KELLOGG, Minn. – New veterans memorials are popping up around the United States, and that has meant big business for a mom-and-pop company perched atop a hill near this Mississippi River Valley town best known for its September watermelon festival.
If you’ve been to Kellogg or to the nearby towns of Elba, Wabasha, Mazeppa or Elgin, you’ve probably bumped into the handiwork of Dave and Shelly Speedling, who are gaining attention nationwide for their life-size (and larger) concrete statues featuring soldiers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. They’re painted to resemble bronze, but they cost a fraction of a bronze statue.
The Speedlings’ figures, which sell for about $3,750 plus freight charges, can now be found in 120 places across 30 states — including Circle of Heroes, the nation’s first undersea veterans memorial, which opened in August off the coast of Clearwater, Fla. They’re just finishing a new addition to that memorial: a statue honoring William R. Flores, a U.S. Coast Guard seaman apprentice who was posthumously awarded the service’s highest honor for his efforts to save crew members in a 1980 collision. He and 22 others were killed.
Their statues also are in private hands. A man from Lake City, Minn., ordered a soldier statue for his son-in-law. “Nobody is seeing it but his own family,” Dave Speedling said.
He said an Ohio company bought some of his company’s statues for Don King, the boxing promoter.
Dave Speedling started out 31 years ago as a welder repairing broken farm equipment. He moved on to selling plant hangers and high-end fencing. Then 22 years ago, the owner of a small concrete statuary producer sold his company to the Speedlings. They initially sold just a few figures, such as a “welcome” stone and a perched eagle, but now have an inventory of 3,000 molds.
That includes a bookshelf statue of President Donald Trump with an oversized head. People buy it either because they love Trump or as a joke, Shelly Speedling said.
A North Dakota wholesaler who went out of business about 15 years ago sold the Speedlings molds for life-size statues of a policeman, an EMT and a soldier, which has dramatically changed their business. They expanded the line to include a popular female soldier, a kneeling firefighter and a kneeling soldier with a symbolic “battlefield cross,” made from a fallen comrade’s rifle, helmet and boots.
When the Great Recession hit in 2007, the Speedlings said, the metalwork part of their business stalled but the statuary sustained them. They said their business, SVJ Creative Designs — named after the initials of their three adult children — now grosses about $250,000 a year. Nearly half comes from the “hero” statues, they said.
“It’s busy all year,” Dave Speedling said. “I love and enjoy what I do.”
Despite their success, the Speedlings worry about the future. Dave Speedling said he has a rare medical disorder called autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy. He’s being treated by an expert at Mayo Clinic, but the disease limits how much he can work and could be fatal.
The Speedlings said their children each have careers and don’t want to run the company. They have a handful of part-time employees, including Don Harlow, 80, a Marine Corps veteran, and Pete Maringer, 67, an Army veteran. But because of their ages, they’re unlikely to want to run the business, the Speedlings said. Even so, they said they have contingency plans to keep things going for the sake of the veterans and those who scrape together the money to honor them.
“There’s just a lot of good people in this world,” Shelly Speedling said. “And that’s why we like being a part of it.”