By Roz Kohls
The book, “Those Were The Days Memories of Elsie Lillian Florence (Reed) Gentry,” is full of surprises.
It’s especially eye-opening for those of us, like the reviewer, who think they know about early Minnesota from watching “Little House on the Prairie” episodes on TV. The book shows life then was a lot more interesting.
Children at the turn of the 20th century, even those who lived in town, spent a surprising amount of time working. Much of the work seemed disagreeable and back-breaking, compared to what children do nowadays.
For example, when Elsie Reed Gentry was a little girl in Cokato, she and her brother and sister scrubbed the sediment from the barrels that held rainwater, took out the ashes beneath the fire grate from the furnace, packed manure between tar paper and their house for insulation, and relaid and tacked down the carpet on the floors of their home in the fall after they had been cleaned.
The book was written by Elsie Reed Gentry in the early 1960s. The original limited edition, not in book form, is in the Cokato Museum and Wright County Museum. This version is being republished by Gentry’s nephew, William Vernon Reed of Willmar. Reed, 83, added photographs and historical information about much of the memories his aunt wrote about.
“This is all fact, not a made-up story, it was lived by my Aunt Elsie,” Reed said.
More than a recitation of hard work, “Those Were The Days,” is chock full of surprises. The Reed family lived in a house built in the 1880s near the railroad tracks, where Faribault Foods is located today along Highway 12 in Cokato.
Trains played a big part in Gentry’s memories and make up many of the surprises in the book. Gentry’s father, William H. Reed, made his living in a dray line operation, wagons pulled by teams of horses, that moved freight from the trains to businesses in Cokato.
Trains were constantly rolling through Cokato, passenger and freight trains alike. Some trains stopped in Cokato. Many didn’t stop, because their freight was perishable or fragile, such as the trains carrying silk from Japan, that hurried through to the clothing manufacturers in the east, she said.
The train carrying mail for Cokato residents didn’t stop either. A baggage handler leaned out of the train as it zoomed through town, and in a split-second maneuver, hung the bag of mail on a post next to the track as the train went by, Gentry said.
Another surprise was that trains had a variety of whistles meaning different things. For example, one kind of whistle meant the train was backing up, another whistle meant the train won’t stop, and another whistle meant the train engineer heard another train’s whistle.
Gentry also had memories of fun things children did that were surprisingly dangerous. For example, children slid on their bottoms down chutes in the Cokato mill, and jumped from moving bobsleds or sleighs into another moving bobsled or sleigh going the opposite direction.
Girls wearing long dresses crawled under the trains or crossed the trains above their couplings when they didn’t want to go around the trains on the tracks. If the girls’ long dresses would have caught on the trains’ wheels, the girls could have been killed.
Still, Gentry called these “golden memories.” The sections about the Reed children were the best part of the book.
Why did she write, “Those Were The Days?”
Gentry said, “I am putting this in writing so that my grandchildren and mayhap my great-grandchildren will read and wonder what made us happy in those years long ago.”
Reed added, “Anyone who reads this book will come away with a better knowledge of how it was in the good old days.”
“Most grandparents will never record this type of information for their descendents, but would honestly like them to know that their life was not just a nice bed of roses, with lots of thorns to overcome,” Reed said.
For more information about “Those Were The Days,” go to the web site www.thosewerethedaysbook.com. The book is printed by Sunray Printing Solutions, 25123 22nd Ave., St. Cloud, or call (888) 253-8808.