Located on the corner of State Hwy 52 and County Highway Q in the town of Easton in Marathon County, Zahrt Implement has been serving farmers and rural residents since 1952. Stepping through the door and past the Microfiche machine is a little bit like stepping into the past. The bolt bins are stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling along with other supplies, some of which are dated and no longer relevant, beneath the buzzing of fluorescent lights. The cement floor is polished to a fine patina by 65 years of men in work boots searching for the right bolt or draw pin. The decor includes a fake auction billing from a farmer named I.M.Sunk, and a separate piece of paper with characters rolling on the floor laughing as they ask a customer “you want it when?” On the counter an old piston with a valve head fused to it serves as a paperweight. An old long haired grey cat stays close to the wall and out of the way of patrons and owners Jeff and Keith Zahrt.
My earliest memories of Zahrt’s (locally, Zahrt’s is all you need to say, everyone knows who you mean) are riding along with my grandfather in his Rambler Classic with some broken piece of steel that needed welding, or maybe he needed a ½ inch capscrew before he could finish some task on his 30 cow Guernsey dairy farm. As a boy of 10 from a suburb of Chicago I was wide eyed with awe at the sights at this place. Men in pinstripe overalls and classic Oshkosh farm hats were the norm. To my young eyes, it seemed there was always at least one farmer with a missing finger or hand in the bunch, possibly carrying an errant generator off an old Oliver tractor that needed attention. My fondest memory is from my early days of owning my own farm in the neighborhood, about 3 miles away, near the Eau Claire Dells. When I bought my farm, I was blessed to also have purchased two Allis Chalmers D series tractors along with a Farmall H. Those wonder machines are long gone and I have no sentiment about their absence. The D19 was my workhorse and the D17 did many of the smaller tasks, and was badly in need of an engine overhaul and haying season was just around the corner. I was relatively new in the neighborhood and flat broke. I remember asking Lawrence Zahrt, the original owner, if I could pay the bill off over several months and he thought that would be just fine. A handshake was all that was required, and I was one very relieved young man. I was good to my word and paid the bill in full, and I believe this was the first in a series of events that taught me the valuable lesson of being a bridge builder in terms of surviving in the world of farming. In addition to my D series tractors I was also the owner of an Allis Chalmers 302 bale chief small square baler. Lawrence was the local baler knotter expert and without his expertise and occasional on farm service calls to help with knotter issues I would have been lost. Being a new farmer from a non- farming background with a degree in Dairy Science from the University of Illinois, there were many gaps in my knowledge and experience base. Beyond my herdsmanship skills I had much to learn about the day to day aspects of farming, and building strong relationships with those who could help me was extremely important to my survival. Having a place to take a part that needed fixing, or a tire that needed repair before being able to accomplish a task on the farm has been invaluable to myself and other farmers in the area.
Lawrence Zahrt was the original proprietor of Zahrt Implement in 1952. He rented a garage about a half mile from where the business is located today and in 1956 moved to the current location. In the early years the repair work was done in a renovated dairy barn. The business has largely been a family run operation since its beginning, except for employing a few neighbors over the years. One notable exception was a worker who was quietly sneaking tools and merchandise into his vehicle to add to his personal collection. After suspicions arose amongst Lawrence and Keith, a detective was called upon and a trip to the courthouse ensued and things worked themselves out.
In addition to being a repair service for local farmers and residents, Zahrt’s was also an official dealer for International Harvester, Patz equipment, and Kast-Rite silos. With the rapidly evolving nature of the agricultural landscape those dealerships were eventually discontinued. Lawrence was involved in the day to day operation of the business up until his death in 2007. Keith and Jeff took over ownership of the business in 1992. They are self-taught mechanics who have divided their labor amongst them, Keith being the tractor guy and welder, while Jeff spends most of his time on auto repair. I couldn’t help but ask who oversees the radio that plays over the noise of the daily work taking place in the shop, Jeff makes the decisions there. They have a sister, Susan Muzynoski, who comes in every Tuesday to do the bookwork. Jeff was quick to answer when I asked if the business carried any debt, “no”, he replied, and the business is also profitable. One of the biggest timesavers in terms of their daily routine was when they switched from doing the billing by hand to computer in 2008. Credit card use became an option in 2011.
The nature of their work has changed over the years as the trends in farming change. Keith says that he spends more time on repair of tractors used in Ginseng operations. One of the biggest challenges is dealing with the technological “advances” in tractor and auto repair. The advent of electronics has made diagnostics more specialized, and at times not feasible for them to invest in. Sometimes, the brothers agree, it seems an electrical engineering degree should be required to own modern farming equipment and automobiles.
From my perspective as a farmer, Zahrt’s is more than a place to bring a flat tire or piece of broken steel for repair. It’s a place where you might run into a fellow farmer that you haven’t talked to in years, but feel you know as a brother. It is someone you can relate to about the trials and changes that have occurred in farming, and the fact that you’re still around despite the challenges creates that sense of brotherhood.
Keith and Jeff admit that when it’s time to retire and sell the business it doesn’t seem likely that it will stay in the family. It is my hope that it stays in the neighborhood as a place where locals can have their repair needs met, and not have to take their business a half hour or more away into nearby Wausau, or Antigo. That concern is for down the road a bit, so for now we can continue to benefit from the local gem that is, Zahrt Implement.