August 23, 2015
As my grandparents’ generation ages, I’m realizing that I don’t know nearly as much about their lives as I’d like. They’ve been there to witness my first steps, my first words, every birthday and special event, but I’ve never taken the time to truly learn about their pasts. In my opinion, they’re a part of the greatest generation. They grew up with almost nothing as their families made incredible sacrifices during the Great Depression. They lived through World War II and put their lives on the line for their country. They’re kind, unselfish, hardworking, and uphold wholesome values while it seems the rest of our society is throwing them out the window.
As sad as I am to say that I didn’t know my dad’s dad or my mom’s mom, I’ve been fortunate enough to have wonderful relationships with my dad’s mom and my mom’s dad for all of my 22 years. Recently, my parents and I took the opportunity to drive with my Grandpa Brettingen around the areas where he grew up (and I mean areas…who knew the guy moved so much?). He remembered a surprising amount from his childhood years in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and I was able to take five pages of notes on the fascinating and admirable adolescent years of my grandpa, so why not turn it into a story? Here we go.
As we pull into his driveway on a sunny and 78 degree day, my grandpa appears in the front doorway wearing a sky blue golf shirt, khaki shorts with his flip phone clipped to his belt, SAS tan Velcro shoes, and a gold watch. He climbs into the car, excited to dig into his past but nervous that his memory will be limited. After making a joke that my life must be pretty boring if I want to hang out with an old geezer like him, he’s quick to make the first and most important point.
“I was born in rural Norton, Wisconsin on November 23rd, 1928.”
Norton is an unincorporated community in Western Wisconsin and has changed surprisingly little over the last 87 years, making it easy for Grandpa to remember his early childhood.
“Dad was farming when I was younger,” Grandpa said. “We had cows, workhorses, chickens, pigs…” he trails off as he looks out the backseat window while my dad captains us east on I-94.
“I ended up dropping out of high school in Colfax and I worked on a farm for one of the Mork brothers. It wasn’t that far from where we lived, but I stayed there and worked right from the farm.
“But I worked helping out dad too,” Grandpa said before pausing to look at a vintage car. Grandpa loves old cars. In his retirement, he bought a red 1950 Chevrolet to take care of and drive around town. It’s probably his favorite hobby, besides golfing a couple times a week.
“Mom didn’t like the farm, so they sold it in 1945 and moved to Glenwood,” Grandpa continued. “When we moved to town, dad worked for Horgan Chevrolet.
“I didn’t start school right away. I worked at the filling station there, and I worked at the Daylight Store there too. And then I started back to school and kept a part-time job at the Daylight Store. It was a grocery store and a department store. Lyman Arnquist was running it, and he had a guy by the name of Julius Ager that took care of the clothing part of the store, and then I worked in the grocery part quite a bit.
“I stocked shelves and I used to deliver groceries too. The store had a little panel truck; it had collapsible wood cases to put the groceries in, and then you’d go right to the house delivering them. I did a lot of delivering right after school. Lyman Arnquist had a girl going to school and so did the owner of Lee’s Drugstore, both named Mary. They were my friends and they would jump in with me every once in awhile when I was delivering groceries in that panel truck just to ride along,” Grandpa laughs. “I didn’t always appreciate it but they did it anyway. They thought it was great.
“I also worked at Lee’s drugstore,” Grandpa said. “Not at the same time that I worked in the grocery store, but I can’t remember now just when that was. I worked for a man named Myron, and right before I enlisted in the service Myron was going to send me to pharmacy school. He would have sent me, and here I already enlisted. He was that kind of guy. A little bit sooner there and I would have probably been a pharmacist; I don’t know how I would have done,” Grandpa laughs.
Instead, Grandpa shipped off to Seoul, Korea to serve in the Air Force during the Korean War.
As we get closer to Glenwood City, a town of 1,100 that boasts of its 57 hills (hence their nickname “Hilltoppers”), Grandpa continues to look out the window and recall more of his adolescent years. “I even worked up at the garage once in awhile where my dad was working. I washed cars and did odd jobs before Dad opened his own garage.
“When he had his own shop, my brother Ronald went in with him. Ronald did mechanic work; he specialized in the transmission work because he’d get the catalog out and take transmissions apart. Dad did the engine and stuff like that. Now the engines are so refined you don’t hardly have to work on them anymore.”
Just as we pull in to Glenwood, my mom recalls spotting a tornado over the hill when she was younger. “You remember that, huh?” Grandpa asks. “That was closer than what I wanted to be, to see that darn thing comin’.”
Grandpa sits up straighter in his seat as the car slows to pass through the main drag of Glenwood. “The Daylight Store was right here on the intersection, and I worked at this station right here on the corner when I was going to school. The first place we lived in Glenwood is coming up on the left side.
“When we got married, your mother and I lived right straight ahead here on the corner,” Grandpa continues, pointing to various buildings all within sight. “YoYo’s Consignment and Thrift store was right here, and we lived in that apartment in the building up here. I was in the service, and when I got home that’s where I came. That’s where I was living with the folks when we got married.
“This was the cheese factory; I worked there,” Grandpa says as we pass an ancient-looking building. “They’d haul the milk in and we’d unload it and make the cheese right here. Stella Cheese Factory. I was working there right before I went into the service.”
It quickly becomes very obvious that my grandpa has always been a hard worker and never stayed in one place for very long.
“So basically you’ve worked in every single one of these businesses and lived in every single one of these houses,” I interrupt. Grandpa just laughs and goes on to prove that’s not nearly all.
“We lived in this house here; it was really nice,” Grandpa says, pointing out my window. “They tore the church down and built that house on the land.”
“Why’d your family move so much?” my mom asks.
“I don’t know!” Grandpa laughs before continuing.
“I built a lot of the cupboards for that house there when I worked for the cabinet shop in
Hudson,” he points left as we progress down the same road, Pine Street. “But then we moved into this house after we were married, when Rhonda and Nadine were born. We had the downstairs and the landlord had the upstairs.”
Grandpa inhales and lets out an exasperated sigh. “I’m tired from talkin’ already!”
“So the moral of the story is that you own this city?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” Grandpa puts on his best serious face.
We turn a corner, and Grandpa points to the right. “This was my dad’s garage. Oh, they put in new doors here, didn’t they? I don’t know who’s running it now, but Ronald and Dad built it with Ludvig Larson.
“And on the left here, that’s the place we lived right before we moved to Elkhorn,” Grandpa says as he points to 1048 Syme Street. “I didn’t actually live there because I was in training at Camp McCoy, but your mother and you kids lived there for a few months.”
“And then we moved to Elkhorn?” my mom asks.
“One…two…three…yeah three houses in Elkhorn,” Grandpa responds. “We were there for five years. Both of the boys were born down there.”
“Didn’t you get sick of moving?” asks mom.
“What was the reason for moving all the time?” she presses.
“Darned if I know,” Grandpa concludes.
It took all of 15 minutes to see the entire town of Glenwood City before we moved on to Boyceville, where a big part of my grandpa’s life comes from: my grandma.
“When I went into the service, Dad worked down at Boyceville and they moved down there while I was away. He worked in the garage in Boyceville; that’s how he wound up there. When I took leave that’s where I went, to 810 Railroad Avenue, but when I got discharged in 1954 they were back in Glenwood.
“Arliss lived right over here when I met her,” Grandpa says as he points left, to 809 Second Street. “She was 21 when I met her at the dance in the 400 Club out on Highway 12 and 128 by Wilson. At the time it was a dance hall.”
“And you just decided to go dance with Grandma?” I ask.
“Well, yeah,” Grandpa says. “I knew Orville Biel when I was in Glenwood, and he was telling about this girl that he had seen at the dance hall, so I kind of had an idea who she was when I went out there to dance, and that was her. Orville kind of liked her first.”
“And you just swooped in there?” I ask.
“Yup,” Grandpa responds proudly.
This is the part of the story that I’m most curious about, being that they were around my age and they met in a dance hall and Grandpa asked her to dance and it’s so cute and sweet and romantic and I want to know more, so I press for details. “So you danced one night and then you were dating?” “Where was your first date?” “What did you talk about?” “Was Orville mad?”
I fire questions at him curious to hear more about the couple responsible for so many of my favorite people in this world, but Grandpa just laughs and says “You’re getting kind of personal, don’t you think?”
We pass a cute old church when Grandpa says, “Grace Baptist here used to be the Lutheran Church, and that’s where we got married.
“My wonderful relatives…” Grandpa laughs as he recalls a story from his wedding day. “I parked the car on the street on this side of the church, but it was just dirt, so when we got married and were ready to leave, the car was down in the ditch. My relatives did that. They had to help us get out of there. Yeah, they were pranksters,” Grandpa laughs.
We drove West to East, so the order we saw Grandpa’s stomping grounds wasn’t necessarily chronological. Next up after Boyceville was his birthplace, Norton. As we get closer, he begins to recall the early years of his life.
“Dad worked for the WPA…it was a Works Progress Administration set up during the Depression. Dad worked down at Picnic Point building the bridge for awhile,” Grandpa said. “He rented a farm; never quite had the money to buy one. We had chickens, pigs, cows…”
“Did you have to kill chickens?” my mom asks.
“Yup, Sunday dinner,” Grandpa says. “It was good!”
Because there wasn’t much to do in the rural community of Norton, Grandpa mentioned going to nearby Wheeler as a kid to go to the movies.
“Right on Main they projected the movie outdoors,” Grandpa says. “So right between the road and the railroad tracks is where they would have the movies.”
“Who’d you go there with?” asks mom.
“We lived down here by Norton then, so we went with the Rublees and Florence and Emory. Emory’s dad lived with them at that time and he was getting a little senile,” Grandpa says. “He drove a pickup—a Model A pickup or a Chevy pickup, I can’t remember but it was an old one—and he took us to the movies and then he’d forget to come back and get us,” Grandpa laughs.
“So how’d you get home?” my mom asks.
“Well, my folks found out he hadn’t gone back to pick us up.”
My dad joked, “Why didn’t you just call him with your cell phone?”
“What cell phone?” Grandpa laughs.
“Oh, there’s the garage my dad worked at in Wheeler,” Grandpa points to the intersection of Highway 170 and 640th Street. “My dad’s dad and Marcus had it together first, but then Marcus and my grandpa built that. That’s the same building still standing. They actually had a little dealership there; they sold cars. Part of it was before I was born.
“Now the first house on the left down here, we lived there,” Grandpa points to E6418. “That’s where I started school—first grade.”
“Is that where that picture of you with the little lunch pail was taken?” I ask, recalling one of the few younger photos I’ve seen of my grandpa (a cute little blonde boy with his brother and friends, carrying their lunch to school in syrup pails).
“Yup, this is the house we lived in before we went farming. How long were we there? Probably, I’d say maybe 3 years or something like that.
“Here’s the school I went to…” Grandpa points to E6511. “And then right over there is the house that I was born in. That white one back there. They moved that house in from north of the Norton church.”
“So you were born in that house but not that location?” I ask.
“Yup, that’s right. I started out there probably until 3rd grade. And when we moved up to the farm and we stayed at the same school.
“That was my parents’ first house; they were young…18 and 17. They were married in September of 1928.”
Grandpa looks out the window recognizing and recalling details about the rural area where he hasn’t lived since he was in third grade. “Those hills on the left there…a lot of good blueberry country. A lot of blueberry pickers.”
“Did you take a bus into Colfax for school then?” my mom asks.
“Yeah,” Grandpa answers. “I didn’t go there for the lower grades, but then I went to the high school in Colfax. Well, I went to high school in Ridgeland for one year, because it was a two-year high school and I got in the last year it was open and you either had to go to Colfax or Prairie Farm. I went to Colfax for a while and I didn’t like the bus ride. It was a long ways, so that’s when I quit school…during my sophomore year.
“Then I worked for two years before finishing school at Glenwood,” Grandpa adds. “By that
time, I was in the same grade as my younger brother. I played halfback on the football team and it was the first year football started up after the war; they didn’t have any sports during wartime there. We were all rookies, so needless to say our record wasn’t too good.”
“But you were the stud on the team,” I joke.
“Yup,” Grandpa says. “Me and Aaron Pohl were co-captains of the football team.”
“Did you have a letter sweater?” I ask.
“Yeah I had a letter sweater,” he says. “Don’t know what happened to it.”
“You probably gave it to one of those girls who was sweet on you,” my mom chimes in.
“No, I wouldn’t have done that,” Grandpa laughs.
I get the feeling he was somewhat of a chick magnet with his wavy blonde hair, mischievous smile and and a twinkle in his eye. :)
While driving through Ridgeland, where Grandpa completed his freshman year of high school, he looks puzzled. “This is all different. I don’t recognize any of this. It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were out this way, but time just flies by.
“I was confirmed at Hay River Lutheran over in Colfax there, and I went to 4th through 8th grade at the Hay River School. I liked our place over there; that was a nice farm. It was the last place we lived before we went back to Norton.
“When we lived in Norton we used to of course go to the big stores in Colfax,” Grandpa adds. “Dad at times used to walk from Norton to Colfax back when you didn’t have a lot of gas money I guess. None of them were born rich anyway.”
After seeing all (we think) of Grandpa’s homes, schools, churches and workplaces, we headed back west to go home.
We stopped at Hay River Lutheran Church where his grandparents, Beret and Ole Holte, are buried. Here, I learned that Beret had three children who did not make it to their first birthday before having grandpa’s mother in February of 1911, only to pass away a month later from childbirth complications. It amazed me how much healthcare has progressed in the past 100 years.
While on our last stretch of the drive home, Grandpa talks about his parents. They finished 8th grade and didn’t go on to high school. His dad, Morris, was hired on his mom’s Uncle Ole’s farm (Notice the Ole trend? Skip ahead a couple paragraphs for details), and ended up dating and marrying the farmer’s niece.
“My dad and his brother Palmer were both kind of interested in her. She got the better end of it. Palmer was okay, but…” Grandpa trails off, laughing.
So, if you’ve been paying attention, you caught on to the fact that Grandpa’s mom’s dad was named Ole, and Grandpa’s mom’s uncle was named Ole. Brothers with the same name, as if Sven, Hans, Anders, Leif or Karl weren’t options. As a result, they were nicknamed “Big Ole” and “Little Ole.” I thought that was a funny little tidbit. But while we’re on the Norwegian subject, another interesting fact is that Grandpa spoke Norwegian before he ever learned English. His Norwegian grandmother lived with them and they spoke together, but unfortunately he soon forgot it completely.
Grandpa recalls one last story as we near River Falls.
“We had a dog when we first moved to the farm. His name was Shep; he was a collie. He had broken a leg sometime before we inherited him, so he had a limp. But if he was chasing something, he didn’t remember he had a limp. He’d use all four legs and go like crazy. Nice dog. It was a long way back for him to the pasture to get the cows.
“Ronald and I would go out to the pasture to get the cows for milking and right by the one shed there’d be a little place where there were stones. We’d always pick up a few stones that we could throw at something along the way. Made things a little more interesting than ‘yeah, we gotta go get them darn cows.’”
I had so much fun spending a day with my grandpa and learning about his past. It was nice to turn the tables and be the one listening to him tell stories. He’s a sweet man who’s always thinking of others and jumping to his feet to help someone out, and now I can understand what made him that way. He never had things easy and he worked for everything he had. He’s unselfish, and I think that’s part of the reason I haven’t heard much about his past. He doesn’t go around talking about himself or his hardships, and I think that’s a common characteristic among that generation. I strive to be more like my grandparents; they value family, friends, hard work, faith, nature, simplicity, and good wholesome fun.