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A Classic Story Of The American Dream

After 36 years, Diekens retire,
sell Madison bakery

Don Ward
Editor

(May 2001) Madison, In– To many in Madison, when you talk donuts, you talk Diekens donuts.

Frances & John Dieken

Frances & John Dieken

German-born immigrant John Dieken made a career out of perfecting the art of baking cakes, pastries, breads and cookies, with donuts as his trademark item. Diekens Bakery, located in the Clifty Plaza Shopping Center on Clifty Drive, has served thousands of customers since it opened April 1, 1965, one of the last businesses to locate in the newly built center at the time. Though rarely seen by customers who line up in the mornings to get their sugar fix, Dieken is the reason for their devotion.
The certified Master Baker has overcome many challenges to reach his dream since arriving from his native Oldenberg, Germany, in 1955 as a 19-year-old, having just graduated from his three-year baker’s apprenticeship.
Now after 46 years in this country, much of it spent establishing his own business in Madison, Dieken and his wife, Frances, are retiring. On April 28, Dieken officially turned over his bakery to the new owners, two local women who asked not to be named. Dieken has agreed to work 150 more hours around the holidays this year and help out in the transition of ownership.
Otherwise, the 64-year-old reluctant retiree and work-aholic plans to devote his time to gardening, travel and his family, which includes three children and four grandchildren. He and Frances, 62, plan a monthlong trip to Austria in August.
Dieken’s story is a classic case of the American dream. Times were hard in Germany, and Dieken’s mother arranged for her 15-year-old son to work in a local bakery. He spent three years working without pay and only room and board to earn his apprenticeship.
“I started at 4 a.m. until we were done, six days a week,” he said. “But I had a good boss and learned a lot from him.” Otherwise, Dieken’s only formal education was nine years of elementary school.
When Frank Kramer, a German wholesale baker in Sunman, Ind., agreed to sponsor Dieken’s trip to America, Dieken left, much to the dismay of his parents. “My mother was especially upset that I was leaving. To her, it was like burying somebody alive.”
Besides his parents, Dieken left behind four brothers and three sisters. When he arrived on Aug. 16, 1955, he was provided room and board and $25 a week, all but $5 he used to repay his boss for the airfare to America.
Dieken spoke no English when he arrived in Sunman. He worked for three years there. In 1958, he took a job in a Cincinnati bakery, where he stayed until 1961. In 1957, he met his future wife at a Halloween party. The two wed in 1959 and had their first of three children in 1961.
Then it was on to Grand Rapids, Mich, where he worked in a pie shop. “I developed a cinnamon pecan coffee cake while I was there that I still make today,” he said.
Dieken’s next stop was Middletown, Ohio, for a short time and then on to Rushville, Ind.
In 1965, Clifty Plaza Shopping Center developer Bud Williams was trying to recruit businesses to rent the last few vacant shops in his new center. He was negotiating a deal for a bakery owner in Louisville to open a location in the center if Williams could find someone to manage it. Williams placed an ad in the Indianapolis Star, and Dieken responded. But by the time Williams got Dieken down to Madison to discuss the job, the deal with the Louisville bakery fell through.
“I asked John if he would like to operate his own bakery there,” recalled Williams, 82.
Dieken recalled his answer to be, “That’s impossible,” considering he had only $2,000 and no collateral to his name.
Williams assured him it was possible and took Dieken to see Vince Shingleton (now deceased) at a local bank to obtain a $10,000 loan. “We got the money on March 18, 1965 – I remember because it was my wife’s birthday,” Dieken said.
Dieken used the money to purchase used bakery equipment. Meanwhile at home, the Diekens were flat broke, with no money to buy food for the faamily. “Frances cried every day for a week,” Dieken recalled.
He started baking donuts and pastries to test his equipment and feed his family. People started lining up at the counter, with Williams and his wife, Vina, there to take orders.
“We took in $165 that first day and we weren’t even officially opened,” Dieken said. “My wife took the money and immediately went grocery shopping. That was the best $165 I ever made.”
As for Williams, Dieken said, “I owe a lot to that man.”
Since then, the Diekens have outlasted four other bakeries of the time, while establishing a reputation as Madison’s hometown bakery. In July 1987, Dieken became the first Master Baker in Indiana after completing the tests administered by the Retail Bakers Association.
From 1972 to 1994, the Diekens operated a second location at what is now Cafe Camille’s on Madison’s Main Street. They sold both retail and wholesale in those early years, providing donuts to more than 35 area stores. They eventually gave up the wholesale business to focus on retail.
Today, in addition to a variety of specialty items, Diekens Bakery produces 4,000 donuts a day, with Dieken and two other employees – German-born Horst Moehlmann, 54, and Madison native Charlie Augustine, 35. They start at 11 p.m. the previous night and work until 4 a.m. the following morning. Cookies, cakes and other items are made during the day by baker Sheri Seel, 35. Dieken himself makes French-style eclairs, creme puffs, salt-rising bread, cheese cakes and German style Christmas stollen. His cookie dough recipe is his grandmother’s.
Whatever is not sold at the end of the day is donated to such places as the Salvation Army, Girl Scouts and needy families.
Dieken said 100,000 people come through the door each year, with about 13,000 during peak months.
So far, all of Diekens’ 19 employees and bakers have agreed to stay on under the new ownership. They have also bought the Diekens name and plan to keep everything the same. Dieken has begun training Seel to make some of the specialty items that only he has made. A fourth baker also will be added to the staff by the new management.
The staff’s loyalty to Dieken over the years resulted from good pay and treatment, according to the bakers.
“Mr. Dieken has taught me a lot, not only baking, but he’s like my dad,” said Seel. “We knew it was only a matter of time before he retired, but I never thought I would be here when he did.”
Dieken said retirement wasn’t his idea. “I still like it; I’m not tired of it.”
Frances admits it was her idea for the couple to slow down. “We’ve spent a lot of time in here,” she said, glacing around the back room. “But we’ve got grand kids, and we’d like to be a part of their lives. There’s things we’ve put on hold because the bakery always came first.”
She said her husband has worked tirelessly to achieve his dream, and she was always willing to help him.
“My mom worked hard, too, and she’s always been in the background,” said their 37-year-old daughter, Gina Johann. “I’m really proud of them. My dad not only managed to fulfill his American dream, but with mom’s help, they conquered it.”
She said her parents instilled in her a strong work ethic, how to treat others and the spirit that “you can achieve anything.”
Vina Williams said the Diekens have made several anniversary and birthday cakes for them over the years and calls them “lovely people, and so down to Earth. They both work so hard for everything, and they deserve it.”
Bud Williams said the Diekens “were always tied together and still are. I’m glad to be associated with them.”
After spending countless hours as teenagers working in the bakery, neither Gina nor her two brothers chose to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Gina is a registered nurse at Norton’s Hospital in Louisville. Johann, 40, works in the computer field. David, 39, works for American Airlines in Dallas.
Gina often jokes that since local policemen frequently stopped in the bakery in the mornings, she had to be careful what she did as a teenager the night before.
She described her father as a hard worker who “terrified” her as a youngster. “But when I grew up, I realized that was all a fake, and he’s really a big teddy bear.”
In addition to selling his bakery, the new owners also bought the rights to continue using Dieken’s name. He considers it an honor. “It goes back to pride,” he said. “You like to see the family name out there as long as they keep up a good reputation.”
Despite his boss’ retirement, Moehlmann, who also emigrated from Oldenberg, doesn’t believe he’s seen the last John Dieken.
“We’ll just call him up and tell him we’re doing something wrong, and he’ll be right over here to help us.”

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