Note to readers: This is the final installment in a six-part series coordinated by local UMC instructor and historian Kristina Gray. In addition to the six-part series, join Gray on a journey into the past in the Crookston Daily Times’ 2013 Community Connections special edition, which publishes on Friday, April 26.
This series of six parts has been about stories from the past and relationships with people. The first was about education written by my Aunt Eleanor (Torkelson) Hem, then my UMC composition students wrote essays about their own grandparents. Also, my Korean students wrote about their interviews with Crookstonites, Part 4 - Kenneth Hviding by MinKyun Kim and Part 5 - Luverne Hviding by Dae Sung Ki.
For this final part, I will have a composite of a remarkable resident in Crookston, Bernie Elseth. I met him when he answered an ad about my wanting to know more on Crookston’s history and looking for vintage photos for the upcoming book “Images of America: Crookston.”
My husband talked to Bernie on the phone first and he was a wealth of information. He told me, “You MUST call Bernie back.” I’m glad I did because Bernie Elseth, though not from Crookston originally, knows much about Crookston’s history even after living here since 1969. The following are parts of what he said to our whole composition class along with what I learned in separate meetings with him and other parts are from what my Korean students (Ju Young Sung and Kyung Park Hee) wrote in their separate interviews with him.
First of all, Bernie was born in 1939 and is originally from a farm near Newfolden, Minnesota. As was common for many in his age group, he worked hard on the farm throughout his growing up years. At a young age, he owned a gas station for several years in his hometown and then he went into the service. But that was short-lived because it only lasted for 27 days due to health reasons. He was honorably discharged while his brothers and sisters continued to serve in the military during WWII. Bernie did become a pilot and he has many other experiences. His current interest and expertise is in horses and refurbishing old time carriages. His craftsmanship and handiwork will be on display during the Ox Cart Days parade.
When someone from the class asked Bernie what his core values are, he quickly responded that doing things to perfection was key for him. His second core value he shared was, “always tell the truth so you don’t have to remember what you told people.” Finally, he explained to his eager listening audience to be honest in your business dealings and also in your relationships.
Page 2 of 5 - For those students who are studying business at UMC, he explained how he had been told early on to start a business in a town that had money. He stated, “if you try to start a business where the economy is not going well, you can’t expect to make money as a businessman.”
For example, he had started a gas station business in Thief River Falls and he observed that salesmen who stayed at a hotel across the street needed work done on their cars. He put business cards under their windshield wipers with his name and phone number. Bernie was willing to keep his service station open longer hours during the weekdays and also on weekends. He went the extra mile to help those out-of-towners to get their cars serviced properly.
In my encounters with Bernie, he told how he had set up the outdoor theater drive-in east of Crookston in 1969 and eventually turned that property over to someone else. He also had started the business of the Hall Allen Shoe store on North Main where the Clothing of Distinction (C.O.D.) clothing store used to be. That is where it got interesting for me because the Rosenthals arrived in Crookston in 1882. They built and were former owners of Bernie’s store and had lived above in very posh apartments. That is what businessmen commonly did in the early days of Crookston.
Samuel Rosenthal Sr. (born June 11, 1857) and Mollie Falk Rosenthal (born in 1861) came to Crookston in 1882 and they started up the men’s clothing business. As Bernie put it, “Mollie was a Gentile woman” and a result she was not able to inherit the full estate of her deceased husband’s property. Possibly her nephew from Peru, Indiana, Harry Falk became the co-owners of the prestigious business known as the C.O.D. store with their son Maurice F. Rosenthal.
Looking at old Crookston Times articles, apparently Maurice took over the business from his father when Rosenthal Sr. died in 1922. When Bernie was cleaning out the attic of this old clothing establishment (that is now the current JJ’s Body Shop), he found a sled that was used by little Sammy Rosenthal Jr. and also a bamboo fishing pole that had been used as a prop for Mark Twain’s monologue. Bernie explained that the Rosenthals loved to entertain and they had big parties at their place that faced west overlooking Main Street. Apparently Mark Twain had come to visit the Rosenthals and Mr. Falk on one of his trips to Crookston.
Where it was sad was the retelling of how young Sammy Rosenthal Jr. (possibly Maurice’s only son) was drafted into the army during WWII. When he was in Texas for training Sammy decided he did NOT want to go to Europe to fight (and die). As Bernie told me, “he went over the wall” which I did not understand at first but it was another way of saying young Sammy went AWOL. Apparently he was shot and died in his attempts of escaping army training camp. From what Bernie told me, Sammy had inherited a great deal of money from his uncle Harry Falk and army life was not for him. I am discovering more about who the Rosenthals and Mr. Falk were because I read in an Aug. 5, 1948 Crookston Times article that Maurice F. Rosenthal left his estate to not only his widow but also to “charitable purposes in Crookston.”
Page 3 of 5 - However, I need to find out more information on what may have been a huge sum of money (hundreds of thousands of dollars) that was bequeathed to the Crookston library.
Bernie told me that the entrance to the Falk and Rosenthal residences used to be part of the Wayne Hotel and there was a big skylight at the top of the stairs before entering their apartments. The Rosenthals had a stainless steel butler’s pantry and a library with several other bedrooms upstairs. Their place had been written up in a1950s Better Homes and Gardens magazine article so that is something I would like to also investigate further. Mr. Falk had his apartment facing to the east side or alley side of the C.O.D. building and he was known to have owned the first air conditioner in Crookston.
One other thing that Bernie told me was about the Elks Building across the street from the Rosenthal’s apartment. It was one of the more expensive buildings put up in its day, state of the art woodwork and stairs. Everything about the Elks building was meant to impress. The Rosenthals and other influential people of Crookston were the charter members of the Elks Club.
For now, I will end with the observations the Korean students made about Bernie’s answers to their interview questions. Ju Young Song asked Bernie some very broad questions, “What is the meaning of life?” Bernie didn’t miss a beat, he answered, “The meaning of life is what you want to be remembered for. When you are gone, what will people say about you, what did you accomplish, what have you done for others, what did you do for the betterment of your community? All of those things should be good things in answer to those questions.”
A second question that was asked of Bernie seems to be on the minds of many college students, “What is the meaning of marriage and how can I meet my future partner?” Bernie answered, “Marriage is the union of man and woman and that they become one. If you are in union of one, you won’t hurt your spouse. You will take care of each other and share the same ideals…you should look for the same ideals, it’s very important.”
When Bernie was asked what the most meaningful moment in his life was, he answered very philosophically. “The moment of time, there’s a light and dark side. Alcohol and gambling can be the dark side but helping others can be the light side. If you go to the dark side, it is wrong to take advantage of others. If you go to the light side, it’s going to be your moment of meaningful time.”
Page 4 of 5 - Janet Kyunhee Park asked Bernie other questions along with Ju Young and I’ll end with what she wrote up about her interview observations with Bernie:
“My final question was about helping the poor. I tried to help them [in Korea] by giving some money, however, my parents stopped me from doing this. Later, my grandparents said, “That is not a good action. Of course a feeling heart is very good, however, your way to help others is wrong. When you give them some money, this is a temporary expedient. That way will not contribute to a fundamental solution for them. After succeeding and earning lots of money, you can help the poor by various methods.”
I didn’t understand what my grandparents said. So, I asked my question to Bernie: “Do you agree with what my grandparents said?” Bernie smiled and answered, “I agree with what your [Korean] grandparents said. Of course your thoughts to help the poor were very good. When you see the poor and want to help them, you have to keep balance! What your grandparents said is not bad.”
After the interview with Bernie, I was deeply affected. First, I think the old people are more experienced and mentally mature. I also wanted to become like him. Besides, as I have experienced some of my social life and school life, I have worries of my own that are unknown to others. While interviewing, I could get some clues about my worries, so I really was grateful for this interview.”
As you can see, it is a supreme privilege for me, as a composition teacher, to have such eager, hardworking students. Especially the Asians who highly respect older people’s wisdom like Bernie’s as he took time out to come to the campus and graciously answer their questions.
In the meantime, I will be researching more about one of our first settlers in Crookston, E.C. Davis, who was also one of Crookston’s first mayors. I want to know more about Mayor Kirkwood who may have had much to do with getting our own airport started just north of town, what used to be known as Kirkwood Airport.
There is also much to find out about the Kiewels, an influential family in early Crookston days.
Finally, I’ll look into Jens Wilson (a.k.a. Jimmy Ward) who was an early aviator and daredevil pilot who would barnstorm grandstands with his aerial show. Jimmy’s family had come from Denmark and settled in Crookston in the 1880s and then eventually moved to St. Hilaire. Sadly, Jimmy only lived to age 32 and died in Florida, a very colorful character who led a fast life.
Page 5 of 5 - I want to find out more about Sam Rosenthal Sr. who came to Crookston in 1882 and what happened to young Sammy during his training for WWII. I especially want to find out where all the Rosenthal wealth ended up.
I want to learn more about Ben Capistran who raised race horses west of Crookston in Lowell township along with Percheron horses that he bred.
So much to explore about Crookston’s history…I am open to any leads from knowledgeable people who may be in the know about Crookston’s amazing past.