Dakota Datebook

Headbolt Heaters

Monday, February 16, 2004

Yesterday we told you about the state record for cold weather… 60 below in Parshall in 1936.

Well, today we bring you a story of a man who made life in winter wonderland a whole lot easier.

Andrew Freeman was born in 1909 and grew up in Upham. In 1932, he graduated from UND with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to become widely known as the visionary who managed the Minnkota Power Cooperative for forty years. He was also one of the state’s longest-running amateur radio operators. But that’s not what we’re going to talk about today.

As a kid, Freeman was interested in how people started their cars in cold weather. “I remember how the mailman at Upham used to keep his car running,” he said. “He drained the oil out every night. He kept it warm in the house and put it back in the car in the morning. Some people would shovel coals out of the furnace and carry them out to put under the car to heat the engine. Others used teakettles of hot water. They would pour the water over the intake manifold.

“We had a Model A Ford. When we wanted to start it, we would go out and fire up a stove we had in the garage.”

It was around 1940 that Freeman decided to find a better way. He found some copper tubing in a pile of rubble and put it together with a heating element from an old iron. In a 1979 interview, Freeman said, “I tried it out on the car one morning when it was 29 below. I made a number of trips out there to check it. At a quarter to 8, I stepped on the starter, and it started right out!”

When word got out about his invention, people got interested. “The neighbors started asking me to make heaters for their cars,” he said. “I made them by hand for friends, including my barber.”

On November 8th, 1949, Andy received a patent on the “Freeman Electric Internal-Combustion Engine Head Bolt Heater” and went into production in East Grand Forks. Four years later, the factory was turning out about 240,000 units for distribution in 28 states.

From there, Freeman moved into warming not just engines but homes, schools and office buildings. He became a champion of rural electric power plants, guiding Minnkota Power through some of the rockiest times North Dakota has seen within the coal industry.

In his obituary in the Grand Forks Herald in 1996, friend Paul Bossoletti described Freeman as “a quiet, almost retiring man, but one with a good sense of humor and a hunger for discussing politics, and the piling up of tax burdens on the young.”

He also remembered Freeman’s curiosity about squirrels. “He had his backyard full of little tricks,” said Bossoletti. “He’d hang nuts from the end of a string, for example, to see how well the squirrels could reach it. The squirrels would catch on and then outfox him. He got a kick out of that…”

It’s amazing what a little curiosity can do. Think about it the next time you plug in your car.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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