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.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.