The Red Caboose
2009
A Collection of Altoona, Wisconsin Memories
Jack E. Blackburn
Roger Rasmussen
John R. Thurston
egaP esoobaC deR ehT ii
The Red Caboose
2009
A Collection of Altoona, Wisconsin Memories
Jack E. Blackburn
Roger Rasmussen
John R. Thurston
Revision Two June 2012
The Red Caboose Page iii
This publication is dedicated to
Laura Semisch-Christy
A lady with deep roots in Altoona, Wisconsin
Acknowledgements
Without the cooperation, support, and encouragement of the
following individuals, this book could not have been published in
its present form: James Crandall, Harold Harris, Marvel
Schilling-Newton and, Herb Ruscin,
Cover ........................................................................................................................... i
Title Page .................................................................................................................... ii
Dedication Page ................................................................................................... iii
Table of Contents
Chapter One History..........................................................................1
Chapter Two Maps of Altoona..............................................................5
Altoona, Wisconsin 1935 – Map and Comments......... 6
Greater Downtown Altoona, Wisconsin – Circa 1935 ....45
Spooner/Fairfax Intersection 1935
(includes Camp Eau Claire at Altoona
by Betty Cowley) .................................................... 51
Chapter Three Three Celebrated Ladies From Altoona ................ 57
Laura Semisch-Christy................................................58
Grace Sorenson-Eick...................................................86
“Toots” Clara Becker-Griese............................................ 96
Chapter Four Roger Rasmussen Reminisces......................... 105
Chapter Five Herb Ruscin: My Altoona .................................. 157
Chapter Six The Altoona Memories of John R. Thurston............ 217
Chapter Seven Altoona Memories of Several Contributors...... 281
Robert Bredesen ................................................. 282
Ralph Ely – Dolly................................................. 287
Esther Gilbert-Metcalf.......................................... 289
LeVon Hazelton-Walker....................................... 293
Judy Lenz-Adams................................................ 296
Marvel Schilling-Newton...................................... 305
Joan M. Shute..................................................... 312
Patrica Steuding-Kiefus....................................... 314
Bob Thompson.................................................... 315
Amy E. Thurston ................................................. 319
Ed Wegwerth....................................................... 321
Barbara J. Ziegenweide....................................... 325
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Chapter Eight Trains ...................................................................... 337
Chapter Nine The Roundhouse.................................................... 351
Chapter Ten Altoona VFW Post 10405 ...................................... 363
Chapter Eleven Altoona Equity Co-op Fire .................................... 385
Chapter Twelve The Heartbeat of Altoona....................................... 397
Appendix ............................................................................................. 407
Know Your Authors ............................................................................. 449
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Leader Telegram, Eau Claire, WI
February 19, 2010
By Christena O’Brien
Tales of the everyman -- Altoona’s stories featured in a book
People interested in purchasing a copy of "The Red Caboose" can contact
Jack Blackburn at 514-0713. The cost is $21.
The Red Caboose is the work of UW-Eau Claire professor John Thurston,
Roger Rasmussen and Jack Blackburn
John Thurston, a UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus in psychology, has become a bit of a memory
keeper for his hometown of Altoona.
"Memories need not die," Thurston told me in 2008 when he and fellow Altoona native Herb Ruscin
were collecting memories of students who attended the former Altoona Public School, which was
destroyed by fire in 1951. "They are a form of history and should be accorded respect on that
ground."
Their collection was published that same year, as was another piece Thurston penned on Jesse
Jensen, a former Altoona teacher, principal and coach who touched his life.
An avid writer, Thurston soon set off on yet another project aimed at preserving more of his
beloved hometown's history, enlisting the help Altoona native Roger Rasmussen, who now lives in
Maplewood, Minn., and Jack Blackburn, who moved to Altoona in 2006 from St. Paul.
Their 458-page publication — "The Red Caboose" features stories about life in Altoona.
"These are mostly true stories about people, places, things and in between," Rasmussen said via
e-mail. The book also includes humor, lots of old photos, poetry and a reconstructed map of Altoona
in 1935 with the names and addresses of many homeowners and other landmarks.
"The publication of some 400 pages was a test of our skills, knowledge and memories," said
Rasmussen, who I met in 2006 when he hosted a reunion for the Altoona Class of 1954. (I attended
as a reporter, not a member of that class. I graduated from Altoona High School in June 1989.) "We
are proud of the work of those who contributed to this historical coverage."
Looking back
Here is a sampling of the people and stories included in "The Red Caboose":
During World War II, Camp Eau Claire — a camp for German prisoners of war — was built at the
Altoona fairgrounds. It was one of 38 such camps across the state, according to Betty Cowley, a
retired Altoona high school history and social studies teacher and author of "Stalag Wisconsin: Inside
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WWII Prisoner of War Camps."
"Originally planned for Mt. Simon, Camp Eau Claire was moved to the Altoona fairgrounds after an
outcry of protest: from (Mt.) Simon area residents.
"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."
Laura Semisch-Christy is one of three celebrated ladies from Altoona featured in Chapter
Three. The others are Grace Sorenson- Eick, who played on the Altoona girls basketball
team, and Clara "Toots" Becker-Griese, Altoona's first cheerleader in 1922.
Semisch-Christy's mother was in the strawberry patch the day she was born in 1920. Eighteen
years later, Semisch-Christy graduated from high school as valedictorian.
Her father, Otto Semisch, one of seven children, lost a sister, Clara, when lightning struck
their home in Altoona in 1895. One of his brothers, Henry, who Semisch-Christy called a "good
uncle" was a conductor on the railroad, but lost a leg in an accident.
The late Harold Semisch, Semisch-Christy's brother, served in World War II, worked as a
timekeeper at the U.S. Rubber Co. and became Altoona's everlasting scorekeeper at sporting
events until he died in 1996.
The Altoona Equity Cooperative Livestock Auction Market, established in 1945, was located on four
acres north of the Eau Claire County shops, adjacent to the railroad tracks. Harold "Hank" Harris,
who had been brought up in Altoona, managed the market.
On a hot Aug. 12, 1971, a fire broke out at the market during a cattle sale, according to a Leader-
Telegram article included in the publication. About 100 head of cattle and 300 head of calves were
lost in the fire, and the only building saved was a structure housing the cafeteria. Four firemen
were treated for smoke inhalation and minor injuries.
The market later was rebuilt at a different location.
Finding value
While "The Red Caboose" is different than traditional books on history that consist of dated deeds,
Thurston believes its contents has value.
"Common folk traditionally leave few, if any, footprints in the 'sands of time,'" Thurston wrote. "We
find this ... a situation in need of remedy."
O'Brien can be reached at 830-5838, 800-236-7077 or christena.obrien@ecpc. com.