Teenage Rob Gasper often would come to downtown Columbus back in the day and take in what he called the beauty of the old Schweser’s department store at 1270 27th Ave.
“We don’t have mountains around here, so I was always attracted to buildings and architecture,” Gasper recalled. “I was 16 years old and this (Schweser’s) was one of the buildings that would stick out, that I liked.”
A Newman Grove native who bounced between that small town and the nearby village of Lindsay throughout childhood, Gasper had to often use his imagination to keep himself entertained in his youth. So he and his friends would climb whatever they could – TV towers, elevators, buildings and more. Schweser’s never made the cut, though.
“When I got to Columbus I learned real quick that you could actually get in trouble here for things that were completely normal in a small town,” Gasper said, with a laugh. “I didn’t climb it (Schweser’s) but I wanted to get up on the roof, that’s for sure.”
Gasper was and has always been a dreamer, but also a hard worker who has battled and beaten the odds. He grew up in a crowded household, the youngest of seven children with a single mother, but he later pursued aspirations of being a successful business owner.
Decades later, he’s the proud owner of two successful businesses, a husband, a father of four and community advocate.
“Definitely the best thing that I love about Columbus is it is large enough to have good shopping, good schools and things to do, and it’s still a really safe place to raise a family,” Gasper said.
But it didn’t come easy. He worked his way to where he is today.
In a way, Newman Grove and Lindsay are both Gasper’s hometowns as he moved between the two often. His family had a farm right by Lindsay and owned the local bar there for quite a while. He said he had a good childhood, though acknowledged he had to become pretty independent early on being in a house full of kids living on one source of income.
“You kind of had to fight for your food a lot of days,” Gasper said. “So I spent a lot of time whether it was out scooping snow or doing odd jobs if I wanted something or to buy something to eat.”
Helpful was the fact that he had his great uncle and aunt (Cecil and Katie Letterman) nearby – his great uncle was the longtime volunteer fire chief and a policeman in Lindsay and his aunt was the head cook at Lindsay Holy Family for 50-plus years. So when he needed a hot plate of food, even after he moved to Newman Grove following fourth grade, he could go back to Lindsay to find one.
“They were like second parents to me,” Gasper said of his great aunt and uncle.
Gasper’s mother married a man from Columbus when he was a sophomore in high school, so the family relocated to town in the mid-1980s. He acknowledged it was a little bit tougher to make friends in Columbus because he had a car by then and often went back to visit his pals in Newman Grove whenever he had the chance.
By his senior year in 1987 at Columbus High School, he decided it was time to make a drastic change.
“I never looked at a piece of paper as far as what you can do and what you’re capable of and what defines you,” Gasper said. “I’ve always done things for myself; a piece of paper never really had any effect on me.”
ROLLING THE DICE
Gasper decided to head out west to California after leaving high school during his senior year.
“I was a snowbird when I was a teenager,” Gasper said, noting how he would travel to Los Angeles shortly after Christmas until near summer to work. He did this for several years.
“I can remember the first time leaving for California on a cold January night knowing I had 2,000 miles in front of me in an old, rusted out ’74 Firebird and $123 in my pocket,” he said.
Out in L.A, Gasper, who had relatives there, picked up several warehouse jobs and made a decent living for himself doing temporary work. The West Coast was a lot different back then compared to nowadays.
“I made some good money each time. It was really easy to go out there and make a really good wage through the winter months,” Gasper said, noting he pulled in somewhere around $9,000-$10,000 at a time during his nearly half-year excursions.
After a few years of traveling back and forth, Gasper decided to stay put in Columbus and met the woman who would eventually become his wife, Tracy. They settled down and he decided to once again pursue his education by obtaining his General Education Development (GED) diploma when he was 24 in the early 1990s. He then got an associate degree in business from Central Community College-Columbus. He later went to Wayne State College for a year, before deciding to pursue entrepreneurship and family.
BUSINESS & FAMILY
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Everything came together for Gasper in the 1990s. He worked for a railroad company for a little while, and he and Tracy were married in 1993. He also started his Flatland Auction & Equipment Sales. The company prides itself on selling used farm equipment (primarily skid loaders, Bobcat, Case, Gehl, John Deere and HydraMac Skid steer loaders) for low prices.
“We take older equipment and we refurbish it,” he said.
The company has built its reputation throughout the years using the internet as a promotional tool, with Gasper noting he remains proud that he decided to use eBay to his advantage when the website first started in the mid-1990s.
“I was the first person ever to put a video up on eBay,” he assured, noting it was unheard of at the time since the site was brand new.
Flatland also helped him realize his passion for travel. He has made sales all over the country, and as a result, he, Tracy, and his three older children, Jacy (26), Nicole (25) and JJ (20) went near and far.
“It’s pretty interesting. I have traveled a lot and we have had a lot of life experiences,” Gasper said of his family’s trips. “Before our oldest girls were 7 or 8, they had been in like 43 of the 50 states.”
The family, which now includes 3-year-old Britlyn, has taken trips practically all over the world. Besides the states, the Gaspers have traveled internationally to places like Mexico and Southeast Asia.
“I got a new perspective on how people do things in other parts of the world,” said Gasper, who also enjoys golfing at Quail Run and playing pool whenever he can. “For the most part, people are pretty decent in most places.”
Lifelong friend and Humphrey resident Greg Schroeter praised Gasper as a special individual and great community role model, noting he’s the front runner when it comes to someone trying to make the area better.
“He’s a great person, he’s really fun, charismatic and real outgoing,” he said, noting they were best man in each other’s weddings. “He’s an outstanding person with great personal values.”
COMING FULL CIRCLE
In 2017, the Gaspers took on their biggest and arguably most exciting challenge yet: The Friedhof Building. The couple decided to buy and refurbish the old Schweser’s building he has admired since his youth after the department store went out of business.
“I see value in things that you can restore and bring back,” Gasper said of his two businesses.
Friedhof has become a dining experience and events center of sorts, hosting weddings, galas and more with much support from the community. In the year since they opened the downtown spot, the business has made several upgrades. Gasper was also instrumental in advocating for the Columbus City Council to approve outdoor patio spaces in the downtown district last year.
“I think Rob is a very nice gentleman. He always has a good demeanor about him, he’s very friendly,” said friend and fellow Columbus resident Jim Frieze, citing things like the Sunday morning car shows and other forms of entertainment Gasper has brought in. “He’s really talented as far his ideas of promotions and bringing new activities to not only his business but downtown Columbus.”
The two met by chance about a year-and-a-half-ago while they were out golfing and struck up a conversation. Frieze used to own his own photography business and his wife used to work at the old Schweser’s back in the day, so there were some shared interests. During that conversation it also came up that Frieze had serious experience bartending, so he’s been helping out at the Friedhof ever since.
“We’re business friends, but also good friends,” he said.
The success of The Friedhof means a great deal to Gasper, who noted he and his wife desire to provide a place that can be a hub and source of pride for residents and city visitors. He said he appreciates everyone who has and continues to patronize their venue, adding he is especially proud when people from his Newman Grove and Lindsay days as a boy come through and see what he’s up to now.
"I think everybody thought I was a pretty good kid in the community growing up, but then nobody ever asked me to be a choir boy either," Gasper said, jokingly.
Ask him today and Gasper will tell you he’s appreciative of his upbringing. If he wanted extra money to play a game or, on some days, get food, he had to go out and work for it. But that instilled a work ethic in him that, in a way, is why he’s at where he’s at now.
“Whether that was walking beans, door-to-door snow shoveling, shelling corn or even delivering the Telegram in a 10 below wind chill,” he said. “As a small-town kid, I pretty much did anything I could to have something in my pocket. I have always believed self-reliance is a good virtue and is something I probably learned pretty early.”
The young boy who had aspirations of being a successful business and family man certainly found his way. He still hasn’t and won’t climb the old Schweser’s building as he desired as a teen, but he got to see the view from the top like he always wanted. He can whenever he wants now, though admittedly doesn’t all that much as it requires using a ladder and leaves you pretty dirty.
“I have quite a few times, though,” he said, with a big smile. “Usually not for fun stuff, but the view is nice from the top of the Schweser’s building – that’s for sure.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.