the company’s general manager, is always willing to stay late to fix a computer or electrical issue, even after a long day of servicing the needs of customers and the company’s owners alike. And Jim, our tool store manager, has helped countless customers after close to avoid any late charges for the customer.
Having worked at both the tool and event rental stores, Sam’s depth of knowledge runs deep, making him one of the company’s jack-of-all trades, a valuable asset for any business. My brother Jon noted, “The people at our company really care about each other. Sure we have disagreements, but at the end of the day, you know there is that personal care for each staff member.”
It is that personal care, family touch and Jeff and Reg’s persistence that has allowed the company to remain open all these years including through the most devastating times the country has ever seen. While now faced with a crisis of unprecedented proportions, both sets of brothers are working diligently to keep the family close and the company and its staff afloat. Although the future is uncertain, the Pedersons and the entire Highway 55 Rental staff are dedicated to continue serving our customers and our cherished local community who have supported us for all of these years.