Stemen is Burlington’s ‘wealth of knowledge’

From leading the Boy Scouts years ago to delivering Meals on Wheels today, Delvin Stemen has been looking out for Burlington for nearly a generation.

Fifty years on the fire department, 45 years working with city infrastructure and even longer in the well-drilling business have earned him respect in the region.

“He’s pretty special,” Burlington Mayor Jerome Gruenberg said. “He’s pretty much dedicated his life to things that go on in Burlington the people and the kids and making sure everything goes good.”

“I don’t think that there’s anybody that can say bad about that man,” added Tim Hoff, city council member. “He’s just a real asset to the community.”

Stemen mastered the intricacies of the water and sewer system during his years with the City of Burlington. At age 80, Stemen is still the one that city officials turn to when they want to know where water lines are or dates when work was done.

“He attends all the city council meetings, and many, many times we turn to him and say, “Delvin, what do you know about that?’ He’s just a wealth of knowledge,” Gruenberg said.

Because the city is required by state health rules to have a certified water plant operator, Stemen has never completely retired. Burlington switched to water through the Northwest Area Water Supply project but still maintains its wells to sell water to oil-field companies and farmers.

Stemen reads the water plant meters each morning, takes water samples for testing and serves in a consulting capacity. He explained it takes time for new employees to earn the certification, and once they do, they often get job offers elsewhere, So he continues to help out and attends training conferences, as recently as last fall, to keep his certification current.

Burlington residents consider Stemen to be a fixture of their community, although he’s not a lifelong resident. He came with his parents and six siblings to Burlington from the Jamestown area in 1942 when he was in the fourth grade. They settled into a small house with a lean-to and no indoor plumbing at the time. His father, Leo, was in the electrical trade, but when demand for services declined, he switched to drilling wells and servicing pumps and sewer systems.

Leo Stemen died in 1980, but the business went on with his son, Myron, taking over the septic end of the business and Delvin assuming the well-drilling jobs. They became well known around the region for work that was in high demand at one time. In his final years before retiring six years ago, Stemen largely serviced pumps.

Stemen worked his way into a city job the same way he is now gradually working himself out. In 1967, the city needed someone to check the chlorine tanks for its water system and change them out as needed. Stemen took the job for $20 a month.

Over time, State Health Department rules became increasingly stringent, requiring additional attention to the system.

“It got to be more and more, and the next thing you know, I got to be the city man,” Stemen said. As the city’s part-time water employee, Stemen maintained the water system, handled water hookups and turn-offs and flushed hydrants. Flushing hydrants reduced water pressure and was particularly incompatible with residents’ laundry operations. Stemen wasn’t the most popular guy in town.

“I finally concluded the only way to do it was to go out after midnight,” he said. “I would flush the fire hydrants until 3 in the morning. Very few people were awake. Once in a while, I would get somebody in the shower.”

Now Burlington has a large water tank that provides so much pressure that flushing hydrants is no longer an issue, he said.

“I didn’t realize it then, but I was putting in some long hours,” Stemen said, referring to his city and well drilling jobs. In addition, he was active in the Burlington Fire Department. In 2001, the Burlington Fire Department honored Stemen for 50 years of volunteer service.

Stemen said his father had owned a work truck that served double duty in hauling water to fires. His father later was instrumental in organizing the fire department in 1951 and was elected the first chief.

“We didn’t have any turnout gear, no boots, no helmets, no coats,” he said. “We fought fires with a pail of water and a gunnysack. … It was by the grace of God some of us didn’t die.”

He welcomes the changes since then. Stemen said he made a point to attend when the state began offering fire-fighting training. Those were small classes initially, but volunteer firefighters gradually caught on to the value, he said. The fire schools now draw hundreds of trainees.

The Burlington Fire Department was on the front line of the battle during the 2011 flood fight, which for Stemen brought back memories of 1969. He recalls the week-long, around-the-clock efforts when the Des Lacs River surged on that Easter Sunday in 1969. By the time they had it tamed, the Souris River raged.

“We were barely getting any sleep, and we started right back in again,” Stemen said. Burlington also fought floods throughout the 1970s.

Stemen was station captain for the fire department when he retired after 50 years, which meant he handled the dispatching and paperwork but no longer attended fires.

He still enjoys keeping up with emergency responders in listening to the daily chatter on a law enforcement scanner. Stemen lived in the house that he grew up in until a torn rotator cuff some years ago helped him decide it was time for easier living in the senior apartment complex in Burlington.

Stemen is president of the Burlington Senior Citizens and coordinates and handles delivery of the Meals on Wheels program that provides meals three days a week at the center and to shut-ins.

One of his favorite past-times is listening to stories told by Burlington’s older generation whose memories go back even further than his own. Having assisted in developing a history book for the town’s 1983 centennial, his one regret is that more pages weren’t available for even more stories.

Stemen often carried a camera over the years and developed a collection of Burlington slides and pictures.

Hoff said he didn’t think viewing a bunch of old pictures would be very exciting until persuaded to attend a program featuring Stemen’s collection. Hoff was amazed at the quality of photography and content.

“He’s got a real history there,” he said.

Stemen has seen Burlington change from a coal-mining town of 267 people to a bedroom community of more than 1,100 people. The number of mines had shrunk from 26 to one when he arrived in 1942, but he remembers Burlington having a grain elevator and several businesses. Stemen remembers the huge Spud Hall, where coal miners from the Burlington Project would store produce raised over the summer when laid off from the mines.

Stemen entered the Army in 1955, serving in Germany and stateside for two years, largely in clerical roles. He completed another two years with the Army Reserves, performing duties at the veterans hospital in Minot. He served two terms on the school board and has been a weather spotter in Burlington.

Hoff said Stemen is an asset not just for what he has done for Burlington but for his ability to recruit others to get even more done. Stemen enlisted him into his Boy Scout troop in the 1960s, persuaded him as a teenager to work for him in his well drilling business and recruited him and lots of others to join the fire department, he said.

“He’s an absolutely great recruiter,” Hoff said. “He’s been an influence on a lot of people.”

Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to