Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rice Creek Rancho, Part 1

Our dad, John V. Mickman, was a perennial entrepreneur whose business pursuits were unique in many ways, but mostly because few people would ever have thought of these business opportunities in the first place. His foray into the Mexican Burro adventure is a good example. Here is how I remember my dad telling me about how Rice Creek Rancho began:

In the mid 1950’s he and our mom, Lucy Mickman, decided to drive down to Mexico for a vacation. Why? I’m sure the original intent was simply for pleasure. However, dad was one of those rare individuals that learns foreign languages easily, and while in Mexico for those two weeks, he learned Spanish.  40 years later in the mid 1990’s, Mickman Brothers hired two Hispanic workers through a temp agency and none of us spoke Spanish.  So, I called my dad and asked if he could remember enough Spanish to ask these workers if they were getting paid properly, how they liked working for us, etc. He said, “Well, I don’t know if I can remember enough Spanish, but I can try.” He met with the two workers and said, “Hola, Buenos tardes.” The two guys looked surprised, replied in Spanish, and off they went on an hour long conversation…….. Amazing!

Anyway after he picked up the language during the vacation, dad was driving mom through the Mexican countryside and stopped to get gasoline. While he was fueling up, dad looked to a mesa not far off and spotted a small herd of burros. Dad asked the attendant what they were, and was told that they were wild burro’s; no one owned them, they just lived there in the semi-arid land. “Well”, my dad said. “I wonder how much they are worth if a guy wanted to buy them.” “Buy them?” the Mexican replied. “Why would anyone want to buy them? You can just go out there and get them if you want them!”, he replied in Spanish.

My dad said, “I don’t know if I want them or not right now. But, if I do want them, how much would it cost to have you or your buddies go get them and put them on a truck? I’m going home from my vacation with my wife and don’t have time to get them right now.” The Mexican began stroking his long black mustache trying to come up with the right number; too much might scare this gringo away, but it would be silly to ask too low a price. “Amigo, I think my brothers and I can get some of those burro’s for $2.50 each. What do you think about that?”

Boy, this seemed like the deal of a lifetime to my dad. $2.50 each plus somehow getting them up to Minnesota.  He was sure he could sell them for over $50 each, maybe more. “Mi amigo, how many of those burros do you think you can catch?” The overwhelming opportunities seen by the Mexican were similar to my dad’s. “Senior”, the Mexican replied, “how many burros do you want; that’s how many we can catch.”

So the negotiations and logistics were worked out standing there at the gas station in northern Mexico. My dad gave the Mexican a small down payment to show that he was serious about this business opportunity, and the Mexican assured dad he would take care of everything. “Don’t worry Amigo, this is going to be a good thing for you…”.

My mom (a very nice, very clean lady) was extremely surprised (and concerned) when dad got back in the car, drove away, and told her of his grand new plan. The problem was that we lived in a subdivision in the new suburban community of Fridley. Mom was sure we couldn’t keep burros in our back yard and we had no other place for any livestock. Dad was an aeronautical engineer at Honeywell and it was important that he stayed focused on his job since she was busy with 5 kids under six years old at home.

As it turned out, there was an undeveloped 40 acre field across the street from our house that had an old dilapidated barbed wire fence around it. When they returned to Fridley, dad met with the old farmer that owned that field and asked if he could rent it for a year or so. “Young man”, the farmer said, what are you going to do with 40 acres? You’ve never farmed in your life.” Here was a critical time in the new enterprise for my dad; he didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag with his new idea in case someone else heard about it and captured the market before he even got started. But, after going back and forth a couple of times, it became apparent that the old farmer wouldn’t lease the land to dad until he knew what he was going to do with it.

Finally my dad told him the plan, but that the plan was to be in strict confidence. “I’m going to keep burros in the field” dad explained. “What burros!” the farmer asked. “What are you talking about? How many burros?” Dad replied, “Well, I was thinking about 50 or 60 burros, from Mexico.” “From Mexico!” the farmer exclaimed. “What in the name of Pete are you going to do with 60 wild Mexican jackasses?” This seemed to be a funny question to my dad, because, from the instant he had the idea, he was certain his plan was a fabulous business opportunity. “I’m going to sell those burros, for $75 each!” dad announced proudly. 

So the deals between the Mexican and the old farmer were struck (much to mom’s dismay).  I’m not sure about the logistics of getting the burros to Minnesota or how the money was exchanged with the Mexican, but somehow dad arranged the whole thing. He repaired the run down barbed wire fence and fashioned a corral from some old lumber not far from our house. My younger brother Mark and I tagged along behind dad much of the time, but we were only 5 or 6 years old so weren’t able to help much. We really didn’t even understand what was happening – until the big day.

Dad with burros
So on one fine, early summer morning in 1956, our dad woke Mark and me up and while walking across our dew covered lawn, we watched the biggest truck we had ever seen, back up next to the corral in the 40 acre field. Then, when we reached the back of the truck, our dad yelled out to the truck driver, “Let ‘er go!” and the trailers huge tailgate dropped down to the ground, making a steep ramp. As it dropped, 60 wild, Mexican jackasses began stampeding down the ramp. They had not seen the light of day since they left the old country and were raring to go, literally. They jumped, and bumped and farted their way from the truck and ran away into the field like there was no tomorrow, happy to be free again. They were wild indeed and had never been fenced in. Mark and I crawled through the barbed wire and started running after these wild creatures; what fun!

My dad called this operation, RICE CREEK RANCHO, and he made the newspaper many times over the next few years as word spread about all the Mexican Burros in ‘friendly Fridley’. Even now, whenever I see a burro in Minnesota, there is little doubt in my mind that this is a descendant of one or more of those first 60 burros my dad brought to Minnesota in the ‘50’s. And, the good news is that this business turned out to be a pretty lucrative venture for our dad, and certainly a learning experience for all of us kids.

But to my little brother Mark and me, this wasn’t a business, this was by far the most exciting event in our young lives; we were going to be cowboys! We simply couldn’t believe that all those ‘little horses’ were ours. But, as you can only imagine, the fun was only beginning…

Find out what happens in Rice Creek Rancho, Part 2. Coming soon!

John S. Mickman
Mexican Burro Bronco Rider

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