Woodworking again: Our boarding house, part II

By Dave Wood
Posted 2/14/23

BY DAVE WOOD Our boarding house, Part II Last week, I introduced my grandparents’ boarding house, where I spent a healthy swatch of my childhood and learned some important precepts of living …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Woodworking again: Our boarding house, part II


Last week, I introduced my grandparents’ boarding house, where I spent a healthy swatch of my childhood and learned some important precepts of living life—mostly about respecting people for who they are and what they’ve come from and come through. But also about taking care of those who need caring for and rolling with the punches, come what may.

There were only four houses on our big block adjacent to the town golf course, but there was plenty of variety in the denizens of this swatch. West alongside our house and its huge lawn was the modest little home of Julius, a bachelor carpenter who never changed his overalls. He kept his lawn immaculate, but the Oshkosh B’gosh overall was a different story. Grandma quipped that if Julius ever took it off, it would stand up by itself. When grandma’s best pal Clara visited, Grandma always invited Julius over for coffee, his only source of society. At the kitchen table, Grandma and Clara would tease Julius about all the women who were chasing him. Julius sipped his coffee and crumbled his krumkake, blushed and smiled. I looked on and enjoyed Julius enjoying the attention he so seldom received.

Next door lived retired farmers, Minnie and Ole, who lived in a huge house, where Minnie made sandbakkels and Ole reminisced with Grandpa about the good old days. It was a sad day during the Depression when the couple rented that house to a pair of newlyweds of some local eminence and went back to the farm to help out. Upon their return, they found that their beautiful house had been torn apart by the eminent newlyweds. The walnut woodwork had been ripped apart and burned in the furnace to keep them warm. Minnie told Grandma and swore her to never tell anyone. Grandma thought they should sue, but Minnie said, “Oh, nay! It was so terrible for them. Times were tough, y’know. Stokka Leeta!” (Norse for “poor little things”).

Across the street from Minne and Ole lived a spinster school marm, Margaret, who was left by brothers and sisters to take care of her aged mother. Margaret had served as my father’s sixth grade teacher and my third grade teacher. She was better than excellent, and her classrooms were chosen by the state department of education in hopes that a brilliant teacher might make something of the hairbrained ideas that emanated from Madison. One warm summer evening, as we sat on the lawn in the old Adirondacks along came Margaret all dressed up with a well-put together male at her side. “Looks as if Margaret has found a beau,” surmised Grandpa puffing on his corncob. “Well it’s about time,” said Grandma, who herself was casting about for suitable mate for her widowed son.

The gentleman caller stayed most of the summer, taking Margaret to The Pix, our fancy new cinema. The summer over, the beau left and never returned. His loss, our gain. Margaret continued to be the best teacher Whitehall ever had, and never gave the slightest hint that she would have enjoyed any other life better.

The fourth lovely home belonged to Gabriel and Tillie, a childless couple who had given up farming so Tillie could keep the house spotless and Gabe, blind as a bat, could sit on his back steps clad in his striped bibs, sport a pair of dark blue specs and talk to Grandpa, also blind, with their hands about how long this pickerel was and how wide was the cursed carp. Behind them in a double garage was a sight seldom seen in those days: Two brand new 1920s vintage automobiles, one a sleek PanCar, manufactured in St. Cloud, Minn., the other a four-ton Chandler maroon and black touring car, purchased just before blindness struck Gabe.

One enduring memory of that fair couple: On a day when Grandma and Grandpa were out for a ride, I went sledding on nearby Allen Hill and stupidly steered into a rusty barbed wire fence. As I bled like a hog and cried like a baby I headed for Gabe’s and Tillie’s, dreading the prospect of meeting the blue-glassed visage of Gabriel. Thank God Tillie came to the door, saw my gaping wound, unceremoniously poured it full of mercurochrome (it didn’t even hurt!), bandaged me and sent me home warning me not to slide on Allen Hill all alone. I still have the moon shaped scar to show for it. Whenever I look at it, I think of that sleek, black, modernistic PanCar still waiting for Gabe to drive it once again and the beautiful Tillie and her kind nursing.

I didn’t know many kids when I was a farm boy, because even though I went to grade school in town, the town kids amused themselves by making fun of us rural oddities. They called us “dumb farmers,” the oxymoron of all time. But in my grandparents’ neighborhood I got to know lots of kids. I’ll just mention the ones who stick to my memory like tar to the bottom of a Chandler mudflap.

First and foremost are Lorraine, Everett, John and Tommy, the widowed plumber’s brood. His wife Cora died of TB the same year my mother died, so Lorraine was just out of high school and faced the task of being the lady of the house, for years. She was beautiful and made a magnificent mother to her younger siblings. Every time she made vegetable soup with dumplings (my favorite), she invited me to dinner, explaining years later she thought dining with her rambunctious brood would be less depressing than eating every night with Gram and Gramps and my widowed father. She was right. She even let me put butter on my saltines! Lorraine kept a close eye on John, who had a touch of deviltry. John and I learned how to steal our fathers’ cigarettes and smoke them in the rough of number two fairway and watch the carp swim by on the butterscotch colored Trempealeau River. John’s father wouldn’t let his kids go to movies for a year after Cora’s death, but John made up for it learning to play the violin and becoming an expert caddy and golfer. One day he shot a four-over-par 40 using only his wooden shafted two iron, given to him by a doctor he caddied for. I kept him posted on goings on at the movie house and what Boston Blackie and the Durango Kid were up to. We didn’t agree on everything but were outspoken in our defense of Gene Autry as the true King of the Cowboys, rather than Roy Rogers the usurper. (His real name was Leonard Sly for God sakes!)

John also watched over other kids, including “Bearpuss,” a neighbor down the block. I asked John why Bearpuss seemed so sad, and John explained that the year before he was assigned to watch over his baby brother who was just beginning to toddle. One day they were playing on John’s lawn and Bearpuss lost sight of his brother, until the youngster wandered out onto Blair Street and was killed by a motorist. Years later when John got out of the Air Force, I urged him to attend St. Olaf College and sing in its choir. John chose instead to become greenskeeper at the golf course for about 40 years. He never married. The golf course was John’s bride. I’m happy to report that Bearpuss left the site of his sadness and became a very successful dairy farmer in Minnesota.

In our neighborhood we were only afraid of two people. Patty, the miller’s daughter who lived in the big brick mansion on Number 7 tee-off and Jacqueline, the semi-driver’s daughter. They were both extremely attractive and big. Not fat. Big. And whenever we decided to play tackle football on John’s lawn, we were very careful not to be fresh or we’d get what-for from either or both of these Amazon goddesses. Pop one with a snowball and you’d end up heads down in a deep snow drift.

And there was Chuck the spoiled brat who got too many gifts from his doting parents. When I first met him, I just figured Chuck was nuts, but when I started hanging out with him because no one else did, I discovered him to be brainy, clever, musical, fast as Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn. He quit the track team when he found the coach wouldn’t let him smoke during practice. Chuck went on to become a dry cleaner because he didn’t like bosses and ended up with all sorts of diseases brought on by the poisons with which he worked. But even though we lived thousands of miles apart, when he found out I was very ill 30 years ago, he phoned me every day from his nursing home, told me jokes, talked about all the people in town that he detested and kept me amused for weeks, until the telephone company closed in on his past-due payment. He resumed calling once he’d paid the bill and he’s for sure a guy I’ll never forget.

I’d never presume to tell my mother-inlaw that there’s more good than bad to be found in small-town living, but I hope she can see from her perch in the ever-after, that her daughter is pretty darn content to be living in small town River Falls.

Boarding houses, Dave Wood, history, Whitehall, Wisconsin, column, opinion