‘Salvaging history’

Hilken repairs antique furniture

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Mark Hilken, of Fort Dodge, works on a chair in his shop recently.

It was 1990-something when Mark Hilken took a trip out to the Fort Dodge Regional Landfill and noticed a collection of antique chairs that had been left to rot.

“I pulled up in a station wagon next to a pickup truck,” he recalled. “They had thrown out a pickup load of antique chairs, and I will never forget that. There must have been eight to 10 chairs just laying there in the dirt.”

But instead of loading up the abandoned furniture, Hilken drove off without the pieces.

“I looked at them, and I thought I had no idea where to go with them,” he said. “I didn’t have the time.”

Now when Hilken thinks back to those forgotten chairs, he regrets not taking them with him and restoring them.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Mark Hilken, of Fort Dodge, repairs a chair in his shop recently.

“When I look back and go back to that dump, I think there’s no reason they had to be there,” he said. “The point is, every one of those chairs were salvageable. There’s nothing broken on a chair that I can’t fix.”

Hilken, of Fort Dodge, has been repairing antique furniture for 26 years.

He said if it’s made of wood, it can be fixed. Rocking chairs, kitchen chairs, and tables, are examples of projects Hilken has taken on.

When Hilken visits the landfill, he said he doesn’t usually find tables.

“Every time I have been to the dump, I have never seen a table out there,” he said. “I have seen chairs, busted up stuff, but I’ve never seen a table.”

The legs of chairs are a common repair he makes.

“Tenons — I’ve repaired more of those than I can count,” he said. “A lot of people have no idea these things can be fixed.”

Hilken graduated from Fort Dodge Senior High in 1974.

He woodworked full-time from 1991 to 2001, before going to work at National Gypsum Co. and then Valero Energy Corp.

“I grew up a lot working for those companies,” he said.

Hilken returned to full-time wood working in 2017.

He makes the repairs in a single-car garage behind his Fort Dodge home.

Hilken said his education in Fort Dodge schools was beneficial.

“I am self-taught, but all of the basic woodworking training I got from Mr. Peterson’s wood shop at the north junior high,” he said.

Peterson was one of Hilken’s teachers in 1970 at Phillips Middle School, he said.

“He really taught you the basics,” Hilken said. “He unwittingly taught me everything I needed to know.”

Hilken said Phil Hanson at Fort Dodge Senior High also helped him.

“I had drafting with him, and every project I build from scratch or art pieces,” he said. “I am a real supporter of industrial arts at the high school.”

Many of the pieces Hilken works with have a connection to the past.

One particular item was a high chair that Hilken believes was made during Civil War times.

An older couple from out of town brought it to him.

The woman had sat in the chair when she was young, he said.

“They were made from 1750 to 1900,” he said. “It was about 100 years they made them.”

The chairs had handles and could convert into strollers, he said.

Hilken was able to successfully restore the high chair.

“You get stuff like that,” he said. “Sometimes you find signatures written on the furniture. These people’s lives are just bound up in this stuff.”

Through his work, Hilken gets to know the people.

“The real joy in this is when you do stuff like this, you learn about people’s families,” he said. “I love getting to know them and the significance of the piece.”

He said some older furniture can contain more than one type of wood.

“You find out that even though some of this might be semimanufactured, it’s not like today where everything is identical,” he said. “I got to repairing a chair and all spindles were handturned. From everything I could see, it was a hand-built piece. It’s not uncommon to find pieces of furniture that have three or four different species of wood in one piece. Oak, maple, ash, hickory, you find all that in a piece.”

Hilken has earned Iowa State Fair ribbons and awards for his woodwork. He won Best of Show in 1999 and 2000.

In 2017, Hilken restored 105 pieces.

He likes the challenge of bringing something back to life.

“I enjoy the detail work,” he said. “Restoring things, bringing them back up to speed.”

He plans to continue his craft for the foreseeable future.

“You are matching stuff that hasn’t been done in 100 years,” he said. “You see their joinery and how they do stuff. Lord willing, I’ll get another 20 years.”