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Gentle Ben: Ben Weinbeck leaves a legacy behind that few can match
May 24, 2010

By Lynda Jensen

WINSTED, MN – When Ben Weinbeck, 86, was laid to rest Saturday, surely a piece of Winsted was buried with him, along with a thousand memories of the man who loved – and improved – Winsted so much.

Whether he is remembered as a veteran and hero, founder of the “Last Man’s Club,” former mayor of Winsted, Legion commander, business owner, or town father to so many young people, he is remembered fondly by many. Check out his obituary (click here).

Surely, Weinbeck leaves Winsted a better place, being responsible for installation of a formal sewer system in town to the benefit of the lake; donating land for the city football field and ballpark, as well as being connected with making Winsted Airport a municipal airport, among other accomplishments.

He also operated the town’s theater for two decades with his wife of nearly 50 years, Irene, and ran the Kool-It shop, where the modern-day V’s Grill is located.

“I just wanted to make (Winsted) better. That was my chief aim – always,” Ben told Herald Journal in a 2008 interview at St. Mary’s Care Center, where he had been staying since November 2006 after suffering multiple strokes.

Many also remember Ben as being a father figure to young people in town, whether he was offering movies as the theater owner, or offering ice cream or malts at the Kool-It store he owned with his wife.

The Weinbecks would have celebrated 50 years of marriage in October.

Ben was one of Henry and Anna Weinbecks’ eight children. He was born in the home on Main Avenue that his parents had built in 1861. Later, when he married in 1960, he and his wife, Irene, raised 10 children in the same home.

It was the wish of Anna, Ben’s mother, to have a portion of the Weinbeck farmland on Main Avenue be used as a children’s playground, which is Weinbeck Field today.

After his mother’s death, Ben donated land to the city, which became the town’s football field, baseball field, and a basketball court.

The football field was dedicated as Weinbeck Field by Mayor Don Guggemos October 2003 at a Holy Trinity homecoming game.

The baseball field has been named the Denis M. Campbell field after Campbell who was one of Winsted’s amateur baseball hall of fame members.

Ben served as mayor of Winsted for two terms, from 1963 to 1966, and described it as “lots of work.”

Although he knew he couldn’t change everything when he became mayor, he had made up his mind he was going to install a sewer system in town.

He had to travel to Canada to check out a system that was eventually used in Winsted. According to Ben, there wasn’t another sewer system like it in the United States at the time. It was the first of its kind.

Once the city required sanitary sewer lines be installed, there was a lot less pollution running into Winsted Lake.

Another major undertaking, which began just before Ben became mayor, was making Winsted Airport a municipal airport.

The plans were underway when Ben became mayor in 1963, but much of the construction took place during his first year as mayor. The airport was completed in the spring of 1964, and the airport dedication was Aug. 9, 1964.

After the airport was completed, Ben, Dick Sterner, Dick Genty, and Don Biske took advantage of having an airport in town and got their pilot’s licenses. Then, they purchased a plane that the four of them shared as part of the Winsted Flying Club.

Ben said he enjoyed flying until one day, when he was landing the plane, he hit some holes on the runway.

“I broke the landing gear and it fell on its nose. The plane came to a dead stop,” Ben said. Thankfully, Ben walked away from the accident, unhurt. But it deterred him from flying, he said.

Besides providing the field for hometown football and baseball games, another form of entertainment provided to the town by the Weinbecks was a movie theater.

The Winsted Movie Theater was owned and operated by the Weinbecks in the mid ’60s and it became a popular hangout for the younger crowd. The theater was the building formerly used as the city hall, before the city center was built.

“We did it for the kids,” Irene told the Herald Journal in 2008. Many enjoyed movies at the theater.

In 1961, the Weinbecks opened the theater. Movies were shown on the weekends at 75 cents for adults, and 25 cents for children.

The theater was open until the early ‘80s, but before the theater closed, the Weinbecks opened two restaurants, “Benny’s Kool-It” and Maria’s Kool-It,” where ice cream cones and malts used to be served.

“Benny’s Kool-It” was located next to their present home, where V’s Grill is now.

“Maria’s Kool-It” was opened in Howard Lake, after they renovated a service station. Both restaurants were named after two of their 10 children.

The theater was closed first in the early 80s, Maria’s and Benny’s were sold in the early 1990s.

Many local young adults, including Weinbecks’ own children, were employed by the theater to run the projectors and work the concession stand. There were also children who would take turns helping to clean the theater.

Weinbecks owned the Winsted Movie Theater for 20 years, and completely remodeled it twice during the time they owned it.

‘Last Man’s Club’ is down to six

Ben Weinbeck was a veteran of World War II. He served in the Army Air Corps as a gunner, and translator, since he was fluent in German. His main role was taking care of weapons and cleaning them. Weinbeck had 42 missions and served in Europe the whole time he was overseas.

As the Legion post commander in March 1987, Weinbeck formed an informal club of some war veterans in Winsted. There were a total of 32 World War II veterans who joined the club in Winsted after it was formed March 1, 1987. All were members of the Martin Krueger American Legion Post 407 in Winsted.

In 2009, eight surviving members of Winsted’s Last Man’s Club were chosen as grand marshals for the Winsted Summer Festival parade. This number is down to six now, with the death of Weinbeck, and Marvin Hirsch in September.

The last surviving member of these good men will receive the bottle of “Old Grand Dad” that has been displayed at the Legion for more than 20 years.

According to the bylaws of the club, “The bottle of liquor is to become the sole property of the sole remaining member of this organization and to be used in any manner he sees fit. It is hoped, however, that he (last man) will drink at least a portion of it in a toast to his comrades who have preceded him.” The alcohol is displayed in a case at the Legion designed and finished with a handmade top by Weinbeck.

The remaining members of the club are Dick Genty, Harold Guggemos, Butch Lachermeier, Leonard Matousek, Leonard Rozeske, and Dick Sterner.

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