Half Vacuum Truck, Half School Bus Served Minnesota Pumper Well

In northern Minnesota, Dale Wicklund crafted a Frankenstein pumping bus that’s served him well for 20 years.
Half Vacuum Truck, Half School Bus Served Minnesota Pumper Well
After 20 years of service, the old bus conversion vacuum truck is heading for the scrapyard.

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Is it a school bus with a vacuum tank or a vacuum truck that can haul a bunch of students on a field trip? Does the bus driver take kids to school, pump a few tanks and then return to pick the kids up when the school bell rings?

These are a few of the questions I asked myself when proud owner Dale Wicklund sent me a photo of his unusual rig, a sawed-off 1981 Chevrolet school bus. The subject on his email was “World’s Ugliest Pumper Truck,’’ my first clue this was a working septic service truck.

And work with it, Wicklund did. Unbelievably, the Frankenstein of a truck was Wicklund’s principal pumping truck, cleaning tanks throughout the furthest northern reaches of Minnesota. Wicklund’s home base in Greenbush, Minn. (population 800) is a tad further north than International Falls, Minn., known by many as the coldest spot in the lower 48 states.

In fact, Wicklund’s one-man pumping and plumbing operation, D.W. Mechanical, is about the last stop of civilization in the state before untamed wilderness takes over and you hit the Canadian border. To serve some of his customers, Wicklund has to cross into Canada on a little nub of land at Lake of the Woods, then cross back into Minnesota to reach the tank.

SMALL INVESTMENT

And it’s cold. How cold? Wicklund says he dealt with frozen lines until the Fourth of July last summer.

It’s rough, remote country and a tough place to scratch out a living as a pumper … which explains the almost-comical Unclassy Truck photo Wicklund’s son Nels helped direct to my Pumper inbox. One of the tricked-out trucks Wicklund sees here in the Classy Truck feature just wouldn’t do way up north. Sadly, he says there isn’t enough business to justify a shiny new custom-built truck, and his farmer customers wouldn’t cotton to him coming up the driveway in one.

“You can’t build a fancy truck up here or they’ll think you’re making too much money,’’ Wicklund says in a phone call, pausing during a pumping job. “There isn’t enough cash flow to have a fancy rig. So you keep it simple and keep your costs down.’’

Wicklund sure kept his costs down over the years. Handy with a welder and a torch, Wicklund transformed the bus into a vac truck by himself. He bought the bus from the local school district for $1,500 in 1993 and figures he’s invested another $10,000 into it over the years.

First, he cut about 20 feet off the back end of the bus cab, removing four rows of seats. Then, before reattaching the rear end of the cab, he added a 200-gallon plastic freshwater tank inside the bus. To the stout bus frame, made of 3/8-inch steel, he added a manure-spreading farm tank, which he used for about five years. Then he swapped it out for a bigger, used 1,500-gallon tank. To that, he hooked up a 75 cfm Masport pump, and he’s been using the same setup for 16 years.

SPOTTY AND SEASONAL WORK

A master plumber, Wicklund, 52, says he has to be a jack-of-all-trades to survive in the lightly populated region. He does residential plumbing some days, services 60 Satellite Industries Maxim 3000 portable restrooms placed on energy pipelines and construction sites, and cleans septic systems in three counties covering 100 miles. The pumping is seasonal and spotty.

“I might [pump] 10 in one day, and then none for the next 10 days,’’ he says. So he’s made do with the pumping bus for all these years, and customers have become quite fond of seeing it running down the back roads. They appreciate that he recycled the bus rather than seeing it rot away in a field somewhere, he says. And they find it plain whimsical.

“Everyone knew who was coming down the road when they saw this old pumper bus,’’ he says.

But all good things must come to an end. Wicklund bought the bus with 150,000 miles, and he’s put on an additional 120,000 miles. With rust taking over, he is replacing the bus with a 1997 GMC 7500 that will use the same sturdy old tank.

In addition, Wicklund runs a portable sanitation truck, a 1997 Ford F-450 former propane delivery truck outfitted with a slide-in unit he fabricated using a section of pipeline pipe combined with another Masport pump.

Wicklund’s preparing to scrap the bus and expects to get $300 back from his original investment.

“She’s kind of wore out, and we’ve been evading the DOT for years,’’ Wicklund jokes. “She’s worked very well in subarctic Minnesota winters, but the cab is starting to come apart at the seams and she’s getting tired. The truly unique work vehicle has lived up to and over our expectations. We will miss the old girl.’’

CLASSY IS BETTER

I always look forward to seeing the beautiful paint jobs, graphics and polished chrome on trucks we feature in Pumper. The typical rigs you see in these pages have astounding pumping capabilities and enhance the reputation of their owners. They scream “professionalism’’ and help pumpers stand out in an industry that is seeing better and better work vehicles hit the road. I would argue a pumper is better off running a modern, well-appointed truck whenever possible.

But there’s still something to be said for a guy like Dale Wicklund, who is doing the best he can with the resources available in a remote and sparsely populated service territory. The bottom line: The old pumping truck is not much to look at, but it got the job done for Wicklund and the customers who depend on him. 



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