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Greater Downtown Altoona, Wisconsin

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Greater Downtown Altoona, Wis., circa 1935
By John R. Thurston – 02.24.09
et’s take a stroll through the downtown area of Altoona
about the time when I was in the 5
th
or 6
th
grade .
I’ll begin by heading north, toward the railroad yards, on
Division Street, from a point half way in the block between
Hayden and Lynn Avenues.
To my near right (east), one would see a shed (1), part of
Frank Shute’s general store (2) on the corner. As a springtime
ritual, with the help of Cecil Walker, a store clerk, I’d acquire a
brand new bamboo fishing pole from a shed directly behind it.
In my late adolescence, I would make small daily purchases
from Virginia Walters, a clerk there who was the sister of my
good friend, Frederick. Much later on, this then deserted store
was considered as a possible Altoona Museum. Instead it was
demolished. Its site is now a parking lot.
East of Shute’s store, after skipping a large empty lot, one
would find the Altoona Auditorium (4) with housing for the fire
truck behind it.
To my left, there would have been George “Spexy” Fowlers
barber shop (3), to be torn down in 1936. He wore his glasses or
spectacles with a strange flare. I have hazy recollections of a
Maybelle Fowler as a near classmate.
See map next page.
L
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To my near left, at the intersection Division Street and Lynn
Avenue, one would find a concrete brick structure that I recall as
being the Berg Store (5). In it, one could buy all manner of
cheap, penny/nickel knick-knacks, most of which came from
Japan. A favorite was a tiny wax bottle filled with a sweet liquid.
One would bite off the top of this bottle and ingest the contents.
God only knows from whence this liquid came. My memory
fails me as I attempt to identify other items available for
purchase. Perhaps a punch board provided an opportunity to win
an additional piece of chocolate.
On my far left at the intersectionswould be McGrouary’s
tavern (6), named the Link and Fin, or maybe Pin. I never
entered this den of iniquity. Now, it is called the Golden Spike
Bar and Grill.
Continuing north on the left, one would find the Kensmoe
Barber Shop (7) and then Ely’s Tavern (8). The barber shop
operated on a “first come, first served” basis; one could wait for
a very long time. Kensmoe suffered from cancer and eventually
committed suicide. On one occasion, I was having my haircut
even though Kensmoe was in pain. My father was waiting to
take him over to Luther Hospital to get some relief. Kensmoe
insisted on finishing my hair cut before he would leave.
Ely’s Tavern was very popular amongst the unemployed men
during the Great Depression. They would play endless games of
“shatzka” or “sheepshead,” routinely adjourning on week nights
well before then o’clock to return home to listen to “Amos and
Andy.” A Billy Wolgast and his guitar often appeared for
Saturday night dances. These were held in a former restaurant
room to the south that was accessed through the barroom at
Ely’s.
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On the right from the Division/Lynn intersection, continuing
north beyond the empty lot on the corner, one would find a
stuccoed former bank building containing Dwight “Dike” Neill’s
Garage (9)----and a concrete block building (10) which
eventually became the Red Jarosch’s Pool Hall and Barber Shop.
North of this, adjacent to the railroad yard, there would be a
storage shed (11). Some provision for seating was made next to
it. Some of us boys would gather there regularly of an evening
to talk and wait for a passenger train to go by.
Division Street ended at its intersection with Spooner
Avenue. A piped railing, suitable for sitting, marked this juncture
(See picture next page). From this point, one could look north
across the two tracks of the main railroad line and see in the
distance the switching yards (12), round house (13), and “rip” or
“rep” track (14) where railroad cars would be repaired.
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George Sund and John Robert “Bobby” Sauer, 1939.
Railroad tracks, railroad roundhouse
and repair shops in the background.
Corner of Spooner and Divisions Streets
Altoona Wisconsin.
After moving by a large vacant lot left of the corner there
would be Stanley’s Tavern (15), its small lunch counter (16)
adjacent to it, then the larger Altoona Restaurant (17) known
locally as “The Greasy Spoon.” The lot on the next corner was
vacant.
The Chicago and Northwestern Depot (18) would be on the
right, immediately across from the restaurant. It contained a
waiting room (a), the operation room (b), and the baggage
department (c) on the western end.
Turning left (south) at the intersection of Spooner and West
1
st
Street, one would see a cement block building on the right
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(19). This was the home of Dolly McKeeth, the rambunctious
lady who ran the Altoona Restaurant.
Now, we are at the intersection of Lynn Avenue and West 1
st
Street. To the near left, at the intersection of Lynn Avenue and
West 1
st
Street one would find Veryl and George Wright’s gas
station (20), a hangout for young males.
Across Lynn Avenue, at the intersection’s far left, one would
find the Smith House (21), a lodging place for transients and a
few regulars.
Turning left onto Lynn, . On the right, heading east after the
Smith House, one would encounter Leo Looby’s Meat Market
(22) next to the Smith House, then the U.S. Post Office (23), a
tiny Cheney Whitwam Meat Market (24) and then the Berg
Store (5). Off the beaten track on Hayden Avenue, one would
find the store of Martin Grasby (25). In it were sold candy,
sundries, and cheap watches. He may have run a pawn shop of
sorts. An ad in a period publication indicated the following
enterprises – Diamonds bought and sold; Swiss and American
R.R. Watches; Watch Repair; Fire, Storm, and Tornado Ins., City
Property, Improved Farms and Wild Lands.
Another structure, located on 1
st
. West (26), had been used
both as a church and primary school.
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The Intersection of Fairfax St. and Highland/Spooner Avenues
Circa 1935
The accompanying map shows three plots of land in this area that merit special
attention.
These were near or part of a “new Altoona” that was being developed in the midst
of the Great Depression. Its boundaries were roughly old Highway 53, Fairfax
Street, Otter Creek, and a line just a bit north of Spooner Avenue. It was referred
informally to as “The Third Ward” or “The Annex” or “Gopher Town.” All these
names had an element of derogation to them. Eau Claire’s Third Ward was the
epitome of elegance at the time, Altoona’s Third Ward was anything but that. “The
Annex” clearly suggested an apartheid character to this part of Altoona. “Gopher
Town” got its name from the uncompleted nature of its dwellings; the inhabitants
lived in basements while developing the finances necessary to complete the
structure. The children were transported to the Altoona Public School in a single
bus. On board was a Daniel Fenner who eventually became a classmate and
teammate of mine. His parents operated the tiny Fenner Grocery Store at the corner
of Laurel and Fairfax.
1. The lot is the site of the Eau Claire County Highway Shops on the southwest
corner of this intersection, technically in Eau Claire just west of Fairfax. . These
were destroyed by fire in 1938. On that occasion, the residents of Altoona were
treated to a sight that dominated the western sky for hours, replete with fire,
smoke, and exploding gasoline cans. These shops were the rebuilt on Spooner
Avenue in Altoona later that same year.
A large indoor roller skating rink was erected on the old site. Sometime later the
building was remodeled into the Co-op Store and still later (1983) into the Mega
grocery store. It now (2009) houses numerous offices, shops, and a restaurant (The
Secret Garden). It is called the Eastridge Center.
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2. The large and empty 13 acres on the southeast corner was the site for the
occasional visits of large carnivals. These were the cause of great celebration on
the part of children and adolescents in Altoona. The carnival’s midway back---from
Altoona and spend the evening walking aimlessly up and down this midway,
gawking at everything while spending virtually nothing. Although it seems very
unreasonable, it is my hazy recollection that there were six Ferris Wheels. Such are
the distortions of memory, propelled by fond recollections of a very special event
and a very special time.
In 1941 Eau Claire County built a new “Fairgrounds” on this property – with the
support of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) of FDR’s “New Deal.” The
land was prepared and five large wooden buildings were erected. It was referred to
as the “4-H campgrounds.” This included an administrative building, two stock
barns, and dormitories for boys and girls. The first event, the Eau Claire County
Junior Fair, was held August 12-14, 1941.
During WW II, this land and its buildings were fenced when it became the site of a
German P.O.W. stockade (see article entitled Camp Eau Claire at Altoona). The
prisoners worked at the Libby Canning Factory on Menomonie Street in Eau
Claire.
After the war, the site was used for many years as a fairground. In 1972, the
fairground complex was moved to a site south of I-94 in the town of Washington.
This acreage is now (2009) the site of the Citizens Community Federal (on the
corner, 219 Fairfax), a very large parking lot, and Eastridge Estates, a large
housing building at 3504 Hoover Avenue on the far east edge. One dilapidated shed
marked “G” remains in the middle, possibly the one that had been used by a local
curling club for a time.
3. The U.S. Cavalry barns were on the north side of this intersection, extending
down the hill. I never visited the barns nor its horses. I don’t know the time line as
to the barn’s demolition or its replacement by a variety of businesses. At one time
it became a chicken and/or egg establishment called Hoffs Produce Company,
owned by a Mr. Hoff. Currently (2009), the site is occupied by Word of Life Bible
Church, the Chippewa Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, Lil’ Mouse
Playhouse, and Steve’s Alternator and Starting Service. John R. Thurston
04.12.09
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Camp Eau Claire at Altoona
By Betty Cowley
hirley Hoff was late for work. Her excuse was the unexpected walk through the fairgrounds
to avoid a long deep trench that this morning cut across Enterprise Street and into the park.
Her father, owner of Hoff Produce, Poultry and Eggs, explained that the city of Eau Claire
was running a water main into the 4-H Fairgrounds to accommodate some workers scheduled to
stay there.
Progress on the water ditch offered a distraction for a few days. Then after a couple weeks
without activity, Shirley was very surprised by the changes across the street from the factory. As
she left her egg candling job heading for home she passed several military trucks parked in the
center of the grounds, a large tent standing next to the concession building, and another tent over
the animal washing station and a fence already half enclosing the area.
Camp Eau Claire was here in Altoona. The remaining fencing was in place before nightfall.
Two guard towers went up the next day. From mid June to mid September, 1945 Shirley
enjoyed her daily walk to and from work. With 178 young men stationed at the camp she often
walked across the street on lunch break or stopped there on her way home to flirt with the
guards. She even knew one, Sgt. Edward Ludwikoski, who graduated from Eau Claire High a
couple of years earlier.
From Ludwikoski and the others she learned that Camp Eau Claire was one of the smallest of 38
such camps across the state. The 143 prisoners held in Altoona were German soldiers captured
in the Battle of Tunisia. Guarded and supervised by 35 GIs including Commander Capt. Jack
Hodges, these men worked for Lange Canning Company either in the cannery on Oxford Avenue
or on farms harvesting the crops contracted to the company.
Originally planned for Mt. Simon, Camp Eau Claire was moved to the Altoona fairgrounds after
an outcry of protests from Simon area neighbors. While some local residents were fearful of
these captured Nazis most were unaware of who they were. Other folks walked or drove to the
fairgrounds in the evening to watch these men bounce balls off their heads in an unfamiliar
soccer game or listen to their harmonious music or visit across the fence with the POWs seeking
information about German relatives or communities. Each morning most prisoners were trucked
to the canning factory, area pea viners or farms for duty. The few remaining tended to the
cooking, laundry and other camp chores. All returned for their evening meal and relaxation
before lights out. Removed long enough for the annual County Junior Fair to be held, the POWs
quickly returned for the corn pack. During their stay in Altoona these prisoners put in almost
17,000 hours of labor and earned about $9,000 for the U.S. Treasury.
While a lone POW was arrested wandering down town Eau Claire one evening, no other problem
was reported. After the war some prisoners even maintained correspondence with area farmers
they worked for that year. The eleven autographs Shirley collected from her favorite guards and
Capt. Hodges are reminders of her very interesting summer of 1945.
.
Background information on Betty Cowley.
Born and raised in Portage, WI, Betty Cowley is a UW - Eau Claire Alumnus, having graduated
S
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in 1964 with her B.A. and received her M.S.T. in 1971. (She considers “STALAG
WISCONSIN” her PH -D without a University.) Since graduation, her career was in the
classroom. She and husband Tom have resided in the Eau Claire area since their marriage in
1962
Nationally recognized four times for her classroom activities, Betty Cowley retired in 1999 after
teaching high school history and social studies at Altoona WI. for 35 years. (During that time she
also taught part time at the Chippewa Valley Technical College for ten years and two Semesters
at the UW - Eau Claire.) Since her retirement Betty devoted full time to completing her research
and writing her book, STALAG WISCONSIN: Inside WWII Prisoner of War Camps, published
in 2002 by Badger Books, Inc. Since publication, much of her time has been spent traveling the
state talking about and promoting the book.
On August 2, 2003, the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association recognized Betty “for her
outstanding career in the classroom and continued contributions to the teaching of history” by
presenting her with the Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award.
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