Tom Montag

Vagabond Jurnal: January, 2003

January 23, 2003
I woke yesterday morning about 2:30 a.m. in Rugby. I spent a couple hours bringing my notes up to date, took a shower, packed my bags, and was on my way to Alexandria from Rugby by 5:00 a.m. Stopped to have breakfast and get gasoline in Rothsay, Minnesota. Arrived in Alexandria about 11:00 a.m., drove straight to the Douglas County Historical Society without directions or signs, it was where I thought it should be. Is that a good omen? I got a warm welcome from Rachel Barduson, the Director of the Historical Society with whom I'd been in contact about my visit. She showed me the Historical Society's oral history collection and I spent the day reviewing cards in the index to it. Most of the tapes have been transcribed, I shall review them today, the 115 or so that I've chosen to look at.

At 6:00 p.m. six of Alexandria's historians gathered with me for my presentation on the Vagabond project. I had prepared for a formal presentation but once again did it informally, simply talking my points, sharing excerpts from my books, answering questions. A wonderful discussion about Alexandria broke out, laughter erupted, a lot of historical dots were connected informally. I think perhaps sometimes we don't know how much we know until such occasions when we can contribute to the learning.

I got the names of several people in Alexandria I need to talk with. I set up an interview for Saturday afternoon with Marge Van Gorp. I may interview a couple people today, tomorrow, or Saturday morning as well, and will spend the balance of my time here reviewing transcripts of interviews.

Douglas County is fortunate to have such a lovely resource as its Historical Society, which is housed in the former Knute Nelson residence that doubles as an historical museum devoted to the former Minnesota senator. The resources gathered by the Historical Society are tremendous, serving genealogists, historians, and anyone interested in learning their family's story in the Alexandria area. In particular I am impressed by the oral histories. At the end of the day yesterday, like a boy with a pocketful of coins in a store full of candy, I told Rachel Barduson that "I'm overwhelmed by everything you have available." She said, "You know, we were talking here yesterday and agreed that you might be overwhelmed."

Former Historical Society boards made wise invest-ment of inheritances the society received; as a result the organization seems well-prepared to continue its mission far into the future.

While I was at the Knute Nelson House yesterday, several visitors came through to see what was available. A woman - either staff or volunteer, I'm not sure, spent part of the afternoon trying to track down for the newspaper the date that an area creamery closed down. You could hear staff members call out interesting bits of history to each other as they worked. I sat for six hours at a large table with a drawer of yellow index cards describing the contents of the oral histories and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.


January 25, 2003
I spent all of Thursday digging through the delicious transcriptions of oral histories in the family folders at the Douglas County Historical Society. To date I've made copies of about 135 pages of material and I've only touched a few of the items I've highlighted to look at. Atthe same time, researcher Marge Van Gorp was bringing me file after file she thought I ought to see, and in many cases she was right. I made copies of some of those pages, too, and will dig into them when I get home.

Yesterday at 10:00 a.m. I interviewed Opal (Vogel) Martinson who was instrumental in saving the Knute Nelson House that is now home to the Historical Society. Opal is 93-years-old. She came to Alexandria in the late 1950s and established the first licensed day care center in Alexandria. She had operated a day care in Northfield, Minnesota, for sixteen years prior to arriving in Alexandria. Opal moved each time her husband was assigned different territory for Midland Cooperative, for which he worked all his life, in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

I started the tape recorder, asked my first question, and Opal talked. After twenty-five minutes of weaving a non-stop narrative regarding the areas of her life I was interested in, she said: "I hope I'm not talking too much."

"No, Opal," I said, "you're not talking too much."

While none of the rest of her talking after that reached twenty-five minutes at a stretch, she continued to provide good information about Knute Nelson, the saving of his house when it was about to be torn down, her nursery school, and her sense that the people of Alexandria are "salt of the earth" and that they really care about preserving area history for future generations.

Opal's eye-sight has deteriorated badly, to the point that she cannot read, and she was recovering from a stay in the hospital with pneumonia when I visited her. Nonetheless, she was alive with love for Alexandria and not unlike the people of Rugby, North Dakota, she was modest in claiming any accomplishment.

In the afternoon I interviewed Minnie Osterholt, who is 90-years-old. Minnie conducted many of the oral history interviews in the Douglas County collection, and like Opal
Martinson she was modest in speaking of her accomplishments. Minnie is one of the premier Douglas County historians: she would say merely that it needed doing and she did it. She believes that saving the past for the future is essential, even if she can't say exactly why it's important.

Minnie belonged to the first "calf project" and exhibited at the first fairs instituted by T.A. Erickson, whom locals credit with founding 4-H. She remembers that Erickson's work was vital in helping rural youth have a better view of themselves and their accomplishments in an age when they felt inferior to their city cousins.

Minnie lived in California and New York for twenty years, working first as a nanny, then as a sales clerk in a Danish delicatessen at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, NYC. She met her husband at the delicatessen; when he retired the couple moved to Douglas County, to live in the house where Minnie had been born.

Minnie had always been interested in writing, had belonged to a writers' group in California ("I wrote about pioneers"), took a writing class in California, one in New York, one when she returned to Minnesota.

While it California, it might be added, Minnie sent a letter to novelist Sinclair Lewis, who was in the area on a speaking tour; she asked if they might meet long enough for Lewis to sign her copy of Arrowsmith. Lewis sent her a handwritten letter indicating that his schedule wouldn't permit such a meeting, and suggesting instead that she tuck his letter into her book. "Didn't it take courage to write Sinclair Lewis?" I wondered. "No," Minnie said, "he was just a Minnesota boy." (And perhaps that he took the time to send her such a letter proved that he was still a Minnesota boy.)

Minnie had always been interested in local history and it was after her husband died in the late 1970s that she threw herself headlong into interviewing area residents and recording county history. Hers is quite an achievement, I think, though she won't say so.

When she speaks about living in Douglas County, Minnesota, Minnie's face shines with an intense glow: "I look out the window here, I see a hill, I know it might be a man-made hill, I see the woods behind it, this feels like home." This northern light lays on her face. Her face shines.

I think about the shine on Minnie's face, the glow in Opal Martinson's eyes despite her diminished sight, about the swell in my chest as I talked with these women. It is too early in this project for me to be jaded, I know that everything still shines. I couldn't help seeing these women as representative of that march of generations which created the middle western world we know today. They follow pioneers who have already been laid to earth beneath the rough grasses of the plains. Minnie and Opal are part of that tromp tromp to build a better world. Looking into Minnie's eyes as she talked, I got a sense she is but a cog in the great wheel turning; in another sense, she and Opal and all of us are the great wheel itself, which is the reason we are here, to be the wheel's turning, the reason we live and love and mate and bring forth children, the whole process repeating itself in endless cycle. Death and life and death is but a turning, and there is no reason to fear or grieve or worry. With each turning the grass grows green again, the fields come to harvest, the husks and stalks get turned back to soil, children grow up and have children, grandpa dies, it is all important but none of it is any more important than any other.

That was what I was seeing in the shine of Minnie's face as she talked. The tromp of the inevitable joined with the swing of joy in one's ordinary existence. What we shall be is what we were and what we are and what we work for. The nine decades lined on Minnie's face told me it could not be otherwise.


January 25, 2003, Afternoon
This morning I stopped at Cowing-Robards on Broadway, walked up to a couple fellows at the counter in the center of the store, and said: "I'm looking for Ed Rooney. I've been told the best way to find him is to stop here and ask his son where he might be." The younger fellow at the counter was not Ed's son, Dan, but he said anyway that he thought Ed might be out at the Rent-It Store. He called out there for me and got Ed on the phone.

I told Ed who I was and what I wanted. Without knowing me from Adam, Ed said immediately: "Wait there at the store, I'll be there in a few minutes, we can talk in my office." And so we did.

For nearly an hour Ed gave a coherent narrative of the history of Cowing-Robards, established in 1872 and the oldest continuously operated business in Alexandria. The store started as a hardware store belong to the Cowing and Robards families. Eventually the Cowing family dropped out of the business. Pat (Hugh) Robards ran the business from 1920 until little by little employee Ed Rooney took over ownership and operation of Cowing-Robards.

The store no longer deals in hardware but instead operates specialized departments such as paint and home decorating (with two professional home decorators on staff), hockey equipment and trophies, screen printing and custom embroidery. Ed started at the store in 1952 fresh out of high school and over the years Pat Robards let "the son he never had" take the store in new directions. As the Alexandria economy changed, fishing equipment and guns were removed, hardware was removed, new departments were created to meet new needs. With the blessing of Pat Robards, Ed was able to keep the oldest business in town also the most flexible. With Ed assuming ownership of the business, Robards was assured that Cowing-Robards would survive him. Robards died in 1980. Ed Rooney now has two sons involved in Cowing-Robards, some assurance the business will survive him.

Ed believes that the kind of nimbleness exhibited by Cowing-Robards in the latter half of the past century is necessary if Main Street America is to survive in the face of competition from the Pamidas and Walmarts that set up business at the outskirts of Small Town USA. "You can't compete with them directly," Ed said. "You have to find your niche, you have to do what those big stores can't do, or what they can't do well." He sees services that require a level of technical expertise, such as screen printing and custom embroidery, as undertakings the big stores can't do well. As a result of such vision, Cowing-Robards is assured continued operation in Alexandria's downtown.

There was a time in Alexandria that some thirteen empty storefronts littered the downtown like so many hamburger wrappers. But specialized, "niche" businesses have sprung up to fill those storefronts now, according to Ed, and Broadway Street looks healthy.

Alexandria has had an orientation towards tourism that continues today. Well-to-do families from the Twin Cities, Chicago, Omaha, and even Dallas, have long had places "on the lake" in Alexandria's vicinity. But these days, instead of being uninsulated cottages, they are more mansion-like lake houses. Some of the visitors' money stays in Alexandria and helps the community to prosper.

As I prepare to leave, Ed makes a copy of a 1983 column about Cowing-Robards by Minneapolis Tribune writer Robert T. Smith. According to the article, Pat Robards' concern had always been that customers be treated "like family," that the business be fair to them and provide high quality merchandise and good service. Talking with Ed Rooney for even an hour, it's clear those are Ed's concerns too, "most of all service."


My afternoon interview today was with Marge Van Gorp, who works as a family history researcher for the Douglas County Historical Society and who has been putting interesting files under my nose for the past few days. When I'd pulled her folder out of the files and reviewed it, I found this statement about living in the Azores: "Sometimes that island was pretty small, but other times it was just the right size." Marge was a military wife, her husband was stationed in the Azores. What did she mean by that statement?

"Sometimes I'd look out at the ocean towards home and wonder how long it would take to get back there. Minnesota seemed so far away, the island seemed so small. At other times, when my friends on the island were near, it didn't seem so lonely and far away, it was just the right size."

Marge and her husband were living on the Azores still when her husband was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. "We can move anywhere you want," her husband had said. "Where do you want to live?"

Marge knew her husband was going to die, and when he did she knew she'd need the support of her life-long friends back in Alexandria. It was to Alexandria that Marge chose to return.

Marge's grandfather was in Minnesota before her grandmother and father came over from Sweden. Her grandfather worked for the railroad. He and other men were sleeping in a rail car after an exhausting time cleaning up a railway accident. Another train plowed into the car the men were sleeping in and twelve of them were killed, including Marge's grandfather. News of his death reached Marge's grandmother and her father on Christmas Eve. It was a sad Christmas Eve. Marge's grandmother and her father came to Minnesota the following spring to claim the land the railroad had given her grandfather.

We talked some of Marge's experiences during her teen years working as a hired girl for the neighbors at threshing time. Marge was giving me the woman's perspective of theshing.
We talked about her work as a family history researcher for the Douglas County Historical Society, and about how she brought together a brother and sister who had not known each other existed until one was 88 years old, and the other 86. Marge's brother-in-law had been adopted but he had discovered who his biological parents were and had given that information to Marge. When she was researching a family background in the course of her work for the Historical Society, Marge noticed the same names, father and mother, but her brother-in-law was not listed among the offspring, which consisted of four daughters. Marge was able to contact one of those daughters and a granddaughter and confirmed that this indeed was her brother-in-law's family. Marge was present when brother and sister met each other for the very first time.

"You can't imagine the emotion I felt," Marge said.

Marge sometimes writes poems to capture the emotions she has felt, and she gave me a copy of her collection, Tapestries: Selected Poems. I went out to the car and got her a copy of my book of poems, Middle Ground. I thanked her for volunteering such good files about Alexandria as she had put on the table for my review during my visit. She promised to keep an eye out for more of them so she'd have another stack for me upon my return.

When I started the car and pulled onto the highway, I was headed for home. I'd been away to Rugby and Alexandria for a combined total of twelve days. I don't get "homesick for the chickens" like my mother used to, but I was ready to flop into a familiar chair, ready to work at the comfort of my own desk. I was headed home.

Revised: May 27, 2003