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  • Dale C. Maley

Concrete boat's ties to Fairbury

Many people would suspect that a boat built from concrete would never float.

In the 1970s, a concrete boat was constructed in Fairbury. This boat sailed down the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

This concrete boat's story began with Gerhard Heppner's birth in 1930 in Kongsberg, Germany. At the age of ten, Gerhard joined the Jung Folk. This organization was similar to the American Cub Scouts. One of the major activities of this youth group was building and flying model airplanes. Flight tests were made with the model airplanes every Sunday morning, and prizes were awarded.

At the age of 14, Gerhard joined the Flying Jugend. This group was similar to the American Boy Scouts. Gerhard flew in model gliders he helped to build. The gliders were catapulted into the air using large rubber bands. The flights lasted up to 60 seconds.

Unfortunately, because of World War II, Gerhard had to move around because the Russian Army entered that area. Gerhard escaped from Kongsberg by ship and went to Mecklenburg in 1945. In 1947, he moved to Braunschweig, West Germany, to learn the mason trade. In 1949, Gerhard moved to the Cologne area and worked as a mason. Gerhard married in Germany. Gerhard and Margot Heppner had their first child in Germany.

The Fairbury Presbyterian Church had a program in the late 1950s where they arranged for immigrants to move to Fairbury. In March of 1957, Gerhard and Margot Heppner and their infant daughter, Erika, emigrated from Germany to New York City. They took trains from New York to Forrest, Illinois. A Presbyterian committee met the family in Forrest and drove them to their new home in Fairbury.

The church committee, headed by Howard Fugate and Harold Shives, secured an apartment on the second floor of the Fosdick home at the corner of Hickory and Cherry Streets. The house was furnished entirely by donations from the church members and was ready for the Heppner family to live there.

Wallace Ramseyer was a popular rural mail carrier in Fairbury. Wallace served in World War I, and he was injured in combat. Wallace was then featured on a cover story for Life Magazine in 1937. The magazine wanted to look into the life of World War I veteran Wallace Ramseyer and how he coped after the war was over.

Wallace Ramseyer's mother was born in Germany and still spoke German. His mother acted as an interpreter for the Heppner family. Each room in the Heppner apartment had at least one item donated by the Wallace Ramseyer family.

Gene Zimmerman, a masonry contractor in Fairbury, offered Mr. Heppner a mason job as soon as the construction season started in 1957. Mr. Heppner accepted the position and went to work as a mason for Mr. Zimmerman.

Less than three years after he arrived in Fairbury, Mr. Heppner built a new home for his family at 211 Wanda Lane. Because he was a mason, he made his new home using concrete blocks. The first floor of this house was built of six-inch reinforced concrete. Mr. Heppner did all the work required to build this home.

Gerhard Heppner's dream was to live on a boat when he retired. Being a mason, Mr. Heppner built his boat using reinforced concrete. He started making his boat in the basement of his home in 1973. He moved the ship out of his basement at some point so he had more room to finish the craft.

This concrete boat was 41 feet long and weighed about 30,000 pounds when it was completed. The maximum width, or beam, was 12 feet. The ship was designed to be submerged underwater for five and one-half feet. The height of the boat was 11 feet. Mr. Heppner built the steel frame and covered it with 4x4 eight gauge reinforcing mesh and three layers of 19 gauge chicken wire. An epoxy coating was applied to the concrete after it was cured.

Gerhard Heppner designed his boat with a 45-foot high mast and an 800-square-foot cutter rig sail. An auxiliary four-cylinder Mercedes Benz diesel engine was installed in the ship with a 100-gallon diesel fuel tank.

The upwards force on a boat is proportional to the weight of the water displaced. The craft will float if the upwards force is higher than the boat's weight. Calculations show that Gerhard's design had about five times the upwards force needed to float.

In June of 1979, the 30,000-pound concrete boat was loaded onto a low-boy trailer operated by Limestone Transit of Fairbury. The ship was trucked to Seneca and placed into the Illinois River for testing. The vessel worked just as Gerhard Heppner had designed it. Eventually, the concrete boat was floated down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The ship was then operated in the Gulf of Mexico for many years.

Gerhard Heppner now lives in Texas. Margot Heppner died in 1997 at the age of 65 in Panama City, Florida. She was buried in Fairbury's GracelandCemetery.

Gerhard Heppner is a very creative man. As a youth, he built airplanes and gliders in Germany. As an adult in Fairbury, he designed and built his own house and a unique seaworthy concrete boat.

(Dale Maley's weekly history column on Fairbury News is sponsored by Antiques & Uniques. "No matter what the collector seeks, it's worth a trip to Antiques & Uniques" and by Doug and Dr. Charlene Aaron)

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