Indeed, those were the days!
If you grew up in River Falls, "Kinnickinnic Country" will be pleasurably nostalgic. If you're a newcomer, the book will immerse you in mid-20th century life and catch you up on local lore.
At least that's the aim of the book's author, Mark Wyman, and his sidekick Don Richards. They should know a thing or two about River Falls history since they came of age here in the 1950s -- the book's core period.
Mark eventually left town and went on to become a professional historian like his famous father, Walker Wyman. Richards -- "DR" -- taught high school English in River Falls for decades before being elected its current mayor.
Wyman says "Kinnickinnic Country" continues in roughly the same vein as another popular book published in the 1990s by John Prucha and Norman "Bud" Foss -- "Kinnickinnic Years: 1930s and early 1940s."
While there's some overlap between the books, the chronology of "Kinnickinnic Country" picks up with the end of the World War II before advancing into the Cold War/Eisenhower era of the 1950s and through 1960.
"A lot of the same things that were rapidly transforming American life were also being felt in a close-knit but fast-growing community like River Falls," Wyman said. "For those of us who were here, who experienced the friendships, knowing your neighbors, the fly fishing on the Kinni, River Falls was our anchor."
"Kinnickinnic Country" has a strong narrative drive that relies on storytelling and colorful anecdotes not only from the two authors but also from locals they interviewed and also from accounts published in the River Falls Journal and the university's Student Voice. An array of old photos heightens the visual affect of those bygone times.
Excerpts of the Wyman/Richards book tell it best. Here's one Wyman offers from his childhood after the war:
There were a few men who came home with their bodies twisted or disfigured. Once, a year or two after the war, I was riding in the car with my father when I saw a man with twisted form, walking along the sidewalk.
In my youthful ignorance as well as insensitivity, I asked, "Who's that dumb guy?" Typically, my father drove on for awhile before answering, but finally he said, "He was injured in the war. He got that way defending his country."
I felt terrible over what I had said, and the memory of that moment has never left me.
What was it like in school for the older, rural kids?
After eighth grade came River Falls High School, a big change for country school students. Because there was no prior activity that brought students from all country schools together, they often knew no one else, or few others. However, some attended church in River Falls and so had friends there.
Alone in the new environment, many graduates of country schools have disagreeable memories of the early part of the transfer. "In high school we were segregated" as country kids, Audrey Schweizer remembered - "country school kids and town kids. Until you made friends" --although she recalled also that her teacher had arranged for her to meet a girl from another country school. "So we each had a friend when we started school."
Dick Bjerstedt felt that the feeling of being separate "only lasted six months."
There was also the robust, rowdy influence from returning World War II veterans on the college and community:
The end of the war did more than boost enrollment; it also brought a new spirit to the institution. Returning veterans introduced a distinct -- some would say unique -- atmosphere to the small college. Put another way, the vets were always doing crazy things. Several years older than the usual college student, many had experienced the horrors of warfare and most had traveled far from their childhood homes, often beyond America's shores.
Those remembering the postwar influx recall no friction on campus between the vets and those who had not served during the war, although Norb Studelska remembers those with military experience as "more socially aggressive on campus and more confident in their relationship with the faculty than were the recent high school grads."
This extended to drinking -- the older vets preferred Johnnie's Tavern and the Green Lantern for their beer sessions. In classroom discussions there was little talk of the war, "nor were veterans encouraged to relate their wartime experiences," Studelska remembers -- "it just didn't seem to be a unique or worthwhile subject as it became years later."
Homecoming was a particularly wild time during the vets' years at RFSTC. The most noisy instigators of creative disruption were the "Dirty Dozen," who were up to all kinds of wild activities -- including driving a jeep up the North Hall steps.
The college was also evolved in other ways:
Then in 1950 came approval for the first university-owned residence hall: a girls' dormitory called Hathorn Hall, named after Irma Hathorn, longtime Dean of Women at the college who had retired the previous year.
(One old grad claimed that Miss Hathorn "used to brag about her nice girls and knew they didn't drink, because they were all so thirsty in the morning.")
Constructed with two floors of rooms and a basement containing a lounge and clothes-washing facilities, it gained a third floor in 1957. As with earlier women's off-campus housing, hours requirements remained: all girls in by 11 p.m. on week nights. Such rules did not change until the 1960s. As the clock ticked toward 11 p.m. each night the entryway would be crowded with couples saying goodnight in an area just inside the outer doorway called the "passion pit."
More people driving cars after the war meant more local traffic.
A state study in May 1951 counted 5,208 cars passing on Main Street between Elm and Maple streets during a 24-hour period. This was in the era before the east side bypass, which meant that all traffic between Hudson, Spring Valley, Prescott, Ellsworth and points north and south had to travel through River Falls on Main Street; a few vehicles managed to dodge the downtown route, however, by crossing through the east side of town on other streets.
While Pierce County had 6,126 automobiles registered that year and St. Croix County had 7,333, the 1951 study also cautioned that a sharp increase in cars on the highways was predicted for coming years. Its author urged that citizens "take a greater interest in the highway problems of their county and state."
Despite growing in size, the rural character of River Falls held firm:
A heart attack kept Arthur Selleck of the Randall district from planting in the Spring of 1960, but soon, on a Sunday, neighbors driving a dozen tractors and pulling machinery came over and plowed, worked, and sowed his grain fields, while manure was spread on the corn ground. Womenfolk helped out with meals for the family and their helpers. It was a typical response in rural Wisconsin.
Audrey Black Alton saw that spirit several times in her years on the Mann Valley farm where she moved with her husband Don Black in 1948 (after he left his position as River Falls' traffic policeman). Neighbors helped neighbors, a wonderful characteristic that she, as a town girl, came to cherish. She witnessed it when Walter Huppert fell sick one summer and neighbors rallied to put up his hay -- the Journal article ran a photograph and commented, "Just to make sure that his crops and farm would be well cared for the neighbors and friends shown above appeared at Mr. Huppert's farm Wednesday and started putting up the hay crop" -- Don Black, Gerry Black, Don Huppert, Lawrence Huppert, Mike Huppert and Dave Krear.
Richards and Wyman say anyone, no matter how old, with an interest in history, sociology and small towns will enjoy and learn something from "Kinnickinnic Country."
"Several of the people we interviewed, like Bruce Foster and Mert Timmerman, have since died," Wyman said. "We wanted to preserve their memories now, to help future generations know something of that crucial era when the community was involved with World War II and the postwar era, including the start of the Cold War.
"It was a time of the loss of many of the broader River Falls community's young men to the war, a time when large numbers of River Falls people volunteered to scan the skies to watch for German or Japanese or -- in the 1950s -- Soviet bombers traveling to attack the Twin Cities.
"And it was a time when the college underwent phenomenal growth, when farm life changed sharply, and when the community launched a serious attack on the sewer that the river had become."
Richards, playing the trombone, is on the book's front cover picture that shows the 1948 RFHS Marching Band in action before a large crowd on Main Street. Even back then the marching band was winning regional contests and performing in other town celebrations.
Wyman and Richards will present their book for the first time at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 11, in the downstairs Collins Community Room at the public library. The book sells for $15.
For those who want it mailed, call the library at 425-0905 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. With shipping and handling, the book order will cost $20.