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Enstads offered icy treats, trains in the basement, go-carts on the farm

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Editor's note: Robert Enstad, son of the late Carl Enstad, sent the following photos and information about the life and times of the family business. Readers are sure to remember the Enstads of River Falls and their Dairy Bar. It was located where Mainstreeters Bar is now serving a more adult clientele.

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Carl J. Enstad, a pioneering businessman and milk and ice cream shop owner on River Falls' Main Street for 32 years, died July 8 in a nursing home in Manitowoc.

In his signature pressed white dairy clothes and cap, Enstad brought River Falls its first pasteurized milk, first take-out sundaes and soft ice milk treats, first milk vending machines and its first store to eat in air conditioned comfort.

Through long hours of work seven days a week, Enstad made a personal success of his Falls Sanitary Dairy, but it didn't start out that way, family members said.

He left a creamery job in Bruno, Minn., to buy a milk and ice cream store on Main Street in 1941 just two weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack and America's entry into World War II.

Government rationing of sugar soon forced Enstad to curtail making ice cream and to take a second job at a South St. Paul packing plant to support his wife and young sons, Richard and Robert.

Enstad's wife, Austred (Oas) Enstad, ran the dairy store by day and Carl by night, thus starting his 16-hour work days that went uninterrupted without even a sick day until his 1973 retirement.

"My mom once told me that it was such a struggle at that time that she cried herself to sleep every night," said Austred's daughter, Karyl Rommelfanger. 

The end of the war and of rationing brought brighter times to the Enstads and their fledgling dairy.

In 1947, faced with the Smead Manufacturing Co. taking over his building, Carl gambled on building a new store. He chose a vacant lot next door at 212 S. Main St. In support of his dream, local physician, Dr. C. A. Dawson, wrote a "To Whom it May Concern" letter to local bankers, builders and city fathers.

"Mr. C. J. Enstad," he wrote, "is the only retailer furnishing pasteurized milk to the citizens of this city. In my opinion Mr. Enstad's establishment can be classified as a necessity to the people of River Falls."

The new all-concrete Falls Sanitary Dairy with an unusual skylight on the roof opened without fanfare or a grand opening. The word "sanitary" denoted the production of pasteurized milk.

Townsfolk were content to just call it the Falls Dairy or Enstad's Dairy. A red neon sign in the front window said simply "Dairy Bar."

"It was Dad's style to just open the front door and start business anew without much fuss," son Robert Enstad said. 

The modern dairy plant turned raw milk from area farmers into pasteurized and homogenized milk. Enstad had new equipment to make cottage cheese, a churn for butter and an ice cream making machine.

Making butter was a specialty for Enstad after taking a dairying course at the University of Minnesota in 1927. In Minnesota, he had won numerous trophies and grand championships in statewide competition in butter making.

Another honor came in 1937 when his skills were recognized at an international butter competition in Berlin, Germany.

The new store was one of the first on Main Street with air conditioning for its customers. Business boomed. Twice a day ladies from the Smead Company next door put down their file-making to come in for sundaes, milkshakes and other treats. Unlike other Main Street businesses, the dairy store was open every evening and on Sundays.

Friday nights also were busy as other stores stayed open for farm families to shop, talk about their crops and livestock, and to top off the evening at "the dairy bar."

Ice cream was a nickel a scoop and a dime for two. Milkshakes were a quarter and 30 cents if malt powder was added.

"The dairy was a real popular place and Mr. Enstad just a wonderful guy to work for," said James A. Rupert, retired UW-River Falls professor. Rupert was one of scores of young people who worked there during their high school and college years.

"Ken Roen and I kept real busy making malts and would often run out of the ingredients before closing time," Rupert added.

Closing time at the dairy was 9:30 p.m. -- well, sort of.

"If a customer showed up after Dad locked the doors, he would reopen for them," Rommelfanger said.

A small crisis came in the mid 50s after Enstad installed the first lower fat, soft ice milk machine in River Falls. The cones and sundaes were sold as "Penguins" and were immensely popular.

Soon after a new Dairy Queen with more perfect curls atop the ice milk opened down the street. To meet the competitive threat, Enstad cut a hole in the huge front window for a small take-out counter. Pedestrians could buy their Penguins without coming inside, just like at the Dairy Queen.

"With a little practice we too could put nice curls on our Penguins," Richard Enstad said. 

While a lot of dairy products went out the front door, as many went unnoticed out the back. Enstad sold his Enstad's Cottage Cheese and other products to stores in neighboring towns in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

"About the only time Dad left town was to go to the (Twin) Cities for supplies or to go on his cheese route," Rommelfanger said.

In the 1950s the federal government started subsidizing milk for schools. Enstad put vending machines in River Falls schools so students could obtain free half pints of wholesome milk. Eventually, the Falls Dairy provided milk to all the schools and UW-River Falls.

During the Christmas holidays Enstad invited families to see his big electric train layout in the store's basement. He'd put on his Great Northern railroad cap and rev up the trains with lots of bells and whistles and crossing lights flashing. 

"It was a big treat for the kids and another thing that made my dad well known in River Falls," his daughter said. 

The Lionel electric trains ran around a real pond with real fish. 

One day Enstad, ever the kid and one to surprise, came home with one of the first go carts made. The little yellow racing machine with a two-cycle, five-horse engine made so much noise and was so fast that crowds gathered to see all the commotion. 

"My mother was quite miffed about it all and probably wondered," her son Robert said, "what the hell is Carl going to do next? Doesn't he have enough to do?"

What he did was buy a half dozen more carts, plowed up some cropland on his little farm and built an oval asphalt race track with nicely banked curves. Kids and adults could now ride a cart for a quarter a throw, probably one of the first carting tracks in the nation.

In private, the dairyman/go cart guy was a reserved and quiet person and not a great conversationalist. His sale of the business and retirement in 1973 shocked the River Falls community and was somewhat a mystery.

"It was a complete surprise even to Mom," his daughter said. "He came home one night and said he had sold the dairy. Mom was thrilled. She thought he was going to work himself to death."

"I guess I was just pooped out," Enstad said shortly before his death.

That was an understatement. During more than three decades of healthy retirement Enstad tinkered, puttered and built things all day long on his 17 acres on Hwy. 35N. He restored old cars, including two classic 1931 Ford Roadsters that he and Austred often rode in River Falls Days parades. The cars, like his butter making a half century earlier, won many first place awards at vintage car shows for their fine workmanship.  

At age 86, when seniors still around start worrying about death and nursing homes, Enstad embarked on another ambitious construction project: A new home for him and Austred in Manitowoc with a four-car garage for his old cars and workshop and enough room for a new, better-than-ever electric train layout. It was the finest home the couple ever had, though it was hard for them to leave River Falls to be closer to their three kids.

At first they spent the winters in the new home and the summers back in River Falls.

"I guess this was my dad's idea of a Norwegian's winter migration, moving 300 miles across Wisconsin to winter near the icy shores of Lake Michigan," Robert Enstad said. "It was a nice arrangement, at least for awhile."

The last parcel of their 17 acres in River Falls was sold in 1998 for a new Burger King and the Enstads moved to Manitowoc for good. 

Austred died in 2004, just short of being 102 years old. The couple had been married for 68 years and had, between them, lived just two weeks short of two centuries.

"Our mom was proud, most of all, that the kids turned out OK," said her daughter, who was a foreign language teacher in Manitowoc schools. Brother Richard was a math professor at UW-Whitewater and Robert a reporter, writer and an editor at the Chicago Tribune.

Two years before Enstad's death, at age 96, he had some more firsts in his eventful life. He got his first traffic ticket, lost his driver's license and had his first accident with a large construction truck in Manitowoc. 

He was not injured and soon after bought another Chevy just like the model he totaled, the big truck going unscathed.

"Dad agreed not to drive the new car and let family members drive him around," son Robert said. "He never talked about the accident and it is to me a funny anecdote to a life lived to the fullest."

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