Born tinkerer crafts e-scooters from old bicycles, steel tubing

Kingsville resident Harry Roettele had time on his hands, some mechanical and metal-working skills and a fond memory of a mode of transportation he used as a young child in Germany.

At the end of Second World War, the defeated German army was ordered to surrender any equipment of military value at centralized depots. Near Roettele’s home, Weil am Rhein in southern Germany, there was a large collection of discarded bicycles. Roettele, then about five or six, cobbled together various bits and pieces and built his first kick scooter.

“After the war, you had to do a lot of things yourself, there was not a lot of things you could buy … you had to help yourself if you wanted something,” he said.

Fast forward to 2020: Roettele, using German ingenuity and craftmanship, has built a more up-to-date version of his childhood scooter, one powered not by foot but by electric motor. Using the front forks and handlebars from old bikes, bending steel tubing, then firing up his welding skills, Roettele builds the basic scooter frame.

“When I started it a couple of years ago, I had people who would bend the steel for me, but now it’s impossible to get anything done in the area. We have such a lack of welding shops and they are so busy,” he said.

Roettele buys certain components like the rear wheel with a build-in electric motor and the battery, which he installs under the foot rest. The controls are mounted on the handbars along with front-wheel braking levers stripped from an old bike.

He has built four of the scooters and each has a top speed of 40 km/h. An avid skier and snowboarder, the 79-year-old Roettele loves schussing and gliding along Kingsville streets on his way to the Kingsville Tennis Club on Jasperson Drive.

“Every kid that goes on it, loves it, the freedom … you’re standing there and you’re moving,” he said. “Every day I go out … and make my rounds. I’m fully relaxed, I see what’s around me and keep going.”

An entrepreneur by nature, Roettele has no intentions of making the scooters a commercial enterprise. That, he said, is best left to someone else. He would gladly give advice to any budding entrepreneur.

Roettele came to Canada in 1960 as an 18-year-old with the proverbial few hundred dollars in his pocket. He came to Windsor because he had skills shaping sheet metal, but couldn’t find any work in the auto sector. He went to Leamington to find a job in a canning factory and while there someone overheard his German-accented English.That person, Mike Binder, knew German and offered Roettele a job with his plumbing, heating and roofing company. After a year and half Binder wanted to stop roofing and sold that part of his business to Roettele. He received a couple of ladders, some pulleys and a shovel.

“It wasn’t a multibillion-dollar takeover,” he said.

The company eventually became Kingsville Roofing, a local business success story. It is now run by two former employees.

Roettele began working when he was 12 and apprenticed as a tradesman with his uncle who owned a plumbing, heating and sheet metal company.

He said he remembers talking to a woman who bemoaned her son’s decision to learn a trade — and not go to university.

“I said to her, you know, I only have Grade 8 and I wish I would have quit at Grade 6. I would have been a millionaire two years earlier,” he said. His two daughters, Nicole and Christa, went to university. “I told them you can do anything you want. I told them, you could be a waitress, but be the best, be the best waitress you can be.”

Harry Roettele with his mother, Olga, sister Hiltrud, and father Alois.

Wartime letters an enduring link between father, son

Among Harry Roettele’s most prized possessions are the letters his father, Alois, wrote to his mother, Olga, during the Second World War.

Fighting with the German army in Finland against the Russians, Alois Roettele wrote more than 700 letters to his wife. They ended in 1944 when Alois was killed. Harry was two years old.

A page from one of more than 700 letters sent by Alois Roettele to his wife during the Second World War.

He said he learned all he knows about his dad from reading those letters and in talks with his mother and uncle.“Everything. My mum was very quiet, but my dad, I don’t know, she didn’t want to bring it up…. I was very young. She didn’t want to make me sad. I never saw her cry. She probably cried when she was alone. She wanted to look strong.”

From the letters, Roettele learned his father was studious, highly intelligent and well-read. To learn more about his dad, Roettele read many of same books his father read — books by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

And most importantly he learned about the love of two people separated by events beyond their control. Each letter frequently begins with Liebling or Mein Liebling and ends with Dein Alois. Beloved, My Beloved and Yours Alois.

Roettele also has his mother’s return letters to Alois. He said the letters allowed him greater insight into her character, resolve and love for her husband.

Roettele said the letters will eventually be passed down to his daughters Nicole and Christa. Both speak German. Nicole and Christa’s mother and Harry’s wife, Marie Roettele, died in 2006. Marie served on Kingsville council and was a secretary at Kingsville Roofing.

“Marie played a big role in making the business a success,” Roettele said

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