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Emily Welker, Published January 07 2014

Wheatland man restores bikes, youthful freedom by giving them away

WHEATLAND, N.D. - It really got going with the police auction: 100 bikes for 10 bucks.

But when Jim Kieffer bought them and brought them back to his home near Wheatland, they stacked up almost to the ceiling of the barn.

“My wife says, ‘If you have a heart attack or something, what are we going to do with all these bikes?’ ” he chuckles.

There will be more than one heart affected if Kieffer ever stops working on his bicycle project.

Since that auction 10 years ago, Kieffer has been fixing up old, unloved and broken bicycles, then giving them away to children and adults whose families may not have the money to pay for new ones.

The 70-year-old Kieffer is finally slowing down, just a bit, this year.

This is the first winter he hasn’t spent each cold day running back and forth between his house and the barn, where at one point some 1,500 bicycles sat like old horses waiting patiently for a loving hand to lead them out.

Kieffer remembers the first bikes he gave away.

“My kids were all grown,” he said, and he’d just gotten 36 bikes up and running, mostly old Mongooses.

“Called a local grandmother,” who knew some folks in need, Kieffer said. Within a few hours, “a kid took every bike home.”

Nowadays, he works on the bikes in the barn when it’s warmer out. And the giving process often involves Kieffer working with helping organizations like Sister’s Path and Churches United for the Homeless in Fargo-Moorhead.

The bicycles often go to adults, too.

“If you get a bike, you can get a bigger perimeter of work,” Kieffer said, which can be invaluable for people who don’t have cars and who are trying to get out of the homeless shelter and into a regular home.

Kieffer, a farmer, understands the value of work, and not just from the work he does on the bikes.

“Some nights you only turn one or two. Some nights you can do a dozen or two dozen,” he said.

And though some bikes are nicer than others, he willingly gives them all away, even ones close to his heart.

Ten years ago, he treated himself to a pleasure ride: 300 miles on a blue-and-white-striped Schwinn antique he’d restored for himself.

When he stopped at a local store back in town, a shopper there admired it so much, he gave it away.

“I said, ‘I don’t have no favorite bike.’ No bike is too nice it can’t go.”

Kieffer’s running joke is that anyone who comes to his barn for one bike can’t leave unless they take another bike with them. “Take two, they’re small,” he likes to say.

But it’s clear he’s thinking of the family that has more than one child, plus the children’s friends who tagged along, and to whom the expense of $60 to $80 apiece for a new set of wheels is as out-of-reach as a new Lamborghini would be for most of us.

He uses his grandchildren to test each bike so it’s in good working order before it leaves the barn.

It’s pretty clear Kieffer’s bicycle business will keep rolling just as long as he does, although his wife has now learned to steer him clear of police auctions.

How could he not continue, he says, after some children have walked 2 or 3 miles to his home just to ride a bicycle away?

“You see a bunch of kids on bikes – it makes you feel good,” he said.

Forum reporter Emily Welker can be reached at (701) 241-5541