St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

On the Watkins Route

    Vernon Peterson, of Siren WI wrote this about 4 years ago about his time as a Watkins salesman going door-to-door in Polk and Burnett Counties

As a Watkins Dealer—fifty years ago—I remember being chewed out by the Frokjer Brothers, “You should have been here an hour ago.  You know we eat at 12.”  That is an example of how friendly and nice the people were who I visited with my case of Watkins products.  Life wasn’t just a business.  I always had some time for hunting stories and time for historical lore.  I remember best the many friends I made on my route.  They were good people! 

    I started as a Watkins dealer in 19__.  My first territory was in the Cumberland area, but I soon was able to switch an area nearer my farm at Siren.  My territory included the townships of Anderson and Trade Lake in Burnett County and Sterling, Eureka, Laketown, Georgetown, Johnstown, West Sweden, Luck, Bone Lake and McKinley.

    I made my rounds though the whole territory about every two months.  Before I went to each area, I sent a mailer from Watkins listing specials and products that we were featuring that time to my customers in the area.  I tried to visit them within a few days of the mailer.  We had specials that if you bought a combination of items or a quantity you could get something free. 

    I was welcomed into the homes of people rich and poor.  If there were children, I gave a piece of candy.  I remember how hard it must have been for one small boy telling me “I can’t have candy.  I have diabetes.”  

     We had small samples of many of our products and often had a small gift for the family.  If you bought several bottles of Nectar, then you might get a pitcher as a gift.  I handed out Watkins calendars as a Christmas ad New Year gift.

    I had my station wagon full of products.  We sold flavor extracts, spices, medicines and salves, liniment, and many other items for house and barn.  I had a display case to bring into the house filled with Watkins products.  The Watkins products were high quality and many people chose to buy from Watkins rather than the store products.

  My hobby of collecting logging artifacts started while I was on my route.    Sometimes I ate lunch down by Nevers Dam.  Nevers Dam was a tremendous engineering feat.  The main gate was 80 feet across, strong enough to hold back millions of feet of logs.  It was raised and lowered by water power.  

   One summer, Mr Rivard (I think his first name was Charles) was busy salvaging old dead head logs from the St Croix River.  I believe he was in is 80s.  He was working all alone in a boat with just a long pike pole—the kind with a special screw pike end that you could hook a log with.  He sawed off the ends of the logs that had been stamped with the owner brand that would identify them at the Stillwater sawmills.  Why?  So he wouldn’t have to pay royalty!  After all, he had lived in the days of logging the immense white pine forest.  In the forty years since the last log drives, the salvage of logs was almost continuous.  

    Mr. Rivard’s logs were hauled down the road to Earl Davidsavor’s sawmill.  They made nice white lumber.  Rivard gave me the log ends for the beginning of my logging museum.  One had the stamp of Ashland Lumber Co.  I later acquired the stamp hammer that made that mark.  It was found at Minong, about a million to one chance with millions of logs from Minnesota and Wisconsin and thousands of stamp hammers. 

    In 2003, Polk County invited me to their 150th anniversary at the Fairgrounds to show some of my logging collection.  It gave me great pleasure to have Rivard’s children, not kids anymore, come to visit.  One of Earl Davidsavor’s boys stopped by also.  That collection is still intact.  I offered to donate it, along with money, talent and labor to the village of Siren.  The museum together with a first class Information Center was on their long range plan.  Six months later, that plan was discarded by a new board.  Kind of sad, every small town tries to have some attraction. 
    C. W. Brace was the Watkins Dealer at St Croix Falls.  When I needed some stock, I would run down in the evening to buy from him.  I would stop at the Lion’s Park for a few minutes to check a certain path for arrowheads.  They were always the nicest little Mississippi type points.  One day this path was blacktopped, the end of finding arrow heads. 

    In Sterling Township, the last customer west toward the St Croix River was Jack Edwards.  Once in a while one of our children would ride along with me.  One time we drove out to see the remains of the Sunrise Ferry.  When we broke into the open by the river we stirred up a batch of big turtles.  What astonished both of us was to see those big turtles run.  They had the longest legs and an unbelievable speed.  Leather backs?  But huge!

    Mrs. Gudmunsen was such a nice little lady, who always expected company for the afternoon coffee.   If you were late she would chew you out a little.   One time we could hear her husband groaning in the back room.  She was busy with her duty serving coffee.  “He’s all right, he just likes a little attention,” she said.  Poor Gust died that night.  Bless their souls. 

  Once east back in the woods lived the nicest intelligent man.  We always had such good discussions on all manner of good topics.  One day he told me quite pleasantly and in a matter of fact way, “I won’t be here when you come again. They’re locking me up for insanity.” 

   At one stop the man was ready to commit suicide.  His wife had died and there was nothing to live for.  I sat down and consoled him.  We talked for some time.  Did it help?  I don’t know, but he was still alive the last time I heard. 

    There was a fire west of Cushing one year.  The D.N.R. crew wasn’t very sure how to get to the back side of the fire.  I offered to help—just follow me.  They did, down a little used trail. They were very thankful and got their job done.  I was thankful for knowing the trail.

   Just a couple of little episodes, but a satisfying feeling to do something worthwhile for a friend or a community.   A warm feeling to be welcomed in their homes to hear “We’ve no money today but stop by tomorrow.  I’ll leave the money here on the table so you can pick it up.  I didn’t feel I should do that of course, but such a friendly gesture by many good people. 

  I sold quite a lot of fly spray.  We could buy in bulk then.  It helped when I was told by the farmer to just check in the milk house and shake the can.  One pleasant memory—when I met Bob Wilson at Leslie Fisks.  “How soon should I come back with a can Bob?”  His answer “If it don’t rain pretty soon, don’t bother to come back!”  That answer might sound rude, but it wasn’t, it was one farmer to another in the same boat.  If it don’t rain the world will blow away. 

    My smallest sale of fly spray was over past by Duck Shot Lake.  Old Pete needed a little spray for his house.  So I filled an empty booze bottle for him.  Believe me he had a good supply of empty booze bottles!  When he got his pension check, he always had company to help him spend it.  One time he bought a bottle of vanilla and proceeded to break the neck off and drink out of that jagged glass neck—I reckon to impress the boys how tough he was.      I did sell a lot of pyrethrin fly spray.  It was safe and only harmed the bugs.  No Lindane or DDT. 

   If I am allowed to brag a little, I took top honors in Wisconsin for a couple years for the most gallons of fly spray sold.  Simple—good spray—good dairymen.  And for my part, just be there. 

    The story of the St Croix Spirit Stone was always fascinating.  Worthy Prentice, an old time surveyor wrote about this stone in the 1880s. He wrote about the Indians leaving offerings on the green stone along the old St Croix River Road.  Green, everyone presumed, meant copper.  Being a surveyor his description of the location was very precise.  I hunted for the stone but couldn’t find it so presumed it had been buried when the road was built.  However, a landowner had moved it. Fifty years later permission was granted to Rosemarie Vezina Braatz of St Croix Falls for a few of us to view the rock.  It is not copper.  Just a rock—shale with a greenish tint.  It was a privilege to see it.  

    Over east an elderly gentleman, Alfred Jacobson, lived in an old cheese factory. He was one of those wonderful old time collectors of Indian relics, guns and you name it.  He told of going with an Indian boy of his age to rob the wooden Indian grave houses of their goodies (honey and maple sugar candy) long ago.  Those little houses over the Indian graves were interesting.  I have seen only a few.  Food for the spirit and food for the little boys.  One has to respect that custom.

    One night Jacobson’s home burned with him in it.  Foul play was suspected.  He had an awfully nice pipestone pipe with lead engraving.  About two years later I stopped by.  Part of the pipe lay in the ashes.  The lead had melted away in the fire. 

    Another oldtimer, Old Whiskers, or more politely, Frank Kurkowski, lived in an old school house that belonged to Adrian Maier(?).  The main room was filled with a lifetime of collecting.  If you remember how the typical one room schools were, built with a cloak room on each side of the entrance, one for the boys and one for the girls.  Well Frank lived in one of those tiny closets with his only heat, if I remember correctly, a single light bulb.  How he cooked I don’t remember.  I enjoyed that man!  He was an interesting character.  In his collection were several ancient tools from a former Indian campsite on Big Butternut Lake where the original Luck village was located.  Frank found these before the Luck school was built there.   When he passed on, Adrian sold them to me.  I found a few more by Bone Lake and an axe almost identical in style by Spirit Lake.  I did use one tool to skin eight deer one fall.  It worked better than a knife if you are going to make a shirt out of them as it left no holes. 

    There were many more old timers with so much historical lore.  Bert Brenizer was a good one.  I couldn’t make his auction but I stopped the day before.  Big Christ Christenson was shoveling the good old stuff out of the granary for the  dump.  He scoffed “the new stuff isn’t good enough so who want s this old junk!”  I did, but with permission I selected a large brochure for 1921 Model T’s with all styles-a beautiful peace worthy of the TV Road Show program.      I was quite impressed with Big Chris’ story of finding a Viking ship in Norway when he was a boy.  It had eroded out of a burial mound. 

    One spring when school was out Niles and Brian, our two youngest boys, wanted a special adventure.  Art Hanson, the great Musky Fisherman by Bone Lake helped provide that.  He agreed to take us out to the Big Island to leave the boys, along with their friends, Gary and Jerry, for three days.  So we came back in three days.  I think they were a little bored.  The fish they were going to fry for three days didn’t seem to cooperate. Being marooned wasn’t really so great.  I’m sure their mothers good cooking was really enjoyed when they returned home. Still an adventure. 

    It’s amazing to know of the various talents of people.  The wood carving done by Carl Lade impressed me, as did that of Chester Fisk.  He carved wooden chains of a single piece of wood, Lumberjack style.  He couldn’t sell me one—his family was first in line.  I needed one for my logging museum. 

    Peterson in Trade Lake had invented the automatic rifle.  He showed me the drawings submitted to a company.  However, someone had stolen his invention. 

   Talent takes many directions. 
    You may think that all I did was visit old timers.  They were important, but of course it’s active busy customers that are needed for any business.  
     Gene Peper was just a boy, but a very astute cow man already.  We can think of change.  I first met Carl Peper, his father, with Carl’s father cutting grain with the old time grain binder—now a thing of the past.  Gene’s grandmother once pretended to threaten me with a mop for my tracking her nice clean floor.  Good family, good friends!

    Russ wrote a story of his Dad being town board chairman and insisting that the road by his farm would not be paved.  Town chairmen did this as a sign of integrity—they wouldn’t use their position to benefit themselves.  That changed when a few chairmen remarked, “I’m one town chairman with a good road.”  By the time I became a town chairman 30 years ago, it was “Do the worst road first.”

    Joe Jones told of finding a piece of pine root down 30 feet where he put in his well near the River Road in Sterling.  When dried out it burned very well in the cookstove.  How old was it?  Certainly not before the glaciers.  Most likely buried by some ancient sandstorms. An interesting geological event, to think of a sandstorm that would bury a tree with 30 feet of sand. 

   When I started my Watkins Route I sold most of the cows.  My wife and our six children kept things going with a few long hours on my part.  We returned to full time farming, built a new barn and just kept busy.  I had to quit at 87.    I do miss driving those big green tractors.  I can still watch them from our kitchen window with Niles and Dan driving them.  My health stopped me at age 87.  It is good to see our farm functioning well, although we do need rain.   Bulldozers are clearing another 20 acres for crops as I write.  This pleases me. 
     Gwen and I recently celebrated or 68th wedding anniversary.      Many of my old friends have passed away.  Every once in a while we meet some of those who are left; a real pleasure to see them.  When Russ, Stanley or others write about those people of fifty years ago, I find I can recall most of them with pleasure.

   A few years ago we attended graduation exercises for a granddaughter at Bethel College.  Instead of all strangers in a crowd here was Goodwin Hanson from Eureka and on the other side was Jon Bierman, an old Rockhound friend.  Small world! Good people!

   The stories in the Leader of the old days bring back many pleasant memories of my years on the road for Watkins products.  I still have my black Watkins case and have collected some of the items I used to sell.  Sometimes we drive the backroads.  It is sad to see how many barns are empty, but that’s life.  Fly spray—no—now huge fans blow the flies away, and the cows like it that way.  Most of my old customers are gone, but the good memories remain.