May 28, 2007

Area man's passion is preserving Delano history

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

For many years, Bill Eppel, a lifelong resident of Delano, kept all of his Delano history and memorabilia in an antique trunk in his living room.

He was just too busy raising four children, working two jobs, building a new home, then remodeling an old home, to take the time to organize his treasures.

In 1988, about six years before Eppel retired, the time presented itself to create a system for easier access to all of the Delano history he had accumulated over the years.

Eppel devoted hundreds of hours setting up what resembles a Delano library.

There are photo albums with indexes for cross referencing negatives and photos for quick access, and an alphabetized card catalog of Delano businesses with historical dates.

He built a large display case, and a couple of bookcases for storing Delano memorabilia.

Some of his favorite pictures and articles he has framed and hanging on the wall of his office, including Francis Delano, who the town was named after in 1868.

The article was sent to him by someone who found it in the St. Croix Valley newspaper. Francis Delano had spent many years in the St. Croix area building the Stillwater prison, and also served as its warden.

“You get this stuff. People get to know you,” Eppel said. “They know I would appreciate it. Same thing with my postcard collection. I have dealers all over the United States who know me.”

Eppel started his collection of Delano memorabilia June 6, 1966 when he purchased a bill holder at a garage sale between Delano and Watertown. The black bill holder was made to hang on the wall, has two large hooks attached to the bottom of the metal holder, and a spot for a pencil.

The bill holder was made by J. H. Grasinger who, at one time, owned a harness shop in Delano.

To find out exactly when Grasinger was in business, Eppel heads to his handy-dandy card catalog. It lists, in alphabetical order, all of the different businesses in Delano, when they began, and who owned the business previously.

In Grasinger’s case, the business was purchased from A. W. Kittock Jan. 20, 1910. Kittock had purchased the store from Conzet in 1904.

How does Eppel find all of his Delano information? He visits the library, going back through old newspapers that date back to 1872.

He records every item of historical value and then takes it back to his archives to enter the information in his card catalog, or retypes an entire article if it has historical value. Sometimes, an article will get placed with a photo that he had found previously.

“The library’s newspaper is a very incomplete history of Delano because the only people who got their names in the paper were, basically, people that ran ads,” Eppel said. “If you did not run an ad in the paper, you did not get written up.”

Eppel’s time spent organizing his Delano history was time well spent. It has allowed him to access information without a moment’s hesitation. He also keeps his archives orderly by returning items he uses immediately to its rightful place.

There are eight photo albums, titled by their contents and numbered. Some of the general categories referenced in the albums are: street scenes and buildings, businesses, schools and churches, accidents, fires, storms, snowstorms, rivers and floods, bridges, the railroad, city parks, celebrations, and hunting and fishing.

“I have many, many, many negatives. About 1,600. I got some of the negatives from a guy in Ely who bought negatives from an old postcard dealer,” Eppel said. “I used to have a black and white darkroom. That is where I did a lot of pictures people had. Pictures they wouldn’t sell or give up. I don’t do darkroom work anymore.”

Eppel also received many photographs from a friend who he called his mentor, John Irwin, who at one time worked at Peterson Photo.

“Before he died, he gave me all of his negatives.”

Pictures in the albums that have negatives, have the negative number recorded on the back as a reference, which saves a great deal of time in searching out a negative for reprinting.

Included in his Delano history, Eppel has his own family history. It goes back to five generations of Eppels that have made their home in Delano.

Some of his relatives’ dates came from the newspaper, but he also spent time out in the cemetery taking dates off of the tombstones, and copied obituaries his mother had saved in a shoe-box.

Bill Eppel’s great-great grandfather, Martin, was born in Boettingen, Wurtenberg, Germany in 1800. He came to the US in 1851 with his wife, Eva, and three of their four children, Valentine, Charles (Bill’s great-grandfather), and Regina.

They started out in Vicksburg, Miss., then moved to Minnesota in 1855. They settled in Pine City and St. Paul, before settling in Delano in 1869.

Bill’s favorite Delano history story is about the Eppel family general store, owned by his great-grandfather, Charles Eppel.

The store had groceries, clothing, and a sample room (saloon).

Charles sold the store to his two sons-in-law, who closed the saloon part and kept the groceries.

“They had it for a year and they went broke,” Eppel said.

Charley bought the store back. He threw out all of the groceries and other stuff and put the saloon back in because he knew that was where the money was,” Eppel said. “He sold it again to his son, Enos, in 1903.”

The store closed in 1925, according to Bill’s card file.

As Bill got more involved with Delano history, he found he had an interest in collecting postcards that had Delano on them.

A good deal of Bill’s time was spent going to postcard shows looking for Delano-labeled cards.

In about 1990, as he was looking for postcards that had Delano labels, he was also looking for a possible postcard with a 1912 calendar. He needed a 1912 calendar to replace one that was ripped on another piece of memorabilia.

He found a 1912 calendar on a postcard that had a metal horseshoe attached.

“I liked the card and I started looking for other ones like the horseshoe. They were made between 1900 and 1915, before the first World War. Now I have some 400 postcards with metal add ons,” Bill said.

“I also have postcards that have ore bags attached. Iron, silver, copper ore bags sewed on. Those postcards usually come from Utah. Some have had taconite pellets and gold ore, too.”

There are generic postcards, too, which Bill has also found interesting.

Eppel displays two postcards with the same picture on them. One is not even from Minnesota. The other is labeled Delano and supposedly shows a picture of the Crow River.

“That is what they did. One picture with two different locations and names,” Eppel said.

Every day, Bill looks on e-bay.

“I have 37 categories that includes Delano, Delano tokens, and the rest are postcards. I just bought a postcard for a penny. I had to pay $3.13 because postage was included for them to mail me the card.”

To check out his Delano categories on e-bay requires some searching. There are towns named Delano in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, California, Kansas, and New Jersey.

The Delano history stored in Eppel’s home has not gone unnoticed by area businesses. He has provided historical pictures to a number of businesses for use in advertising, and has some of his photos displayed in Delano’s city hall.

The Bill Eppel collection has a home, for now. Its future is undecided.

“I don’t know what I am going to do with it. I would like to have it on display some place,” Eppel said.

He takes the time to put his collection on display for various events like Delano’s Founders’ Day, and shares his pictures with groups like the Girl Scouts.

However, he is not just willing to give up his collection without maintaining some control of it. His biggest concern is for the Delano history to end up in Delano where it is the most meaningful, not at the county level, where it does not have as much significance.

“Maybe give it to Delano on a permanent loan,” Eppel said.

William Eppel’s life before he became a Delano historian

Bill was an only child of John and Theresa Eppel, who lived just north of Delano on a 40-acre farm until 1945.

He was 13 when the family moved into his grandfather’s home in town. The house was given in estate to Bill’s father and located on River Street.

“We didn’t have school lunches. I lived at the other end of town so I would go home for lunch and I would stop at Brown’s Drug Store and buy a pop for a nickel,” Bill said.

“We hung out on Main Street at Brown’s Drug Store. It was where you come across the bridge. It was a big building, and the next two buildings were a variety store and a drug store and there was a post office and a meat market, and then a vacant lot where the hair salon is now.”

“We could wait until three minutes before the bell would ring at school and run through the open lot to get back before the bell so we weren’t tardy,” Bill said.

He graduated from Delano High School in 1949.

He was married to Lenore Motzko in 1951. They have four children, Kathryn, living in Phoenix, Ariz., Richard, living in St. Louis, Mo., Lisa living in Buffalo, Minn., and John living in Ortonville, Minn. They also have nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Bill and Lenore were divorced in 1978.

Bill has a cat named Scooter, likes to put together jigsaw puzzles, and has a huge indoor garden of cactus which he has grown from seeds.

Currently, he is working on two Delano history mysteries.

One mystery concerns a pony contest. He has a postcard showing the picture of the winner, Gracie Burrows, with her pony, but cannot find any more information about the contest, or when it was held.

He also has a photo used for advertising by a car dealership showing a 32-passenger car. The regular-size vehicle had 32 boys posing in the car. It was run in the area newspaper, May 11, 1912.

Bill’s mission is to name all of the boys in the photo. He has made copies of the picture and asked various older Delano residents to name the individuals in the photo.

Some of the individuals have been identified with the same name. Others have two or three different names.

Bill thinks one of the young men in the photo might possibly be his father, but, so far, no one else agrees with him.

“It is just the kind of thing you run into working with history,” Bill said.

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