By Daniel J. Linss - Editor

“Pride in Excellence” is more than just a catch-phrase for Eilen & Sons Trucking – it’s a way of life.  Everything that this family/company does is bursting with pride and overflowing with excellence.  Their fleet of award-winning trucks, their crew of dedicated employees and their high level of respect from the trucking community are just a few benefits resulting from this unwavering commitment to be the best.  But in the midst of all this pride and success, they are also the most sincere and humble people you will ever meet.

Eilen & Sons Trucking, based in Hampton, Minnesota, is owned and operated by Tom & Julie Eilen and their three sons, Jake (27), Pat (24) and Jonathan (23), as well as their 19-year-old daughter Jodie.  Sadly, their son Jake was recently killed in a tragic automobile accident near their home.  We wondered if this cover feature would still be welcomed, but Jake’s brother Pat said that it is what Jake would have wanted.  “He was there at the photo shoot and every other step of the way, he just won’t get to see it finished,” said Pat.  We decided that the best way to honor this young man and the rest of his family would be to tell their story as we would have told it before this terrible accident occurred.

Tom Eilen began has truck driving career shortly after graduating from high school in 1972.  After three months of driving someone else’s truck, he was ready to buy his own.  Tom’s first truck was a daycab cabover.  After buying his second truck, a brand new conventional, he began running over-the-road.  In 1982 he came off the road and began working as a dispatcher and a mechanic for another carrier.  Over the next three years he helped build that company from just two trucks to twenty.  But all the while he was yearning to own his own fleet.  And then an opportunity presented itself.

The carrier Tom had originally worked for had dwindled down to just two owner operators.  Tom asked the owner if he had ever considered selling out.  At first he declined, but later called back – and the rest is history.  In November of 1985, Eilen & Sons Trucking began with three accounts, a couple of trailers and no trucks.  Talk about humble beginnings!  Tom’s wife Julie did all of the billing and paperwork out of their home at first, but it wasn’t easy – she also had three small boys at home to take care of.  In 1989 their daughter Jodie was born, and at that time Julie found it virtually impossible to continue doing all of the office duties, so they hired Patricia “Trish” Matthees to take care of things.  And almost 20 years later, Trish is still with them.

The foundation of Eilen & Sons Trucking was built on simple principles – be on-time and have premium equipment.  Tom attributes their steady growth to good old fashioned courtesy, punctuality and always having a well-maintained fleet.  The boys grew up around trucks, and when it came time to decide whether to go to college or drive truck, they all reached for the keys.  Their daughter Jodie chose the college option and is currently studying at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago for a degree in Fashion Merchandising.  Between semesters and during the summer, she goes home and helps out in the office.

The trucking office, shop and yard (as well as their home) sits on a beautiful 250-acre piece of land in Hampton, Minnesota.  Tom bought the property some 20 years ago and built the shop.  About five years later they built their house on the same piece of property and have lived there ever since.  Their front yard must be at least five acres of perfectly manicured grass (the pictures were all taken right there on their front lawn).  We joked about how they have a guy who works for them full-time that just cuts the grass.  By the time he gets to the end of the lawn it’s time to go back to the beginning and start again!  In fact we wouldn’t call it property – it’s more like a compound.  The “Eilen Compound” also has a pond with a bridge and a dock, a 300’ x 100’ storage building known as “the museum” (we’ll talk more about that later), assorted yard art featuring giant statues of Vikings and other characters, antique trucks perched upon rocks, and all sorts of other fun stuff.  It’s almost like a small amusement park, and something about it just makes you feel good while there.

Currently, the Eilen & Sons fleet consists of about 40 trucks, many trailers (each truck has at least two trailers), and about 75 employees.  Pulling end dumps, dry vans, liquid tankers, step-decks and flatbeds throughout the Midwest, the company hauls all kinds of freight including road salt, decorative rock, liquid fertilizer, U.S. Mail (during the Holidays) and pre-cast concrete products.  Tom is also a dealer for MAC Trailers.  The trucking shop has seven work bays and one wash bay, and the yard looks like a truck show every day.  Even the old dirty trucks, parked way out in the back, have fancy paint jobs featuring flames and checkers and plenty of chrome.  In addition to the flashy paint jobs, each of Tom’s trucks feature a small picture of Father Time – a chubby, short old man with a long white beard and big shoes – pointing up at the phrase “Just Passing Thru in Class!”  All of the painting is done by Greg Stahl of Top Gun Kustoms in Cambridge, MN.  Tom doesn’t get to drive much anymore, but if he could, he’d drive every day.

Tom and his boys have attended the truck show in Louisville, KY for the last 15 years, but they did not start competing until 2003.  Prior to that, they would just go to the show to walk around and look at everything.  Later, when they began ordering custom trailers, they would bring their latest and greatest trailer and display it in the manufacturer’s booth.  At some point, they began displaying a matching truck and trailer in these booths.  Everyone told them that their trucks should be outside, competing in the truck beauty contest, so in 2003 they finally did it.  Jake built a cool, black 2003 Peterbilt with big, bold orange flames and Tom sent one of his drivers, Brad Caton, down with a fancy truck painted yellow, orange and white.  Jake took 1st place in the First Show (Bobtail) category, and Tom’s truck won 1st place in the Paint & Graphics (Combo) class.  Not bad for their first time out!  Since then they have won numerous awards with several different trucks, and graced the pages of many books, magazines and calendars.

Jake and his wife Anne currently own six nice trucks and two trailers.  Operating under Jake Eilen Trucking, two of their trucks and two of their trailers are signed on with Rollin’ Transport in Wisconsin, while the other four trucks pull dad’s trailers for Eilen & Sons Trucking.  Jake’s personal truck is a 2007 Peterbilt 379 with a 36” flattop sleeper, a 565 Cummins ISX, an 18-speed trans, 3.55 rears and a long 285” wheelbase.  Featuring black paint with thin red and orange flames, Jake’s truck pulls a matching 40’ MAC “Macsimizer” half-round end dump.  Jake and Anne recently had their first child, a boy named Jaden, who just turned one.  They are currently building their dream home next to his parent’s house on the same property where the shop is located.

Pat, who is still single, is the middle son.  Operating under Pat Eilen Trucking, Pat owns one truck which pulls dad’s trailers for Eilen & Sons Trucking.  Pat’s “Iron Outlaw” is well-known throughout the truck show community.  Painted white with lime green accents and flames, this 2006 Peterbilt 379 (which has over 400,000 miles on it) features a 48” flattop sleeper, a 625 Cat, an 18-speed transmission, 3.36 rears, a 280” wheelbase and many custom-fabricated and/or painted pieces.  Pat, like his brother, pulls a matching 40’ MAC “Macsimizer” half-round end dump.  Pat was born on St. Patrick’s Day – that is why they named him Pat (besides his father, Tom, everyone else in the family has a name that starts with the letter J).  The St. Patrick’s Day connection is also the reason why Pat chose white and green for his truck’s color scheme.

Jonathan, Tom’s youngest son, does not have his own company or truck yet.  He works for his dad and drives a dedicated company truck, which is a nice white 2007 Peterbilt 379 daycab with a 475 Cummins ISX, an 18-speed trans, 3.55 rears and a 240” wheelbase.  Jonathan’s truck, which features silver and red flames and checkers, pulls a matching 35’ MAC tri-axle square box end dump.  Jonathan loves trucks as much as any of the brothers, but his passion is stock car racing.  He has been racing since he was about 15 years old, and currently competes in the newly-formed ASA Midwest Tour.  After earning the title “Rookie of the Year” two years ago, he finished in the top 10 last year.  Now, in its third year, Jonathan hopes to do even better in the series and attract a big sponsor.  Currently, Eilen & Sons Trucking is his main sponsor, but he has a bunch of smaller ones, too.  The series he races in is about three steps below the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which is the pinnacle level of success for a stock car racer.  Jonathan works full-time for his dad and races once or twice each week.  When possible, the family goes out to the races together to support Jonathan.

Tom’s driver Brad Caton has been with Eilen & Sons Trucking for over 15 years.  Although he is not actually a blood relative, all of the Eilen boys consider him to be part of the family – and for that, he gets to drive a nice show truck, too.  In fact, many could argue that he gets to drive the best one of them all – having won four Best of Show Combo awards at the last four shows it entered, it is certainly the most decorated.  Brad and his top-notch company truck and trailer have kicked everybody’s butt this year!  Brad’s truck is a 2007 Peterbilt 379 with a 565 Cummins ISX, a 48” flattop sleeper, an 18-speed trans, 3.55 rears and a 285” wheelbase.  Brad’s truck, which features dark blue paint along with bright yellow, orange and silver swirls and tribal flames and checkers, pulls a matching 35’ MAC tri-axle square box end dump.  They originally built this truck two years ago, and it did okay on the show circuit, but something just wasn’t right.  So last winter, when business was slow, they tore it down and completely re-did the engine and interior, and then made some adjustments to the exterior.  Obviously, the changes made a big difference, because Brad’s rig was the one to beat all year long (and nobody could do it).

When the boys aren’t out trucking, they enjoy riding their Harleys and their snowmobiles, traveling to truck and car shows, going to NASCAR races, and hanging out in “the museum” behind their house.  The museum, as the boys call it, is a huge metal building that houses many of Tom’s collectibles including about 30 collector and/or limited edition cars and 10 motorcycles, tons of transportation-related antiques, pictures, neon signs, autographed racing memorabilia, lifelike mannequins doing all sorts of silly things, toys, clocks, you name it – this place is filled from floor to ceiling, and so clean you could eat off the floor.  In the middle of the main room there is a beautiful wood bar, trimmed with pieces of diamond plate, and a big screen TV.  Up a circular staircase that leads to a nice little overlooking deck above the bar, is a couch and some tables and chairs.  There is one undeveloped section at the end of the building which Tom is reserving for some of his nicer big rigs once he retires them (and for some of Jake’s show trucks, too).

Unfortunately, as revealed at the beginning of this article, this light and entertaining story has to take a terrible turn.  On the Sunday night before Thanksgiving, November 23, 2008, Jake lost control of his pickup just down the street from the shop and slid into a ditch, causing his truck to roll end over end, and ejecting him out of the vehicle.  Pat and his friend Seth were at the shop when it happened and Seth actually heard the crash.  They jumped into Seth’s pickup and, arriving first at the scene, found a mess of truck parts and debris scattered everywhere.  They frantically called out to Jake in the dark, but he never answered.  He was killed instantly.

Word of the tragedy spread fast within the trucking community – everyone was stunned and shocked at the news.  On the following Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, some 3,000 people showed up at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Farmington, MN for Jake’s wake.  Several of the mechanics and drivers cleaned up and polished Jake’s trucks and then lined them up outside the church.  The funeral service was held the next day at the same church, and then a procession of vehicles, stretching more than 10 miles long, drove to the cemetery.  Pat led that procession driving Jake’s first show truck, along with Jake’s son, wife and brother Jonathan aboard, hooked to a brand new MAC step-deck with Jake’s black casket and prized Harley Davidson motorcycle strapped to it.  As you can see in the photo, it was quite a touching scene.

The Eilen family wanted to thank everyone who sent cards, flowers and gifts, or just said a prayer for the family as they struggled to get through the dark days after losing Jake.  And it meant so much to the family to see how many people traveled from near and far to attend the funeral.  Jake’s mother Julie wrote: “There are places within our hearts that can only be filled with memories, and there are places in our souls that can only be healed with time.  We shall miss Jake so very much.”

Eilen & Sons Trucking wanted to also thank the many people behind the scenes who help make the company so successful.  They wanted to thank Trish Matthees for her 20 years of hard work and faithful service as their secretary; her husband Mark and Keith “Hub” Hubbard for all the custom fabricated details they add to the show trucks; their mechanics and drivers who keep the trucks going and deliver the loads; and Seth Johnson, who is always ready to help polish and go to the truck shows.

We would like to thank the Eilen family for showing us such a good time when we were at their place.  We know this article and the pictures are bitter-sweet, but we are glad that we could finally do it.  Your “Pride in Excellence” shows in all that you do.  We are grateful for the time we got to spend with Jake and the rest of the Eilen family.  Remember, God is in control, and He will always comfort us in times of need (Mathew 5:4).