Up and Down the Tracks
With an open world available to them, my early relatives came to this country from all over Scandinavia and found this Dakota soil to their liking.
My hometown of Garretson began as the village of Palisades and its original location is now the Palisades State Park on the banks of the Splitrock Creek. My Grandmother’s Grandfather, Marcus Wangsness, moved to the village of the Palisades with his bride from Michigan and they started a mercantile business. The town was built right along the railroad tracks surrounding a saw mill, and the community flourished for a number of years and was becoming an established stop on the route between Sioux Falls and Willmar.
But after spring flooding took out the wooden dam that powered the saw mill, Sioux City banker and businessman Arthur Garretson gathered investors and worked in coordination with his own business, the Northern Railway and bought up a section of land to the north 3 miles. He then ran his Northern Railway to connect with the existing line from Sioux Falls at that point. People were quick to jump onto the opportunity to become a part of the newly formed town. The city of Garretson was born.
It was still the same town… but also a new town… and hopefully a better town.
Seeing the certain demise of their community at the Palisades in the not-too-distant future, my great great grandfather pulled up stakes and took a chance on the newly formed town and was one of the first buildings to plant his foundation on the new Main Street. Eventually all the businesses moved in except the saw mill. A few years later, Marcus’ daughter, Bertha, married Ole Johnson and they started Johnson Drug.
My ancestors continued to survive and thrive in the growing community. They led the way and became pillars of different aspects of local society… in education, church, in government and in business.
They found their way to combining their genes to eventually making me.
I came into the picture when my dad had taken over the drug store as the third generation of pharmacists.
I grew up in that drug store. My primary job was comic book inspector and quality control supervisor of the candy section. I had a few other tasks that helped me earn my allowance... emptying garbages, straightening the cards and envelopes, dusting and pushing the Hokey around.
(Quick aside for those of you that don’t know what a hokey is: Think square, powerless Roomba with a stick. Well, it was powered, but only by a little kid hopped up on candy).
Once a month I was also the "statement runner"... saving postage for my dad by hand-delivering the monthly "charges" people had made to the store (at least to the people that owned businesses on Main Street). They probably all dreaded seeing the little blonde haired kid running around with sealed envelopes serving them the amounts that they owed from the last 30 days.
Most often, I would stand to the side behind the pharmacy counter out of my dad’s way and watch with widened eyes as he would fill the prescriptions. He’d count them out with quick and amazing accuracy for the ill people of town.
He’d pour out a large number of pills, then with a deft hand on a palette knife he’d count out… 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30…. snap the lid on the tray holding the pills he counted off to one side… tip the excess back into the supply bottle then tilt back and pour the counted pills into the awaiting empty orange transparent container. Snap a white cap on the top and then roll the label across the face of the cylinder with his thumb. Over and over again he’d repeat this procedure. Sometimes the pills were big and he’d go by 2’s, sometimes they were small and he’d count by 4’s or 5’s. It never got old watching him and trying to keep up in my head. I would try to guess when he’d pour then into the bottle to see if I counted right. Dozens of times I tried and I bet I got it right only once.
I would try to imitate his routine at home with m&m’s and a butter knife, but I’d usually get distracted by the chocolatey goodness waiting for me underneath the candy shells and I’d end up exceeding the recommended dosage of the “prescription” I was working on.
I grew up with every intention of following in his footsteps and being the fourth generation owner of that store.
But things changed. Life changed. One bad Chemistry Lab teacher in college and I immediately switched from a major that focused on science to one that focused on art. But that’s a whole different story.
I found myself 25 years later on an October Saturday afternoon sitting in a revitalized and vibrant Northeast Minneapolis, just across the river from downtown having an excellent craft beer with excellent new friends. I sat in a former brick fortress of agriculture and I admired the old architecture… the bricks and beams… They once housed giant factories grinding the grains of the prairie into food for the world and now they are the center of regional beer brewing and budding artist’s studios.
I drove home from Minneapolis with the fresh memory of those buildings stuck in my head. I thought about the networks of old railroad line that split and spread down every block and sliced up the neighborhoods. These old lines that connected the factories to the world. The lines funneled into switchyards that took the products north to Duluth to waiting ships that spread the harvests around the world.
I thought about the lines of people standing in the cool October rain on that Saturday afternoon waiting to get into these breweries and imbibe in the fermented brews. I thought about the history of those behemoths of agriculture… something seemed familiar to me… then it hit me….
I began to remember my roots.
I remembered being behind Johnson Drug waiting patiently for my dad to finish up his last prescription fills of the day so we could get home for dinner. He said he’d be just a bit so I went out back by the truck and waited patiently on the concrete steps. Behind the drug store was the co-op grain elevator. It ran north to south for two blocks, starting with four monstrous cylindrical bins on the north side, the elevator in the middle, a few more smaller bins and then a supply store and lumberyard on the south end of it all.
I stood there staring at the whirring beast as tractors pulling trailers and trucks all filled to the brim with the golden heaps of corn lined up for more than a block to feed their bounty into the elevator’s waiting belly. They’d roll into a covered area at one end and then minutes later they’d come out empty and speed back out to the fields as fast as a tractor could go.
The seemingly endless supply of corn provided the community with an aroma that was reminiscent of warm popcorn that mixed with the smells of the mowed grass and mulched leaves.
There’d also be little pieces of corn chaff floating in the wind and whirling around into little pink drifts behind the businesses that looked away from the elevator.
Hundreds of sparrows would swarm around picking up the dropped pieces of broken corn.
I took this all in as the sun lowered behind the elevator and the shadows crept up to and over me. The diesel generators of the train engines rising and falling as they paced back and forth on the switchyard behind the elevator as they pieced together sections of train. Their movements short at first, then longer and longer as further and further away they’d travel to build up length on the train. Eventually, they’d leave and the next train would be getting ready. Sometimes trains just rolled through and payed no attention to our little town. They’d be carrying coal, oil, rock, steel I-beams or something and I would wonder where they were from and where they were headed.
I began to think about how Northeast Minneapolis and my own little hometown might be connected… specifically, in terms of agriculture.
I went to google maps and pulled up Northeast Minneapolis and zoomed in to find the buildings that I visited. Once I found it I zoomed out a bit and then followed the railroad down across Minneapolis and then down to the southwest out of town.
I followed it across the middle of Minnesota.
Mile after mile… town after town… I followed those tracks.
click drag release
click drag release
click drag release
I was more than halfway down the state of Minnesota and I was becoming more and more certain of where this journey by satellite imagery was taking me. A few more scrolls and my suspicions were almost completely confirmed… I slowed down as I reached Jasper, MN… slower by the next town of Sherman, SD and then my heart swelled when I saw my hometown of Garretson roll into view.
There I was looking down from space on the switchyard of tracks behind the elevator that sat behind the Main Street that I knew so well. When I zoomed in, I could see right where my dad parked and the steps that I would sit on and wait for him so we could go home for dinner.
I realize that though our family has left Garretson and I’m not a part of it anymore, it is still very much a part of me. It is still in my heart and in my mind. I just moved down the tracks 30 miles. I am still the same man… but also a new man…. hopefully a better man.
I’ve had the fortune of visiting other places all over this great country and I’ve had opportunities to pull up my roots and replant somewhere else. But after almost 48 trips around the sun, I’ve grown pretty attached to this Dakota soil that my family and I have called home.
Christmas shopping in the 70's was a much simple process than it is now. I know I'm not breaking any new ground with that revelation. Besides the obvious technologies that everybody now has that weren't even a DREAM back in our day, there is the actual process of shopping for the gifts. I don't remember when "Black Friday" crept into our vocabulary. I know we never had a
Today is Louisa May Alcott's birthday. She is the author of "Little Women". In my heart, I believe that Louisa May Alcott was my Grandma Gert's favorite author. She very well may have been, but likely it was just a younger phase my grandma was in. She did own an old copy of the book that I still have in my possession. And Grandma did perform in the play while going to St.Olaf. She played the part of Jo. A fitting part, I always felt. Gram Gert to me was always the quintessential feminist....a tomboy that knew what she wanted and she would do whatever she needed to do to get there. She told me about what it was like to grow up in the 1920's as a teenager and into the 1930's as a young adult. She explained the social changes that were happening for women and how fashions took leaps toward a much more expressive demonstration. She told me about how most people smoked in a social atmosphere... it was just the thing that most people did.
She had majored in music at St. Olaf and minored in art. Her pastel cubism pieces were very good. They hung all over her house right up until the day we sold the house after she had passed away. Her visualizations of music onto canvas are things that I still dream about to this day. Warped and arching keyboards... music notes flying in and out of the the plane... she did bright color pieces and also some black and whites. I loved every one of them..
I came into existence long after Gert had gone through this phase and even the next couple phases of her life... I came in when Gert was shrinking physically but still held her post resolutely at the Johnson Drug counter. I have no idea how long she held that post in total, but I would venture to say it was the majority of her life.
I could copy/paste her history here that my dad had written for the Garretson History book. That would give you the facts and dates about when she got married and had her boys, Bob (dad) and Rolly (uncle). But that would only give you a sketch of who Gertrude Johnson Nelson was.
Gertrude was kind and warm soul that even with her frail frame, would give big hugs. I remember being scared more than once that I was going to break her. She had a great laugh and a wonderful sense of humor. She taught for a time, but never told me about it. She played at church, but that was before my time too. Come to think of it, I only saw her actually play piano a handful of times. I'd like to think that when we all left the house and she was done cleaning up the dishes, she'd hang that apron on the hook in the kitchen and walk into the next room and sit on that dark piano bench and play some ragtime piece from her youth. I'm guessing that that never happened as I think she was afflicted with bad arthritis and had a hard time moving her hands around too much.
But she was a fixture at Johnson Drug. She could handle that register like nobody else. She was the friendly face that greeted everybody that walked through the door and she could be the cold stare at the kids thinking about swiping a piece of candy or a comic book.
If she didn't know who you were, she'd figure out who you did know quickly. If you needed a hand explaining where to go, she was an encyclopedia and navigation system of the area. She knew who lived in every house... and she knew who HAD lived in those house for about 2 generations before the current resident as well.
When she and I were talking about going to college, back then vs my time, and how I always needed to find a ride up to school because I didn't own a car yet, she comforted me in the fact that neither did she. "But you just took the train or a bus, right?".... oh no.... she hitchhiked. Times were most certainly different. But she knew what she needed to do to get places and she did it. (Plus, I think she always travelled with others)
Gert was larger that life, most certainly. First impressions of a "little old lady" were soon rendered incorrect when she told you about her courtship with Emmett Nelson from Viborg, SD... and how their life at the end end of his professional baseball career was anything but your regular tale of midwest seclusion. She was a traveller at heart and had seen more than I ever knew about or will ever know about.
While I was at a very young age, she was training me to work the counter at the drug store. She showed me how to count out change to people; slowly and calling out the amounts so they knew what they were getting and that it was correct. She also taught me how to politely and properly answer the telephone. "You need to let them know who they called and who you are"... and after watching me hold the microphone end of the phone under my chin (which I'm sure resulted in just a muffled "wha wha wha wha" sound), she grabbed the phone as I was using it and lifted the mouthpiece up in front of my mouth. "Speak clearly!" ... forcefully enough to get my attention, but also important enough that I remember the lesson to this day. When I've worked multiple retail jobs and even in the corporate world, I've been complimented on my politeness and phone answering ability. You can thank Grandma Gert. She taught me everything I needed to know. She was an amazing little woman.
She was Garretson High School's first Homecoming Queen in the year 1928. I was fortunate to be voted Homecoming King 60 years later in 1988. She had gone to school in a much different time... in a much different world. The town was much the same, but so much had changed in her lifetime. I remember we had her give a speech at the homecoming coronation as a 60 year alumni and to mark the anniversary of the 60th year of the homecoming court. She was so diminutive by 1989 that her head barely reached above the podium and they had to force the microphone on the silver flexible shaft down close enough for her to be heard. I believe her speech came before I was crowned king, and that I don't remember a single word of it, but I remembering being so proud to be this little woman's grandson. This "world traveller" (in my eyes) who then returned to the community and has been such a big part of it for so long. Being an active church member, teacher, and pillar of the business community. Not to mention putting up with her 2 boys and their antics...and all the other little boys for so long that came into the store and tried swipe something. She knew what she wanted to do and she figured out how to get there.... Right there at home in Garretson.
Pork Chops and Applesauce
I had to go look it up. "The Brady Bunch" was on tv from 1969 to 1974. If you had asked me to look it up without research and to go by my memory, I'd have told you probably 1970-1979. It just always seemed to me that it was a show that was embedded in the 70's. And to me, it was always just ON tv. As a kid, if it was on tv and I was watching it, that meant it was the first time it was on tv. It never dawned on me that these shows were from when I was still wearing diapers.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.