In The Limelight
Robert 'Bob' Hiller
Founder of Rollin' Pin Bakery
U.S. Army Veteran
Celebrating 75 Years in the Bakery Business!
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
“I enjoy it. You meet the nicest people who come in the door. They tell me, 'You better keep going. We don’t have any other place like this in town.'” ~ Bob Hiller
Robert 'Bob' Hiller of Rollin' Pin Bakery, Inc.
Update - February 18th, 2021
Upon learning that Rollin' Pin Bakery was closed, I reached out and gave Bob a call to see how he was doing. When he picked up the phone I heard that familiar voice...the voice of a man who has not only lived a long life, but one who is also dealing with fatigue from serious health issues. Still, I could hear the cheer and joy when he recognized me and remembered my visit for an interview over a year ago. It's funny how one can sense a smile through the phone.
On a socially distanced visit with his family, his daughter Sheila and his son, Bobby, spoke with me about the difficult family decision they had to make. The following is my interview with Bob Hiller's children.
Sheila: His health began to decline after his 90th birthday, last March, and through the remainder of 2020. His heart is very weak now. On top of that issue, we were dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. How can you have those long, packed lines of people during the pandemic...you just can't.
Bobby: We were paying rent out there every month and without sales going on, we just had to make a decision. Back in October, Dad did his last mixing at the bakery at age 90. After that, he was just too weak to do it.
Sheila: We spoke to him in December about it all and Dad was involved in the process. It was a hard decision to make! It's not like it's open Monday - Saturday, he only had periodic holiday sales.
We went with an auctioneer who had done the auction when Dad moved the bakery out of the Arch Street location. That auctioneer's son had taken over the business and he helped us with this one. For the auction he had 20 years ago, people came from all over the country. But this time around, it was all done online.
Chuck Lane, who owns Lane's Bakery in Madison, bought some of Dad's equipment. Chuck's dad was good friends with Bob. We were happy about that.
Bobby: Someone in Illinois bought the trailer, but then that was then sold to someone else. It went for so much less than the price Dad paid for it. Some of the things were bid on by some cousins. The oven, the freezer and a variety of things were sold.
Bob on his 90th birthday with his children -
Kathleen, Bob Jr. and Sheila with a special
cake donated by Lane's Bakery in Madison
Sheila: Some people erroneously think that the "business" was sold, when actually, it was an auction of the items from the business that were dispersed among the online bidders, who are from a variety of places.
Bob's Magic Touch
Sheila: There's a right way to do it. We knew people would not be able to make the baked goods quite the same. Bobby can bake and follow the recipes, and he's worked alongside my dad. But there's something about my dad, he's been doing this for so long that he had a kind of magic touch. We couldn't have had his legacy taken over by just anybody.
Janesville Area Stories
A giant 90th birthday card from the Wisconsin Bakers Association for
Bob Hiller of Rollin' Pin Bakery
The following is a special, 1.5 minute audio message from Bob Hiller with words of wisdom about making a quality product, a funny story about the long lines and appeasing police officers who had to direct traffic and a thanks to the community of Janesville for all the support over the years.
2019 Interview with Bob Hiller
The Early Years
I was born in 1930 and raised right here in Janesville. I started at Roosevelt School, then I ended up attending Janesville High School, down on Main Street.
It was in the 10th grade when I was drawing cowboy pictures during English class and the teacher sent me down to the principal, Kenneth (Kenny) Bick. He gave me a half hour detention.
At the time I was working for Cunningham Bakery for 14 cents an hour. If you were one minute late back in those days, you were out the door! I knew I couldn’t be a half hour late, so I went to work and didn’t go to detention.
A Turning Point
The next time I was in school, I was told I needed to go down to talk to the principal again. Mr. Bick told me, “Look, you didn’t make up your half hour detention. Now you have one hour, because it doubles!” I thought I better go. So, I went to make up the first half hour. When I went in to work a half hour late, Dave Cunningham said, “You’re late, there’s the door. Get out.”
The old Janesville High School on Main Street
I asked him if he’d give me one more chance. He said, “Alright, one more and that’s it.”
With that warning, I never made up the extra time in detention.
About a month or so later, I was called to the principal’s office again. He told me that because I hadn’t been making up detentions, I now had over 1,000 hours, because it kept doubling and multiplying with each additional day! He said, “You have two choices: start making up the time or there’s the door.” I said, “Bye, Mr. Bick.” That was in 10th grade, and I quit school.
Customers standing elbow to elbow getting their bakery treats at Rollin' Pin
A New Chevy Truck
I couldn’t afford the nickel for the bus, because I was only making 14 cents an hour. So, I walked home from school. We lived on Ruger Avenue, at the time. When I walked by the Harrison Chevrolet garage, I saw a brand new, 1944 Chevrolet truck in the window.
I saved my money in a cigar box. I had both the job at Cunningham Bakery and a job with Adams and Adams (Adams & Sons) roofing company. The new truck was 795 dollars, and I kept counting my money in the cigar box. When I drive by that location now, which became a floral shop, I can still picture me dumping that cigar box upside down on the counter, the nickels and dimes rolling all over!
The salesman was counting and counting and eventually said, “Yeah, you got enough here.”
I asked him to show me how to drive it, how to use the clutch. Man, I was going around those hills, just flying! I was excited to show my dad, who had a filling station downtown, Hiller’s Gas Station, across from the old YMCA. Back in those days, the attendants would come out and fill up your car for you. I drove down to show him.
Dad came out and asked, “Whose truck is that?” I said, “Mine, Pop. I just bought it!” He said, “Take it back. You’re only 14 years old, you have no driver’s license and no insurance. So, take it back!”
I drove up the street and got two gallons of gasoline for 11 cents a gallon. Then I drove the truck home. My mother came out and asked, “Whose truck is that?” I told her, “It’s mine. I just bought it.” She then asked me, “Has your dad seen it?” I said, “Yeah, he doesn’t like it.” She replied, “Well, you better get rid of it.”
So, I hid it across the street in a neighbor’s garage. My dad came home and never said a word. About a month later, I was out on a Sunday afternoon washing my truck. My dad had gone fishing. Well, he had forgotten his pole and came home to get it. He looked at me and said, “You have two choices: get rid of that truck or get out of the house!”
Bob is an Emeritus Member of
the Retail Bakers of America.
Well, I didn’t know where I would go at 14. So, I put an ad in the paper to sell it for $1200. I paid $795 for the truck. It only had 65 miles on it. They had stopped making vehicles at that time because of World War II. And some guy came along and gave me the $1200! I lucked out!
Start of the Bakery Business
I was reading through the newspaper and saw an ad for a bakery for sale up in Milton Junction. I got on my bicycle and rode up to Milton Junction to check out this bakery. It was selling for $900. A 1937 Ford truck came with the deal! So, now I had my truck and a bakery and I hired some people.
The bakery had a huge coal fired oven, 18 feet long and about 14 feet wide. It was made with bricks and stone and you’d have to go down the basement to get the buckets of coal. It made the best tasting bread! You’d shove the pans all the way to the back.
Bob still manages the bakery at age 89. Barb, in background, has worked there as a cake decorator since 1992, Bob calls her an 'honorary sister’
To clean the oven, you’d take a rag soaked in kerosene, throw it in the oven with the hopes it would explode and knock all the soot down. Then you’d come in at midnight, stick your hand in there to check the temperature. My goal was to continually keep enough coal in there to keep the temperature up.
At that time, people were changing over to natural gas, so I got some parts for cheap and rigged up the stove so that I could get a thermostat hooked up in the oven. That worked great.
One night, I came to work and saw that the bakery was on fire! All the volunteer firefighters were there. What had happened is that the stoker never shut off. The bricks got so hot that the wood floor caught fire and the oven ended up in the basement! Luckily, it didn't burn the place down.
I looked in a baker’s magazine out of Chicago. I called up this guy, Joe, and he talked me into an 18-pan revolving oven. I asked him how much it cost. He said, “$3,400.” I didn’t have any money and asked him how I would pay for it. He told me to send whatever I could every week. Soon after, couple of guys came and set the oven up.
At the time, a loaf of bread was 10 cents. A pie was 15 cents. Maybe one week I’d send him $12. I didn’t have a checking account, because I didn’t know what that was all about. I can still see that contract on the side of the oven where I’d subtract that $12 from $3,400.
By the time I was 17 years old, I was still paying off 10-12 dollars a week for the oven. Then I got my draft notice in 1947. I had to go. And I still had a couple thousand dollars on the oven. Joe said he would pick up the oven, try to resell it and see if there was anything left that I might owe, which they would collect after I got back from The Service. That was such a nice gesture that you wouldn’t get from today’s business dealers!
I entered the U.S. Army and ended up in Korea. I was over there for two years. The fighting was still going on, even after I came home. In Korea, I was working in a bakery and had a Korean boy working for me.
One day I witnessed a couple of guys kill a dog and hang it up on a board. I couldn’t believe it. I asked the boy, “Why did they do that?” He said, “That’s number one chow.” I said, “You eat dogs?” Then he looked at me and said, “Yeah. You Americans eat dirty pigs!”
Interviewer’s Note: These days, dog meat is only consumed by a very small percentage of South Koreans. Many Koreans and animal welfare groups are against the practice.
In an article on The Spruce Eats website, “A Struggle Between Traditionalists and the Younger Generation” by Naomi Imatome-Yun, she writes, “Although it is not illegal to serve dog meat in Korea, it is officially classified as 'detestable'. There is a large and vocal group of Korean people that are against the practice of eating dog meat and want the South Korean government to enforce laws making dog meat illegal. Dogs are increasingly being viewed as pets and thus the tradition of eating dog meat is becoming taboo, especially with the younger generations.”
A New Bakery
After I came home from Korea, I worked at the General Motors plant for three months. I just couldn’t stand doing the same thing every day. So, I went into a bakery partnership in Janesville with this a guy who had tried talking me into it. That was the worst thing I ever did. I lost two houses...it was hell. So, I got rid of that guy.
I started my own bakery across from the General Motors plant on Delavan Drive. I called it Rollin’ Pin. My kids helped out, the two girls, even my youngest son, Bob Hiller II, was there helping out at the bakery. He is still working with me today.
I had a regular customer, Officer O’Leary, who would come in every morning for a cup of coffee and a doughnut. He said to me, “Why don’t I build you a better building.”
So, he built me a building up on Arch Street! The grand opening of Rollin’ Pin on Arch Street was in 1961. The bakery was at that location for about 40 years. This is my 75th year in the business!
My wife, Sandy, helped me run the business. She passed away about 14 years ago. At one time we had three locations; Delavan Drive, Creston Park plaza and at 19 North Arch Street. First, we closed Delavan Drive, then Creston Park. We closed Arch Street in 2000.
I told my wife that I wanted to semi-retire and just run the “Cream Puff Wagon”. Eventually, I found this little place out on Hwy 14, remodeled it and put in new equipment. We decided to only serve during the fairs in the summertime. We would turn the power off in the winter.
But we discovered that a lot of our good equipment had computer boards in them and when we turned the power on one summer, they blew and none of them worked! I was advised to keep the power on during winters.
The Customers and The Treats
We decided to just do the sales during all the holidays. And now, the place is too small! We serve a lot of customers in a short time. One time we served 1,000 customers from 9 to 5 in one day! My bookkeeper spoke to me and said, “Why in the world didn’t you do this 40 years ago?”
The Rollin' Pin Bakery trailer, the "Cream Puff Wagon"
Serving the crowds at numerous county fairs
Sandy and Bob raised $5,200 for the victims of 9/11
We set up by Choice Cleaners during the fair on Memorial Drive as a fundraiser for Special Olympics. Tom, the owner, has a granddaughter who is in the Special Olympics. The lines down there are unbelievable. The police came by one of the mornings and asked us how long the lines would be running.
Around noon, I took the officer an eclair. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon, he came back and said, “These lines are terrible.” I asked him, “Well, what’s it worth?” He said, “Two more eclairs.”
Our number one seller are the chocolate eclairs. The cream puffs are very popular as are the brownies. We can’t make enough of them; they sell out so quickly! The chocolate chip cookies are the number one cookie. They’re the favorites.
One day I was baking a big order for a church in Delavan. The lady came to pick up her order. On one of the racks, there was 80 pounds of butter. She asked me what it was. I told her it was butter.
The customer favorites: Chocolate Eclairs and Cream Puffs
She said, “You mean to tell me that a baker uses butter?” I told her we use tons of butter! That’s what makes the difference.
A lot of bakers will use shortening, or go half shortening and half butter to cut costs. But the flavor is in the butter.
Every time we have a sale, the lines of people are so long, so many customers! There often is difficulty parking. We pass out cookies to the people in the line. I said to one fellow, who took a cookie, and said, “Sorry you have to stand out here so long.” He looked at me, took a bite out of the cookie and said, “Listen, I’d stand out here all damn night as long as I can get in and get some of this good stuff!”
People will often buy a bunch and freeze them until the next sale. With all the holidays, we have a sale going on pretty much every other month. Honest to God, we get customers from far and wide - Green Bay, Chicago, Rockford…it’s just incredible. Some come from Sandwich, Illinois. That’s a two-hour drive!
The line for Rollin' Pin starts early and stretches far
People come for Rollin' Pin treats from as far as Green Bay and Sandwich, Illinois
A while back there was a little boy who took a cookie off the tray. I looked at him and asked, “Isn’t that your third cookie?” He looked up at me and said, “No, Mr., that’s four.”
We take our trailer down to a county fair in Sandwich, Illinois, just a small town. But two million people go to that fair. It’s huge! Many of our Illinois customers come up here to buy our baked goods when we have sales.
I have a slide presentation which I’ve done both locally and all over the world.
Bobby hands out cookies to the folks in line
I’ve traveled all over the United States with it and have done presentations in Australia and France. My favorite place was Australia.
I became friends with Brian Fox, a famous baker from Australia. He saw me do a demonstration in California and offered to fund a trip for me and my wife to put on a show in Australia. We were there for a week. He comes back over here quite often. He brought me a Crocodile Dundee hat made in Australia and wore it on the plane just so he wouldn’t have to carry on an extra hat box!
My older brother in Marshfield would tell me to stop renting and build my own building. I wanted to take a loan out to build a building at my bank and my loan officer wouldn’t give it to me. I reminded him that I had been a good business customer of that bank for 25 years. He told me, “Four walls won’t make you any money. It’s the equipment that makes you money.
I was at a baker’s show in Chicago, picking up a lot of literature. I took it back to the banker and showed him what I wanted. He said, “Well, go get it!”. I asked him if he saw that it would cost me $260,000. He said, “Yeah, go get it!” And I got the loan for the equipment!
It was so mechanized and high tech. When I traveled all over the United States and did these shows and presentations, they’d see all my fancy equipment. When I had my auction, the auctioneer asked me if I had taken out an ad nationwide. I didn’t. He told me, “Well, look at these license plates! Here’s California, New York, Michigan!” The different bakers had seen this equipment from my travels. It sold out just like that.
We always kept the equipment clean. A lot of bakers will leave them dirty with flour building up and such. That can only lead to a dirtier oven because it gets baked in after repeated uses. We would clean ours every night. They were always like brand new.
At Christmas time, we donate around 2,000 dozen cookies to the Rotary Botanical Gardens Light Show. We also donate to the Parker Playhouse and we’ve supported the Janesville Fire Department over the years.
We like to keep busy with the bakery and doing charity events is meaningful work.
A plaque from the Janesville Firef Department
One year I was having chest pains and collapsed. I had fallen into the neighbor's lilac bush. The fire department came and the only way they could untangle me from the lilac bush was by digging out the bush. They rushed me to the hospital. At that time, we only had one fire station. I told my wife that I wanted to treat the guys at the fire station every year to show my gratitude for helping me through that. Well, now we have five stations in town! And I treat all of them with baked goodies every year.
One day I came home and there were 12 guys up on my roof. They had all come to my house to put on a new roof on my house! We tried to pay them, but they kept returning the checks. Finally, I took each guy a check of $200 to total up the cost of the roofing, which was $24,000. I asked the guys, "Do you know the Police Department in town? If I get this damn money back, you're going to be visiting those guys!"
Well, they took the money and they put it into a scholarship and sent me pictures of the kids getting their scholarships.
I served as President of the Retail Bakers of America. I was also President of Valley Bakers in Appleton, and served as the Wisconsin Bakers Association president for a year.
I’ve enjoy making a variety of displays for the conventions, some smaller some really big. I’ve been to bakers’ conventions all over the United States. Once, at a circus-themed convention in Milwaukee, Ernest Borgnine, famous American actor, was there to cut the ribbon. I made an elephant display that was 18 feet tall out of wood and wire, then paper mâché and frosted it with butter cream.
I had also made a baby elephant and some penguins, one penguin for my booth and I put one at the shortening company booth. Two months later I got a $2000 check from Bungee Shortening because they sold much of it with my penguin display there!
My displays earned me trips all over the world.
Of course, decorated cakes and entering baking contests has been fun. I probably have over 100 more trophies at home.
I’m also an airplane pilot. I got my license when I was in my 30’s. They did tell me at the airport that when you get up there in age, around 80 or 90, you have to send a physical in to the government. They usually cancel you out because of your age. That’s just a joke.
On March 13th, 2020, I’ll be 90 years old. Most likely, my son, Bobby, will take over this business someday. First, I need to get in better health. I just had a new pacemaker put in. I couldn’t do anything for three months. It didn’t seem to help a bit.
I’m still managing the bakery, but not allowed to lift anything. If I do, my son will yell at me.
Secrets to Long Life
Eat right. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. That must be part of it, I don’t know.
Bob Hiler (right) and his son (left) Bobby work side by side at the bakery
I don’t think anyone really encouraged me to get into business, and certainly not for this long. But I told the doctor that a lot of the times when I’m not at the bakery, I just feel rotten. As soon as I walk through that back door, I feel better!
I enjoy it. You meet the nicest people who come in the door. They tell me, “You better keep going. We don’t have any other place like this in town.”
I guess this is my purpose in life.