By Kerry Drager
Becky Hillig of Long Prairie doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. In fact, she grew up elbows deep in motor oil and a tire gauge in her hand. Originally from Swanville, Hillig worked with her father while he owned a gas station there. Her time at the shop taught her how to care for a vehicle and gave her the foundation of becoming a business owner.
“I grew up in a repair shop, changing tires and pumping gas. That’s how I got to spend time with my dad,” said Hillig.
The auto repair trade is dominated by men and Hillig has witnessed some stigma with being a woman around cars. She feels that is starting to change as people become less familiar with how their vehicles run and more women are entering the field. Regardless of the challenges of being a woman in the automotive business, she continues to use the skills she learned from her father’s shop. It even came in handy while dating her husband Scott Hillig.
“He was stock car racing over in Alexandria and a lot of the times the other guys would look at him like — what are you doing letting a girl touch your car?” said Hillig.
The couple decided to merge their interests and purchased the old John Deere dealership that Scott’s father owned in Long Prairie. They began selling used cars and opened up a repair shop. Hillig Auto Center has become a successful business but success has not come without the trial of her dedication and persistence.
“We’ve been through the best of the times and the worst of times in regards to the car business. We opened up our business in February of 1998 and at the end of September a big hail storm went through and hit every single one of our vehicles save one. A heavy snowstorm went through and our back building caved in. And last summer, exactly 10 years after the snowstorm incident, a big wind storm went through and blew the peaked roof off our building. The roof landed on top of our cars.”
Despite the hardships, Hillig has been very pleased with her business. Her children have been given the opportunity to grow up with a childhood similar to her own, and this is a field she is happy in. Perhaps her biggest success has been her ability to form connections with her community. She has made several friends along the way and has begun to find new ways of giving back to her friends and the community they share.
In 2008, Hillig joined a group of community members to create a family event in Long Prairie. She was once again following in her father’s footsteps with his prior role as a member of Swanville’s Lions Club and his experience with working with the Swanville Carnival. Hillig took on the role as secretary and Prairie Fest is now a successful yearly event consisting of 13 board members and three days of music, midway rides, competitions and games.
“Eight of us met and created a festival to celebrate the town while also raising scholarships for high school students. We have a really good group of people that work together. We couldn’t have done this without the whole group,” said Hillig.
The festival was important to Hillig because it brought the community together. Individuals who have moved from the area often return during the event for family reunions. It also provides college scholarship opportunities for local students who may not have had the ability to continue their education otherwise.
“We had a gentleman approach us last year. He has never lived in Long Prairie, but his grandparents were from here. He was so excited and impressed with what we were doing, he donated $2,500 towards our scholarship program. This year he’s donating an additional $5,000. He has a sense of this community even though he’s never even lived here,” Hillig said.
The festival had previously been scheduled for Father’s Day weekend. but this year the date has been changed. This year the Prairie Fest will run from June 20-22. This year’s festival is packed with fun including live music from local bands like Shaketown and Twin Cities based band RHINO, armbands for unlimited rides all three days, a teen talent show, a demolition derby and fireworks. There are many other actives to enjoy on all three days.
The encouragement and opportunity from family, friends and community shaped Becky Hillig’s future. Now a successful business owner and a founding member of Prairie Fest, she continues to set an example for her own children as they grow into young adults, further strengthening the community and her love for the area she now calls home.