Tom Huemann built his Johnsburg home with his bare hands back in 1957.
And in 1964, the 86-year-old founded Huemann Water Conditioning, a family-owned company still operated today by his son, Joe Huemann. The family’s connection to the water business stems all the way to 1902 with Joseph Huemann and Sons Well Drilling.
A longtime Village of Johnsburg trustee and community advocate, Tom and his wife Darlene Huemann recently sat down with the Northwest Herald to talk about their time in McHenry County and what has kept the family going for so many years.
Ed Komenda: What has kept you in Johnsburg? Why this community?
Tom Huemann: I went to McHenry High School, and I was very active there in sports and student government. I went to Notre Dame, and I went only one year. I enlisted in flight training with the Air Force, and then I decided that’s not where I was going. I wanted to get back to Notre Dame, and then we got married, and I forgot about Notre Dame. I settled down in Johnsburg and built the house right away and started the family.
Komenda: Do you have a hero?
Tom Huemann: My dad was an idol to me, and he had the well-drilling business down the street. He was a very successful businessman. I was a well-driller, and I loved drilling wells. I loved business, and he always seemed to have everything he wanted. He was a very happy man.
Komenda: How could you tell your father was a happy man?
Tom Huemann: You can tell when somebody’s happy. Or when somebody’s looking here or looking there. I didn’t see that in him. He was a pillar in the church. Church was always big with us (St. John’s).
Komenda: How important is family?
Tom Huemann: That’s the binder that holds everything together. I have three grandsons who have graduated college. They’re quite liberal. We have great discussions. My favorite saying is: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend you to the end your right to say it.” Now that they’re graduated and they’re starting to pay taxes, they’re starting to look at things differently.
Komenda: What’s the state of the water business?
Tom Huemann: Our water treatment business is very good. When I got into it, very few people had softeners. I recognized that water was a necessity. People wanted better water. I got into drinking water. I left my dad. The reason I left my dad is I was drilling wells with state-of-the-art equipment, but new equipment was coming in. It was called rotary. There were two methods of drilling. One was an up and down pounding away and making a mud. The other one was you drill down into the soil. You could drill a well in a day where it was taking me two weeks. I said, “Dad, let’s think about that.” He said, “I don’t think we’re going to do that.” I kept nagging him. It was a lot of money at that time. He didn’t want to do that, so I said, “I’m going on my own.” I had found kids. It was hard for me to do, because my dad and I were close, and I was the oldest boy. It’s probably the best thing I ever did.
Komenda: What's your philosophy?
Tom Huemann: The philosophy of the business is service. That's what my dad pressed in me. You're here to service the people. If they call on a Sunday, and you're going to church, and they've got no water for the cows, you go fix the water so the cows got water. Anybody can sell a product, but nobody wants to service them. There are tons of equipment out there that people can buy, but if something goes wrong, nobody wants to service them. We do that.
Komenda: How do you engineer a long marriage?
Darlene Huemann: You know what you do? You work hard, you play hard and you pray hard. Three things. So many young people, they're so excited about the wedding, and after it's over, they're divorced in two years, and you know already when they're starting out they're so out of whack.
Tom Huemann: I knew right away that this is the woman I wanted to marry, and I didn't make sacrifices, I made good decisions. Today, things are really changed, and I wished we were more understanding with people in between the sexes, because we're dividing. That goes into my philosophy in politics: "I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the end your right to say it."
Darlene Huemann: Our ability to communicate, to talk with people, not at them and not have anger in it. You have to bloom where you're planted.
Tom Huemann: You can imagine what it was like when I came home and told my wife we're going to go on our own.
Darlene Huemann: And we had four kids.
Tom Huemann: I give credit to Darlene here. She was the stalwart in maintaining the company and keeping the company going, because I was on the road, going all over. A little story about that. She was home all the time with the kids, and she had a little office in the back and was doing the book work all the time, and then I got into politics.
Darlene Huemann: At 28, we had four kids, and he was on the County Board at 28 years old.
Tom Huemann: Twenty-seven. And I've got a lot of stories on that, too.
Darlene Huemann: You don't want to be here all day! (Laughing).
Tom Huemann: During that time, I was drilling wells. I'd go to work drilling a well, and I'd have a meeting in the afternoon, so I'd change clothes in the car. I'd have a meeting in the morning, and they were only sometimes two-hour meetings, and I'd get back to the well machine and drill a well. Well, anyway, that was tough. Meanwhile, she was home with the four kids, and at that time, we got paid $15 a day, if we attended the meeting, so I'd go over there for a meeting and get $15.
Komenda: When you got that $15, did you put that in a savings account? Did you sock it away?
Darlene Huemann: We had no savings! (Laughing)
Tom Huemann: It was tough. She's very frugal. We were very frugal.
Darlene Huemann: You know, he started renting water softeners. We had to refinance the house here, and at the time we had a $14,000 mortgage. Then we refinanced for $18,000 so he could by water softeners and put them in homes. Consequently ... The secret is we didn't have a Visa!
Tom Huemann: You can tell my wife is verbal. She gets into discussion.
Komenda: Well ... You said she had an office in the back. In this house, right?
Tom Huemann: She did.
Darlene Huemann: With four kids. The phone would ring, and I would say, "Huemann Water Conditioning: Can I help you?" We didn't have cell phones or nothing.
Tom Huemann: We had two-way radios.
Komenda: We're in interesting times now. There's a lot of young people out there trying to make their way in life and in their community. What advice would you have for somebody who's young, who wants to put down roots in a neighborhood or a community. What advice would you have for somebody who wants to have a good life and get what they want out of life?
Tom Huemann: You've got to work hard, and play hard...
Darlene Huemann: And pray hard.
Note to readers: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.