March 12, 2007

Remember when? Assorted memories of a Dasselite

This piece was originally written in the early 70s for the Dassel High School class reunion of ‘42. The update below was written for the class reunion Aug. 31, 1997. More articles will follow in the spring, since Seymour Peterson plans to continue his writing at that time.

By Seymour Peterson, Dassel

This time it’s 55+ years since we were in high school. We’ve come a far piece down the pike. Many things we remember vividly are becoming totally unfamiliar to our kids. It’s inevitable, the generation gap is there.

Dassel was a smaller town. Farmers were plowing and planting where there is now a complete new modern residential section around Spring Lake. West of McGrew’s house was out of town. When that section began filling with new homes, it was dubbed “Mortgage Avenue.” The churches were simple one-room affairs with basements for activities.

The only paved roads in town were Highway 12 and 15. I tell my kids I remember when the main highway was No. 10 and was gravel, back in 1930. They ask when I’m going to grow my beard, Grandpa?

Such is life. A trip to St. Cloud was an arduous run up through Kingston and Kimball. The roads were apt to be closed up for a spell after a winter storm. It took Ray Howe a few days to get the streets cleared up sometimes with his trusty Dodge two-ton truck-plow. That was one bragged-on truck. Remember the colorful language Ray used? They hadn’t learned to build up the country roads yet and there were many cuts that filled with snow. And those spring break-ups. I remember a big Caterpillar getting stuck on 15 this side of Ted Bergquist’s by Washington Lake.

Model A and T Fords were still common as potatoes. About as cheap. Remember those mohair seats? Dusty, and they made you sweat in the summer heat — air conditioning didn’t exist yet. It was a major operation to shift position because your pants didn’t slide easily on the mohair.

Many times a day a steam whistle in the distance heralded the approach of a big freight train, and you were thankful there was an overhead bridge you could take to go south.

The trains would park in Dassel while they took on water—Dassel was a tank town, halfway to Willmar, where they had a turn-around for the engines. The train crew would climb down from the cab, oil the bearings on the huge connecting rods, and saunter over to Matt’s for coffee. I never could figure out why they rang the bell so much while they were in town.

And what a commotion getting going — if they went west, the start-up was up a slight incline and over and over, they’d spin the engine drivers, and you didn’t want to be standing near the track if the steam valves happened to pop off excess pressure as they went by.

If a fast flier went through, Fred Olson would be out holding up written instructions for the engineer to catch as he flew by. Radio hadn’t yet gotten to the train engine cabs and they used the simple, primitive communications of a paper note. Fred would send a telegram for you and you could stand and watch his nimble fingers click the telegraph. When he finished, the receiving operator would repeat the message back so Fred could check to see if the telegram was accurate.

For gas, you could pull into Wreisner’s for that evenly-paced service or into Hillstrom’s Tydol-Veedol in case you hankered for a little entertainment. On a warm summer afternoon Tim Coleman sat on his chair by the pumps and told salty stories and slapped his knee as he laughed heartily at his own jokes. There was Belin’s Mobil, Sundell’s Texaco, and last but certainly not least, Frank Dwyer’s Standard. There just can’t be many of you who didn’t patronize that place somewhere along the way. Frank had the last word in personalized service — you could buy one cigarette out of the pack! High school students who were proving their young manhood by smoking appreciated that kind of merchandizing. And Frank was just far enough from school so they could indulge themselves out of sight of any schoolmasters.

Mass merchandising hadn’t yet sabotaged Frank’s mode of selling goods. Remember all the punch boards he had on the counter? He didn’t need expensive one-arm bandits to satisfy our desire to feel the thrill of winning. Frank was proof the Irish can make it with the Swedes.

Vern Bach or Oscar Bengtson dispensed the meat. You could still buy home-made potato sausage. Pickled herring still came out of the barrel. For groceries, you trundled over to Olaf Anderson’s IGA, Fred Groth’s Red and White, or Adolph Escen’s Fairway. They candled the eggs in the back room and packed them for shipment. Mama had about 300 hens and she traded eggs for groceries. Donald Escen cut his business teeth by clerking there.

Credit was freely given at these stores and the bills were hand-written. They tell a story about my sister Louise when she was little. She was sent uptown to get some rolls of toilet paper and she told them to charge it. The grocer wasn’t familiar with who she was and asked, “Who is this for?” She felt it was obvious and said, “Why, it’s for all of us!”

And we must not forget Dassel’s version of Dayton’s — Cliffy Larson. He managed to pack an amazing amount of merchandise into his uptown mart and he appreciated any purchase, even though it was small. Flossy (Florence) was usually around to assist you in deciding what to buy.

You could dine out at Matt’s Coffee Cup Cafe, Linquist’s Downstairs, or Chips Elliott’s in front of the theatre. A full Sunday dinner at Linquist’s was 25 cents and pie was an additional nickel. You could browse through his gallery of photos of the 1933 World’s Fair and there were many photos of steam train engines of that day with Craig Eben standing by them.

You could hear the clang of a bonafide blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil as Nick Baden and Billy Haglund sharpened plow-shares. Nick shoed many a horse under the big spreading tree just north of the old livery barn, which no longer held horses, but was used to store ice for the ice boxes still common then. Billy ran the local dairy.

I remember Lloyd Hagglund whizzing around a corner delivering milk when his rear axle broke and he lost a wheel on his Model A Ford. Teenagers have always loved speed, and youngsters back then were no exception. The cars then in use couldn’t go fast enough to be really dangerous.

The noon rush at the post office brought a temporary suspension of the traffic rules. Parking was every man for himself and it wasn’t uncommon to see someone double park and rush in and get his mail and rush out again. One sound that sticks in my memory is the staccato clacking of Leonard Mattson’s Model A Ford as he went by at noon to go home from Central Lumber. Leo Dibb had become a legend in his time.

The story was told of how he pulled up to a stop at the highway alongside some of the younger set in a racy hot rod, rolled down his window and queried, “Ya wanna drag?” Those who remember Leo will recognize this as a classic — Leo’s Model A would have trouble getting ahead of a wheelbarrow.

You dickered with Walt Nelson for a new Plymouth or Chrysler, and Bengtson’s wheeled and dealed in Fords and Mercurys after 1936. Before that they sold Chevys. Edgar Johnson and Cliff Hardy were the ace mechanics in town. Edgar still remembered the early days of the Model T and loved to relate stories about the quirks and peculiarities of the more ancient vintage cars. Edgar suffered a stroke that left one arm paralyzed and in his final days, he owned his own repair shop where he had trained his dog to run after wrenches and rags and such. It was impressive to watch how the dog knew what Edgar wanted. Cliff Hardy was a faster worker and would get the jobs out on time. He was used to getting new cars from the factory and having to straighten out some problem the factory had ignored.

Kelly Johnson and Carl and Ba Gayner sold the hardware and you could get harnesses fixed by Frank Rudberg at Gayner’s. Sam Ilstrup ran the bank and was a typical pioneer banker. He had to trust his intuition in making loans and he knew the vagaries of the weather and the markets could make it tough for farmers to repay on time.

Dick Larson or Martin Berg would cut your hair for 25 cents. The Depression years had left their mark even on barbers, and I remember how Martin agonized over having to raise his price as time went on. Bill Busch and G.O. Peterson ran the two drug stores. Peterson’s more or less stuck to their work in drugs, but Bill liked to dabble in other things and had a soda fountain and the Greyhound bus station. He walked around the store giving out with a windy whistle. Those buses were real pioneers, mounted on White trucks with two big shock absorbers that stuck up by the front bumper. The bus was a welcome choice for many travelers in preference to the train.

School life was simpler then. We went to school at 9 a.m., attended hour-long classes, went home for dinner, then more school from 1 to 4. English, algebra, social studies, chemistry, ag, biology, commercial and typing — so simple and uncomplicated. Teaching these things were people like Carl Moe, Mabel Backlund, George Edberg, Lucille Russell, Spletstazer, Voss, Bill Gebhard, Jean and Beth Hopeman, Miss Ording, Miss Keikenapp, Bill Munson, Irving Tone, Chet Heinzel, Miss Arveson.

You can no doubt remember more. Life seemed a little more predictable then—you could choose among a relatively small number of occupations and it wasn’t all that hard to map out a plan of how to train yourself. At least, so it seemed.

Halloween meant soaped windows, farm implements pulled out into the street, outhouses tipped over. Halloween always brings back the memory of that buggy perched on Bill Gebhard’s desk the next morning. The expression on his face as he walked in and saw it was priceless. He took stock of the situation and proceeded with school with superb self-control.

Mr. Moe arrived in 1933 in his Whippet with his new family. As it turned out, he wore extremely well. His early fiery demeanor later mellowed and he learned to ooze diplomacy. His natural frugality with money stood him in good stead with the Depression-bred school boards of that era, and he could come with well-chosen words for just about any occasion.

Remember the wholesome, healthy look the girls had then? Skirts were below the knees, cheeks were rosy, smiles came easily. Us boys trembled at the thought of asking for a date. Fathers still carried a good deal of authority and one didn’t approach lightly the task of calling at her house to take her out for a date. Women went to the beauty parlor for a finger wave or marcel. Men still got barber shaves with a real razor and “heinies” were quite popular. Alcohol was simply not used by high school students, and dope — what was that?

Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James and Guy Lombardo were big deals then. Paul Whiteman was still known by the general public, but his glory faded in the early 1930s. The big band style had taken over and we were treated to really catchy tunes done by talented professionals. Lawrence Welk was still a North Dakota personality and hadn’t yet found his stride — he was associated with WNAX, Yankton. Glenn Miller joined up and directed the Army band and they gave the men in uniform something to remind them of what they were fighting for.

It’s still fun to listen to recordings of songs like “Over the Rainbow” (Judy Garland), “You Made Me Love You”, “Little Sir Echo”, “Beer Barrel Polka”, “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, “String of Pearls”, “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, “Tuxedo Junction”, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, “In the Mood”, “Sunrise Serenade”. Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) was good family entertainment, Disney was doing fabulous new things like “Snow White” and “Pinocchio”.

Laurel and Hardy were the favorite of millions. You forgot your Depression troubles when you watched Hardy’s pained expression when he’d get tripped up by some simple-minded tomfoolery by Stan Laurel. Tom Mix, Ken Maynard and Buck Jones were household names; 10 cents got you in to see them. When the farm boys came into town after chores and watched the movies in the stuffy theater, you got the real aroma of the horses in the westerns.

Saturday nights in Dassel were a festive thing. The stores were all open and lit up and people sat around and listened to the band play familiar tunes. The evening wasn’t complete unless they played the “Beer Barrel Polka”, which brought the loudest cacophony of car horns of any song when it was through.

The bandstand was only a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks and the director was lucky if he could time things so the trains would roar through between numbers, and not drown out the music. In the 1930s, Hans Peterson from Hutchinson directed the band. His trumpet playing was more powerful than anyone else’s. He had played in the Army band and one time his lip cracked, but he had to keep playing while it bled. That lip healed up with a scar that enabled him to rival the sound of angels.

Ade Wreisner, Mrs. Walt Nelson and Gilbert Johnson were some of the old-timers that still played when the younger kids were coming into the band. Chet Heinzel took over the town band after Hans retired and he ran a tight ship. Ken Bach would sometimes tackle the “Clarinet Polka”, which was no mean task.

Radio was big back then. A few names come to mind: Amos ‘n’ Andy, Gang Busters, Steamboat Bill, Romance of Helen Trent, Ma Perkins, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Jack Armstrong, Buck Rogers and Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons. We heard the Joe Louis-Schmeling fight on radio and watched it later in the Movietone news at the theater. Orson Welles rocked the country with his War of the Worlds that really had some people scared. News commentary on the radio was delivered in the raw by men like Edwin C. Hill and Kaltenborn. Later, we would see a whole new crop of newsmen who were over in the thick of the war — David Brinkley is a name that comes to mind.

***To be continued in Spring DAHS newsletter — Peterson’s World War II memories

Seymour Peterson operated a business in Dassel and served a term as mayor during the early-to-mid-1950s. He then moved to the Twin Cities, where he was employed for many years. Now retired, he recently returned to his home town, and resides on Circle View Drive.

Back to Current Stories Menu | Back to Archives List
Herald Journal
Stories | Columns | Obituaries | Classifieds
Guides | Sitemap | Search | Dassel-Cokato Home | Delano Home | HJ Home