ROCHESTER, Minn. — Rochester is probably best known for being the home of the world famous Mayo Clinic, founded in 1889. It is Rochester’s economic center, employing some 30,000 people in the city of roughly 108,000.
But for the staffers of Dison (pronounced dee-son) Cleaners, former and present, Rochester is home to another longtime community fixture that holds a much more special place in their hearts. His name is Leland.
Earlier this year—on June 2, to be precise—Leland Bierbaum, 86, marked 65 years of service as the company’s bookkeeper. That’s right—65 years.It is his first and only job.
It was the summer of 1947 when Harold “Hap” Dison Sr., grandfather of current owners Mark and Greg Dison, hired Bierbaum. He started out making $35 a week and worked every day but Sundays.
“Hap” Dison and his wife, Emma, started the business as “Home Laundry” (he opened it in their basement) in 1919. Bierbaum remembers the elder Dison telling him tales of collecting dirty laundry in a pushcart. Dison moved the business into an abandoned garage in the early 1920s, and then sometime later moved into a much larger building on East Center Street.
“That was a good-sized building, and we were there for many years,” Bierbaum says. “That’s where I joined the firm in ’47. They were well established at that time, with many employees and several trucks.”
Since 1954, Dison Cleaners has been headquartered at 214 N. Broadway, on Rochester’s main street. The business now has a total of five locations throughout the community and employs approximately 45. “We are a full-service dry cleaner and shirt laundry,” says Mark Dison. “We (also) service the local hotels’ valet work.”
Bierbaum grew up on a dairy farm about 12 miles from Rochester. “My father was a farmer. I have one brother, and he stayed on the farm. (My father) had two sons and only one farm, and I’m the one who moved out. But I never intended on being a farmer anyway.”
After graduating from Eyota High School, Bierbaum went to Winona Business College. He took business, accounting and business law courses over the course of two years—“we even took penmanship in those days,” he says—and graduated in 1946.
Bierbaum spent a short time back on the family farm before heading into Rochester to find work. It was an ad in the local newspaper that led him to apply at Home (Dison) Cleaners.
Bierbaum says the basic accounting principles are still the same today, but the application is “a world of difference. No comparison.
“When I started, we didn’t even have calculators. No 10-key at all. All we had was an adding or subtracting machine or a posting machine. They all had many buttons, a row of ones, a row of twos, a row of threes, zero through nine, and you could add or subtract on them.
“Of course, the posting machine, you could enter the amount. It had a ledger sheet and a statement side by side, and it would print on both. At the end of the month, we sent the statement out but you had the record on the ledger sheet. The downside was I had to type all the names and addresses on the new statements on a typewriter that was not electric.”
Bierbaum admits still having trouble with computer keyboards because he’s “used to hitting them pretty hard.”
For many years, he conducted business not far from the front counter. “I did the bookkeeping and accounting right where the customers came in. It was all one big area, and when we moved to North Broadway, where we are now, it was still true.
“I was up there many years, and waited on customers, and got to know them. About the last 12 or 15 years, I’ve moved to a back office.”
As the business grew and started adding stores throughout the community, Hap Dison asked Bierbaum if he would run them while Dison ran the plant. “For many years, I hired and supervised the employees in those stores.”
Expanded business hours meant it was necessary to hire part-timers, often students of college age or younger, to fill out the schedule. Bierbaum says he’s had the pleasure of seeing many nice young people, often working in their first job, come through the system. He remembers a time when those employees were timid and shy, compared to today’s bold, brash youth who know their way around a computer and see the world through the eyes of the Internet.
“But throughout the years, I’ve seen many, many of these people get their college degrees and get good jobs. One rewarding factor is that many of them have stopped back and told me that I have been a good influence on their young lives. … All the money is not in the paycheck.”
Speaking of paychecks, Bierbaum earned a total of $2,150 in 1948, his first full year on the payroll. He paid federal income tax of $239.80 but received a refund of $11.80.
Bierbaum still works five days a week and has been known to drop by on the occasional Saturday, but quips that he’s never had to punch a time clock.
Why does he continue to work when many seniors retire at a much younger age? “I enjoyed what I was doing. I felt at home here. I was established. I’ve known other people to leave Dison and go out and get other jobs. I have seen some of those people file for unemployment after a few years, so it isn’t always as good as they think it’s going to be. And the family has been good to me. It works both ways.”
His wife of 53 years, Irene, who worked 42 years as a secretary at the Mayo Clinic, died in 2011. “Working is good therapy for me,” he adds.
Ask Mark Dison what Bierbaum means to his family’s business and the words come slowly. “Some people have mistaken him for the owner. The employees sure love him. They really depend on him for getting answers to their questions about different things. He’s been a part of the family, really,” Dison says, his voice trembling.
“I think it’s remarkable that Dison’s has stayed in business for 93 years,” Bierbaum says. “A family-owned business usually doesn’t survive that long. I think it speaks well of the family.”
So what does the future hold for Bierbaum? “God only knows,” he says. “I imagine that someday I will retire, yes.”