BioA: Zilk, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph (Golden - 1971)

Contact: Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon

Surnames: Zilk, Metz, Betz, Ruland, Mungor, Peters, Campman, Lee, Bennett

----Source: Clark County Press (Neillsville, Clark Co, WI) 1/07/1971

Zilk, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph (Golden - 12 January 1971)

Mr. and Mrs. Joseph F. Zilk of Neillsville will begin the observance of their golden wedding anniversary on Sunday January 10, by attending 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church together with members of their family.

Following the Mass, a noon family dinner, proved by their children and prepared by the women of the church, will be served in the church hall. Later in the day they will greet their many friends and acquaintances during an open house to be held from 2 - 4 p.m. in the church hall.

The Zilks were married January 12, 1921, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Stetsonville by Father Betz. Their attendants were her sister, the late Anna (Metz) Ruland of Milwaukee, and his brother, Mike Zilk, Eagle River, presently living in St. Louis, Mo.

Mrs. Zilk, the former Theresa Metz, is a native of the Stetsonville area. Her husband was born in Kaukauna and came to Stetsonville, by way of Auburndale, with his parents at about the age of 13. The elder Zilks eventually retired to Marshfield. Mr. and Mrs. Zilk are the parents of three sons, Joseph, Jr., of Wind Lake, and Glen and Francis, both of Neillsville. There are eight grandchildren, two boys and six girls.

As members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church here, the Zilks have been active through the years in its various men and women’s organizations. During his career as a Neillsville businessman, Mr. Zilk was a Kiwanian. He has retained his charter membership in Haugen-Richmond American Legion Post No. 73, from which he has received 50-year membership pin.

Joe Zilk’s life in Neillsville extends over a period of 57 years, beginning with his arrival here in August of 1914 as a Rawleigh product salesman. Finding it difficult to reach his customers during the winter months, he developed a “snowmobile” to provide faster, easier transportation over the snow-covered roads of the area. His first snowmobile was actually a standard automobile fitted with sled-type runners in front and with dual wheels, narrowed to fit the prevalent sled tracks, on the rear. The wheels were chained to provide better traction.

On their 1921 wedding day, which Mrs. Zilk recalls as being very cold, close to 20-below zero, members of the wedding party were transported from the rural Metz home to the Stetsonville church in the same converted 1915 open-top roadster which Mr. Zilk purchased in 1916 and used during his Rawleigh days.

Mr. Zilk believes that he was issued the first snowmobile patent in the United States. The document, which took about two years to obtain, is dated December 31, 1918. It is titled, “Runner Attachments for Vehicles.”

His design was so effective that various local blacksmiths and garage-men remodeled other people’s cars to snowmobiles as well, and Mr. Zilk received royalty payments on fifteen or twenty such conversions. He recalls that local veterinarians and doctors were among the first to make practical sue of the vehicle.

In those days, country roads were rarely if ever plowed, and so the usual practice was for people to put their cars up on blocks for the winter and depend instead on horse-drawn sleds and sleighs for transportation. Only in larger cities such as Marshfield were streets plowed enough for engine-driven vehicles to function.

Horses, however, were slow, and so those who tired of their three-mile-per hour rated had their automobiles converted to fit into the sled tracks. Such snowmobiles were capable or traveling 40 miles per hour with a light load.

The difference in use of the snowmobile in the late teens and early 1920’s is striking to the Zilks, who reflect that the early snowmobile was not a luxury item designed for the winter sports enthusiast, but a practical necessity for efficient travel over the snow-bound northern countryside.

Bulk Agent

Mr. Zilk continued with the Rawleigh Company until called into the Army in 1918. He remained stateside during World War I and was discharged in 1919. Upon his return from the service, he changed his career and became a Standard Oil bulk agent, staying in that line of work until selling the agency in the 1930’s.

It was during his years as an oil man that Mr. Zilk modified his snowmobile design to aid him once again in his deliveries. Basically, the new conveyance consisted of a truck body with a four-wheel, caterpillar-type chain drive mechanism on the rear, and again, runners replacing the front wheels, all narrowed-up to fit the still-prevalent sled tracks.

Delivering petroleum products by snowmobile-truck was a great improvement over the earlier, slower method of using a horse-drawn tank sled. Mr. Zilk remembers that in winter it once took as long as two days for him to reach Granton from Neillsville, allowing for a few farm-delivery stops, snow filled and drifted roads, and occasional tip-over’s.

In the era of the early 1920’s, deliveries were made to general stores and hardware dealers, rather than to filling stations, which were non-existent at the time. People used mainly kerosene for their lamps, lanterns, and stoves, along with some gasoline for engine-driven vehicles. Stops were not generally made at private homes, as most people did not have facilities for bulk storage.

Mr. Zilk’s territory extended from the southern limits of Clark County up to the area eight miles north of Neillsville. A typical circuit would include deliveries at Globe, Christie, Chili, Lynn, Granton, and Shortville. The work day began early in the morning, often before daylight, and usually extended far beyond the 5-6 p.m. quitting time common nowadays.

While such trips were indeed slow and lengthy, Mr. Zilk recalls an even slower and longer trek he made with a team as a young man. Stetsonville a t the time was an important lumbering area, and after a disastrous mill and yard fire around 1909, he was given the job of taking a remaining team and wagon to the company’s facilities in Oshkosh, approximately 146 miles away.

The trip along the “Yellow Trail”, old Highway 18 marked with yellow-banded utility poles, took five and one-half days. Without road maps or markings such as are available today, the usual procedure for the traveler was to ask directions progressively along the route.

Travelers often times received such advice as to “Go to the next corner and turn left,” or “Go to the school house, before turning,” and, quite frequently, “Follow the railroad,” Mr. Zilk said.

“Zilk Villa”

After selling the bulk dealership, the Zilks bought the land on the south side of town still occupied by a Standard Station. At that time it was a vacant lot, but an old house to the north of the property was torn down in order to make more room for the new construction.

The original two-stall service station was finished in 1931. Subsequent additions were made in succeeding years, until the building attained its present size. The attractive granite stone used as facing for structure came from the county shale pit northwest of town.

The Zilks, who had moved to a house on Oak Street immediately after their marriage and later built the Clay Street home now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. R. P. Mungor, erected a new home on Hewett street, immediately to the north of the garage.

When all the construction was completed in 1939, the Zilks added an automobile dealership to their service station facilities. A contest to find a name for the complex was launched that year. Judges Donald E. Peters, Wm. Campman and Hazel Lee were called upon to choose a suitable title from among 357 names submitted. Dr. M. E. Bennett’s suggestion of “Zilk Villa” - a diminutive of “Zilk’s Village,” was declared the winner.

After 42 years of business in Neillsville the Zilks sold their property in 1956 and moved to Milwaukee. They returned here about a hear and a half ago on May 29, 1969, after selling their Milwaukee service station to the school board, which needed space for additional facilities at an adjoining school.

Their present home on Division Street, located almost diagonally southwest of their former house, suits them well. It’s not surprising to learn that they are unaware of the noisy stopping, starting, and gear-shifting of the countless vehicles which pass by on the busy highway outside their front door.

Joe and Theresa Zilk like to live in a busy place where there is always something going on!