Four generations of Bruenings have called Decorah home for nearly a century

By Jennifer Bissell

Bruening Rock Products celebrated 90 years of “rocking it” in 2022 – a milestone for not only the company, but the Bruening family.

Bruening Rock Products celebrated 90 years of “rocking it” in 2022 – a milestone for not only the company, but the Bruening family.

Farming roots
Bruening Rock Products began with a single truck and a passion for agriculture from Leo Bruening. Coming from Elk City, Okla., Leo traveled to Iowa looking for a place to call home. 
It was 1931 and work was beginning on the new fish hatchery building. Leo had a dump truck and knew the right person, John Ruan Sr., getting an opportunity to work on the project. 
By then, Leo and his wife Theresa were the parents to a son, Duane. Theresa said it was time to settle down, so the Bruenings set roots in Decorah. In the early days, Leo used his dump truck to haul coal to Luther College and other places throughout town. He also bought some farmland near Burr Oak, getting into milking. 
The business grew over the next five years to four dump trucks. Leo advanced into excavation work, buying a tractor with a bucket on the front. The first office was located on land near the current UPS building on Pearl Street. 
Early years at Bruenings were about agriculture. For the first several years, Leo crushed rock to make agricultural lime to spread in the fields. Leo’s grandson, Keith Bruening, said they didn’t start selling rocks until the 1950s. In addition, Leo held the town’s John Deere and Surge Milker dealerships. He also continued to own farmland, milking over 120 head of cattle over three dairies. 
In 1946, Leo incorporated Bruening Rock Products, focusing on crushed rock, excavation and agriculture.
According to Keith, in 1946, Leo was one of 50 people selected by Wallaces Farmer magazine to travel to Europe to assist with recreating food production following World War II. 
“They were starving over there, and grandpa helped. He went to Europe for nearly 40 days. It’s amazing he could do that,” said Keith. “Leo never got outworked, there’s no doubt about it. He only had a third-grade education. What he started to now is amazing.”

Continuing the legacy
Leo and Theresa’s oldest child, Duane, was the next in line to run BRP.
Duane earned his education from Loras College in 1952 before serving as a captain in the Marine Corps. He returned to Decorah with his wife, Eileen. He and Eileen had eight children, who all at some point assisted in the business. 
Duane helped the business truly burst. The company has found a path to success by buying their competitors and expanding into more quarries whenever possible. The first quarry purchased was Skyline Quarry north of Decorah. It was given to Leo in the 1940s and since then, Keith said millions of tons of rock have been taken out of there. 
“The only way to grow in business is to acquire people. You can’t fabricate a quarry, so really me and Greg were pretty aggressive,” he said. 
In addition to BRP, they’ve acquired additional businesses, like Skyline Construction, Skyline Materials, Minnowa Construction, Bullseye Trucking and Jennerjohn & Holthaus, Inc. 
Keith said the 1950s and 1960s expansion of building interstate highways was a big boom for the business, as was the growth of Decorah in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I’d bet in the 1960s and 1970s, there wasn’t a house built in Decorah that didn’t have a mark on it from Bruenings,” he said. 

The next generation
While all eight of Duane and Eileen’s children assisted with the family business, it was Keith and his brother Greg who would become the next generation to run BRP. Greg serves as the president while Keith is the secretary and treasurer. 
“We always used to play dump trucks as kids. That’s all we did all day. We’d drive trucks, we’d get tree sticks and pretend to lay pipe,” said Keith. 
Greg graduated from Luther College in 1978 and began working for Duane. Keith started his education at Luther before transferring to Iowa State University. When he graduated in 1980, he also went to work for BRP. 
Working for the family business hasn’t always been easy.
“It was a challenge, but it was fun too. We had a really good dad,” Keith said. He recalled one time when Duane instructed Greg and Keith to do something. Keith said the brothers decided to do it their own way. That set the path for what was to come for the business.
“We were young and aggressive. We never had any trouble with him. We made a lot of mistakes, but he let us make mistakes,” he said. 

Adding to the family
Today, the company has roughly 150 sand and gravel quarries and employs close to 500 people in three states. Keith said they have over 100 employees who have been with the business for over 25 years. 
“There are always rumors that we’re selling out or we’re doing this or that, but we’re really employee oriented. We’re really loyal to our people. We’re not for sale and I don’t see us ever being for sale.”
While Keith said he and Greg still have years of work ahead of them, the fourth generation of Bruenings has started to set roots. Greg has three children currently working for the company while Keith’s son Michael is also an employee. 
“We’ve had so many good people over the years. We let them go to work and do their stuff and make their own decisions. If you do that, good things will happen to you,” said Keith. “We’re not perfect. We make mistakes but it’s how you treat people, that’s what makes it work all these years.”