Route 3, Box 3722 Grayling, Michigan 49738
And so we go to Michigan. Then, we go to Frankenmuth, in the thumb area of the state. We wander around the community a bit - and if our ears are correct, it is evident that we are in a German oriented community. And, if our eyes are correct, we see definitely an Alpine flavor.
Winnie was born on a farm, just north of town in 1908-went to school in the community and at 16 years of age started with a threshing rig. As he says, he was low man on the crew, so was in charge of the 'machine'. Or shall we say separator, it was not until 2 years later that he left the farm for good and got a job in the Reindel and Schreiner Lumber mill in town. That job lasted for 40 years. The mill was powered by a hundred horsepowered steam engine and it was Winnie's job to keep everything in good operating condition. Along with this, he found time to help a threshing company run their steam engine for ten or eleven years. What better background could a steam man have?
The mill operation closed in 1967 and Winnie became a shop mechanic at Weiss Farm Equipment until 1974, when he retired. This retirement, per se, didn't last very long. However, it did give him time to do some things in his home workshop such as building a grandfather clock and some long-planned for furniture.
One of the many items Frankenmuth is famous for is eating. And, a couple of the largest eating establishments are owned by the Zehnder Family. It seems that Tiny Zehnder has, of late years, become more and more aware of heritage - or history.
And because he is definitely a 'doer' he started putting things together. In about 1975 he purchased from a neighbor farmer a Port Huron steam engine, a Baker separator, a McCormick binder, and an Oil-Pull tractor. Everything wasn't all ready to go. The steamer needed considerable tender loving care. They got Ansel McGurk from Flint to do the boiler work and the rest of the restoration was done by newly-retired Winnie Kern. Really, I don't believe that Winnie ever planned on a rocking-chair retirement. The threshing outfit performs every year at a threshing day or two at the Zehnder Farm where many neighborhood folks come to help, look, and at noon, eat. This plus several appearances at the Saginaw County Fair. Then for several years the engine was used on a sawmill at the Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival. And always the man in charge is Winnie Kern.
Back to the threshing - as most readers well know - after the binder comes shocking of the wheat. And a laborer in that section with experience beginning in 1924, is Frieda Kern, wife of Winnie. She grew up on a farm near Frankenmuth. In fact, her great grandpa, John Conrad, was one of a group of 13 of the original settlers of the area.
Sometime in the late seventies, the idea for a covered wooden bridge across the Cass River and behind the Zehnder's Restaurant was jelled. Parts of the bridge could best be obtained locally and sawed locally. So, Tiny Zehnder bought a used Meadows Mill from Renco Co. in Lapeer, Mich. After Winnie completed the restoration, the mill was set up on the Oscar Huber farm and the sawdust pile started. One item the bridge needed was 22,000 special shingles for the outside - each inch thick and 36 inches long. Took a bit of looking around for the native cedar until Oscar found just the right stand at Hillman. Actually, they sawed cants on the sawmill and finished on a band re-saw that Winnie had put in good running order. The bridge is complete and beautiful now. I would suppose that many readers of this story have driven over it by this time.
Right now it would seem that Winnie could get down to regular retirement - but not so. A group of Frankenmuth folks purchased an old flour-mill from West Branch, a nearby town, with the idea of tearing it down and moving it home to the banks of the Cass River. This to be run by water power. The project isn't completed as yet though the machinery is all moved and - same fellow in charge of the operation. Seems there was no end of work to re-do the machinery to like-new condition. Winnie is still at it - the metal, that is. A good share of the wood parts of the mill needed stripping of old varnish and re-varnishing. Frieda to the rescue.
Even as I write this, wintertime here in Florida, they are both busy in the Kern basement - getting the parts ready. If all goes well I assume the reassembly will begin this summer. And so goes the retirement of Winnie Kern - steam man - sawmill and thresherman-mechanic-and a tremendous rebuilder of our history and heritage.