Memories of Hazel, Minnesota

by Otto Wedul

My first memories of life are from my early years living in Hazel. Our living quarters were in the same building as the store my parents operated. In fact, our living room was the store. As soon as a customer came in the morning and when the last one left – those were our store hours. Our living room furniture was mainly used when we listened to radio programs: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee & Molly, Tom Mix, and the broadcast of United Lutheran Church in Grand Forks [ND] when St. Pauli services were canceled because of a snow storm, and the Grand Ol’ Oprey. The store was where we lived.

Already Hazel was a “has-been” in many respects, when I came along. I heard about the lumber yard that used to be south of the elevator. On explorations I could never find a trace of it. The hotel had been made into two residences by my time – Pete, Gina and Gladys Nelson – lived in the back, while the Seelands – Oscar, Elsie, Mabel, Ruth and son Oscar – lived in the front and had the upstairs rooms. After their move, the new Soo Line section foreman – Pete and Albina Gerard – lived where the Seelands vacated.

The dance hall was made into a residence where Carl and Dorothy Prestby lived with family – Edna, Phyllis, Floyd and Lucille. The bank had closed when so many failed and it was the home of Oscar, Thelma, Mae, Duane, Shirley, young Oscar, and Gary Odegaard.

In operation, when I was aware of circumstances, were two general stores – Odegaard’s and Wedul’s – the post office (in back of Odegaard’s store – Ole Odegaard was the postmaster), the creamery with Martin K. Ellingson employed as the buttermaker most of my years, the Busy Bee School, the Soo Line depot with Adrian Anderson as agent, the blacksmith shop where Charlie Walz performed his skills, plus the elevator.

I recall the day Carl Prestby died of his heart attack. His rural route was combined with Ted Johnson’s. Our P.O. box was number 38, oddly enough I do not remember the combination to the lock! Mail came in by 8:30 AM and 3:30 PM. all these years first class postage was $.03 for the first ounce and indeed, there was the “penny postcard” in those days.

Mother did most of the work with the store. With the groceries standing on the counter, she would point with the pencil and very quickly add up the total, all in her head. She could have a short fuse, never with more certainty than when someone questioned her unwritten total! For a large grocery order, she would always give an appreciation token – a piece of candy to each child, a few cookies, or a couple of oranges. But if she had been challenged on the total, there was only a “thank you” – in Norwegian or English – for the business.

Eggs were often brought in for grocery trade. During the summer there were customers who would find nests of eggs in the crate. She knew which ones might sneak in rotten eggs. I would stand by for the nod, that means this case had to be candled. If there were rotten eggs, they were returned in fillers in the bottom of the case. The size of the case was usually twelve or fifteen dozen, sometimes it was thirty dozen eggs.

Saturday afternoons about three o’clock, Dad would return from Land O’ Lakes in Thief River Falls, during the summer months, with three gallons of ice cream. Many would be waiting for him to arrive with the ice cream; Martin Ellingson was usually first in line. There was a weekly ritual that went on as Dad removed the top layer of ice and rock salt.

“What flavor did you get this week, Arnt?” Martin asked.

“Oh, this week I got vanilla,” Dad would reply.

“No,” Martin would chide, “You got vanilla last week, this must be plain this time,” Martin would correct him.

“Yes, I’ll have to remember to get white next week,” Dad would reply and by that time Martin would be wrapping his tongue around his cone. Every Saturday there was ice cream, and there was the rotation of flavors – plain, white, or vanilla!

When the Soo Line “Flyer” came through Hazel about four o’clock on Sunday mornings, a bundle of Minneapolis Sunday Tribunes would be thrown off. The first item on the agenda for whoever got up first would be to go out and find the Sunday papers. The train was going full speed when the bundle was hurled to the side. Depending on the weather, it was an easy or difficult job finding them. Soaked or not, they all sold by the time we left for Sunday School and church.

We had a St. Hilaire telephone from my earliest memories. It was on the wall in the back of the store, next to the kitchen door. It was used a lot by customers, too. I remember conversations Mother and Dad had about the merits of also getting a Thief River Falls phone. They finally decided to make the leap; it was installed in the kitchen. That phone also brought in a lot of business. A person who came to use the telephone would always buy something in the store.

Dad’s first love was trucking. As years passed by, the business grew. There were times that he and two and three other men were working trucks full time. Mother always had a hired girl helping with the store and household. Axel Rasmussen worked for Dad for years; he had room and board with us and moved with us to Thief River Falls. He was a brother of Dorothy Prestby. Others who worked were Julian Stennes, Eidor Urdahl, Armand Lian, and most anyone available who would be willing to wrestle cattle or the strenuous work of shoveling four yards of gravel. It was hard work!

Some of the women who worked for Mother were Phoebe and May Anderson (daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Adrian Anderson), Hazel Nelson (who became my aunt when she married Uncle Martin Wedul), Gladys Skallat, and Doris Johnson.

There were many hobos who rode the Soo Line during the summers. It was around the elevator, it was suspected, that they headquartered. Many would come to the store to ask for food. For fear of being on their communication line, the request was seldom honored. I remember once Mother felt in a generous mood and asked a hobo to sit on the porch in front of the store while she prepared a lunch. While this was during the time of cheese rationing, she must have felt in a generous mood. She used some of the Jung’s Bakery bread we sold. With the coffee there was a cheese sandwich, a banana, and a couple of cookies.

As soon as he got the plate in his lap, he peeled back the top slice of bread, screwed up his nose and said, “Cheese!”

“What’s the matter, don’t you like cheese?” she asked.

“It binds me up,” was his reply. The cheese was left on the plate; he ate the rest.

Sounds of Hazel I recall include: Harvey Odegaard practicing his trumpet in their front porch (no one had a set of drums!), Grandpa Peterson (Amanda Odegaard’s father) starting his Model T Ford coupe, Pete Nelson driving his 1937 Chevrolet on the clutch with the motor roaring at full speed – when he let the clutch out all the way, the gravel flew in a heavy cloud in every direction, and Gladys Nelson playing their roller piano during the summer when windows and doors were open.

Sights of Hazel I recall include: the statement painted in blue on the north of the garage where the bank had been – “Time is money” – with the living quarters of our residence facing the Soo Line, I loved the growing clarity of the light of the night-time approaching trains (we didn’t have shades until World War II when we got black-out shades).

Tastes of Hazel I fondly remember include: the most delicious plums I have tasted at the Pete Nelson home, and Gina Nelson was generous in sharing if only we would ask (she didn’t appreciate our stealing them). Mrs. Adrian Anderson made the most delicious cookies – spritz, ice box cookies, and breads, too (there was often a treat when we would go there to get a pail of water.)

People from Hazel with whom I’ve had contact through the years include: Marie Gustafson; May (Anderson); and Thule Norman (when we lived near San Francisco, they did, and now we are at opposite ends of Phoenix, Arizona); Edna Prestby Bolten now in Bloomington, Minnesota (our mothers corresponded and, when they were no longer able to do so, we kept in touch); Ruth Seeland Williams and Mabel Russell who lived in Seal Beach, California where brother Kenneth lives. Ruth is now deceased, but Mabel last winter visited my church here in Sun City; and Betty Ellingson Pray who lives in New Brighton, Minnesota.

Brother Maynard at age eleven could back a semi truck and put it right where it should go. I still can’t do it! Consequently, he worked with Dad with trucks and I assisted Mother in the store.

When we were moving to Thief River Falls, Dad really wondered whether or not we could afford a house. Mother was persistent about making the purchase. When the time came to pay for the house they selected, she produced the $4,000 which she had saved through the years in fruit jars buried in the garage floor! Had Dad known about it, she rationalized, it would have gone for trucks. This was money she had saved from her store! She must have been an early “women’s libber!” That was the cost of the house.

Where did the buildings go that had been in Hazel? I know about some. Our store was sold to a business and it was moved across from the Soo Depot in Thief River Falls. The garage and ice house under which the money was buried was purchased by the Tollef Erickson sons, Ullrick and Henry, and moved to their farm northeast of Hazel. The folks purchased the dance hall and made it into a garage for trucks, and it was moved to Thief River Falls on land north of Highway 59 which the folks purchased where K-Mart and other large stores now are doing business. Some just deteriorated, sadly.

The biggest coincidence of all happened when the elevator was moved to St. Hilaire. Because the old bridge was then over the river in St. Hilaire, it was moved through Thief River Falls. The movers turned off Highway 59 and came up Tindolph Avenue. It was a two-day move. The elevator stood overnight right in front of our home at 124 South Tindolph! Chief, the German Shepherd dog we had the last eleven years in Hazel, was still living. He was nearly wild that night; Chief remembered the elevator.

During the years 1962 through 1979, we made a trip back home every other year from Santa Rosa, California. Each trip included a tour of Hazel. Every two years, the “frontier” was moving in more and more until 1987 when we were back for the fortieth reunion of my high school class, we found only a little white shed on a wagon standing in the road across from the former Anderson residence. The grass and weeds were so high, one couldn’t think of driving in from the north. We went around past where the creamery had been to come in by Odegaard’s and the blacksmith shop. There was a large hole in the road now narrowed by the growth around it – so large that time, we didn’t venture to the railroad track to again walk the rails!

Hazel, Minnesota is still indicated on the last Minnesota map I picked up. I guess all that remains are the memories of home some of us still possess. But it is where I lived from age three until fifteen. There was lots of love and support from people and, after all, could one have richer memories?