Rain for what?

"I have no idea what 'Rain for Rent' is," said Elk River Mayor John Dietz, echoing a common refrain. "I'm not familiar with it at all."

For two years, an odd company name seen along Hwy. 10 has puzzled thousands of motorists who have whisked through Elk River. Local residents may not know what Rain for Rent is, but the company has made its mark in Hibbing and along the Red River.

The Bakersfield, Calif.-based company doesn't rent rain. It rents equipment that handles problems with liquids -- from water pumps and pipes to liquid storage tanks to filtration systems.

"The name comes from our roots in agriculture," said J.P. Lake, a member of the family that created and has run the company for four generations.

The company began in 1934 as an outfit that provided irrigation and sprinkling systems to farmers. Now, under CEO John Lake, J.P.'s father, Rain for Rent still pumps groundwater into fields, but also aids government agencies in responding to a variety of emergencies -- from oil spills to floods to broken pipelines.

But the Rain for Rent name remains.

"The company is 78 years old," J.P. Lake said. "The name has worked well for us."

When a taconite plant in Hibbing nearly shut down in 2007 because of a drought that limited processing water needed for crushing ore, Rain for Rent installed a weather-resistant pumping system to provide a strong enough flow to keep the water from freezing. Rain for Rent personnel monitored the system constantly for five months. An estimated 500 jobs were saved.

When droughts in 2007 that threatened crops and lake and river levels were followed by nearly 20 inches of rain from August through October, eroding soil in southeastern Minnesota, Rain for Rent teamed with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and several watershed districts to help control storm water and discharge routes.

When the Red River flooded in 2009, Rain for Rent, at the request of North Dakota's governor, flew industrial power-prime pumps into Fargo and worked with the National Guard to deal with the disaster.

While its headquarters are in California, Rain for Rent has 60 locations and has operated in the Twin Cities market for a decade, moving to Elk River two years ago, Lake said. The staff of 15 includes mechanics and contractors trained to work at mining sites or on pipelines.

The Elk River branch covers all of Minnesota, western Wisconsin and northern Iowa. The next closest Rain for Rent facilities are in Minot, N.D., and Chicago.

"People ask us about our name all the time," J.P. Lake said from Bakersfield. "Without knowing what our company does, we still get great feedback from that name."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419