A look at the life of agri-business legend M.J.K.
March 19, 2018
Strong vibrant agricultural businesses flourish in Moffat County. Many are businesses built by generations of hardworking men and women, like the members of the Kawcak family. Among them was Michael John Kawcak — better known as Mike or M.J.K. — founder of the store that continues to carry the name M.J.K.
The early years
Mike was born Oct. 8, 1925, the seventh of 16 children born to Paul and Julia Kawcak.
He and his siblings grew up on the Kawcak homestead, located near Elkhead Reservoir State Park.
His parents would allow the young boys to live in the main house until they turned 5. Then, they were moved to a two-bedroom bunkhouse, shared with the older boys.
His family described Mike as a hard worker and an early riser who was always on the move.
Recommended Stories For You
"His brothers and sisters said that he was the only one of his siblings who refused to ride in a cart behind a plow, and instead chose to walk behind the horses from sun-up to sundown," said son Kenny Kawcak.
The Kawcaks attended Cottonwood School near the homestead. Mike completed seventh grade and might also have completed grade eight. He then worked closely with his father and brothers on the family ranch until 1943. He was 17 when he altered his age on the application to enlist in the Navy and join the fight in World War II.
Mike spent his time in the Navy as a sailor aboard the Fletcher-Class Naval Destroyer USS Harrison (DD-573). The destroyer was commissioned to protect aircraft carriers from aerial assaults and escort transport carriers hauling reinforcements.
Under secrecy in 1945, the destroyer embarked on raids in Tokyo, was present for the landing at Iwo Jima and took on extreme kamikaze and air assaults near Okinawa.
The ship and her crew were awarded 11 battle stars for service during World War II.
Mike told his mother, Julia, "Destroyers shot up all the coastlines so our troops could get on land, then they moved away, and the Army got all the glory of winning the war."
The Red Cross summoned Mike home in December, 1945, as his sister, Janet, was not expected to survive a ruptured appendix. Janet survived.
Mike was honorably discharged from the Navy on May 4, 1946. A few months later, he returned home to Craig to serve as an usher for his brother, Joe, and would call Craig home for the remainder of his life.
One of Mike's first jobs in Craig was at the local Texaco Station, where he worked briefly before striking out on his own.
With a bank loan and money saved from his time in the service, Mike bought two tractors with plows. He hired his brother, Dan, to start the first of his businesses, which involved operating heavy equipment. The men were contracted to plow sidewalks for the city of Craig.
In 1948, Mike purchased the Carter Extra Motor Oil Franchise, then located on the corner of West Victory Way and Taylor Street, where Cool Water Grille stands today. He named the station The Kawcak Service Center.
"Mike is one of Carter's most aggressive and ambitious dealers," read the September 1950 edition of The Carter Dealer. The company recognized him as National Dealer of the Month. He was 24 years old.
Eventually, Mike sold the station and began working summers for George Levkulich, at Mountain Air Spray, prior to Global Positioning Systems. Mike's job was to pace off steps between plane passes and wave a large white marker flag so the plane knew where to place the next field application.
The men worked in pairs, with one standing close to the truck and one standing on the opposite side of the field. Mike would always volunteer, and sprint, to the far side. He was remembered for always beating the person closest to the company truck back to the vehicle, despite being farthest away.
"He had an intense and fast-paced demeanor, but as hard-working as he was, he was also light-hearted and caring," said grandson Justin Kawcak.
The job at Mountain Air Spray was a summer job. Mike spent his winters working for the Streeter, Mount Harris, Colowyo Coal Mines running a tipple — a machine used to load coal into rail cars for transport. The tipple was located at 277 Ranney St., where Frontier Station stands today.
In 1976, Mike became a distributor of livestock equipment for the Big Valley Livestock Equipment Company and named his new business M.J.K. Sales. His store was located at 367 School St., where U.S. Welding stands today.
Through the contacts Mike made with Levkulich and Mountain Air Spray, he was able to get this business off to a fast start. And, on May 2, 1977, Mike bought Charles Rodger's Grain Company, forming M.J.K Sales and Grain Company.
The family man
Mike met the woman he would marry — Colleen "Coke" Ogg — through mutual friends during one of the many dances held at the old Colorado State Armory, where the Museum of Northwest Colorado is located today. They were married May 20, 1950, at a ceremony in Grand Junction.
The couple had three sons, Lonnie Kawcak, Kenneth "Kenny" Kawcak and Michael John "Junior" Kawcak. They also had a daughter, Patricia Kawcak, who died when she was about six weeks old.
In 1958, Mike and Colleen bought 1,080 acres of land near the family homestead from his brother, Steve, and began to focus their lives around farming. He also bought a new John Deere tractor and began harvesting wheat and hay.
"Colleen worked at his side their entire marriage. She kept the books, raised the children and kept the peace," said son Junior Kawcak.
About 10 years later, the couple purchased another 1,080 acres of land about eight miles north of Craig.
All three of Mike's sons and five grandchildren have fond memories of working on the family farm. It became a family rite of passage to manually pick rocks from the fields and build a fence.
They still use the phrase "pickin' rock and fixin' fence."
"Every time I use it, I think of my grandpa, and it makes me want to carry that on," said grandson Blake Kawcak.
Mike hired his wife and three sons after forming M.J.K Sales, establishing a family business.
"He still had his farm operation to complete. He was a good boss to the employees. We've had a lot of good employees that enjoyed working for him," Kenny said.
Mike would build a retail store next to the grain elevator and move his entire operation to 290 Ranney St. in 1978, doing business under the name M.J.K Sales & Feed, Inc.
Lonnie managed the supply side of the store, and Kenny and Junior worked the grain operations.
"There was no time to sit around or monkey around; you had to keep going and make some headway during the day," Junior said when asked what it was like to work with this father.
For a time, the family had a small cabin near Meeker on the White River.
"I remember times when we'd be picking rock, and it would get so hot and dusty and dirty, he'd decide we'd worked pretty hard and that we could take a break, and we'd head to the cabin," Junior said.
In 1984, Mike sold the business to his three sons, all successful businessmen today.
Junior attributes part of their success to his father's mentoring.
"We had many breakfast and dinner conversations about people in business and business practices," Junior said.
After selling the business Mike and Colleen retired.
Colleen passed away on Dec. 25, 1987, at St. Mary's Medical Center in Grand Junction. She had battled cancer before her passing. Mike and Colleen enjoyed 37 years of marriage.
"He would enjoy farming, fishing and being a full-time grandpa the rest of his life," Kenny said.
He seized every possible opportunity to take his grandkids to the farm to introduce them to the joys of "pickin' rock and fixin' fence."
"There was always 7-Up, cookies, and Snickers Bars available at Grandpa Mike's house," Blake said.
A member of the Elks Club, Mike would proudly confess to being the best poker player in town and claimed that he was never out-fished, though his sons and grandsons might disagree.
ACE Hardware was added to M.J.K. Sales & Feed the year that Mike retired.
"He stayed active in the business and never really quit," Junior said.
Mike's work ethic was something his family greatly admired.
In 2008, the company separated into ACE Hardware M.J.K Sales & Feed, Frontier Station and the farm operations.
Mike — M.J.K. — lived a remarkable life, creating a legacy in service and business for his family.
He believed members of his generation were great because of their ability to live off the land and work with their hands, Junior said.
Michael John Kawcak passed away Dec. 14, 2017, at the age of 92, after a hard-fought battle with Alzheimer's disease.
"He is probably smiling down on all of us right now, wearing his M.J.K hat and coat with a big fish on the line," Justin said.
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.