Part of my childhood was spent living with my grandparents on one of the many Kerber farms occupying the better share of Chanhassen in the 1950s.
My grandpa wired his farm buildings, repaired the roof, milked cows and maintained all of his farm equipment. My grandma managed her coop of chickens, harvested and canned a huge garden and made large vats of lye soap, and in her spare time she had raised 11 children.
Our society has changed since that time. We are now more likely to pay for our goods and services, rather than to do it ourselves.
But if you are lucky, you still have a couple of those guys in your neighborhood who seem to know how to build and repair everything. I am fortunate to have a few of these rare, but treasured, guys in my neighborhood.
With no disrespect to my highly handy and knowledgeable husband, the “guru of know-how guys” award in our neighborhood goes to Steve Knigge. Steve can build, wire and repair anything. Best of all, he is always available to a neighbor in trouble when their sump pumps fail or their water heater explodes.
Among the countless projects Steve has completed is his rebuilt 1947 Willys Jeep.
The Willys Jeep holds an interesting and prominent spot in our American history. Willys Overland Motors was a vehicle manufacturer out of Toledo, Ohio, opening in 1908.
Prior to the United States joining WWII, the War Department sought U.S. automakers to create and bid on a small reconnaissance vehicle to be used in wartime. The vehicle needed to meet small dimensional specs for transport, be lightweight, and handle irregular terrain.
It must be built with simple mechanics in mind, as the vehicles would need to be repaired by servicemen in the battlefields. It would be used to carry supplies and transport wounded soldiers from the fields. Each auto manufacturer had 90 days to create a vehicle that met these specs, and deliver a prototype to the War Department.
The American Bantom Car Factory provided the best prototype for the vehicle, but it lacked production capacity to produce the large quantity needed by the War Department. Willys and Ford Motor were awarded the contract to build the vehicle designed by Bantom. And the vehicle we know as the “jeep” was born.
Production began in 1941 with some modifications to the Bantom model. The vehicle was so cherished by the War Department that General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that it was “one of the six most vital vehicles to win the war.”
A total of 640,000 jeeps were made for the War Department by Willys and Ford. If you enjoy small bits of trivia, Ford Motor contractually agreed to replace every broken jeep part for the War Department for free. In order to assure Ford only replaced parts actually manufactured by Ford, they stamped a letter “F” on each and every part used in its manufacturing.
The war jeep soon became an iconic symbol of WWII, at home and abroad. In 1940 the U.S. War Finance Committee embarked upon a huge war bond program. Elaborate efforts were made to sell these bonds by having movie celebrities, such as Laurel and Hardy, ride in a Willys jeep while making several stops throughout the U.S. to endorse the sale of the bonds.
AFTER THE WAR
Government production of the Willys stopped following the war. In 1945, Willys filed for the trademark use of the word “Jeep” and continued production for civilian use.
The war veterans had come to enjoy driving the vehicle during wartime and were happy to come back home to their farms and use the Jeep for farming purposes. The early post-war Jeeps looked exactly like the war jeep, but had modifications to attach farm implements. As the years following the war have gone by, the Jeep has continued to change to accommodate the needs and demands of current society.
What makes a man in his 50s decide to rebuild an old jeep? Steve Knigge grew up in rural Windom, Minnesota in the 1950s. Like many post-war baby boomer families, the Knigges had a large number of children, but a modest income.
Steve and his band of seven brothers learned early in life to rebuild or repair anything on a shoestring budget. As a teenager, Steve worked at a used car dealership and got a hold of a 1958 Willys station wagon. He and his brother rebuilt it, and as you might expect, converted the engine to a V8 for more power.
The boys had a great time using the vehicle for hunting trips. I was also told about some stories involving his girlfriend (now his wife, Jamie), some gravel roads and gas problems.
Steve believes all grey-haired guys eventually want to rekindle their youth. Ten years ago he reflected on his old memories of the 1958 Willys, and began his adventure to rebuild an older model.
Steve started by bidding on several old Jeep frames he found on eBay. He finally got one for the price he had in mind. He picked up his eBay purchase in Cologne. The 1947 vehicle was produced for farm use, right after the war, and had not been licensed since 1975. The body is exactly the same as the Willys vehicles manufactured for WWII, with only a tailgate added.
Steve disassembled the entire vehicle, taking it down to the frame, placing the parts in five-gallon buckets. With the use of a large vehicle manual, and YouTube videos, he began by repairing the frame and rebuilding every part and piece of the Jeep. He found most of the replacement parts on eBay.
For many days over five years, the UPS truck would come to the Knigge house with new replacement parts. The driver got to know Steve and followed the progress of the project.
Steve is now ready to sell his Jeep to a friend. For a guy like Steve, the joy is in the process of the building.
I’d like to thank Steve on behalf of the Chanhassen Historical Society for allowing us to use his Jeep in the Chanhassen Fourth of July parade. As a historian, I appreciate people willing to restore the past so we can touch and feel what our ancestors experienced.