This is both my story and our story. PART I is about growing up in Watkins, Minnesota between 1932 and September 2, 1955. My three lovely and only slightly older sisters edited it for accuracy. PART II is about the wonderful married part of our life in the Chicago area and naturally is corroborated by and with my lovely and loving wife, mother of our six beautiful children, Sandy. PART III is about retirement and grandchildren and again corroborated by Sandy. PART IV is about the future and PART V is about some of my significant beliefs. Finally, there is a section for my Reflections.

Watkins-Watkins, Minnesota, was founded in 1888 shortly after the Soo Line railroad came through. It was named after an officer of the Soo Railroad. It had a population in the 1930s of about 500 people; not counting dogs and cats. Watkins is located about 65 miles west of Minneapolis, in Meeker County, on state highway No. 55. It was (and still is) a rural and almost entirely German farming community, where farm families within about a three to five mile radius came to do their shopping and go to the one and only church-Roman Catholic. There were two (German and Irish) Catholic churches in Eden Valley (pop. 600) seven miles west, one Catholic church in St Nicholas(pop. 20) five miles north and one Catholic church in Kimball (pop.400), five miles east. There was no Catholic church in Kingston (pop.100), 10 miles SE. The first Catholic Church in Meeker county (1865) was (St. Gertrude’s) in Forest City (pop. 50), 10 miles south.

Watkins also had two elementary schools-one large catholic and one small (one room used out of four in the building) public, four grocery stores-one of which, Weber’s, had a small slaughter house and, in the early forties, frozen food lockers. Farmers also came to visit the post office, do some banking-one surviving bank (one closed during the depression of 1929-1930’s) and grab a beer or two at one of the seven taverns. There were some four gas stations, two bulk fuel oil stations, three farm implement dealers, two car dealers, two car repair only shops (one with car storage space), a grain elevator, a blacksmith shop, drug store, clothing store, jewelry store, a shoe and shoe repair store, movie theatre, poultry store, bowling alley, three cafes, doctor’s office, dentist office (sometimes), beauty shop, an American Legion club, two barber shops, three lumber yards, one small hotel, four hardware/appliance stores, telephone exchange office, mortuary and later a funeral home, creamery and, after 1945, a Kraft cheese plant, a dairy, ice storage house-’til 1950 or so, hometown newspaper and print shop, village hall with volunteer fire department/rescue squad, sewage treatment plant, a Soo Line train station and a Liederbach Bus Line station at Bober’s Cafe. Oh yes, and quite uniquely, a tobacco processing plant. No lawyer’s office. Eden Valley had the nearest lawyer.

As I understand it, prior to the great depression of the 1930s, Watkins was considered a prosperous community. As I grew up and looking back on things, Watkins was, like so many towns of its size, a relatively poor town in comparison to many larger cities. There were a lot of retired farmers in town and as I got older I realized that many people first lived off the sale of their farms to their sons and later off of Social Security and other government offerings. Farmers never paid into social security, but by selling their farms and working for the buyer (often a family member) as an employee for two years and paying into social security, they then qualified for social security. Things have not changed a lot in Watkins since then, but there are far fewer commercial establishments, both in number and type.

Watkins was ‘famous’ for two things. One was winning a first place prize in the 1936 World’s Fair Butter Championship, in Berlin, Germany. This really put the little Watkins Coop Creamery and its Manager/butter maker, John Ellering, on the map. Farmers from many miles around wanted to join the Watkins Coop Creamery and this proved a boost for the town’s other businesses. For at least 20 or 25 years after that Watkins butter sold at a great premium in New York and other large cities. Undoubtedly, it was one of the main reasons Kraft Foods built a cheddar cheese plant in Watkins in 1945. The other famous thing was that Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who ran for President of the United States in 1968, was born in Watkins in 1920. Gene ran so well in the New Hampshire primary on an anti Vietnam War platform that he caused then President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the race. His parents lived just up the street from us and I knew Gene, his mother and father quite well. His mother was literally a saint. His dad was something of a cowboy and retired rancher. Gene graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, with the highest academic standing of anyone to date. He played baseball for the Watkins town team and he and his wife, Abigail (Quigley), helped found and taught in a small Catholic high school in Watkins that only lasted a few years in the early 1930s. Gene died in 2006. St. John’s published a lengthy bio about him. Sister Cleo told me that Gene taught social studies to her husband George Holmin when he was in 8th grade in Kimball. (A 311 page detailed history of Watkins’ first 100 years 1888-1988 was written by Michael Nistler-copy in our Arlington Heights home library).

Home-Our home was relatively small (about1400 sq ft), but very comfortable. It was a two story wooden frame, one bathroom, with full-unfinished basement. It was located on Meeker Avenue, which was a north/south street running parallel to and one block west of Main Street. We were just one block from the main downtown section of Watkins. There was a nice screened in porch across the entire front of the house. The first floor was about three feet above ground. There was a large living room in the front half of the house, a dining room in the SW quarter and a kitchen in the NW quarter of the first floor. The stair to the 2nd floor was on the north side of the house. Mom and Dad’s bedroom was the largest at the front end of the house with a nice sized walk in closet, the three girls had a fairly large room in the center with walk in closet and I had a smaller, but very adequate room in the back (west) end with a small walk in closet on the north end and an equal walk in closet for storage, on the south side. The only problem with this room was that it faced west and thus was the coldest room on the 2nd floor. My room was big enough to hold a nice sized wooden table at one end, where I built model airplanes, etc. I had a radio next to my bed (no alarm) and that was a real treat, especially when I was sick. Radio programs were virtually the only home entertainment that we had. I especially remember The Lone Ranger, with Silver and Tonto. Here is a picture of the house taken in about 1940.

The bathroom was down at my end of the hallway, just to the right of where we came up from the stairway. We had a clothes shoot to the basement. The basement stairway had a landing half way down that had a door to the north outside of the house at ground level. There was a 10×20’ root cellar in the front of the basement where Mom kept all her canning goods and things like that. It stayed fairly cool even on the hottest days in summer. The main room was about 20×20’ and contained the kerosene stove for heating water, a washing machine, storage shelves, etc. Later, when dad retired, he made part of it into an open office for his retirement chores (he kept doing income tax work and he worked on the family genealogy). The rest of the basement contained a small workshop, a cistern for rainwater, which was pumped up to the kitchen over the sink. This was our source for soft water, because the tap water was very hard. Finally there was a furnace room with a fairly large area for coal storage. At some point we painted the main basement room floor. Probably when we used it for a bar area at the girl’s weddings in the mid 1940s.


Mom and Dad 6/21/73

Mom and Dad 9/10/23

My Mother, Mathilda Koelzer, “Kelly” to all who knew her, and my Father, Norbert “Norb” to everyone, met in Watkins, got married in Jordan, Minnesota in 1923 and raised all four (I had three older sisters) of us children back in Watkins where they set up house. They lived for two years in an apartment above the bank before they purchased the house (for $5,000) that Mom’s sister Frances and her husband Carl built right across the street from the St. Anthony Grade School (see above). I can barely remember it, but Agnes Kuechle lived with us for about one year while she went to high school. Unfortunately, I did not see a lot of physical (hugging and cheek kissing) affection among our family or close friends. It must have been a German thing.

Family-Mom-Mom came to Watkins in about 1918 after graduating from high school in Jordan, Minnesota. She was born in 1900 in St. Benedict just south of Jordan. She followed one of her older sisters, Frances, who had also come to Watkins to work in Wartman’s hardware store.

Mom was very religious and a dear loving person. She was tough and strict, but I could usually soften her up whenever I needed to. She worked very hard, but loved a good joke (clean, of course) and would laugh heartily, but always a bit afraid of exposing her soft side. Her main entertainment was to play cards (bridge and whist). She rarely took a drink and when she did it was a glass or less of beer or Kehr, a German liqueur that her mother liked. Mom was very proud of her status in life, but she tried hard not to show it. She went to mass every day she could (we lived less than a block from church) and wanted to be the totally tolerant (non racist) of minorities, but she was afraid of any black man that would occasionally wander into town. There were no black people living in Watkins or any of the surrounding towns. When Mom got real angry with me, she would “biff” me by hitting her fist against my shoulder. It didn’t hurt physically, but it did emotionally and had its desired effect on me. Whenever Mom made a new dish in advance of serving it to her bridge group or other company, she would test it with me because, like it or not, she knew I, Mr. Tact, would tell her the truth about whether it was good. I loved and depended on my Mom for so much.

Family-Dad-Dad came to Watkins from St. Paul, Minnesota and before that from Bisbee, North Dakota. He was born in Millerville, Minnesota in 1897 and raised mainly in Bisbee until he was sent away to St. John’s Prep School in Collegeville, Minnesota in about 1911 and graduated with “highest honors”. Dad had wanted to be an accountant-a CPA, but his Dad, my Grandfather Stephen Jacob Ley, had other plans for Dad and his two younger brothers, Raymond and Gerald. Grandpa dictated that his sons should go into the banking business with him in Watkins, where he had bought the Farmers State Bank in 1919. I do not remember Grandpa Ley because I was about six years old when he died.

Stephen Jacob Ley

See his picture above. He was rather imposing and a tough German. My Grandma Anna Theresa Rieland Ley died in 1917 in Bisbee, North Dakota so I never met her.

When Grandpa Stephen died in 1939, Dad, Ray and Jerry each received equal shares in the bank and his two sisters each got smaller shares. Pep Weber maybe had a 5 or 10% share that he had before Grandpa died. This family ownership created much stress for Dad because he sort of felt that he and his two brothers should share everything equally even though Dad was the President.

Dad was a quiet man, but a pillar of the community. He was the most trust worthy person anyone ever met. He was kind, charitable, patient and never swore or used curse words, worked very hard and was active in church and community affairs. As a banker, he was very conservative and I suppose with good cause after surviving a horrific experience during the bank holiday of 1930(see below). Whenever anyone in or around town had a letter from the government or some other matter that they did not understand, including legal matters (no lawyer in town, remember), they would come to Dad. Dad was not tall, about 5’ 10”, not physically rugged like his next younger brother Ray. His main hobbies were collecting stamps, fishing, playing whist and cribbage, smoking (all the men did) and playing the violin. Oh I almost forgot that he and his cronies, Pep Weber (Phil’s Dad), Span, Pat and Bill Manuel, Bill Lock, Mike Mies and probably one or two more buddies usually met around five o’clock most days for a number of years, for a “boiler maker” or two (a shot of100 proof Old Fitzgerald and a bottle of beer) in Bill Manuel’s auto repair shop, just off main street and behind Klein’s Hotel. They were known as the “Five O’clock Shadow”. This was before 1952 when Watkins went wet and liquor could be served. Dad liked a few ‘’nips’, but I never saw him overindulge. Dad would usually go fishing up north for one week in June with these same guys. Dad did not come to very many of my football, basketball or baseball games, but almost no dads did. My best times with Dad in the early years were when we went fishing. Later on it was talking about the problems at the bank and still later on it was having a Manhattan, with a “bump”, together. I feel bad now, that while in college, I tried so hard to get Dad to do things different at the bank, that he usually just gave up and stopped the discussion with “you just don’t understand”. I don’t think Dad had any enemies, except perhaps one or two dead beats that he had to foreclose on. Dad was an excellent role model for me and I think my sisters as well. What more can you ask from a parent? Still I never felt close to Dad, at least not until in later years, because he did not like to show or discuss his feelings.


Cleo, Lois and Rita

Cleo, Lois and Rita

My three older sisters were all-pretty and spoiled me rotten. I loved and looked up to them then and still do. Cleo (lower left above in both pics) was the oldest, born in 1924. She was clearly the smartest of all us kids because she was Salutatorian of her class at Kimball High School. I think she played Clarinet in the band, 1st chair. She had to be at least 4’11” tall. Cleo had hay fever and thus moved to Duluth after high school and went to business school there. Then came Lois (lower right in left picture above) born in 1926. She was full of energy, but very laid back about everything. She played trumpet in the band in high school. She went on to become a nurse in St. Paul and then after marriage in Elk River she got her degree in nursing. The last and tallest of my sisters Rita, (upper in first picture above) born in 1929 had the most boy friends. Anyway I always remember her having a bunch of friends (boys) over to the house, including ‘Moose’ Skowron, a baseball player with the St. Cloud Rox who went on to become a star with the NY Yankees. Rita says it was because she made cookies and other sweet things that were hard to come by when sugar was rationed. In addition, Rita loved to cook and was very good at it. Rita was a cheerleader for all sports in high school. She later majored in Home Economics at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul.

All three of my sisters were born at our house in Watkins, but they tell me I was born in the Watkins Hospital. The Watkins Hospital was Dr. Brigham’s office and had three patient rooms in the back. I presume there was an operating room, but don’t know for sure. The only other hospitals were at St. Cloud, 25 miles to the NE, and, a very small one, in Litchfield, 18 miles to the SW.

Family-Uncles and Aunts on mother’s side- In the following 1940s picture of Mom’s six siblings is Ethel(Dr. Con Murphy), Mary(Jim Gehrey), Mom, Grandma, Sophie(Dr.Walfred Johnson), Al Koelzer, Vi(John McCarthy) and Francis(Carl Wartman).

Ethel(Dr. Con Murphy), Mary(Jim Gehrey), Mom, Grandma, Sophie(Dr.Walfred Johnson), Al Koelzer, Vi(John McCarthy) and Francis(Carl Wartman)


My Dad, John (Mac) McCarthy, Grandma, Doc Johnson, Dr. Con Murphy, Mayme Koelzer, and Jim Gehrey


Frances, the oldest, lived in Jordan almost all her life. She and her husband, Carl Wartman, lived in Watkins for several years until Carl died suddenly, just before his youngest son Tom was born. Frances and her two sons, Lloyd and Tom, moved back to Jordan where she worked in a general department store. They lived with her mother, my grandmother Katherine (Kattie) Koelzer, who lived to the ripe old age of 88. I remember visiting her in a nursing home north of Jordan in her final years. Prior to going to the nursing home, Grandma Koelzer lived with us in Watkins for about one year, but it did not work out. I never met my grandfather Koelzer because he died some years earlier. Frances’ two sons were both very smart and got advanced degrees in chemistry at Iowa State. Lloyd worked for Union Carbide and was an inventor of many products. Tom worked for 3M in St. Paul. They both had a positive influence on my going on to graduate school and getting an MBA.

Mary, who married Jim Gehrey, lived in Morningside/Edina all of her life. Uncle Jim worked for the Soo Line Railroad and he had a big model train layout in his basement. They had three children, Rosemary, Georgiana and Jim, Jr. I used to play with Jim, who was a couple of years older and owned a jeep way back in the 40’s.

Sophie, who married Dr. Walfred Johnson ‘Doc’, and lived most of her life in Worcester, MA. Mom and Dad were closer to them than any of mom’s other sisters. They had four children, Myron, who got a doctorate in psychology from Steven’s Institute in New Jersey and an undergrad degree from Univ of MN. I liked Myron, who was older, and have stayed in touch with him ever since. Kathleen, who I used to play with in their big home in Sauk Centre, and died maybe ten years ago of lung cancer. She and her family lived in northern New York. The third child was Philip, who was severely disabled and when his mom and dad could no longer care for him, lived in an institution in Massachusetts until he died in 1999. Their fourth child, Allen, died at age one. In 1967 Sophie and Doc moved to St. Cloud where Doc spent a year in residency at The Vet’s Hospital. They came over to Watkins to visit often and I sometimes think it was one of the best years Mom and Dad had.

Brother Al, married Mayme, and lived in Waterville, MN and was the postmaster there for most of his life. They adopted two daughters, Marianne and Jeannette. We visited them a few times and Sandy and I were able to attend Al’s funeral on one of our trips back to Minnesota in the 1990s.

Ethel, was a public health nurse, and married Dr. Con Murphy and lived in Alton, Iowa. They had five children, but we never got to know them very well. They were Mary, Dr. Dan, Dr. Mike, Ann and Maureen. Ethel died of breast cancer in 1956 and sister Frances came and helped raise the kids for seven years. Ethel’s youngest child was only 7 years old at the time. After that Dr. Con married Margaret Lowry, a nurse from Canada, who had several grown children.

Finally, there was Viola (Vi) (dare I say, the prettiest of them all), who married John Joseph ‘Mac’ McCarthy. Mac was a political guy, a Washington insider, who was connected with/worked for MN US Senator (and I think MN Governor) Ed Thye. They lived in Washington, D. C and Owatonna, MN. Ed Josten of Jostens Jewelers also took in Mac, thru Ed Thye, to work in the ‘off’ years’. In about the 1970s, we visited with them on our trip to the east coast. They had two daughters, Mary and Kathy and one son, Pat. One of the girls was a United flight attendant and we visited her while she trained at the United HQs in Des Plaines in about 1965. We just learned from Lois that Kathy now lives in Fountain Hills, AZ. We just called her a few weeks ago and was she ever surprised. Sandy and I had dinner with she and her husband Allen at the North restaurant in Glendale and had a great time.

Family-Uncles and Aunts on Dad’s side-Dad had two younger brothers and three younger sisters. Brother Ray is shown first below and next to his wife Putch. Next is brother Jerry and his wife Florence. Below these pictures is one of Uncle Joe Landolt who married sister Esther and next to her is sister Vern.

Brother Ray was a couple of years younger than Dad. He married Evelyn “Putch” Manuel. They had four children and lived in the apartment above the bank for two years, just like my Mom and Dad, before buying grandpa Stephen’s big house after he died in 1936. Their house was at the end of Meeker Avenue, just a short distance from the railroad tracks. It was the original hospital in Watkins before Grandpa Stephen bought it. Kathleen was their oldest child and married Jerry John. They originally lived in Vienna, VA and now live in Woodstock, VA where they retired and built their own house. We have visited them several times in each place and they often stop by our house in IL to stay overnight on their way to or from MN. Jerry is from Browerville, MN. They had four children. Eric died in a home weight lifting accident about ten years ago. Lloyd was the second oldest and he stayed living in Watkins and was the shoe maker/repairman. He took over his uncle’s business. Dick was next and he and his family live in Minneapolis. Finally there was Donald and I think he lives in Minneapolis.

Ray and Putch

Jerry and Florence

Uncle Joe Landolt, Esther and Vern


Brother Jerry married Florence Schoen. They lived above the bank for a number of years before buying a small house one block west of where we lived. Jerry and Florence had five children. Eugene is the oldest and was in Sandy’s class. He became a dentist and got something like a carpal tunnel condition that required him to retire from dentistry and then become a professor of dentistry at Univ of MN Duluth. Robert was next. Then Kenneth who became a banker in Minneapolis. Finally there were Mary Jean and Elaine.

Dad’s sister Esther, married Joe Landolt, and they lived in Duluth for many years before moving to Green Bay, WI. They had three children, Steve, George and Lucille. Steve became a stock broker/venture capitalist and lives in Oshkosh, WI. Tragically their 16 yr old daughter was killed in an auto accident on a Sunday morning in 1982 when the family was coming home from church. We went to the very sad funeral. George was a pilot and still is as far as I know. Lucille was a TV program director at the CBS station in Milwaukee and her husband Bob Breyer is a professor at Marquette Univ.

Vern was Dad’s other sister and she never married. She lived with her dad Stephen until he died in 1936 and then with Esther and Joe all her life.

Dad’s youngest sister, Alma, died of diphtheria in 1905, 4 months after birth, in Bisbee, ND.

Dad had four aunts and three uncles. The ‘great aunts’(to us) Mary and Annie, who were spinsters, operated a hat shop in Richmond, MN, about 15 miles NW of Watkins. We visited them frequently. They made great cookies. I do not remember great aunts Frone Rieland and Helen Salchert. I also do not remember great uncles John, Hubert or Henry.

My great grandfather was Heinrich(Henry) Stephen Ley, born 1846 in Calumet, Wisc (near Fon Du Lac) and died 1917 in Spring Hill, MN. He was the fourth of seven children of Heinrich(Henry) Joseph Ley (my great great grandfather), born 1809 in Mayschoss, Germany and died 1864 in St. Martin, MN. According to ancestors in Mayschoss, Henry Joseph never contacted them after he emigrated to the US. They told this to one of my third cousins back in 1974 when he visited them. We intend to visit Mayschoss and surrounding area in late September 2010 when we go to the Oberammergau Passion play-see Part IV Plans for the Future.

(A very detailed story of my Dad’s family is contained in “I Remember, I Remember” a 78 page history written by my Dad’s sister Esther Landolt in 1973. Sister Lois says that there are three versions of “I Remember”, all very interesting)(A similar, but more historical story about my Mom’s family is contained in “The Koelzer-Beckmann Family-A Chronicle 1799-1920”, written by my first cousin, Myron Johnson in 1982.)(Finally, there is the Ley family tree compiled by my Dad after he retired from the bank).


6 thoughts on “Prologue

    • John,
      We just saw your comment. Don’t know why we missed it earlier. Was your Dad Lloyd or Tom? Would like to know more about you. Tom and Lloyd were sort of role models for me year ago. Thanks.
      Roland Ley

  1. enjoy the history of your had a great story of the Watkins iknew from my parent.ann and barney schmitt

  2. Very interesting, growing up in rural Minnesota. One correction, your cousin, my dad, Myron Johnson got his PhD from Columbia University, he worked at Stevens Institute of Technology.
    Donna Johnson St.Germaine

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