Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

 October 12, 1994, Page 28

 Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Good Old Days" Articles 



Good Old Days  


By Dee Zimmerman


There are some people who are gifted with a special ingenuity and who have the ambition to initiate their ingenious ideas into a reality.  One of those men came to Neillsville in the early 1900s, Joseph F. Zilk, Sr.  As a teen-ager, Zilk proved his ambition and pluck when he worked as a teamster for Hollister Lumber Co., of Stetsonville.


In the years of 1909-1910, he drove teams hauling wagon loads of lumber to Oshkosh.  A one-way trip from Stetsonville to his destination in Oshkosh took three and one-half to four days travel, over all kinds of roads.  At the end of each day, he would stop at a farm or at a small town residence and ask for lodging, dependent upon them to have feed and barn space for his horses as well as food and bed for himself.  While he worked at the Hollister Mill, he lost two fingers on his right hand.


Do you remember the first snowmobiles, or when you think the first one was in Clark County?  We would probably say the first snowmobile was invented in the 1950s.  However, the first snowmobile patent was applied for and issued to Joe Zilk by the U. S. office at Washington, D. C. in 1914.


Zilkís idea for a snowmobile was derived out of necessity.  After he came to Neillsville, circa 1914, he started a business as a Rawleigh Salesman.  There are some of us who remember the Rawleigh salesman calling on each farm home, regularly, selling spices, seasonings, ointments, etc.  He established a large route, covering most of the Clark County farms and towns. Traveling in a car or truck went fine until the winter months when large snowfalls made roads impassable.  Zilk didnít want his business hampered in the winter, so he went to work remodeling a pickup truck to be equipped with snow skis on the front axle, in place of wheels.


Later, Zilk purchased the Standard Oil delivery route after serving in the Army Air Force during World War I, the years of 1916 to 1918.  The Army Air Force was at its infancy then, with planes being introduced into warfare.  Once again, Zilk remodeled pickup trucks used for delivering kerosene to farm homes during the winter.


With the help of mechanic friends, they shortened the rear wheel axle base to the same width as the front skis, to follow the ski tracks, enabling better mobility through the snow.  Even though Zilk had procured the snowmobile patent in 1914, it was never put into production other than for his own vehicles.


In 1931, Zilk purchased lots on the corner of Hewett and Division on which he built a service station Ė car dealership of his own meticulous, unique design and one of itsí kind.


Summing up Zilkís life accomplishments, we realize he found a way to get through obstacles in his path.  He put his inventive mind to work, and then followed with the physical efforts, succeeding the endeavors he pursued.


Zilk passed away in 1972.  He and his wife had three sons: Joe of Milwaukee, Glenn and Francis, who live in Neillsville. 


When a teen-ager Joe Zilk, Sr. worked as a teamster for Hollisterís Mill at Stetsonville.  He drove team pulling wagon loads of lumber to Oshkosh, a journey which took three and one-half to four days one way.


Working as a Rawleigh salesman, Zilk designed is (his) own snowmobile so he could run his route during the winter months.  He removed the front wheels, redesigning with ski mountings.


Zilk built his first snowmobile in 1913-1914, along with mechanic friends, using the Ghent (formerly Wolff & Korman) Carriage Shop by OíNeill Creek along North Hewett St., to do their mechanical project in.


Zilk with sales valise, standing in front of one of his snowmobiles, converted pickup trucks used only for winter travel.  His office was in the building then located between the Green Lantern and Bollum's Store and is no longer there.


After returning from serving in the U. S. Air Force during World War I, Zilk worked as a Standard Oil bulk agent in the Neillsville area.  Once again, he remodeled an old pickup truck for winter deliveries of kerosene to the farms.  The tank truck was equipped with skis, mostly hand built by Zilk and mechanic friends.  As the photo indicates the rear wheels and axles were redesigned into a tandem.



The Standard Oil Co. delivery fleet of Neillsville as it appeared in 1920-21 at the bulk plant building along Grand Avenue and the railroad tracks.  Trucks in the photo were a 1920 GMC and two 1915 Internationals.  Zilk was the Standard Oil Bulk agent from 1919 to 1930.  He then purchased the northeast corner lots of Hewett and Division where he built Zilkís Villa, a service station, garage, Buick dealership and a home.  (Photos courtesy of Glenn Zilk)




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