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Days Gone By

Note to readers: Here's another installment of memories by William Stratton, who grew up at 328 N. Fourth St.

In the June 8 Days Gone By column William Dawson was given credit as the letter writer, where it should have been William Stratton.

The current owners of the Stratton home -- Valerie and Hendryk Sowa -- shared Stratton's information and responses to their questions about the house and times back then.

Others willing to share information or photos about days gone by can call 425-1561 and speak to Pat Hunter.

"When we were children there were only two grade schools in town. One was the public school on the west side of the river (K-12) and the 'Training School' attached to the college in the building known as North Hall.

The training school was just that -- a part of the teachers' college, grades one through nine and grade nine was usually small. Each quarter each grade would receive a few new 'practice teachers,' college students who wished to become teachers and used us to learn the art under the supervision of a 'critic' teacher who was a member of the faculty of the college.

Needless to say, the critic teacher could not supervise each practice teacher all the time and we children soon learned that discipline went out the window when the critic teacher left the room. We quickly learned which young ladies were dating which football or basketball players and teased them unmercifully whenever we had the chance.

With all these handicaps the education was good. Those of us in town walked to school, even those not too far into the country. Too far was at least two or three miles. Some children arrived at school with frost bitten cheeks. I don't remember when school buses were started; it must have been in the mid-1930s.

You mention that the Boy Scouts own the Mound now. This is new to us. It was privately owned when we were boys, but it was a popular place to play, summer and winter.

We skied on the north face and on occasion short runs on the south face. There was no lift and skiing consisted mostly of a straight run down the hill in a fixed track. We had no binding except for rubber bands cut from inner tubes. My first ski bindings were home made in our basement. They were bear traps, made to break legs. Ski hikes in the winter were popular when there was adequate snow. We skied mostly on the mound and east of town.

The evergreens you mentioned must have been planted by my father. He may have put those in to mark the east edge of our lot at that time. In those days the lot did not extend to the alley. That land was purchased later and was a vegetable-flower garden for years. He also had a garden on the east side of Seventh Street about a lot south of Division Street.

We did not know that the house now has aluminum siding. The original siding was wood, of course. The problem with wood was decay and painting. My brother and I painted the house once and it was quite a chore. Climbing on an extension ladder up to the peak was a bit scary. I guess that when painters and paint became expensive enough, the aluminum became competitive.

Peterson was a fairly common name and I am not surprised that one is the town or city historian. My brother knew several Petersons. She should have a lot of information about our father, his teaching, weather station, etc. We have not yet found any old photos of the house, but Beverly (Mrs. Stratton) is sure that we have some. Our daughter, Gail, found one taken in 2001. I will arrange to get a copy for you. The appearance is just as I remember as a child and young adult.

I feel that I should give you information as to when I lived there and when I departed. I was born in 1922, my brother in 1918, both at home as I don't think there was a hospital. I graduated from high school in June of 1940 and attended 2 1/3 years of college before being called for WWII duty (naval aviation in the north Atlantic on anti-submarine duty).

After leaving home in 1943, I was only an occasional visitor and things may have happened of which I am not aware. After the war I attended the University of Minnesota and started work in the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in 1952. Our father died early 1960 and our mother a bit more than a year later. We must have sold the house in 1961, but I am not sure. Certainly not later than 1962. I think that George Kind of the First National Bank handled the sale.

On the dead pig in the pool a few hundred yards below the bridge over the Kinnickinnic river: We never learned where it came from. The river was not large enough to carry such a monster except in flood stage. It did spoil the fun. I am still surprised that no child drowned or was injured or got sick during all the swimming we did in what now would be regarded as most unsafe and unhealthy places. This pool in the Kinnickinnic was called the Baby Y, the reference being to a beach on Lake St. Croix that was associated in some way with the YMCA and was called the Y camp. I expect that beach is still there and should be popular.

I should be more precise about the 'dark room' in the basement. It was not a room, merely the area to the right of the steps as one goes down. We got the darkness simply by waiting for the sun to set. We mixed our own developer and fixing solutions. Dad made a box for the contact printing of negatives. We never dreamed of having an enlarger.

Back to the porch. When it was screened, the snow would blow in during storms, and make it less than useless. We had to sweep out the snow. I believe that when the house was built, the common style called for the porch to face the street. Now, if such were built, it more likely would be in back. Mosquitoes were an ever-present nuisance during otherwise pleasant evenings.

My father was bothered a lot by insomnia and eventually his bed was in the northwest bedroom. To get to sleep he would read Tolstoy's 'War and Peace.' He never finished the book. This room was also his home study. He had a beautiful rolldown desk in the northeast corner of the room. We should have kept the desk, but we were not thinking straight at the time. Mother kept the bedroom in the southeast upstairs room. After dad retired they decided take in a college student or two. The room used was the one my brother and I used.

I asked my brother about the list of trees in town that he tabulated. He remembers preparing the list, but does not have it now and has forgotten even how many trees he identified.

Mentioning trees made me think of hazel nuts. Hazel nut bushes grew on the slopes of the mound north of town and every year these bushes would try to ripen many, many clumps of hazel nuts -- as I remember. We never found a hazel nut shell with the nut inside. Every one had a tiny hole maybe 1/32 inch or a bit smaller. We supposed that this showed evidence of an insect. I don't know how commercial growers do it, but I bet that they spray.

Sumac bushes also grew on the lower slopes of the mound. These were the ones that turn a brilliant red in the autumn. The seeds of these were in clusters like grapes, but very small seeds, maybe 1/8 inch in diameter. They had a sour, unpleasant taste, but we had to try them anyway. No one told us that another kind of Sumac (or sumak) was poisonous and seriously so.

I remember another fruit tree that grew wild that had blackberries, black, flat, maybe a ¼ inch diameter. These would cause the mouth to pucker up, but the flavor was such that we tried them every year. I think they can make a good jelly.

As boys we did lots of hiking on the Mound. The western end was called the Camel's Hump. The city had a water tank buried in the main hill. I believe it was replaced before I left home. As boys we did a lot of hiking and walking on the Mound. Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, etc. I once buried some treasure somewhere on the mound -- marbles, some such stuff. In time I forgot where it was placed and I never found it.

I believe that I was the cause of our getting a dog. When I started school in the college training school, I would sometimes gather up dogs on the way home -- five blocks. I liked them, and they liked me. When reaching home I would lure them into the front porch and close the door -- mother being elsewhere, of course.

When I was seven-years-old our parents came home from a shopping expedition in St. Paul with a puppy. A snow white Spitz, 6 or 7 weeks old. We were thrilled. We named him Spud, I guess because he looked like mashed potatoes. He deduced that we were friendly and the adoption was mutual. He was most faithful. He went everywhere with my brother or me. He barked, but did not bite. In fact he had a friendly bark to announce the arrival of a friend and a rather mean, ugly bark for strangers, e.g. salesmen.

I don't remember ever buying dog food. Mother fed him mostly scraps from the table. He received even chicken bones, which nowadays one never gives to a dog. At night he slept in the basement, but some evenings he would be on a couch in the front porch, quite independent of the temperature. He had a lot of hair and in the winter a layer of fine wool next to the skin.

Summers we would often go to Lake St. Croix at the beach called Glenmont. It was completely open then. Swimming was good and sometimes the fishing was good. Dad liked to catch silver bass, and so did we.

Mother would sometimes bathe Spud in the lake. He would roll in the sand, shake and roll some more. He dried before driving home and was beautifully white and fluffy for a few days.

I may have mentioned the terribly hot weather in the middle 1930s. Dad's record high temperature was 109½ degrees. On the worst of some nights, Dad, Chuck (my brother), Spud and I would sleep outside on the grass.

What we didn't count on was that the numerous neighborhood cats had their fixed nighttime patrols. Spud would detect these and go off barking loud enough to awaken the dead. This would go on for a couple nights until the cats changed their routes. Rabbits would also come by with the same noisy response. Spud lasted a long time. He finally died when I was in the Navy, think in 1944 or 1945.

At that time I was in a squadron of seaplanes patrolling the North Atlantic for German submarines. The airplane was the PBM Martin Mariner. The PBM is for Patrol Bomber Martin, two engines, a gull wing. We could stay out 15, 16 hours patrolling the North Atlantic for German submarines, covering convoys or simply making random searches. We never made a visual contact, but the radar was incredibly good and we had numerous radar contacts. I expect that we helped keep them below the surface thus reducing their effectiveness. One of the easier, pleasanter missions was to search for and find the two British ocean liners that were converted to troop carriers. These could go faster than a submarine and so went unescorted back and forth across the Atlantic. The ships had sealed orders so no one knew quite where they were, but sometimes we were asked to find one somewhere within a 10,000 or 20,000 square mile area. When we found one, we would, of course, fly down right next to the water and by the ship. Both we and the troops enjoyed the performance.

Before we had our Spud, there was one fearsome dogfight next to our house on the east-west street (It must be Cedar or Maple). One dog was a good sized collie and the other was a German Shepherd. Both were big, healthy and something set them off. It was quite a fight. The local boys, all older than I, more the age of my brother older by four years, tried to separate the dogs, but to no avail. Mother saw what was happening and came rushing out with her large kitchen pepper shaker. I think the dogs were too busy to take time to sneeze. It eventually came to an end when the group of boys decided to disperse. With no audience the dogs stopped fighting. I don't remember any serious injuries."

More to follow soon.....