The paint—where there’s still paint—has faded to a dull bluish-green, but the old pickup truck’s body is sound and remarkably free of dents or scratches. Some surface rust has claimed the cab roof, the hood, the distinctive flat fenders, and the running boards, and it’s spread in patches on the doors of the tool cabinets lining the box. A long, jointed boom folds from its rear mount over the cab and back again. The tread is deep on the old military-style tires.
Dale Niezwaag sees all this and much, much more when he looks at the 1954 Dodge Power Wagon he bought a few years ago from his cousin and her husband. They’d purchased it many years earlier from Turner-Hutchinson Electric Cooperative in Marion, South Dakota, right around the time it merged with a neighboring system to form Marion-based Southeastern Electric Cooperative.
“I can’t tell you what possessed me to want it,” says Niezwaag, who’s in his second year as vice president of government relations for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, the G&T based in Bismarck, North Dakota. But give him a moment, and he comes up with plenty of reasons.
“I’ve always liked the style,” he says. “I thought they were unique-looking vehicles. And then there was the history: Two of my uncles and my dad drove that truck.”
Niezwaag’s father, Jake Niezwaag, was an electrician who, in the booming aftermath of World War II, wired farm homes ahead of the lines Turner-Hutchinson’s crews were building. In 1950, he signed on with the co-op as a lineman. He stayed there until 1986, when he retired as operations manager. His brothers Hank and Leonard also found good jobs at the co-op.
“They were there when that truck came in, brand new,” Dale Niezwaag says.
With a versatile boom that could be used as a crane or fitted with an auger to dig pole holes, the 1954 Power Wagon was state of the art.
“A drive shaft comes out of the back and hooks to the auger,” Niezwaag says. “Some poor guy would have to hold the guide handles, and my uncle Hank said it was a man-killer. You’d hit a rock, and it kind of sent you for a ride. But from their standpoint, it was a great advance because they weren’t digging poles by hand with banjos and spoons anymore.”
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“I asked my dad what he thought I should do,” he recalls. “He pointed to his hooks and belts on the wall, and said, ‘They’ve made me a good living. They can make you a good living too.’ And that motivated me into the co-op world.”
He “started out as a grunt” on the line crew at neighboring Lincoln-Union Electric Cooperative, down the road in Alcester. That was in 1978, 22 years before that co-op merged with Turner-Hutchinson to become Southeastern Electric. He made journeyman lineman, but he kept thinking about the future.
“I realized early on that working outside year-round in South Dakota wasn’t going to be as much fun when I got older,” Niezwaag says. “So when the opportunity came along to move into the member services department, I was eager to make the jump.”
He moved on to Central Electric Cooperative (Intercounty Electric at the time), in Mitchell, South Dakota, and by 1988 he had landed at Basin Electric, where he worked on load-building programs as a marketing and member services representative. Twelve years later, he transferred into government relations, and in March 2017, he took charge of that department.
All throughout that time, he recalls, he’d had his eye on the Power Wagon. After the co-op retired it in the mid-’70s, it sat out in the pole yard until his cousin-in-law bought it. Brian Dykstra has an autobody shop outside of Marion, and he and Linda Niezwaag Dykstra also own a farm.
With its winch and boom, the truck was handy to have around. But eventually, it was retired again, taking up space in a back corner of the Dykstras’ pole shed. Niezwaag would go out and check on it during visits home and eventually made his cousin-in-law an offer.
“He’d owned it for 10 or 15 years when I finally asked if he would consider selling it,” Niezwaag says. “He kind of likes to hold on to stuff, but this time he said, ‘You know what? I’ve got more projects than I’ll ever get to, and I know you’ll work on it, so okay.’ I will be eternally grateful to Brian for allowing me to buy the truck from him.”
He towed it out of the Dyskstras’ shed and loaded it onto a trailer for the long journey to Bismarck, pausing to snap a photo of Dale and Jake next to the truck. That was in 2014, and Jake Niezwaag would pass away the following year.
Dale soon learned there’s “a huge following for old flat-fender Power Wagons” and a lively market in parts for them. His wife, Jane, argued for repainting it, but Niezwaag says he sort of likes the distressed look. He replaced a badly bent front bumper, shelled out for some additional parts, and replaced the distributor and coil.
“It fired right up,” he says.
One upgrade remained, Niezwaag says. “You could see the outline of the old logo, and I was thinking about getting that repainted. Then my mother remembered some old bowling shirts that had that same logo on them from when the co-op used to sponsor a team. Bless her heart, she never threw anything away. So I took that to a print shop and had them blow it up and put it on a magnet. That was huge, to find that.”
So now, just behind the cab among the rusty patches on each side of the truck, a vintage gold logo, complete with a smiling Willie Wiredhand climbing a farm’s security light pole, advertises “Turner-Hutchinson Electric Coop” and “REA.”
Niezwaag says he plans to drive the Power Wagon in small-town parades and display it at co-op annual meetings. Contemporary co-op workers, he believes, will be particularly interested in how things were done back when their grandparents built the earliest co-op lines.
His own son, 37-year-old Casey, chose a banking career in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, but he came home to Bismarck now and then to help get the truck running again. On one of its first trips out of the shop, Casey’s 2-year-old son Cooper joined his dad and grandfather for the ride. Jane Niezwaag took a picture of her grandson waving out the window, and that shot was posted on REmagazine.coop as part of RE Magazine’s September 2017 “Vintage Utility Vehicles” Photo Challenge.
“He liked being in the truck his grandfather and great-grandfather drove,” Niezwaag says. “That’s kind of a kick. There’s family history and co-op history there.”