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Family, friends remember Harry McNeilus, Man of Steel

Harry McNeilus started his steel warehousing and delivery business in 1957 with one truck. He is shown here in 1982.

Harry Lanelle McNeilus, 91, died Jan 13, in his home in Dodge Center. Those who knew him well say he was a successful man of faith who lived with enthusiasm and a twinkle in his eye.

The following anecdotes by family and friends offer a glimpse into the life of the founder of McNeilus Steel.

School years

Harry attended the Hylandale Academy in Rockland, Wis., in the 1930s. Apparently mischievous enough to almost be expelled, he was saved by his interest in cutting wood, according to Harry's youngest son, Mike. Using a two-horse team and a cross cut saw, Harry and a friend cut so much wood that the school burned it for four years after Harry graduated.

One teacher reportedly said, "I know you want to expel him, but have you seen that pile of wood?"


When Harry met Grace

Harry served in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946 as a Sea Bee (Construction Battalion) in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. He served part of the war in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. One of his duties there was guarding a large water tower.

One day, a farmer was plowing a nearby field with a team of horses and he and Harry fell into conversation. Reportedly, the farmer let Harry drive the team and Harry let the farmer shoot his rifle. Later, the farmer introduced Harry to a pretty Irish lass, Grace Flynn, who lived on a nearby farm. She later became his bride.

While the couple was stationed in England, Harry worked on what was to be Eisenhower’s command center, prior to the D-Day invasion.

The couple were staying in one of a series of flats near the construction site, and one night German bombs started to fall. An incendiary bomb fell through the ceiling of the room where they slept but failed to ignite.

One of Harry’s mates in the Navy said he never bothered to get up during the night to go to the bomb shelter when the sirens went off. He said the bomb either had your name on it or it didn’t. Harry replied that he and Grace went to the bomb shelter to avoid bombs addressed "to whom it may concern."

Harry tries farming

After Harry returned to the U.S. with his wife, he tried farming for awhile on 80 acres of hilly country in locally named Irish Ridge, between Lanesboro and Fountain. He received training to be a farmer after the war, and an ag teacher from Wykoff said Harry was the most successful student he taught because Harry knew enough to get out of farming.


Scrap metal business started

Harry, Grace and their two sons, George and Marnelle, moved to Dodge Center and Harry took up the scrap metal business. Harry’s brother Linden had introduced him to the business before the war in Clarion, Iowa, where Harry was born.

In Dodge Center, Harry started by using an old Chevy truck to haul scrap metal to the Twin Cities and sell it. With George’s help, he eventually started bringing back pieces of fabricated steel and selling them to local blacksmiths, which gradually led them to the new steel business.

In 1970, George went into the new and used machinery business — Southern Minnesota Machinery Sales — and Pat, the McNeilus’ third son, began working with his father.

Marnelle, Harry and Grace’s second son, received a bachelor’s degree in business and then served in the Army from 1968 to 1970. When he returned to Dodge Center, he was involved in the business for a number of years.

Their daughter, Maureen, worked for the company briefly before pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant. Their youngest son, Mike, works at the company today.

With Pat’s help and later leadership, the steel business that Harry and George had forged grew into today’s McNeilus Steel, with Pat at the helm. There are 414 employees in Dodge Center, a branch in Fargo, and another in Fond du Lac, Wis.

Harry’s generosity


Harry and Grace sponsored Robert and Teresa McIntyre (Grace’s sister) from Ireland to come to the U.S., and Robert helped Harry in his fledgling business in the 1950s until going to work for Crenlo, where Robert worked for 11 years.

"Harry was very decent, very kind, and he was a good businessman," Robert said.

The couple also sponsored Grace’s sister, Eileen Hayes and her husband, John, who, with their son, Brian, moved to Dodge Center. John Hayes initially worked at the scrap yard and later moved to Lake City.

Harry served as the guardian for a local developmentally disabled man when asked by the man’s dying mother if Harry would watch over her son. One of the activities Harry arranged for the man was to allow him to walk around the warehouse with a security guard badge, until the day he told Harry, "My doctor said I have too much iron in my blood to be in this steel building."

Community involvement

Harry was active in the Seventh Day Adventist church and in the Dodge Center community.

In the early 1970s, an area newspaper reported that "Dodge Center was dead," and that the local school should be merged with the Hayfield school.

Harry had a giant stethoscope made out of scrap metal and took it to the local bank building, where he held it against a wall and pronounced the city "still living."


He was elected to the school board and helped raise the $1 million needed to build a new Dodge Center school, thereby keeping children in town.

Farther afield

Harry enjoyed fishing and hunting at his resort, Bear Trap Bay, near Park Rapids, Minn.

Harry once had a steel live trap made that was strong enough and large enough to catch a bear. He set the trap up near the resort’s dump. While resetting the trap, he was caught inside. He started yelling and making a racket until the caretaker came out with a broom to see what was going on and set him free.

Later years

Harry lost Grace in 1997.

In his later years, Harry especially enjoyed visiting with Julie Bradley, Grace’s best friend from Ireland who was also widowed after the death of her husband, Jim. Julie came to the U.S. to visit Harry several times a year.

The two would tour the county in Harry’s Chevy truck, stopping in different small town stores to get a drink or treat and visit with people.


Between Julie’s visits, Harry was able to stay in his own home because of the help of many loving caretakers.

Julie’s next visit to Harry would have been in early February; she had to change her plans and come early for the funeral.

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