Hopkins, today, is easy to shrug off as just another suburb in the westward sprawl. But its history and growth are well-defined as the longtime home of an innovative, all-but-forgotten farm machinery business.

For more than 50 years, the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. (MTM) hired hundreds of Czech and Scandinavian workers to build massive machines that transported farmers into the 20th century.

Before that, farmers cut their grain by hand with curved, bladed scythes, often spreading what they reaped on canvas before smashing a stick to separate grain from straw, wheat from chaff. By 1850, there were hand-cranking machines to do the job.

But MTM, once Hennepin County’s largest employer, helped modernize all that. Instead of processing five bushels a day, farmers could use 17-ton, steam-powered threshing (or thrashing) machines to handle 5,000 bushels.

In the process, the company’s cavernous brick factory, its 800 workers and $2 million in sales by 1903 helped put Hopkins on the map.

“Minneapolis Threshing Machine was the business that made Hopkins,” said Gerald Parker, an expert on old steam engines who will be speaking about the company’s contributions at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Hopkins Activity Center.

Parker learned how to operate and rebuild the steam-powered behemoths from his Norwegian-born grandfather, who settled in Otter Tail County farm country near Vining. Parker now leads a group called the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion that owns 300 acres in western Minnesota near Moorhead. Every September, they break out the old machines to plow, thrash and run sawmills near Rollag.

Other than them, though, “no one alive today knows anything about these fantastic machines and nobody knows a thing about Hopkins’ early years — when either your husband or son worked there,” said Parker.

Or your mother, grandfather and uncle, as was the case for 86-year-old Jim Zdrazil.

“If you didn’t work there, you worked at the cafes, stores and other businesses supported by the facility,” Zdrazil said. “It was the biggest place around, the major employer, and that’s where you wanted to work.”

The company actually predates Hopkins.

For its first 35 years, from 1893 to 1928, Hopkins was incorporated as West Minneapolis. But everybody called it Hopkins because pioneer settler Harley H. Hopkins was an early postmaster with a healthy ego. Trains would squeal to a stop at the station on land he donated on the condition it would always be known as Hopkins Station.

In 1881, records show, neither a store nor a public building stood in the village located between Lake Minnetonka to the west and the pre-Minneapolis river town St. Anthony to the east. Within 20 years, 1,642 people called West Minneapolis home. A decade later, the 1910 population had nearly doubled to 3,022.

The cause of the spike — the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. — is also a healthy reminder that the area was built on farming and the manufacture of the mammoth machines that separated the grain and the steam tractors that plowed the fields.

The company started in Wisconsin, making wagons and bobsleighs. In 1887, owner John S. McDonald and lead investor Levi Longfellow expanded to Minnetonka Township, constructing a plant on 40 acres, according to “Hopkins, Minnesota: Through the Years,” published by the Hopkins Historical Society.

A wicked Depression in 1893 forced the plant to close for all but two days a week. A breakthrough cylinder corn sheller helped the company stay afloat, roaring back to 800 workers and a $40,000 monthly payroll by 1903.

The work was demanding, the pay lousy. Charles Beckman started working there at 13, earning 80 cents for a 10-hour day sweeping and driving parts around the plant. Foundry worker John Milbert, who was 15 in 1889, made 10 cents an hour, climbing ladders with scrap iron that he would dump in the furnace.

The line between politics and business often blurred. Early company President Paul Swenson and his top aide, Henry Moore, were also the mayor and fire chief of West Minneapolis, running a “benevolent dictatorship” with “unquestioned authority,” according to the Hopkins book.

By 1927, MTM quit making steam-powered machines, using kerosene and gas to run smaller, more efficient machines that didn’t require constant coal and water.

In 1930, a year after a merger, the newly named Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Co. employed 1,300 workers and started a night shift. “In the farm implement industry,” President W.C. McFarlane told the Hennepin County Review, “the outlook for business never looked better to me.”

Then the Great Depression whacked the workforce to 35 people by 1932. By 1938, the numbers were up but the mood had soured. Its 400 workers staged a sit-down strike that shuttered the plant for more than a month.

Shifting from farm machinery to military vehicles during World War II, Minneapolis-Moline’s flexibility propped it up. But by 1956, three top executives quit “out of economic necessity.” White Motor Co. gobbled up the firm in 1963, dumping 450 workers and transferring another 350. By 1980, White Motor went bankrupt and a pension fund scandal wiped out many workers’ retirement funds.

Demolition of the vacant brick buildings began 30 years ago, and now there’s nothing left of the company that helped make Hopkins.

 

Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com