June 18, 2007

20 minutes with Roland Dille

Chamber is treated to a mini-capsule of Dassel history

By Lynda Jensen

A capsule of mini-history was served to the Dassel Chamber by Roland Dille Tuesday at the Ergot Building.

Dille managed to summarize the history of Dassel to the group in about 20 minutes, starting with the city’s incorporation in 1870 to the well-attended Saturday nights that used to be the featured along the main street through the later 1900s.

In the early years, Dassel hosted trainloads of grain, merchandise and other goods, which traveled via the railways through town. In fact, big-city dwellers who wanted to visit Hutchinson or Kingston would hitch a ride on the train and then travel by stagecoach to the other towns, Dille said.

In the 1890s, there were nine general stores in Dassel, which had a population of 600; less than the population of either Dassel or Collinwood townships, Dille said.

There were also saloons. Only once did Dassel vote dry, from its incorporation in 1870 to 1915, when the whole county voted dry, by a margin of a couple of hundred votes, he said. National Prohibition soon followed.

Saloons and churches were the main feature of the town at that time. There were six saloons in 1878.

“And then the 20th century arrived,” Dille said.

Rural free delivery began, the automobile appeared, roads were improved, and telephone links were built.

The mail meant that Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards would soon take business from general stores, much the same that “big box” stores are doing today, he noted.

Slowly, the great stores disappeared. Murphy’s, which was built by the sons of a prosperous Kingston farmer, burned down and was not be rebuilt. Murphy’s used to be located on Atlantic and Fourth Street. The Andrew Olson store, which was the biggest, went bankrupt.

The first telephone was built between Murphy’s General Store and Kingston, he noted. It cost a nickel to use.

In the early 1900s, Dassel set the local standard for egg and butter quality, with customers in the Twin Cities, he said.

In 1929, Highway 12 was paved.

During the 1940s, there were six grocery stores in town, compared to the one today, Gary’s Family Foods.

Dille ended his speech by reading an essay on Saturday nights (see below).

“The town seems to be different, but is still flourishing,” he said.

Saturday Night in Dassel

The following piece was written by Roland Dille of Dassel.

I don’t know how old someone has to be for the words, “Saturday night in Dassel,” to mean what they mean to me.

The sad fact is that Saturday night in Dassel disappeared some years ago. Oh, I know that there is a night that comes just before Sunday and that we call Saturday night, but it isn’t the same. It isn’t the same at all.

I sat in the railroad park one Saturday night not so many years ago, between nine and 10 o’clock. What we always called the pool hall was open, and a couple of cars were parked in front of it.

Nothing else was open. Two, maybe three cars passed. A couple of people walked down the sidewalk. And that was all.

Except that inside my head were all the Saturday nights I remembered, about 10 years of them, from 1933 to 1942, and it took almost no leap of the memory or the imagination at all for me to fill the street with cars, in a traffic jam that Charley Jenkins, with his magnificent handle-bar moustache, kept from getting out-of-hand, and the sidewalk filled with people whose faces the eyes of my memory tried to catch.

Main Street – which I never heard called Atlantic Avenue until it had changed so much that it no longer deserved to be called Main Street, until the town had changed so much that it no longer had a Main Street, probably doesn’t even need a Main Street.

The post office was the first to go, into the residential section, the government’s concern for small towns and main streets gone the way of the penny postcard; then, the biggest restaurant in town ended up at city limits, and all the grocery stores seemed to have been rolled up into one super-market down by the highway.

Now, the Main Street one sees with a casual eye in the twilight doesn’t seem so different from the one I remember; after all, I’m not old enough to remember muddy streets and wooden sidewalks and hitching posts, although I’m old enough to remember the hitching rings in the concrete wall by the elevator on the south side of the street, old enough, as a matter-of-fact, to remember my father hitching our team to the wall on one of the cold days when the snow drifts were too high for our 1926 Star sedan, and the only way into town was with a team of horses and a sled. Ida Hoover, the only person in my time to always go to town with horses, didn’t hitch them there; she didn’t have a buggy and came to town on a stoneboat, so the horses were in no mood to run away.

But even the most casual glance on Saturday night sees change. What is missing, of course, is people, and for someone who gets back only now and then, the absence of people is eerily surprising.

It’s not a ghost town; it’s too well kept for that.

The image that springs to mind is from the Gospel of Luke, the passage about judgment day, when one should be taken and one should be left, a passage very popular with the preachers of my youth.

We had always secretly believed that in Dassel, more than the average number would be taken, at least all the Missions, but on a Saturday night it would seem that the Lutherans have sure enough been taken too, and even the odd Catholic, and the town stands empty, open, and dark.

I was a farm boy, of course, and so Dassel wasn’t exactly my town.

It was a place to visit, and of all the visits those on long ago Saturday nights were the most exciting. Going to town! To town! It was where you went when you died, where you learned to read, where you got saved or drunk, or both; but, especially, where you went on Saturday night.

Especially that, for beyond the vivid pleasures – the traffic of friends and the traffic of strangers equally exciting, the band playing in the park, things to buy and some things bought, the brightest lights we then knew, the dark at the end of the streets, scary in a non-threatening way when we were little, filled. with romantic promise a little later – beyond all of this, enclosed in the carnival scene, was surely ritual as well.

The ritual of mortification we had all week in the fields. Purgation might come on Sunday. This was jubilation, for the reward of Saturday night had been earned, the promise had been kept.’

The long week had not simply trailed off with Saturday evening’s chores, followed too soon by the chores of Sunday morning. It ended, as it should, with celebration, of one week closer to the harvest, of seven days towards growing up.

What a boy learned on a farm was patience, with delayed gratification, with the slow fruition of the hopes of spring, the dreams of boyhood. Saturday nights were glorious reminders that hopes and dreams were not illusions.

I wish we had them still.

As I sat there on that Saturday night and looked up and down Main Street, I realized that there were only three establishments unchanged from the years when I was in high school. But before many months had passed, Martin Berg had died. Gaynors had sold their hardware store and Bengtsons the meat market.

And then it was all changed.

When you have known well a town during the years of growing up, every street is full of memories. Take the street that runs from the corner of the school block to where the Mission Church used to stand. There is a row of trees on the boulevard, and many of you may not have noticed that one of them is smaller than the rest. It should be; it’s more than half a century younger.

I remember when the original tree fell, in a high wind one spring night, and how during the noon hour the next day, some of us – me, Bobby Haapala, Harvey Abrahamson, and Richard Johnson, among others – went over to climb on it.

While we were playing there, Hildreth Olson walked by. We laughed, and she stopped and looked at us and said, “Are you laughing at me?” “Oh, no!” we cried, but perhaps that only meant that we realized that we were in such high spirits that we would laugh at anything, or maybe it meant that we knew very well that we shouldn’t have laughed, that we hadn’t meant to, that we were sorry that we had.

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