The Making of a Better Monument: The Harrison Marker Company

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Anoka, Minnesota, lies at the confluence of the Rum and Mississippi Rivers about 20 miles northwest of the center of Minneapolis. While now considered a suburb of the Twin Cities, it still maintains that small city feel with a distinct downtown business district and its original square city blocks lined with older houses. Anoka makes a strong claim for providing the first volunteers to the Union Army during the Civil War. Most importantly for surveyors, it has been the home of the Harrison Marker Company for the past 45 years.

The founder of Harrison Marker Company was John David Johnson, who had a degree in aeronautical engineering and a passion for airplanes. A man of deep integrity and fortitude, he preferred to be known as "Dave" by his close friends and associates. During the 1950s Dave Johnson could be found doing a variety of things in his small machine shop, ranging from welding and fabrication to designing and making casting patterns for his clients. One day around 1960 the Anoka County Surveyor, Roland Anderson, came to Johnson with a desire to have him design a better surveying marker. Anderson’s request was not really unique since his plan sought to rectify the two main issues that had plagued the surveying industry for years. He wanted to have a marker that would both withstand the elements of adverse soil conditions, and also something that would retain an identifiable position in the event it was struck by machinery. With Anderson’s input, Johnson designed a cast iron marker that would not only be virtually resistant to deterioration, but also one that would purposely shear off, leaving lower sections intact in the same location where the marker had been initially placed.

Although Johnson had no background in surveying, he fully embraced this new endeavor. By 1961 ads began appearing in the ACSM Bulletin offering his new monuments for sale. By 1970 his business was almost exclusively dedicated to providing quality markers to the surveying industry. He took classes in metallurgy and learned the finer properties of dealing with cast iron materials. Although he often just scraped by to make a living in the early days, he believed in being independent without having to answer to others. Knowing that his last name was common, and not easily distinguishable, he named his company after Harrison Street in Anoka where one of his early fabricating shops was located.

Older surveyors will remember Johnson’s presence at the Minnesota land surveyors’ conventions where he first promoted his product. A firm handshake combined with the resounding words, "Dave Johnson Anoka, Minnesota Harrison Marker Company," greeted every person he met. The breakaway marker design was finally patented in 1972 and consisted of extendible portions with interchangeable tops that could bear client-preferred markings. It was more than just a survey marker; it was a work of art that showed many years of combining hard work with passion. A second patent for a drivable break-away marker soon followed in 1975. Throughout the years, other designs have followed that are covered under the same original patents.

The one aspect that Johnson could not control by himself was the actual casting of the markers, which required the work of an outside foundry. At times the foundries were his adversaries, and more than once he returned monuments that weren’t delivered to his expectations. He was blessed with a wife and five children who provided much of the early work force in assembling, painting, and shipping the markers to his customers. The business was based upon honest, no-pressure sales with the belief that a good product will sell itself, and it did exactly that.

As his children grew up and pursued other interests, Dave Johnson continued maintaining the Harrison Marker Company despite being diagnosed with cancer around 1979. He continuously pursued new ideas, and in 1987 obtained a patent for a cast iron survey marker cap. He refused to let his medical condition interfere with his dreams. At times the cancer would almost bring him to a standstill, but he would often find renewed strength and would be right back in his shop doing what he loved most. Two weeks before his death at age 65 in June of 1989, he pursued getting a flight physical so he could accomplish his dream of flying.

After Johnson’s death, all five of his children gained equal shares in the Harrison Marker Company. One son, Jack, maintained the business for six months, while also working at another occupation. A daughter, Ellen, and her husband Mark, lived out of state, but soon returned to Anoka where Ellen managed the business for the next eight years. In 1998 she bought out her siblings and became the sole owner of the company that her father had founded.

Shortly after the death of their father, the successors were faced with the continuous challenges of dealing with at least three different foundries to cast the markers. Perhaps the initial absence of Dave Johnson’s strict adhesion to quality prompted foundries to relax, but his children were quite prepared to continue the same reputation upon which their father had built his business. Having a foundry close to home was ideal, but it did not necessarily mean that it would provide a good working relationship in getting the markers produced in a timely fashion or at the expected quality. As son Jack remembers, an energetic man named Kirk VanKirk "just dropped right out of Heaven" one day at just the right time after hearing about some of their foundry problems. VanKirk, vice-president of operations, represented Progressive Foundry, Inc., in Perry, Iowa, about 30 miles northwest of Des Moines. Despite the 275-mile distance between Anoka and Perry, the two companies have worked extremely well together. Progressive Foundry produces the markers and then ships them to Harrison Marker Company, which in turn assembles, paints, and ships them to their clients.

Progressive Foundry
Owned by the VanKirk family since 1985, the foundry has deep roots going back nearly a century when it first operated as a washing machine factory. A tour of the foundry is impressive and brings the most modern technology together into a streamlined operation. Each area of the foundry is designed for specific tasks of the casting operation. One special room contains computerized equipment for quality control and strength testing the metal. The patterns for all of the Harrison markers, along with 3,500 other patterns from 150 other customers, are kept safely in a separate fireproof building away from the foundry. This ensures that in the event of a catastrophic fire inside the main foundry the patterns will remain safe.

A typical day at the foundry starts at 4:00 a.m. and ends at 6:00 p.m. During production, up to eight different castings can be in production at the same time, with sixty different ones being produced in a 10-hour shift. When the Harrison markers are being produced, they can be made at a rate of about two every 30 – 40 seconds. Molten metal is heated to a temperature between 2,500 – 2,600 Fahrenheit and poured into sand molds. A cooling period of about eight hours is then required before the markers are broken out of the molds and placed onto a conveyor with various other items in production at the same time. Workers then sort the various pieces into separate chutes where they next go to other workers who inspect and grind off the mold marks before being shipped out to the foundry’s customers.

Standing the Test of Time
The Harrison Marker Company has endured the test of time for a reason. Cast iron survey monuments are virtually indestructible and will most likely outlive any other type of metal or synthetic marker that is placed in the ground today. In one sense that durability could be a deterrent to sales since a marker will never need to be replaced at the same location unless it is struck. Even then, the time and money saved by having the remnant of the original monument location preserved saves valuable time and money in the field in the event of replacement.

Three main markers are available from Harrison Marker Company. Large standard markers in a variety of lengths, top legends, and straight or flared bottoms are ideal for perpetuating government section corners. Extendible markers have a removable top that allows a different length of spacer to be added when conditions such as pavement resurfacing requires the marker to be raised to the surface. The Slimline version is a smaller diameter thus making it more suitable for lot and subdivision surveys. Like the larger extendible versions, the Slimline markers can also be extended into a variety of lengths.

Dave Johnson sought to build a better survey marker. He staked his life and reputation upon it and was successful through determination and hard work. His legacy continues through his daughter, Ellen, who maintains the same quality upon which the Harrison Marker Company has been made famous.

Jerry Penry is employed by Lancaster County Engineering in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has been a licensed surveyor since 1994 specializing in section corner monumentation and GPS surveying He is a regular contributor to TAS.

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About the Author

Jerry Penry, LS

Jerry Penry is employed by Lancaster County Engineering in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has been a licensed surveyor since 1994 specializing in section corner monumentation and GPS surveying. He has presented surveying seminars with a historical aspect combined with modern day application. His special interests in this field include extensively researching historically relevant information, making the original surveyors' work come alive. His meticulous research and thorough writing sheds light on the original surveyors' tools, conditions and limitations. He is also very knowledgeable in various other historical matters including railroad history. He has written numerous surveying articles for newsletters, magazines and journals, and has authored or co-authored several books including The Chicago and North Western Cowboy Line: A History of the Longest Rail-to-Trail Project in America, and The Sunrise Serenade: A World War II Bomber Crew Story. Contact Jerry Article List Below