First recollections- My very first recollections were probably aided by these pictures taken on my first and second birthday taken by the SW corner of our house. How cute!
Depression- I cannot remember too much about the depression because I was too young during the worst of it and the war cut it short. I do remember Dad saying that he only earned about $200 a month and that was real good. Most kids in school thought we were rich, but I knew better and could not say much. I know gasoline was only about $.10 a gallon and beer about $.05 a glass. Many people in town had no regular job, just pick up jobs that would only last a few days or so. Many people were on welfare and that did not give them much. One family I remember was the Gominskys who lived just over the railroad tracks in a very ram shackled house. We liked the kids and the rest of the family and whenever we could, we would bring them food and clothing. Mom and Dad were godparents to one of the kids, Elsie, and after the war we even went to Minneapolis when she got married. The depression was why most everyone had gardens, did canning, sewed most of their own clothes, etc. The depression and the atmosphere it created affected all aspects of our lives at that time. It lasted throughout the 1930s until WWII in 1942. In retrospect it was not too bad because that was the only life we kids knew.
Young friends-Anyway my first real recollections were probably those pre-school days, at about age five, when I would play in our house with Gordon Linn. (Gordy was my best friend in those early years. I deeply regret that I did not see him again more than once after college and just recently learned that he died in late 1999 of a brain tumor. I knew his wife Mary Lou Werner real well too.) Other friends included Phil Arendt, Gene Becker, Lloyd Wortz, Phil Weber, Verlin Mies, Herb Klien, and Elmer Kramer. Lloyd Wortz was a year or two older than me, but we got along very well and played at each other’s house often. His Dad was the village cop at times and otherwise just did odd jobs. Naturally they were very poor. Lloyd was very smart and a good athlete. After high school he went to work at the creamery and stayed there until he retired. He married Joan Putz who was valedictorian in high school. I was his best man at their wedding. They had lots of kids and they all got good educations and became doctors and lawyers. Lloyd died two years ago from cancer. There were also a number of other kids a year or two younger and older that we played ball with and hung around with in later years. Farmer kid friends were the Nistler twins-Gerry and Norm, Dick Gross(now a priest and pastor in Watkins), and Wilfred Meirhofer. During pre-school and grade school years, we did a lot of things together.
Mom and Dad’s friends-Pep and Ann Weber were probably Mom and Dad’s best friends. In later year’s Mom played bridge at least twice a week and maybe more. Pep was the only none family member on the Bank board and then there were the “five o’clock shadow’s”, (explained above), etc. Then, in no particular order, were Ollie and Span Manuel, Avilla and Bill Loch, Alvina and Mike Mies, El and Pat Manuel , Susie Tishilater and many more that I cannot remember. One incident that I remember and learned from was when Joe Arendt had a wedding and Mom and Dad did not get an invitation. Word got back to Joe and he came down to the house and apologized profusely and cried. Mom and Dad cried too. They, of course were invited, but something had gone wrong.
Swimming-In the summer, one of the things we really enjoyed, was swimming at nearby Clear Lake, four miles southwest-we could bike or hike there on the gravel road. No lifeguard or raft, just swimming. We even had some swimming lessons there, but I do not remember who, if anyone, sponsored them. Probably it was just Renee Arendt, Phil’s oldest sister, who took it upon herself to do it. Somehow we survived even though there were some close calls. One time I remember especially was when Dave Wartman from Ashland, Wisconsin, a first cousin of Phil Weber, who was visiting and was an excellent swimmer, swam way out and saved one of our gang who got into trouble. Did the 1930 version of CPR and everything. In later years, after WW II, a bunch of men in town formed a Sportsmen’s club and built a club house/shelter just across the road on the east side of the lake where we swam. We all preferred to go swimming at Lake Koronis, about 15 miles west on Hwy 55. There, at Van’s beach, they had a slide, diving boards, raft and even a life guard-sometimes. Oh yes, there were also some girls there just to look at because we were too young for anything else. Once in a while we biked there, but mostly we had to talk one of our older siblings or parents into driving us there. Another reason we favored Lake Koronis was that the lake was deep and clear all summer long, whereas Clear Lake and most smaller and shallower lakes got ‘’dog’ days (i.e. green and weedy from algae and warm water) in late July and August.
Fishing-Another pastime was fishing. Most of the time I went with Dad, late in the afternoon and early evening. We mainly fished for sunfish, but sometimes got and kept (only in May and early June before they got wormy) crappies too. We did not keep perch because they were so small, but we caught a lot of them. We would clean the fish back at home, because the flies and mosquitoes were too heavy out at the lakes and none of them had screened in fish cleaning sheds. Most of the lakes, especially very small and shallow Meyer’s lake 4 miles NW of town were so clear (early in the summer) that we could see the fish biting our bait in about five to fifteen feet of water. Once in a while I went fishing with one of my friends in a local creek or pond, but we never caught much. In May of each year there was the first day ‘opening’ of fishing season. That day was almost like a holiday and it seemed like everyone from age 12 on up went fishing. We would generally go to Clear Lake and usually we had to reserve a boat to get one. There were only two places on Clear lake to rent boats. Krengels on the north side and another smaller one on the west side. Later on, I think either Krengels or someone else opened a rental place on the NE side of the lake, where the road from Watkins met the lake. The procedure was always the same, no matter which lake. You would drive up to the farmers house pay a dollar or two and they would give you the oars and you were on your own. If no one was home you used the “honor” system.
One fishing trip I will never forget was when Uncle Dr. Walfred ‘Doc’ Johnson was visiting. This was when I was a bit older, maybe even after the Army, and after an early dinner including some manhattans. Doc, Dad, myself and one other person went out to Lake Sylvia, south of Annandale. Doc as we called him was a ‘stitch’. He was always joking and kidding around. We caught a few fish and then when we were coming back into shore to unload, Doc stood up and lost his balance and fell overboard like a log, he was a big man. Thank God the boat did not overturn. We had a good laugh over that. Later when he and Sophie left for their home, temporarily in St. Cloud, there was a lot of fishing string hanging out of their car trunk and it was funny.
Hunting and guns-My first gun of any kind was a BB gun. Most kids my age got one at about age 7 or 8. These were not air rifles, just the spring-loaded type. However, the little pellets could puncture skin, knock an eye out and mortally wound birds. We used them mainly for target practice, but occasionally would go bird hunting-sparrows only. This we did at night with flashlights. We would go looking in the vines clinging to houses. I don’t think we got many birds. My next gun was an old 22 short rifle. There were short and long rifles that took different length shells. My 22 did not work very well and I took it apart many times trying to ‘fix’ it, but to no avail. Next I got a 410 shotgun. The shells for these were about ½ in thick and maybe two inches long. The only thing we could hunt for were squirrels. I remember shooting one squirrel in some woods by Stickney hill about three miles north of town. The final guns were a single barrel 12-gauge shotgun and a double barrel 10 gauge shotgun. These were all used guns, probably bought at one of the farm auctions I attended with Dad. I never shot the 10 gauge because it was said to pack a big wallop and who needed that? We did go pheasant and duck hunting with the 12 gauge, but I honestly do not remember ever hitting anything. One time a few years later, when I was dating Sandy, Sandy and I and several others went pheasant hunting south of Watkins in a cornfield and although we scared up a few pheasants, I don’t think anyone hit one. That was the last time I remember hunting. We never went deer or bear hunting. You could buy all the ammo and guns you wanted from any of the hardware stores in town.
Roller skating–Kimball, five miles east of Watkins, on state highway 55, had a roller skating rink and beginning in either my seventh or eighth grade we went there on Friday nights frequently to roller skate. We would usually get a ride there and then sometimes we would walk home. Mind you at 11 or 12 at night. There was very little traffic and it was a long lonely walk. Usually there were at least four or five of us, including a couple of girls. One of these girls was Theresa Hahn. She was very good looking and for a while I had a crush on her. We never kissed or anything like that, but that was not a prerequisite for having a girl friend, my first. We never dated. It was about that time that we boys began to notice that girls were developing into women.
Other summer fun-Many hours of the summer were spent just hanging out in the town park right next to the railroad tracks. We played knife games (making it stick in the ground after flipping it from wrist, elbow, shoulder, forehead, over head, etc.), whittled, made sling shots, shot BB guns, went on hikes down the railroad tracks, and did many other similar things. We knew every inch of Watkins and the surrounding area and knew where everyone lived. At night we often played kick-the-can or hide-and-seek near a street light. We also went hunting with our BB guns and flashlights for sparrows in vines on houses and other buildings. Sometimes, if it wasn’t too hot, we played softball (always 12 inch) or baseball.
Scouts-Sometime in the late 30’s or early 40’s I joined cub scouts and then boy scouts. It was really tough finding and keeping a scout leader and because of that I don’t think we had scout troops for very many years. We met on the second floor at the rear of the village hall. The main activity that I remember, other than tying knots, etc., was going out to some nearby woods and playing war games. We would split up into two ‘armies’ and try to capture each other’s flag. When you got tagged, you were ‘dead’ and had to sit out the rest of the game.
Football-In the fall we played tackle football, either in the town park by the railroad tracks or at the south end of the public grade school, without any equipment, and more than a few times there were bloody noses, broken bones, banged heads, etc.
Winter indoors-In the winter things were tougher. We spent a lot of free time at each other’s houses playing monopoly, Chinese checkers, euchre, tiddlywinks, looking at National Geographic magazines-Dad kept all copies going back to the early 20’s (the pics you know of natives in Africa), etc.
Hobbies-Three hobbies I remember were building model airplanes on the desk in my bedroom, building small boats to “sail” in the ditches full of water from melting snow and collecting maps of all the states and territories. One map I was really proud of was Alaska. It was not yet a state, but they sent me a very large detailed map of what was mostly wilderness. Neat.
Skiing and sledding-We went skiing and sledding at Maus’s hill just northeast of town and at another unnamed hill about two miles further out-by Hennen’s farm. These were small hills, but the only ones around without driving. Even then, none of the bigger hills were cleared for skiing or even sledding. Our skis were something else. Simple slats with a single strap through the middle and that you slid your shoe through. You could not really steer with such an arrangement, but we did have poles that helped a little.
Ice skating-We also went ice-skating and even played ice hockey in the crudest of forms. The skating rink in town was just south of the track to the east of and across the street from the town park. It was a tennis court of sorts in the summer, but only the older kids (say 5-10 years older) played tennis and it was not paved-just dirt. The skating rink was something of a do-it-yourself thing. It took kids like us to get someone from the volunteer fire department to get the fire hose cart out from the fire hall one block south in the village hall and then come up and flood the ‘tennis’ court after it froze real hard. It took a couple of floodings before it was ready to skate on. Then every time it snowed (and that was a lot) we kids, only a few ever did it, would have to go up and shovel it off. That was a lot of work because it had to all be done by hand and it was usually very cold. There were no snowplows suitable for that. Several times during the winter we had to re-flood it-usually in sub zero weather. We had a small warming house with a wood-burning stove that we kids had to keep going. There was no park district or anything like it in Watkins.
Sled jumping-A fun thing to do when we had a good snowstorm was to go downtown and hitch rides on the farmers’ horse drawn sleds. That was the only way they could get to town to deliver their milk. We would jump on the rear runners and hang on for dear life as the farmers went about their business in town. Sometimes they went fairly fast-at least it seemed so when you were standing on the runners. Yes, we fell off frequently, but did not get hurt because of the snow breaking our fall. It always took several days to plow the streets, because there was only one plow in town and he also had to do the farm roads.
Trapping-A few of us tried our luck trapping for a few years. This was hard work. I bought maybe twelve small traps that were intended for muskrats, but also good for minks, and weasels. I would get up before daybreak, say at six am, and ski out to the back of Mierhofers house on the far northwest end of town where there was a slew between the woods and the railroad track. I don’t know who owned that property, but no one else trapped there or seemed to mind my doing so. I did not have much luck. I maybe caught a total of three muskrats, one mink and one weasel. I had to skin them myself and stretch the skins out on a trimmed shingle so they would dry. Then I took them down to Wartman’s hardware where they bought them for maybe ten or twenty dollars each depending on size and quality. I suppose they resold them to someone who came around once a week during trapping season (winter). There was no license required or set trapping season.
Christmas-Christmas season started in earnest on St. Nick’s Day, December 6. Usually, Uncle Ray would dress as St. Nick and come to our house with bags of candy and other such goodies. I think Dad or uncle Gerry returned the favor to the other houses. On Christmas Eve we had to go to bed early so we could get up early to open presents left by Santa. Mom and Dad obviously worked feverishly to set up the tree and get the gifts out. (We followed the same drill when our kids were small.) As soon as I, the baby in the family, realized what was up, we switched to setting up the tree (always a natural tree) earlier and we opened gifts in the evening. Then we went to bed for an hour or so and got up to got to midnight mass. We had breakfast after that and thus did not get to bed until rather late-say 3 am.
House heating-Because my bedroom was on the west side of the house, I got the full effects of the really cold northwest wind in the winter. My windows sometimes had an inch of ice on them. We had storm windows, but they didn’t seem to help. Gravity heat registers from the central furnace in the basement provided heat. The furnace burned large hunks of coal that sometimes had to be broken up in order to get them thru the furnace door. The procedure was to ‘bank’ the fire at night before going to bed and hope that it wouldn’t go out before morning. Then in the morning Dad (later me) would go down as early as possible and add more coal to the fire. Ashes had to be shoveled out from the chamber just below the grates and put in a big can (no plastic bags). It usually took from 15 to 30 minutes before any heat came up thru the registers on the second floor. We closed the downstairs registers at night so that the upstairs would get most of the heat. Thus, everyone had to get up, get dressed and use the bathroom while it was still very cold in the house. Sometimes we just stood over the floor registers waiting until the heat came up. We had wooden floors with scatter rugs on both the first and second floors. We also had running water (not everyone did), cold only though. Thus washing your face was a real ‘wakening’ experience. Later on we got a stoker coal feeder that we put small briquettes of coal in and that fed them into the furnace and I think that was automatic so some heat stayed on all night.
Bathing-Bathing was something else. Because we had a tub but no running hot water in the one and only second floor bathroom, if you wanted a warm water bath, it required filling and heating the big copper tub on the kerosene stove in the basement. We filled that tub with rain (soft) water from our basement cistern filled from the downspouts that drained into it. There were switches on the downspouts to allow run off into the yard when the cistern was full. It took quite awhile for this tub to heat up and then we had to carry the hot water in pails up to the bathroom. Depending on how hot we let the water get, it would take about three or four pails to warm the cold bath water. Accordingly, baths were usually reserved for late Saturday afternoons and we shared the warm water with Mom going first, then Dad, Cleo, Lois, Rita and me. Maybe we would go thru a refill someplace during the routine. I can’t imagine my lovely sisters using someone else’s bath water. How about it girls? Anyway, we survived and felt pretty lucky to even have a bathtub.
Refrigeration-We had electricity, unlike most everyone else who lived on a farm. Still we did not have an electric refrigerator. That was taken care of with large blocks of ice that fit in the upper chamber of the icebox, as it was called. Even then they knew that cold air moved downward. Only the food that absolutely had to be kept cold went into the small ice box-milk, butter, meat and a few things like that. Butter, once taken out for use, was kept warm and, of course had to be used within a few days before it became rancid. The iceman came about every three days. In the summer, we would follow the ice wagon, usually horse drawn, and suck on little pieces of ice that fell off when the ice man sawed off a chunk from the big blocks on his wagon. In the winter, ice was cut out of the nearby lakes and stored in the town icehouse with sawdust generously sprinkled over it to keep it from melting too soon in the summer.
Milk-Milk was plain whole milk that was not pasteurized or homogenized. Thus the cream would come to the top of the bottles and fill perhaps the top four or five inches. If we wanted cream for coffee or whipped cream we would just pour it off and then the rest of the milk was considered skim milk. Not many kids liked skim milk and there were no health/fat concerns then and it was considered healthy to drink whole milk.
Baking and canning-Mom baked almost all our bread and pastries about once a week. Just about everyone in Watkins, and most small towns I suppose, had a big garden. We grew potatoes, tomatoes, radishes-white and red, lettuce, cucumbers, pickles, dill, asparagus, carrots, beans, sweet corn, cabbage, peas and a few more I cannot remember. Mom would ‘’can’ as much as she could in glass jars late in the summer and early fall. Sometimes we would buy more, like sweet corn, from one of the farms nearby who usually had more than they could use and it was real cheap. By October our ‘’root’ cellar shelves were full. Early on the jars were sealed with wax and later Mom used a pressure cooker that sealed rubber ringed lids on the top of the jars. We kids tried to help a lot, but sometimes we got tired of it and ‘’bugged’ out, you know ‘’got lost’. Sauerkraut was fun to make. We used a big-ten gallon-crock, filled with water and salt and shredded cabbage, of course. Then a loose fitting wooden lid with a big rock on top of it. I didn’t take long for the kraut to cure and it made good snacks to go down to the root cellar and grab a few fingers full of raw kraut. Most houses had basements and a root cellar that had no windows and kept cool all summer.
Garden-Preparing the garden each spring was a lot of work. First we would have a farmer spread manure-phew. Then, either a farmer or local handyman with a horse would plow the garden. He would also go over it with a harrow and field rake to smooth it out a bit so we could rake it by hand before planting. Mom and Dad decided how many rows of each type of vegetable to plant and then we kids did a lot of the planting, with help and guidance from the bosses. Weeding the garden was the biggest pain and it took some doing to get us out there with the mosquitoes and bees. It was great to have nice fresh small potatoes in about early July.
Butchering-One thing we did for at least a few years, after we got a frozen food locker at Weber’s (that may have been in the early forties), was butcher a few dozen chickens each year. A farmer would deliver several crates of live chickens. Dad would chop their heads off on a tree stump and then he put them in a pail where they did most their bleeding, Then he would let them run around the yard until they finished bleeding and dropped. We would then dip them in real hot water and de-feather them. The last step was to singe off the real fine feathers. After that it was simply a matter of butchering. We kids helped as much as possible, but it was a little messy. Once we got the frozen food locker, we started to store vegetables there and end the ‘canning’. We also usually bought and shared a pig and a steer with someone and had Charlie the butcher at Weber’s slaughter them, make hamburger, sausage, steaks, head cheese, etc for the locker. Sometimes we kids would stand outside the slaughterhouse and look in through the windows to watch the goings on. I won’t describe what we saw in deference to the squeamish. Oh what the heck. Pigs were stung up and had their throats slit. Steers were hit between the eyes with a sledgehammer.
Grocery shopping-As you can imagine we tried to use as much food from the garden, canning and freeze lockers as possible. Mom even baked bread occasionally. Still we had to buy some things, like sugar, certain meats, bread, etc. There were only two ways to pay for any groceries-cash or ‘charge it’. There were no credit cards, of course, so the stores would simply write down what you bought in a little spiral note book and keep sub totaling it so that once a week or month we, and I presume most other people, would pay up. Now we had four grocery stores in town, Weber’s, Brixius, Manuel’s and Klein’s. Only Klein’s and Weber’s had fresh meats. Being in the banking business in a small town it was mandatory that we had to rotate our grocery shopping among all four grocery stores
Banking-Being the son of the bank President resulted in my taking a certain amount of ribbing at school. Everyone assumed that we were rich and even though I knew we had some things others didn’t I did not really know if we were rich. Based on table talk at home I gathered we were not rich, whatever that meant, and later I learned that we definitely were not rich. Dad not only ran the bank very conservatively (meaning that it did not make as much money as it could have), but he was very sensitive to it being a family owned business with two brothers (both with families) working there. Dad told me how, at midnight during the banking holidays of 1930 they secretly transferred money through the back alley, to the more troubled second bank in Watkins, the Watkins State Bank, which was in the midst of a run on its deposits. Dad and his Dad were worried that the run would spread to their bank. It didn’t, but they could not save the Watkins State Bank.
As I mentioned above, Dad used to prepare wills, deeds, and other simple legal documents for bank customers. I went to Litchfield, the Meeker county seat about 18 miles southwest of Watkins, often with Dad when he had some legal work to take care of at the county court house. His good friend and lawyer, Ed Schmidt from Eden Valley did not mind because Dad gave him all the more difficult legal tasks. Ed Schmidt came over to Watkins a lot and I liked him. However, the Central Minnesota Bar Association did not like Dad doing things only lawyers were supposed to do. They called him on the carpet and forced him to stop doing those things-no fine or official legal action, but it was threatening and Dad reluctantly complied.
I used to go with Dad once in a while to check on the collateral for chattel mortgages at local farms. This meant that we went out to a farm and counted pigs and/or cattle to see if they were all there. We didn’t actually count them for fear of offending the farmer, but we sort of made estimates during our visits, and the farmers seemed to like the attention of having the banker come out to see them. Little did they realize (maybe they did) the real purpose for the ‘’visit’. Once in a while farmers would sell their chattel and spend the proceeds even though they were collateral on a loan.
Dad and all the other small town bankers hated the savings and loans in those days, because they could compete with the banks but did not have to pay taxes. We did not have a savings and loan in Watkins. One little episode with the bank, that I am not very proud of, occurred in about 1938 when I simply walked into the vault and took two rolls of nickels. I gave them to my friends and we invaded all the local stores to buy candy, ice cream, etc. The storeowners got suspicious and called my Dad, who confronted me at home. I ran away, with my sister Rita trying to catch me. I eventually hid under the rear porch of our house. I don’t remember what my punishment was, but I had learned a lesson the hard way.
Grade school-I barely remember going to the first grade. The St. Anthony grade school and school playground were just across the street from and east of our house. We would get to our classroom at about 7:45 am and then march in double file to the church next door for 8:00 am mass. Mass was over by 8:30 am and those of us that lived close by could run home for some breakfast before school started at 9:00 am. The other kids had to bring lunch buckets to school to get some breakfast. At about 10:00 am we would have a 15 or 30-minute recess. Depending on the weather, we would go out to the playground to the west of school and play softball or other outdoor games, like touch football and marbles. Marbles were a big thing for a few years. We would “shoot” (toss) at each other’s marbles and if we hit the other guy’s marble we could take it. Some of the marbles were bigger and prettier than others and we would carry them in a cloth sack and keep them in a large jar at home. Sometimes, if we had duplicates, we would trade them for ones we did not have. I do not remember what we did with all of those marbles, as we got older. Indoors we played basketball in the gym or card games. We had lunch hour from noon to 1 pm. Then recess at about 2:00 pm and school let out at 3:30 pm. In the early grades we had to either go home for lunch or bring a lunch box. The last couple of years we had a federally subsidized hot lunch program in the school.
In those days you could not eat or drink anything after the previous midnight if you wanted to receive Holy Communion. Everyone wanted to receive communion because if you didn’t people would assume that you had committed an unconfessed mortal sin and thus where living in the state of sin and not eligible to receive communion. They would never assume that you ate or drank something.
When I went to school to start the second grade, the nuns put six of us (myself, the Nistler twins, Dick Gross, Wilfred Meirehofer and Delores Bates-I think) into the third grade because there were not enough seats in the second grade. I cried very hard because I did not want to leave my friends (Gordy Linn, etc.). It didn’t help though and I just skipped the second grade. Thus I was always one year younger than my peers throughout the rest of my school years. School came easy to me and I still got pretty good grades (don’t ask me for details). Regretfully, none of my friends or me liked English. We could not understand why or how that could ever be important. Graduation for all Meeker County eighth graders was held at Litchfield Public High School in May 1945. We went by bus and I don’t think many of our parents were present.
Church-Mainly because of Mom, all of us kids and Dad, went to church often. In addition to Sunday mass, there was Sunday evening benediction, daily mass on school days, and other services during Lent and other times of the year. Naturally, I was an altar boy. They often called our house when someone did not show up for whatever reason. Thus I got to go to more than my share of masses-sometimes twice on Sundays. The best part of mass serving was the weddings where we usually got $5 or $10 each. Also funerals usually produced something like that, but required going out to the cemetery, regardless of the weather. Services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday often started at about 5:00 am and lasted for several hours.
Masses were all in Latin. Mass servers had to respond to the priest in Latin. Thus “Dominus Vobiscum” was “The Lord be with You” and we responded with “Et cum spiritu tuo” which meant “And also with you” which I understand is now being translated to mean “And with your spirit”. This would include saying the Confiteor and all the other prayers in Latin. This was quite a memorization job. The only things said in English were the readings and the gospel. The priest always faced the altar. Some of us servers competed in a contest to answer a whole booklet of historical and other questions about the Catholic religion. This required many hours of research in the one and only set of Catholic Encyclopedias housed in the small grade school library on the third floor of the school. I think I passed the competition, but I forgot what we received, if anything, for doing so.
Father Bozja was the parish priest from 1931 to 1950. He was quiet and very strict about everything. He loved to go fishing and did so often. We dreaded going to confession to him because sometimes he was loud and everyone in line could hear what he was saying. In the early years it didn’t make much difference, but later on we went to St. Cloud whenever possible. Dad was the Treasurer and confidant to Father Bozja, Father Westfall 1950-1954, Father Clemens 1954-1967 and Father Kasel 1968-1980. The Benedictine nuns were just great and we always brought them pop, beer, and food at Christmas. Same for the pastor and his housekeeper.
In later years I sang in the church choir with my Uncle Jerry. I enjoyed that a lot, but did not want to go to practices. One of the interesting tid bits about church in those days was that they published an annual booklet listing how much everyone gave on Sundays, Christmas, etc. this was quite a well read booklet, but I don’t know what anyone did with the information except maybe gossip about it. It did have some positive effects on church giving, I believe, and that was important in view of the tough economic times of the ’30s. (The ‘’end’ justifies the means in that case I guess.) One of the categories of giving was for “pew” rent. Almost everyone has an assigned pew to sit in. Ours was #12 on the left side. We shared that with Jerry Ley and his family. If someone was sitting in your pew who did not belong there some people would tell them and have them move.
One year when they finished painting the church steeple, the steeplejack threw small candy bars, some with quarters in them, down from the 100 ft high cross. Naturally we kids had quite a scramble for them.
Blizzards-It seemed like we usually had one or more blizzards each winter. A blizzard meant very cold temps, snow and high winds. The worst blizzard, probably of all times was in early November 1940. Actually it started on Armistice Day, November 11, I believe. We did not have school that day so Gordy Linn came up to my house to play. Little did we realize that the light snow that was falling would turn into a blizzard. It got so bad that there was no visibility and Gordy soon planned to stay overnight and he did. Anyway, sometime mid day there was a terrible train wreck right in the center of town. A Soo Line passenger train loaded with many holiday people, crashed head-on with a fright train. I know several people were killed and many injured. I don’t think the trains were going very fast because of the weather conditions (low visibility, etc.). Anyway, Dad and as many of the volunteer firemen as they could get, went up and helped as many as they could. Many people opened their houses up to the passengers. We only had one doctor in town, Dr. Brigham, and he did what he could for the injured. We had no hospital. The blizzard lasted all-day and well into the night. Then it got bitterly cold the next few days, like 20 or 30 below. The visibility was so bad that the only way Dad (and I assume others) could find their way home by going from door to door with a rope strung between them so they could feel their way. Dad came home several times during the day to check on us. He had ice cycles hanging from all exposed extremities. Some of the snowdrifts were ten feet high. The snow banks were almost hard as rocks. We cut tunnels in them and had a lot of fun playing there. We did not have school for one whole week because none of the farm kids could get to town. We only had one snowplow in town and that was used for country roads too, because it belonged to the county. I remember going to school the next day to help shovel snow out of the west side rooms. It had blown right thru the windows.
Jobs-Naturally, considering the economy, small town and my age, there were not many jobs available. I got my first job when I was about 11 or 12 years old. It was at the Arendt & Wartman lumberyard located just across the street from our house. Being wartime, lumberyards could not get regular lumber from their usual sources like Weyerhaeuser. J. P. Arendt had connections at Weyerhaeuser and could get unplained and green wood. The other lumberyard in town could not get this wood and therefore it was a big deal for “my” lumberyard. He also bought a plainer that was driven by a tractor with pulley belt drive. I hung out a lot at the lumberyard and got to know all the people working there, including Joe Lindseth the manager. I would help out wherever I could just for something to do, so I got the job of taking the boards out of the plainer and stacking them in a wagon. It was a dirty and dangerous job, but I got $.10 an hour. I had to wear goggles and there was the danger of a board or large slivers shooting out from the plainer at me. The shavings from the plainer would spew out all over me. Still I was thrilled to have a job. No there was no OSHA.
This job also led me to help one of the older workers unload boxcars of lumber, coal and cement onto a ton and half truck for transport to either the lumberyard storage bins or, in the case of coal, a customer’s house. This was very hard work and we started at 7 am. At about 10 am we stopped in town at Bober’s café with truck loaded and had a beer with raw egg and lots of salt in it. This cost about $.15. In the mid afternoon, about 3 pm, we repeated this “snack break”. I often drove the truck, even though I had no license and was only 13 or so.
I can’t remember how long that first job lasted, maybe 3 or 4 weeks. My next job, early in the summer of 1944, was to plant tobacco seedlings in a muddy field out west of town. There were maybe 6 or 7 of us kids hired to do this. Mike Mies owned or leased the farmland where we planted the tobacco. We got $.25 an hour and that was considered a good job. Mike Mies started a tobacco processing plant in Watkins and it was a big deal for many years well after the war. Because of the tobacco plant, many farmers planted small plots of tobacco. Ten acres of very labor-intensive tobacco was a big plot. It was a good cash crop and with the war going on it was very profitable. It also produced a lot of jobs for us kids. In addition to planting the seedlings (after pulling them from the hotbeds), we hoed the weeds and mounded the plants. Then we had to sucker the plants (remove the branches that grew from the joint between the main branches and the stalk). Finally we had to break off the tops of the plants when they got about 5 feet tall. All of this was to steer the nutrients to the main branches. The last step in growing the tobacco was to harvest it. This involved hacking off the stalks at the base with a machete, then spearing it onto a lathe, which held about 5 or 6 stalks. These lathes were then loaded onto a truck, fit with racks to hold the lathes. These racks extended out from the back of the truck maybe 5 or 6 feet and made the load almost back weighted. I was one of the guys who drove the truck from the field (at age 12 or 13 mind you and with no license, of course) to the farmer’s drying barn. Usually these trips did not involve going on the road, but sometimes it did. Tobacco farmers had a real problem getting help to move the dried plants into the tobacco processing plant in the middle of winter. We were all in school, but somehow they managed.
First cars- The first car I can remember was the family Oldsmobile. Cannot remember what year it was, etc. In 1939 Dad bought a new Ford two-door sedan. I think it cost $900. Mind you I was only 7 years old, but it was cool. My sisters tell me that one of the reasons my Dad got the new Ford was that some prankster poured sand into the tank of the Olds and essentially ruined the motor, etc. they claim that the prankster was yours truly, but I cannot remember it. Still I would not question the memories of my dear sisters.
Trips-As a family, we did not travel much. Partly due to the gas rationing, but also the cost. We went to Duluth a few times to visit my two aunts and one uncle on my Dad’s side of the family. Vern Ley was unmarried all of her life and was very sweet and fun to be with. Esther (Ley) and Joe Landolt lived in Duluth because Joe worked for Otis Elevator Co. as a maintenance/repair man. On one of our visits to Duluth, Uncle Joe took to me work with him at the Duluth City Hall. There we met the Mayor of Duluth who took me in his chauffer driven car to the city zoo, etc. Joe was a very loud and boisterous, cigar smoking man and was very proud that he had enough clout with the Mayor to have him show me the city zoo, etc.
Another trip was to the Mystery Cave in far southeastern Minnesota. That was an overnighter and very interesting to a young boy who never went anyplace. We also drove to Jordan fairly often to visit Grandma Koelzer and Aunt Frances, mom’s widowed sister. Frances. The only other place we went was to Mom’s sister Sophie and her husband Dr. Walfred Johnson, in Sauk Center. They had a big three-story house that we loved to play hide and seek in.
I almost forgot that two other trips I took were with my older sister Lois. One time she drove sister Rita and me down to Alton, Iowa for a few days visit with my uncle Dr. Con Murphy and family. Alton was in the NW corner of Iowa and about 200 miles from Watkins. Lois had spent the summer of 1942 helping Aunt Ethel with their first born, Mary. I remember that we visited Orange City, Iowa one day. It was a Dutch community about 5 miles west of Alton. People had wooden shoes, etc. A very pretty town. We also went swimming at a sand pit a few miles north of Alton (there were no lakes anywhere nearby). It was dangerous because the sand bottom along the shore kept shifting and one never knew where a drop off would develop. Lois won’t like this, but for Rita and me the most dangerous part of the trip was Lois’ driving. We loved her dearly and really looked up to her, but she would get so close to the shoulder and center stripe that we were constantly in fear. Another short trip we took was to New Ulm. MN about 100 miles south of Watkins. Cannot remember many of the details, except that this lovely family ate very light at noon. Small sandwiches and maybe cool aide. We were used to having our main meal at noon and then only a light supper in the evening.
I remember one trip Mom and Dad took to Phoenix, AZ. It maybe was to a Banker’s convention and they stayed at the Camelback Inn (still there). They drove there I think and brought back pictures. We kids were impressed and dad really liked the area. Dad liked to travel and would like to have gone back to Germany and Europe in general and also Hawaii, but my Mom did not like to travel for unknown reasons.
Home alone- Well, I was not exactly left home alone, but one summer my Mom and Dad drove off to Niagara Falls, NY with their good friends Pep and Anne Weber. They also wanted to see the Dionne quintuplets. An older woman from in town was hired to stay with us kids. Can’t remember what year that was, but probably about 1940 or so. I did not like this at all and cried and pouted when they left. I survived somehow. I guess if I was 8years old, Rita would have been about 11, Lois about 13 and Cleo about 15. All too young to stay alone.
Accidents-When I was about 7 or 8 years old we used to play a jack knife game where we would flip an open jack knife first from the back of the left hand, then the elbow, then the shoulder, then the forehead, etc and attempt to have the knife land so the blade stuck in the ground. Normally this was not dangerous, but ‘boys will be boys’ and one day we started using an old rusty scissors in place of a knife and while I was trying to flip it into the ground it went into my leg instead. It bled a lot and I had to go to Dr. Brigham to get it cleaned and stitched.
Another time we were climbing trees in back of Mierhofer’s house and I fell from a rope we were using to climb higher. I feel on my left wrist and onto a board with nails sticking up. They punctured my wrist and we not only had trouble getting the nails out, but because they were rusty I had to go to Dr. Brigham for some clean up and shots.
Finally, we were playing on the piles of fence posts in the lumberyard one evening and I slipped and fell and on the way to the ground (about 8 feet) I hit the back of my head on a petruding log. This caused about a 2 inch long gash in the back of my head. Otherwise I was okay and it did not bleed much. I was afraid to tell my parents so I went home and went to bed with the open gash. In the morning one of my sisters saw it and I was off to the doctor’s office. The doctor cleaned it out and then stitched it and put a bandage around my whole head instead of shaving off a large area for a smaller bandage.
One more was when I had my hand around the car door post of Mies’ panel truck and someone closed the door on my hand. It smashed my left finger next to my pinky. Boy did that hurt. I had to go to the doctor and have it cleaned out and bandaged. I lost the fingernail and even today it is an odd-looking fingernail.
Hospitalizations-For some reason it was common in those days to have tonsils removed. This required hospitalization and about ten days of recovery. I had mine taken out when I was about 8 or 9 years old. It was painful after I woke up from the operation. I ate a lot of ice cream and jello because it was hard to swallow anything the first few days. Then when I was only a couple of years older, say 10, I had an operation to fix my left hernia, which had started to bulge out. Maybe I got hit there during football or something. Anyway I got spoiled rotten while in the St. Cloud Hospital and fell in ‘love’ with some of the nurses there. I cried when I had to go home.
Funerals-The first dead person I remember seeing was grandpa Stephen Ley. I was probably only 5 or 6 years old. All the wakes were held in the homes of the deceased’s family. We did not have a funeral home until many years later. Grandpa lived with aunt Vern, at the north end of our street. Anyway it was sort of creepy. Next was the funeral of Henry Wartman, who lived on the corner just two houses north of ours. I was not much older, but went to the wake. Usually someone would lead everyone in a rosary. Otto Wartman, Henry’s son, was the undertaker and his parlor was on the second floor of the Wartman hardware store, just one block east of our house on main street. When we went home late at night and had to go by the funeral parlor, especially when we knew someone had died and was up there being embalmed, we would run real fast with our hearts pounding. I went to many funerals after that, but I cannot remember them. One I do remember was that of a classmate, Jean Stelton, who lived in a small apartment in the back of the jewelry store on main street. Jean had scarlet fever and there was not much they could do for her. On one of her last days, there was a carnival in town and it was set up right on main street right in front of her home. I remember that several of us boys thought that was very disrespectful or inconsiderate and that she needed peace and quiet.
Neighbors-The next house north of us was that of Otto and Marie Wartman. They did not have any children. Otto was a unique guy. He liked a few drinks now and then and liked to go to St. Cloud often to eat steak. In later years, maybe in the summer after the army, I remember arranging with Otto to get some aged filets (Chet the butcher would get this special ordered tenderloin and then after cutting thick filets he would pound them into big wide filet patties) from Weber’s store and barbequing them in the backyard. That was quite a blast. Marie was a very sweet lady. She would have us kids into her house every so often and give us cookies and nectar. She could play the piano went to church every day and was just generally very nice. She also played bridge with my mom. Marie had diabetes and much later in life I remember Sandy and I visiting her at a nursing home in St. Cloud. She was a Franta and had family in Wabasso, MN about 100 miles SW of Watkins. Her twin nephews, Joan and John, were my age. When they came to Watkins we played together all the time. John was a real smart guy and sort of a troublemaker. I visited him one time for a few days or a week in Wabasso. He became a lawyer in St. Paul. One time, many years later, when Sandy and I were visiting Lois and John at Lake Koronis, Lois told us that John Franta and his family were vacationing, at a cottage they owned, just across the bay. We went over to visit and John was not overly friendly and we did not stay very long. Never saw him since. Christine and Florian Wartman, both of whom worked at the hardware store, lived with their dad, Henry, in the next house on the corner and never married. Later on they would sell that big house and move into a small house about four houses south of us and next to Arendt’s-just across the street from the nun’s house. I cannot remember all the other neighbors south of us, except for the Arendt’s and Lindseths next to them. Joe Lindseth worked at the lumberyard as the manager. I baby-sat for their only child junior once in a while. Junior was a real piece of work. He could and did swear with the foulest language often. He was a very difficult to control. Just south of Lindseths was Kramer’s. I used to play with Elmer Kramer. Elmer lost an eye later on and I did not see him much in later years.
As I said earlier, Pep and Anne Weber were best of friends with Mom and Dad. Anne Weber was a Hennen and her sister, Catherine, married George Wartman of Ashland, WI. George was a brother to Otto Wartman, our neighbor and he was also an undertaker. George had a very successful business in Ashland and had a very large funeral home. George and Otto had at least one other thing in common, that is the love of steaks. Whenever George and Catherine came down to Watkins to visit they had to go to St. Cloud, usually with Otto and Marie, for a steak dinner. George and Catherine had three sons. Dick who was Bob Weber’s age, Dave who was Jim Weber’s age and Lou who was Phil Weber’s and my age. They were all excellent athletes and swimmers. I remember going to Ashland one summer with Phil and staying with them for a few days. Lou went on to become a very successful stockbroker with Merrill Lynch in Milwaukee. The only time I ever heard from or of him in later years was when one of my St. John’s classmates, John Reilly, became CEO of Merrill. Lou called me in Chicago to see how well I knew John for obvious reasons. George and Catherine went to Florida each winter and rented a place near Orlando, I think. One year Mom and Dad went down there to visit them briefly and maybe that is where Dad got the idea of moving there later.
Summer camp-When I was about 11 years old, two of us kids from Watkins heard about the Catholic Order of Forester’s summer boy’s camp north of Anoka, MN. Dad was active in the Foresters in Watkins and maybe that is how I found about it. Somehow we convinced our parents to send us there for a week or so. I became very lonesome for the first couple of days. We had a big swimming pool and took lessons and swam at least twice a day. The camp was on the Rum River so we did canoeing once in a while. They had a craft tent where we built things. A lodge where we ate all our meals and a series of screened in barrack type cottages that each held about ten of us. There were maybe 100 kids at the camp. Counselors were college students. I think we went to mass everyday, but frankly I can’t remember for sure. We had a great time and talked it up so much that the next year we had recruited maybe four more kids to join us and we did it for two weeks. We did a lot of other things including playing war games in the vast forests surrounding the camp. I wonder if it is still there.
Lake Koronis-Our favorite lake in the area was Lake Koronis. Located just east of Paynesville and about 15 miles from Watkins it was rated by someone as the third most beautiful lake in Minnesota. It had three islands that were sort of connected by sand bars under the surface and were uninhabited so they made good places to hike and picnic. Island one on the east side carried an old Indian lore that the 100 ft or so cliff on the south side was the scene of either a suicide or sacrifice of a beautiful young Indian maiden named Koronis many years ago. We could walk from the mainland to island one because the sand bar was only about 4 or 5 ft deep and straight enough to easily follow it. From island one to island two was more difficult, because the sand bar was deeper and more difficult to follow. The sand bar from island two to three was too deep to walk across. The lake was deep and made for good swimming all summer long because it did not get ‘dog days’ in late July and August. Lundemos had and still have a cottage on the south end of the lake.
One experience I remember that involved Lake Koronis was when I was about 10 or 11 years old. Several of my friends arranged for Renee Arendt to chaperone them for one week at a cottage on Lake Koronis. My parents did not like the idea and refused to let me go. I remember crying my heart out and generally making it very difficult for Mom and Dad. They did not budge though and somehow I survived the experience. I cannot remember what their main objection was, but maybe they thought it was just too many rambunctious boys for Renee to manage. Renee was about 19 or 20 years old at the time and a very good swimmer.
Moving to Florida-Running the bank as a family owned business was very stressful on Dad. Naturally, some in his family thought they should make more money and at least be on a par with Dad. He ran the bank very conservatively and thus there was not a lot of money to go around. Because of this, he proposed to the family that we should move to Florida and he would go into the real estate business and let uncle Ray run the bank. This was obviously a really big deal and I did not have much to say about it. This must have occurred about in 1940 because Cleo would have been a junior in high school, Lois a freshman and Rita in the sixth grade. My sisters were vehemently opposed to moving to Florida and they prevailed. There might have been other reasons, but I don’t remember and maybe never knew. Imagine what life would have been like if we had moved. WOW!
WWII-On Sunday afternoon, December 7. 1941 I sat on the floor of our living room listening very attentively to the constant newscasts about the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor. I was only 9 years old, but knew that this was a very big deal. It really consumed everyone, even in little old Watkins. In a few days we declared war on Japan and then on Germany and Italy. I used National Geographic maps to plot the advances of the allied forces in both the Pacific and Atlantic sectors. It took about a year before we were finally able to stop the advances of the enemies.
Soon we would have the draft and virtually every young man in town was going off to one of the services, most simply volunteered for the draft or enlisted. It wasn’t too long before we started to get casualty reports. Every day the newspaper had long lists of those killed and wounded. Watkins did not escape these tragedies. One family, the Sturms, who lived just next door to my aunt and uncle, Putch and Ray Ley, about one long block north of us, had five or seven sons killed in action. They had a banner hanging in their window with all those gold stars on it.
Almost every manufacturing plant in the Twin Cities was converted to defense production of one kind or another. They needed help desperately and therefore almost all young, and even older, women in town moved to the cities for the jobs, which paid very good wages. There were no unemployed men available.
We had a civil defense unit in town and we even had air raid drills. Not that anyone thought we would be bombed, but mainly to plan for and conduct blackouts so that any German or Japanese planes on their way to Minneapolis and that might fly over could not get their bearings from our and all other towns. When we had our drills, the windows had to have blinds drawn and any leaks taped. Dad was one of the civil defense patrollers and they went around town during the drills to make sure there was zero light coming from anywhere. We kids would often go up to the train tracks and watch troop trains speed through town with young men, on their way to war, hanging out windows and waving to us. Watkins was on the main line of the Soo railroad and relatively underutilized so troop trains did not have to wait for freight trains.
We also had rationing of many items. Silk stockings, butter, gum, sugar, tires, tobacco and gasoline were just some of the items I remember. Most people had an A and some B gas rationing cards. That only gave them about 5 gallons a week. Dad had a C card, which gave him, about 15 gallons a week. His job as President of the bank and some other civic duties gave him priority. Speed limits on the highways were set at 35 mph to conserve gas.
On July 11, 1945 the war in Europe came to an end. It was called V-E Day. Watkins started to celebrate immediately. Nothing formal or official, just everyone coming downtown to the seven beer joints we had. Fire sirens sounded long and often. Church bells (only one church) rang long and often. The beer joints sold or gave away beer to just about everyone, even us kids. Remember we were only 13 years old. V-J day came on August 15, 1945, a few days after, we dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. I was working on a farm north of Watkins, shocking grain, when we heard the news. It was just like V-E Day in Watkins.
Picking Ergot-One of the things that came with the war was a shortage of certain medicines. One in particular used a fungus called ergot that grew from rye grain. These were small black clods about the size of a rye grain kernel. Someone was willing to pay about $5 for a quart of these so we and many others went up to the elevator in Watkins and got bushels of rye grain. We would then spread a few cups at a time over the kitchen table and who ever was home would go through the kernels and pick out the ergot clods. I cannot remember how much ergot we got out of a whole bushel, but it was enough to incentivize us. We did not have many ways of making money so this was a good way to pick up a little change. I don’t remember how long this went on, but it was a seasonal so maybe a couple of seasons.