May 1, 2015
Thank you to Dave Backmann at the IUOE 139 for sharing this very well written piece on Hoffman Construction's history within Jackson County.
It would be exaggerating to say that four generations of Hoffmans have built a road-building business with annual revenues of $100 million upon a foundation of sand.
Still, there’s a grain of truth in that statement because sand has been relevant to Hoffman Construction Co. even before the business was incorporated. And with Hoffman Construction growing its presence in the extraction of “frac sand” for the oil industry, the company continues to have a more-than-coincidental link to the aggregate material that was deposited so generously beneath the family’s home turf of Jackson County.
Sand undeniably played a role in company founder Peter James Hoffman leaving his farm outside the county seat of Black River Falls in 1915. He and his wife, Anna, struggled to make a living off the sandy soils on their property.
So they moved into town that year to establish a dray line business. Peter hitched horses to wagons and hauled coal, lumber and other freight from the community’s railroad depot to businesses and homes. The couple made a good team, with Peter driving teams of horses and Anna collecting the bills, according to historic data from the company’s website.
Duane Hoffman, the couple’s only son, later insisted that every job the company bid have some sand in the earth to be moved. Conservative-minded in such matters, he saw more profit and less risk in jobs with sandy soil because sand dries out relatively fast. Earth-moving equipment can go back into action in sand more quickly than in clay, for example, following wet weather.
Hoffmans were skilled horsemen
Peter James Hoffman ran a successful dray line business in large measure because he handled horses with skill. He moved with confidence to form a partnership with other businessmen when the state Highway Commission sought to improve what was Highway 27, now Highway F, leading north out of Black River Falls. He and his partners, including Fred Meeks, bought horses and wagons to complete the job and the Hoffman family entered the road-building business.
Meeks passed away in 1921, leaving Hoffman the sole owner of the business.
“It was all horsepower and lots of times they loaded the wagons by hand,” said Peter John Hoffman, a grandson of the founder, who is retired from the company. “Out West they were using teams of mules instead of teams of horses to build railroads, because mules were smarter and stronger than horses. So our grandfather went to an auction in Minneapolis and bought teams of mules as the railroad projects were completed.
“It was like going from gasoline power to diesel power.”
In these early years of the company, construction equipment along with men, mules and horses often moved by rail from job to job, much like a circus traveled, said Peter John Hoffman.
The year 1927 brought triumph and tragedy to the family. By then the business had grown to the point where Hoffman Construction Co. was incorporated. But on July 25, Peter James Hoffman was shot and killed at the Black River Falls train depot by a man who had traveled from Minneapolis to work on a Hoffman crew. The crew was building Highway 54 south of town.
The murderer was caught shortly thereafter and sentenced to a life term at the state prison in Waupun.
David Hoffman, Peter John Hoffman’s brother who likewise is retired from the company, said his father, Duane, talked an angry mob out of lynching the murderer. “Grandpa was well liked and they wanted to kill this guy,” David said. “He talked them out of it. But Dad never liked guns, or even watching westerns.”
At age 23, one year removed from his studies at the University of Wisconsin, Duane was thrust into heading the business. Two years later he married. His wife, Lavina, would serve as president of the company for the next 50 years. Their son, David, would succeed her in the president’s role.
Like father like son, Duane Hoffman was good with horses. During the Great Depression, he and his cousin, Ike Hollenbeck, bought and sold horses for area farmers as a source of income. Sometimes they traveled to Canada to find the best animals, David Hoffman said.
Company beefs up equipment
In 1936, Hoffman Construction successfully bid to build Highway 16 overheads in Sparta. Until then, the standard size piece of earth-moving equipment had a capacity of 12 cubic yards and was loaded by shovel. For the project in Sparta, the company acquired 20-yard LeTourneau W scrapers that would be pushed by Caterpillar D8 dozers. “This revolutionized dirt moving,” David Hoffman said.
World War II defense spending boosted Wisconsin’s earth-moving industry and construction of Camp McCoy in Sparta evolved into a major project. Hoffman Construction and the Frank
Mashuda Company Inc. partnered with other contractors to initially build the base. Thousands of civilian-soldiers would be processed and trained there. David Hoffman remembered that although his father, Duane, was drafted at age 39 in 1943, the commander of Camp McCoy insisted that the US Army keep him employed at construction work on the base through the remainder of the war. And it did.
Beginning in 1956, the building of a vast network of federal, interstate highways throughout America would figure prominently in post-war expansion of the family business. Construction of the Interstate 90/94 interchange near Lodi was the company’s first interstate project. Ten years later, another major highway-building project would come along, the largest ever for Duane and his boys: Excavating the cut for I-94 at Northfield, north of Black River Falls.
The company secured three new 641 scrapers for the job. Duane Hoffman also decided in 1966 to sign a contract with Operating Engineers Local 139, mainly because the company lacked health coverage and a pension plan for employees. “Everyone on the crew got top wage,” David Hoffman said. “That was just because Dad wanted to be fair with everyone. And everyone in the company went into the Operators’ health and welfare (funds).”
After more than half a century in earth-moving, Duane and Lavina turned over their business to David and Peter John Hoffman in 1979. The fourth generation entered the business in 1982 with Peter’s son, Paul, joining the team. In 1989, another son and current company president, Jim, came on board.David’s son and current vice president, Mark, started in 1991. David’s daughter, Kristine Hoffman Scott, also has worked for Hoffman Construction as has Paul’s daughter, Molly Hoffman Long. David and Peter John Hoffman turned over company management to Jim and Mark in 2003.
Duane Hoffman passed away in 1993; Lavina in 1995. David and his brother, Peter John, said Wisconsin road-builders provide a valuable, cost-effective service to the citizens of the state. “The people get safer roads and a better transportation system and the contractors provide good-paying jobs, too,” David Hoffman said. “The citizens of Wisconsin have gotten a hell of a bang for their buck with the competitive bidding system we have. “You don’t see too many out-of-state contractors coming here to do this work, because we do it cheaper.”