A Journey into Crookston's Past: Part VIII of VIII.
This article is the last of my eight part series where I have written about the Crookston area from a century ago or earlier. I have been trusted with valuable photos, documents and information from older members of our community. This time I am showcasing Gus Heldstab after listening to an oral interview done on his 80th birthday on December 29, 1974. Gus was born in 1894 and witnessed a lot of changes along with his wife Hedwig, better known as Hattie, who was the same age. Gus died on Feb. 25 in 1980; he had just turned 86 years old.
When I mentioned to Crookston old timer Ken Miller that I was going to write on Gus Heldstab, Ken retrieved from his memory this advertising jingle: “We keep you warm; we keep you cool, Heldstab Ice and Fuel.” The Heldstabs sold coal, wood and ice; it was an important family business in Crookston at the turn of the 20th century. But young Gus, as an enterprising entrepreneur, was involved in an entirely different and lucrative business, one we don’t know too much about in the 21st century.
If you have ever done an interview with someone full of memories, like Gus and his wife Hattie, you will find the data, once transcribed, may be informative but messy. Especially for qualitative research purposes where you are supposed to let the interviewee talk about what is most important to them. The rule of thumb is never to ask leading questions. This interview was done by Richard B. Reeves, a son-in-law of the Heldstabs and husband of their youngest daughter Doris. I highly recommend if you know people who have memories of the “good old days” ask them questions and lead them on as much as necessary in order to find out what life was like during the early 1900s. Let the writers forty or fifty years from now try to make sense of it. But by all means preserve these cherished memories no matter how quirky they may appear to later transcribers.
At the beginning of the tape, Hattie Heldstab added sparkle by telling how she loved dancing. “We used to dance at the Armory, a Charity Ball was a very formal affair where there were no drunks. Beautiful dances, lovely.” She was impressed by Crookston and did not like the Twin Cities despite moving north from Winona, Minnesota to colder temperatures. Hattie also talked about her old range stove with a “thermometer inside the oven, I knew just how many sticks of wood to put in, what kind. Never used coal, you can’t regulate…it is pretty hot, gets too hot. Made all my own bread, didn’t buy any bread…”
Hattie sadly reminisced about her three month old infant named Ruth Ann who died in 1926. (Perhaps due to inattention of a doctor or the wrong diagnosis given.) Other children, besides Betty Heldstab and Doris (Heldstab) Reeves, were Lorraine who was born in 1925 as the eldest in the family. The youngest were the twins born in 1934, David, was Doris’ fraternal twin. Another son was Ralph who died in 1999.
Hattie prodded and praised her husband Gus about what a good actor he was with the Cathedral Players. Father William Keefe (director), Dr. Donald Stewart, Catherine Widman, Mrs. Eleanor Maves and a young Joe Sullivan were some of those active in these plays that went on the road to Fisher, Red Lake Falls, Gentilly, and Park Rapids. For nine seasons Gus often played the role of a sheriff and he still had his badge to prove it. Gus acting as a sheriff was ironic because of the “business activity” Gus was involved in as an ambitious teenager.
Gus and Hattie Heldstab had been through a lot together and their love shown through the interaction of their cracking and wavering voices. Thanks to Betty Heldstab, who helped edit this article, I was able to listen to this significant piece of Crookston history. One thing that struck me was Mrs. Heldstab’s sadness of never knowing her grandparents. We don’t think much about that. Too often grandparents are people we often take for granted…until it is too late. Many of the early immigrants from a century ago left their important, familial support system back in the Old Country. Sometimes hand written letters had to suffice. Hattie said: “My mother’s mother died when she was three years old, my dad used to talk about his parents. My parents met here in the US, they were German immigrants and settled in Winona, Minnesota. I was born and raised there. I never knew what it was like to have grandparents like the other children. I envied kids who did.”
Apparently Hattie Heldstab had been earlier engaged to a man who was killed on a motorcycle. I believe his name was Art Pahlen. Hattie knew firsthand that riding a motorcycle was risky business. At that point Gus added, “I was riding a motorcycle before we met…I wonder if I can find that motorcycle photo.” Then he wandered off to hunt down that treasured photo out of an album that he had in the next room. When Gus returned to the tape recorder, he explained: “There’s a little history with this 1910 photo, this guy is my cousin, four of them there, and this kid was, lived across the street from us, name was Espe, this fellow and two other fellows started a motorcycle shop. I went to my dad saying, ‘I have a chance to buy a motorcycle.’ My dad asked if I had enough money and I said I did. He said, ‘Go ahead and buy it.’”
“Some people in Crookston said, ‘Let’s have us some motorcycle racing, we have horse racing and car races.’ I didn’t go in for racing, I had too much work to do.” Back in 1910, Gus was earning $3-4 a week selling meat. He bought his first motorcycle at $350. It weighed about 350 pounds too. Apparently Gus was pragmatic and didn’t want to do anything foolhardy. To explain his decision to not go into racing, he related the following story: “There was a race in Montana where Howard was killed. One kid spilled and Howard was right behind him, instead of hitting him, Howard went to the fence, the other kid didn’t get killed. What a real sportsman, he went for the wall and was killed himself. He sacrificed his own life in order to save another.” Apparently this was written up in the Montana newspaper.
I LOVED the way Gus pronounced “Montana,” it can’t be replicated. There were other expressions he said that were uniquely his own but at the same time familiar, like listening to actors from old black and white movies. Eventually Gus sold his Ivan Johnson motorcycle to Dewey Kiewel because, as he put it, “I got tired of it.” He told Dick, the interviewer, who the people were in this 1910 photo, “Walt Markle, he is dead, Dewey [Kiewel] is there, Art Brustad, he’s dead too.”
Dick then spotted a photo in the album with chickens and roosters, he coaxed Gus with, “How’d that business with cocks get started?” That is when Mrs. Heldstab stated facetiously, “We had a beautiful yard, full of rabbits and chickens. Funny, I didn’t pick up and leave and go back to Winona.” But admittedly it was lucrative business with the chicken houses, rabbits, and dogs.
Mr. Heldstab used to raise fighting cocks as a young kid. “You see, I delivered meat as a 10-12 year old from the meat market which was on the same corner we was living here. I knew every home in town, I was born and raised here. One day a man didn’t show up to do his route. I had a horse and was going to school. Lots of chickens to trade for Sunday and I got a liking to chickens. Every farmer back then had their own chickens. There was a crate of chickens, so I went into Sam’s and wanted to know if he would sell me three chickens. Then I knew I had to have a rooster but I didn’t have a chicken house. Our backyard had 100 feet, lots of room. I got the idea to build a chicken house. It was a farce, well, what does a 12 year old kid know to try to make a chicken coop?” So Gus’ father and other workers helped in their free time to build a chicken house. “I thought there was nothing like it.”
Gus continued, “There was a feed mill close by where they were unloading 10-15 cars a day that would bring in their wheat into the hopper. We had an elevator in Crookston and as the seed would go into the hopper, I would get the remnants of seed and there would be about a bushel after sweeping out each car. It didn’t cost me nothing to feed my chickens early in the summer.”
“There was a municipal judge [William P. Murphy] here who was 85 years old. He heard that I had chickens, ‘Say Gus, I have some game chickens, would you mind hatching me some separate eggs? He lived a block away and so he brought over his game chickens. He was getting old and pretty near retired. It was against the law to fight cocks, but you could raise them. I have the spurs and steel mask. [The judge said,] ‘Say Gus, you can have these, I’m trying to get rid of mine, my roosters.’ He gave me the whole outfit, I can’t remember paying him for it.”
“People were fighting cocks on the sly; many men would have their betting go on over the cock fights like Frank Hannah, Chancey Smith, Roy someone? Every Saturday the judge would put a chicken or so in his sack and they would fight for blood. Grit and Steel magazine advertised and I run an ad in there. I got letters from every state of the U.S… EVERY STATE, that I sent chickens to, from people wanting to buy my cocks. $4.50 for eggs and I would grade them according to age. Cockerel was under a year old, then there was a stag which was in between a cock. Some would go for $7.50 or even $10. I was in the financial business.”
Gus explained that even though he was just a kid, he would get letters from all over the country. He would build crates and crate the birds up and send them express to places like North Carolina or Tennessee. In some cases, he would get the money even before he sent the bird. The old judge gave him all his cock fighting stuff, he said, “Gus, come over to the house, I want to give you all my chicken equipment, the gasp, the muffs, the pruning equipment to cut their waddles. He showed me everything, but I never fought them. I raised them, and no doubt those who bought them used them for fighting. They would go into the brush at the horse race, on such and such day, in whatever township, there would be a Main, and they would be betting money like on a horse or dog race.”
The subject changed from chickens to rabbits. “Ma kicked me out of the house for this, we had two hutches, right on the property line. There were brush rabbits, some would weigh 16 pounds, chinchilla rabbits, that paid well. A few hutches, didn’t cost me nothing. Got the old lettuce they would have hauled off to the dump, left over vegetables from the grocers and fed that to the rabbits. I would go down with my cart on Saturday and get enough vegetables for the rabbits to last a week.”
The Heldstabs finally butchered the rabbits when they got into the laundry business. They had insulated and used heaters for the hutches but gave them up. “Work night and day to make a living, and that’s the way life is, I enjoyed it. I guess you could say that the laundry put me out of the cock business and rabbits too.” Gus added he was too young to retire so he bought the laundry. Leon, the youngest brother picked up the pieces of the family business that used to sell ice, wood and coal. When the electric fridges arrived, that put the Heldstab ice business out of business.
Earlier Gus’ father had come from Switzerland and started with a dray company. Gus’ mother was originally from Germany. His father had three brothers but Gus’ dad came to Crookston while his brothers stayed in Wisconsin. “How he came here or whatever possessed him to come to Crookston, I don’t know. He had contact with some Crookston people and wrote letters to Germany and Switzerland. He had done farm work, saved a few dollars, bought a team of horses, got started, he was conscientious, no question about it. Ice business until the electrics came out.”
“After Dad died in 1915, there was an ice business in Bemidji and we thought we’d go to Bemidji and we bought out a fellow named Tom Smart. Four of us stayed here [in Crookston]. I got the laundry, Harold got the farm, Jack got some houses, and someone else took cash. We divided it up before Mom went to the sanatorium in 1947.”
Gus had worked with his brothers where they would cut blocks of ice out of the river. “Brother Jack was the bookkeeper, he was the oldest but the puniest, and he stayed in the office. He had taken a course at the business college in bookkeeping, so he took over the management from Dad. I was the second and did cutting of ice. The other brothers also liked it outside and they would be on the river or the lake in Bemidji cutting ice. Chris was the next, the third brother, packing the ice in wood shavings.”
“At that time we had a lot breweries in Crookston, there were beer distributors, there was a Hamm’s brewery from Minneapolis. There were five or six warehouses in Crookston that distributed beer. Carloads of beer, we had 26 saloons here in Crookston for the railroad men who liked to drink a lot of beer. Twenty-six saloons! We was in the ice business, packed the ice for these coolers. Sold ice for these breweries to keep beer cool. Whether bottles or kegs, the ice would last all through the summer because it was well insulated.”
“Western Fruit [big company] would come in from California in fruit cars. We delivered door to door and we charged for ice by the pound. We were busy, we had ten ice wagons at one time. At first in the early days we just charged $1.50 per month, four days a week. They would deliver on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. They would ‘ice up’ saloons, meat markets, left other days to “ice up” the other places. Towards the end, the Ice magazines recommended using weights instead but then keeping the books became more difficult. Things changed when the electric refrigerators came in. Gas and then electric, coal and wood, we didn’t have oil. Fuel business was good until gas and electricity came. We had coal and wood but we didn’t have oil. Leon got into the oil business with a filling station after the ice business was through…It was a good business, no question about that.”
Towards the end, Dick asked Gus about what it was like during the frontier days, “hauling hides on a buckboard.” Gus explained that at first he was “too young for the ice wagon, but I drove the meat wagon. The meat business was good and I worked for the butcher shop with the delivery wagon to the railroad people. There were lots of customers with the Great Northern railroad that went up, way up to Canada. I know there was times 200-300 people working for the railroad in Carman. Oh sure, we had a railroad roundhouse to repair engines, they repaired passenger cars and boxcars. Great Northern was a big outfit; there was a Division Point in Carman.”
When Gus was asked about more details of the early days, he answered, “Crookston had a tannery not a meat packing plant. A lot of farmers would butcher their own cows. The hides came to Miller’s tannery, the leather would be made into harnesses or they made ropes. But people complained it smelled too bad. When the horses went out, the tannery went. They turned them loose as broncos or made dog food out of them. Horses were replaced by cars, so the tannery left. Some were making a living by selling horses, but when the tractors came, you couldn’t give a horse away… so many changes. Changing times, over a period of 40-50 years, I could talk about the changes for two weeks…but you have to make the most of it.”
Younger Crookstonites could learn from industrious people like Gus Heldstab who started to work hard at a very young age and continued to make a living for his family. He and Hattie changed with the times possessing an upbeat spirit and a “can-do” attitude. I recommend you take the time to do oral histories of those people who are still living among us today; they can help us understand what the times were like 60-70 years ago. It would be an added bonus if you could recover a tape recording that was done of what Crookston life was like a century ago. I feel very blessed to have met Mr. and Mrs. Heldstab through this interview from 1974.