The Altoona Memories Of John R. Thurston

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Chapter Six
The Altoona Memories of John R. Thurston
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A-Walkin' and A-Talkin'
John R. Thurston
uring the Great Depression, we didn't drive to various
destinations. We walked. And as we walked, we talked. The
content of our conversations was undoubtedly unremarkable. But as
we talked, we got to know each other—and ourselves—a bit better.
After all, there is only so much trivia that one can tolerate, we
would eventually get into discussions of relationships, personal
concerns, and what was to become of us. We listened to one another;
adolescents of that era were to be seen and not heard. And the very
fact that someone was listening to us was ego-bolstering for budding
Some of these regular walks will be described. All began or ended at
my home at 328 West Sixth Street in Altoona, the house at the
northwest corner of W. 6
Street and Hayden Avenue.
Walk # 1
To and from school. From the home base, I and assorted others
(Roger Kersten, Hank and/or Fern Harris) would begin by crossing
the largely vacant block to the southeast of the intersection, ending
up on Garfield Avenue. My uncle George lived southeast of the
Garfield and W. 5
Street intersection. We would walk by the Stahls
and the Boettchers, turning right (south) for a half block on 3
West to cut through the back yard of the Lutheran Church onto
Bartlett and on to the school.
Walk #2
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While it was still dark, on very early, cool spring mornings, I
would shoulder my Evinrude outboard motor, gather my fishing
gear, and set sail for the depot area. While I usually wandered
down Lynn Avenue to meet Bud Griese, there was no set pattern.
We would cross the main lines and the switchyards, pass by the
working roundhouse with its fires and muted roar, and trudge
down the hill's sandy pathway to Lake Altoona and my boat. The
return trip, Evinrude on my shoulder, was arduous to say the least.
Walk # 3
On virtually every Wednesday night in Fall and Winter, we would
walk from Altoona to Eau Claire's YMCA, then located in the 200
block of S. Farwell. We would get seats on the balcony of its tiny
gym to spend 3-4 hours watching various "Y" basketball teams
play. We would then walk back. During especially cold nights or
inclement weather, we might take the bus. It cost 12 cents.
Walk # 4
Walk north from intersection of 7
Street West and Spooner across
an expanse of empty field. Then head across the two-line mainline
railroad track and switchyards, and follow the path to the brink of
what is now called Moonlight Bay. Continue on a very rough trail
until one reached a point of land where the Eau Claire River
escaped the basin, there was no lake at this time. Head down the
slope to a fishing place at the outlet of a series of abandoned
beaver dams and their backed up water, known locally as "The
Backwater." This was our pre-dam destination. After the dam was
completed in 1938, our fishing place was flooded and we would
then end this walk at the dam site.
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Walk # 5
Almost every night for years, a walk home from Red Jarosch's
Pool Hall with Lawrence "Huntz" Radisewitz. We parted
company near Finstad's home at the intersection of Garfield and 2
Street West. But, so engrossed were we in our conversation that we
often tarried there for an hour or two. Eventually, he would head
south to his home at the intersection of Daniels and 2
Street, and I
would head west on Garfield.
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By John Thurston
n In the summer of 1946, it became apparent that the Altoona
Dam was in serious structural trouble. A huge whirlpool,
immediately below the locks of the dam, had been there since the
dam was constructed in 1938. The part of the dam affected was the
concrete shelf that extended downstream from its base across its
entire width, including the spillway. Over the years, a giant whirlpool
had undermined this. The accompanying pictures of the dam at the
time of a full flood provide testimony of the power of this water as
it churned over and ultimately under this concrete in the form of a
gigantic whirlpool. The resulting damage put the dam in some peril
and had to be addressed and remedied.
In preparation, during the summer of
1946, all the locks were opened so as to
allow for an emptying of Lake Altoona.
The drained lake’s basin thus became a
huge catchment for the large amount of
the water that had to be contained
during the repair of the dam.
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Lake Altoona Draw Down - Sept 20, 1946
John R. Thurston: On ridge overlooking Moonlight Bay – 1946
Note the drawn-down lake.
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When the catchment was complete, all of the locks of the dam
were closed. As a consequence, the water below the dam drained
away. It was anything but a dry field. The water remaining in the
area carved out by the whirlpool had to be pumped into the
downstream of the Eau Claire River. Many fish had been
trapped in this pool. The following newspaper account describes
how they were rescued.
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Fish Rescue at the Altoona Dam (1946) *
Hank Harris and John R. Thurston
he Altoona Dam was built in 1938, resulting in the creation of a
beautiful 840 acre Lake Altoona.
However, sad to relate, in 1945-46, within a mere 7-8 years, it became
apparent that the dam was in serious trouble. The apron, a wide, flat
concrete surface immediately downstream of it, was designed to bear the
brunt of water flowing over and through the dam. While it largely
remained intact, a large whirlpool, created by the dam’s flow, had
seriously undermined it. The Altoona Dam was in jeopardy and in need
of immediate repair.
In 1946, as stage one of this repair, Lake Altoona was “drawn down,” or
emptied drastically. This was accomplished by opening all locks and
channels in the dam. This “draw down” caused problems for lake people
because their boats were left high and dry. Access to the markedly
diminished lake was not easy for anyone. In addition, some lake fish
were swept through the dam during this drainage.
The next stage involved a complete closing of the dam with a
consequent blockage of the Eau Claire River. Lake Altoona would
absorb its entire flow for as long as it took to get the repair job done on
the dam. As an end result of this process, the undermined apron would
be exposed and available for repair. However, this operation caused a
huge problems for the estimated 5000 fish caught in the large
undermined hole where the major whirlpool had been. Other fish were
imprisoned in smaller waterholes. They could get neither upstream nor
downstream. That many fish could not survive in the relatively amount
of water available to them.
Altoona rode to their rescue. While it never had a formal name,
“Operation Fish Rescue” would have been appropriate. Volunteers
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included Altoona High School students, and Altoona citizens having
special interests in fish and fishing. Chris Bergen, Lloyd “Bud” Griese,
and the two of us became volunteers along with many others.
The captive fish were hand-netted or seined from each of the pools and
placed in large metal containers. They then went into sacks and were
quickly hoisted up to the top of the dam’s spillway where they were
released into Lake Altoona. The rescued fish included wall-eye pike,
northern pike, crappies, sunfish, bass, and one 18-pound musky.
This rescue effort took two days. The largest pool was pumped dry after
the mission was completed. Highly-necessary repairs were then
undertaken and the Altoona Dam was saved.
* Published initially in
The Old Altoona School, A Collection of Memories
Thurston – 2009
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Eau Claire Wisconsin
Saturday morning, September 21, 1946
See Photos on the Next Page
The scene below the Altoona Lake dam Thursday as thousands of
fish were removed is shown in these Leader and Telegram photos. A
general view of the pool is shown at the top, while in the lower
picture volunteers are shown helping clean the pool of fish. Left to
right, they are Harold H. Harris, John R. Thurston of Altoona,
Chris Bergen of Altoona Lake, and Bud Grice of Altoona.
Nearly 5,000 fish, trapped when the gates on the Altoona dam were
closed to permit construction of a new apron, were removed from
pools below the dam Thursday, and seining operation were to
continue today. Walter Zelinske, of Eau Claire, state conservation
warden, was in charge of the fish rescue work, aided by three
conservation department men from Spooner, Bob Wilder, Jack
Plummer and Mike Mc-Quade.
The three conservation department men were injured on their way
from Altoona to Spooner late Thursday when their truck collided with
a car near Chippewa Falls. All three sustained serious injuries, but are
expected to recover.
A wide variety of fish were removed from the pool directly below
the dam, placed in a sack and pulled to the top of the dam, and then
released in the lake. Included in the catch were wall-eyed pike,
northern pike, crappies, sun fish, bass, and one 18-pound muskie.
Dogfish, carp and suckers taken in the nets were killed.
Thousands of fish which swam upstream when the dam was opened
to lower the lake level before start of construction were trapped in
pools left when the dam gates were closed. Conservationists, aided by
students of the Altoona high school, worked all of the pools possible
with both hand nets and seines Thursday and Friday to rescue as many
fish as possible before they died. The largest pool, directly below the
dam, will be pumped dry after the rescue operations are completed.
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Freezin' Season
John R. Thurston
he winters of my childhood may or may not have been
unusually cold. But back then, we suffered infinitely more
than the people of today. In the "Freezin Season," from
November through March, we were almost always
uncomfortably cold, cold, cold.
As an economy measure during the Great Depression of the 1930's,
household fires were allowed to die out during the night. I had to
re-ignite ours when I awakened. A single stove, a Heatrola, was
supposed to provided heat for our large house. I would alight from
my bed, light the fire, get my cereal, and dive back under the
blankets to eat it as the house warmed a bit. Our house was never
warm. But next to the Heatrola, it was unbearably hot.
Then, even as a tad, there was my 8-9 block frigid walk to school, a
trip that would be repeated three more times each day. Lunch was
eaten at home. Deep snow and unplowed roads would introduce
further complications. Our bulky clothing was ineffective. It
wasn't warm at school either, despite the diligent efforts of "Ing"
Isaacson, our janitor.
We had a skating rink of sorts in the area north of Garfield
between West 5-6
' There was no warming house. My skates,
clamped on my regular shoes, would often fall off, necessitating
removal of gloves to get them on again. The extreme cold,
together with an uneven ice surface, made this skating very
Red's Pool Hall was an exception, an oasis of warmth. He must
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have spent a fortune providing heat for us. We hung out there a lot.
As high school basketeers, we might work up a sweat practicing in
the drafty Auditorium. If lucky, and first in line, we might get a
warm shower to clean up a bit. That worked out well; most of us
didn't have a shower at home. But then, warmed by the water, we
would dry off and dress, and head for a long walk home in sub-
zero weather. The contrast made the frigid temperatures seem all
the colder and the frigid walk all the longer.
For the entirety of the very long "Freezin season," we were very
"cool kids" in the saddest sense of those words.
John R. Thurston 04.10.09
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Distant memories of Bill Klingbeil and a Cement Car
John R. Thurston
(The following was compiled in response to a 2008 request by Bill’s son, Jim Klingbeil, for some
feedback regarding mutual activities of his father and me.)
As Lake Altoona formed, Bill and I each had a boat (1939-41).
These were tied up in the region of what was known as the
Becker Boathouse-----on the lake directly down from the
Altoona railroad roundhouse. My boat, merely tethered to a tree
on an unprotected, completely undeveloped shoreline,
repeatedly sustained significant damage from the wind and
waves. Various parts of this boat would be worn away from
worn away by its repeated rubbing up against a tree, a rock, or
something else on the shoreline.
Similarly unprotected, Bill’s boat and the Becker Boathouse,
had these and other problems. Both were vandalized on several
occasions. One time, as I recall, someone had painted a large
swastika on the floor of Bill’s newly-painted boat. To say that he
was irate is the understatement of the century.
Despite our boating on Lake Altoona, we didn’t really do much
together. Age differences probably accounted for this. We
frequented the same fishing areas, i.e. as many as 10-15 boats
might be found in early morning, bobbing around in what was
called “5 Mile Creek,” near the Seymour shoreline directly north
across the lake from Beckers boathouse. During the 1939-40
time period, Northern Pike were targeted. As the lake was just
developing, these were few in number and small in size. Later
on, crappies became very numerous and were caught in large
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Later, I believe in the summer of 1943, Bill and I were
employed by Fox Valley and Weitz. This firm as were involved
in the construction of “Area One” and “Area Two” sites of a
munitions factory designed to produce shells for the military.
“Area One” was the Uniroyal tire plant in Eau Claire, the current
(2009) Banbury Place---maybe it still went by the name of
Gillette Tires; it became Uniroyal after the war. Although many
tires were needed in the war effort it had to be converted from
tire-making to shell-making. (The call letters of the old
“Gillette” Eau Claire radio station WTAQ, supposedly stood for
“where tires are quality.”).
I sought employment at the old Labor Temple near the 2009
location of “Stella Blues” on East Madison Street, Eau Claire,
Wisconsin. Initially, we were supposed to join a union and pay a
fee of 20 dollars, but that was eventually overlooked in light of
the shortage of laborers. I was hired and assigned to the concrete
gang of the ”Area Two” operation, a large construction site
halfway between Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls on Highway
63. The going rate was 65 cents an hour. I assume that Bill went
through the same rigmarole when he was hired.
Getting to the job was the responsibility of the individual
worker. A relative of sorts, Ralph Ensign----or was it “Stub”
Gilbert?----- and I worked out a deal. (Both were married to
Thurstons, sisters of Fuzzy). My memory on this count is very
fuzzy. He and I would meet at 4:00 a.m. at the corner of Spooner
and Sixth Street West in Altoona each working morning. We
would then walk over through the Otter Creek hollow to the
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corner of Fairfax and Spooner/Highland where we would be
picked up by car for transport to “Area Two.” Our driver
charged us each one dollar a week for a daily to and fro delivery.
We would return in the same vehicle. Again, my memory is
fuzzy, but I believe that he dropped us off in Altoona*. Our shift
ran from 5:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. As a new worker, I remember
how very cool, dark, and unpleasant it was on these early
My initiation into the concrete work force was harsh. One of
my early tasks was that of a “spacer remover.” Small wooden
“spacers, ” about 1 x 1 x 6 inches, held the wooden forms apart
as the concrete was poured into them. These forms had been
constructed by carpenters. It was my task to stand on top of
these forms---sometimes 8-10 feet in the air, armed with a long
stick with a nail on its end. I was to spear and remove the
“spacers” before they became inundated with the concrete as it
was poured into the forms. This was a tricky operation,
particularly when the “spacers” were way down at the bottom of
the forms. It required balancing high in the air on these narrow
forms as I sought to impale the many spacers. When the
concrete dried the forms were then removed----and voila, a
concrete wall was in place. After I fell off one time, I was
assigned to another task.
My new assignment required wading boots which extended well
up over the knee. I then “puddled.” Puddling or “settling” was
required to eliminate all air pockets in some of the more
massive, deeper pourings of concrete. A huge mechanical
vibrator was used for that purpose as well. I was required to
march around in knee high concrete pour for hours on end---
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until the concrete began to harden. Lifting one’s feet again and
again in this concrete quagmire was demanding, to say the very
least. Suction was involved and fought the lifting of each leg
each and every time.
Then I was assigned to the cement car, a railroad boxcar filled
with bags of cement. In light of my previous work experience on
the concrete crew, I felt as though I was in Nirvana.
Fellow Altoonians, (Ralph Ensign/ Stub Gilbert)** and Bill
Klingbeil, joined me and three other workers. I’m not sure
where they had worked previously. I became part of a two team
operation. Each team had three men. We were to supply the
cement to the sand and gravel. These three ingredients, mixed
together with water, produced concrete.
A sizeable “batch truck” would pull up to the cement car. Its
box was divided into two compartments, each filled with the
proper amount of sand and gravel, i.e. enough for two “batches“
of concrete. One member of each team would jump onto a pile
of sand and gravel, two people on each truck. Another member
of each team would toss six 50 lb sacks of concrete onto the
truck. The team member on the truck would then open and
empty the six sacks of cement onto the sand and gravel that he
was standing on. He would then jump back into the cement car
as the truck drove off toward the concrete mixer. (The third
member of each team was responsible for dragging six more
bags up to the door for the next loading). We exchanged
positions from time to time.
That was the way we spent our summer. In retrospect, it was
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hazardous, very unpleasant work for 65 cents an hour. It was
always hot and dusty. In addition to the sun beating down on the
box car, the cement itself seemed to produce heat. We had no
respirators. Toward the end of the summer, we found ourselves
coughing up tiny slivers of concrete. If we sweat later on after
work, as we went out on a night on the town, we would find that
our skin would turn gray as the concrete dust, imbedded in our
skin, surfaced. It was dirty work. Of necessity, the person on the
truck dumping cement, dumped it on his shoes, his socks, and
his pants. We purchased gloves to contain the damage to our
hands as we tossed and opened the rough sacks. These wore out
in short order. There was no compensation for this damage to us,
our clothing, or our efforts to contain it. We must have
consumed gallons of water. I fail to remember from whence they
came. The source was not in the cement car. We used flimsy,
disposable paper cups---the ones that were pointed at the
But there was great compensation for our discomfiture in the
form of comradery. There was rarely a steady stream of batch
trucks. As the company was working on a cost plus basis, none
of our supervisors were concerned that we were hard at work.
Accordingly, we had a lot of time to sit around on the cement
sacks and shoot the breeze. A lot of it was man talk with its full
measure of Altoona, sports, sex, and braggadocio. Bill always
seemed to be smiling and in good humor. He really seemed to
enjoy what we were doing. He found great fun in knowing that I
kept at detailed account, down to the penny, of my income and
expenditures. I carried around a tiny notebook for that very
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Our manly talk would go on endlessly. We were never at a loss
for words. We came to like one another and enjoy each others
company. But, in light of our age and interest differences, we
never socialized after work hours. On very rare occasions,
perhaps a day-long downpour, the entire “Area 2” operation
would close down. All of us from the cement box car might
then end up at a pool hall on Barstow Street in Eau Claire. There
was a special delight in escaping work, playing pool, and
enjoying a very cold glass of beer.
*Missing in the story is the manner in how Bill got to and from
work. I never knew.
** If forced to make a choice, I believe the man to be Ralph
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Halloween in Altoona, Wisconsin
Circa 1935
John R. Thurston
o the children of the 1930‘s, in the midst of the “Great
Depression,” Halloween was a simple event, a break in our
humdrum lives. It hadn’t been hyped for weeks in advance by
commercial interests vying for our dollar. We had no money.
In school, we created paper pumpkins, skeletons, and black cats
for classroom decorations. On Halloween day, a scary story
might be read. Radio might provide modest renditions featuring
Poe’s “The Raven” or the music of “A Night on Bald
Mountain.” Without TV, we were spared endless Halloween
marathons of films featuring mayhem, butchery, and gore.
There were no lavish costumes. A mask, old clothes, or some
make-up would suffice. Paper sack in hand, our rounds were
limited to a few houses in our immediate neighborhoods. It
wasn’t scary; it was fun. We’d gather a bit of candy, an orange
or apple, maybe a penny or two. We then returned to our homes
to savor our tiny collections. There was no need for parents to
ride shotgun and protect us from evil-doers.
This is not to suggest that our Halloweens were completely
innocuous and innocent events. Dark forces took the form of
small bands of adolescents and men that emerged later on in the
evening. Their targets were called outhouses, privies, “donikers”
or by names that, while explicitly descriptive, cannot be used in
a family newspaper. Up to the mid-1930’s, each Altoona home
had one out in back to deal with our eliminative functions. They
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could be “one seaters” or companionable “two seaters.“ The
goal of the “perps” was to tip these over, to make them
unavailable to their owners whose needs for them were great and
recurrent. Modern day readers should consider how truly
serious the consequences of this mischief could be.
The tradition lingered on even after the installation of an
Altoona sewer system in the mid-1930’s. Sometimes, outhouses
were used for storage of “storm windows.” These were installed
each fall over regular windows to ward off winters icy blasts.
They were then removed in spring. The Hell-raising “perps”
would get an extra measure of satisfaction to hear the tinkle of
broken glass as an outhouse hit the ground.
All things considered, it was an innocent time. Even the anti-
social “privy tipping,” stealing pumpkins to smash all over
downtown Altoona or soaping/waxing windows had a somewhat
humorous, non-violent tone. Those responsible were readily
apprehended by Principal Jesse Jensen or Mayor Fred Gloede
because they would invariably brag about their “crimes.“ Their
penance usually required no more than righting the offended
outhouses or cleaning up the mess downtown.
People then moved on. Halloween had served its purpose.
Children had enjoyed it. We then returned to the state of
enduring despair and fear that was our lot during the “Great
Depression.” A meager Thanksgiving would be next on our list
of distractions.
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The Ice Slide of the Old Altoona Public School
Circa 1930's
John R. Thurston
s we currently continue to slide toward a deepening economic
depression, it might be useful to consider another kind of slide, one
that provided an abundance of pleasure and exercise for the children
suffering through "The Great Depression" of the 1930's.
We children and our families were dirt poor during that decade. We had
none of the abundant means by which the children of today day can be
amused. We did with what little we had. We'd routinely be forced to
create our own diversions and sources of fun.
As soon as each winter and its deep freeze descended upon us, we
began to think about constructing an ice slide. There were concrete
steps/sidewalk that provided access up to the school which sat on top of
a hill. (This area is now a block in Division Street, between Bartlett and
Daniels Avenues). Our slide was traditionally positioned on the ground
to the east of this walkway.
First, there would be the gouging of a 3-4 feet wide trough in the snow.
Water, provided in buckets by our custodian Ing Isaacson, then was
intermittently poured onto this trench at various places. Some energetic
stamping around in the resulting slush would smooth it out and give
shape and substance to the developing slide. It ran downhill for about a
half a block at maybe a 30-35 degree angle. In the bitter cold, the slide
would freeze almost immediately. It became glare ice.
How did one slide? The more adventurous students would take a run at
the top and would then slide down on the soles of their shoes while
standing erect. Their acceleration had them speeding rapidly at the end.
Once committed to the slide, there was no turning back. The more timid
souls would slide down on shovels or the seat of their pants or skirts.
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Some would acquire cardboard from Shute's Store and slide down on
that. Each slider would end up in the snow and slush at the bottom.
Although Ruth Thompson reports having used a "Flexible Flyer" sled
to go as far down as Garfield Avenue," I have no recollection of any
such usage. Repeated walks up the hill provided a lot of healthy
Doris (Thompson) Rulien, Charles W. Bassett, Barbara (Bundt)
Duszynski. Charles "Chuck" Steuding, and Larry Sturz recalled their
delights with this slide in the Altoona memory book, "The Old Altoona
Public School: A Collection of Memories."
The "Giant Strides" device in the school's playground provided similar
amusement and exercise in the non-winter months. Ralph Ely recalls this
as consisting of "a steel pole with a swivel on the top that was attached to
a number of chains with wooden handles. We would grab hold of these
and run as fast as we could. In addition to getting good exercise, it was
exciting to be airborne on
It should be pointed out that today's insurance considerations would
probably rule out any ice slide construction. It was an inherently
dangerous operation. "Giant Strides" had its own special hazards.
Organized "phy ed" courses now take the place of these activities, but
not really. There was something very special about having fun and
freedom of "doing our own thing" in the absence of structure and
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How A-boat This?
John R. Thurston
hen is a boat not a boat? It's when your boat is a barge.
One must dial back to 1939 or so when Lake Altoona
was just beginning to take shape. My parents knew of my
great interest in fishing and went out of their way to
accommodate me. Ever indulging, they spent a lot of their hard-
earned money to provide me with a boat, a place to keep it, and a
motor to power it. The location was relatively easy. For five
dollars a year, they leased an undeveloped, 50 foot, lake-level lot
on the southern shore of Lake Altoona. It was about 500 feet east
of the old Becker's Boathouse, in the vicinity of the current park
at the base of the hill leading up the old dirt pathway to the old,
now non-existent, roundhouse.
The boat proved to be much more problematic. It cost $20.
Mercifully, the name of its builder shall remain unknown. He
managed to avoid every common sense consideration in its
construction. It weighed a ton. It had the floatability of sodden
railroad ties. Getting this hulk trailered to and launched into the
developing Lake Altoona took some doing. I marveled when it
failed to sink after it finally was put in the lake. When not in use,
it was simply chained to a tree.
The boat was powered by an 1.8 horsepower Evinrude motor.
That is not a misprint. 1.8 horse power. Bear in mind also that this
motor had to be transported on my shoulder, gas can in hand, to
and fro my residence at 328 West Sixth Street. That was at least
four miles transport for every day I used the boat.
When the motor was finally affixed to the stern of my barge, it
was hard to start. But after much priming and pulling, it would
stutter into action. Its impact upon the boat was hard to discern.
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With motor going, minutes would elapse before the boat would
begin to move, albeit it imperceptibly, out into the lake. If there
had been any surfing snails, they would have been well ahead of
But the boat eventually did move. We fishermen, Bud Griese,
Hank Harris, Ed Geitz, Joe Wittren, and I slowly got into and
around the developing lake and upstream into the Eau Claire
River. And, aside from our wondrous companionship for several
years, we were able to catch a lot offish, mostly crappies. These
were truly great moments in our lives although none of us realized
it fully at the time.
Nothing is forever. While I was in the Navy in WWII, both
boat and motor were sold for a pittance. The lease on the lot was
allowed to lapse.
However, there are still times, in my memory, when I take that
walk once more in the very early morning. It is cool and quiet,
save for the incessant noise of the switch engines. We get the boat
in the water; we get the Evinrude started. And off we go again to
fulfill our dreams.
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July 4
Observance in Altoona
Circa 1930's
John R. Thurston
uring this time of the Great Depression, there were a few
traditional, pretentious speeches about liberty and the fight
for independence. But we youngsters were mercifully shielded
from them. In the company of our parents, we might journey to
Eau Claire for the traditional 4
of July parade. Eau Claire High
School would provide the only marching band with its blaring
music. Be-medaled World War veterans would proudly march
along in their ill-fitting uniforms . We didn't notice that there
were fewer and fewer marching each year. And we would never
have believed that there would be a time, like now, when there is
only one survivor of the millions and millions who served in the
World War. (They were not called WWI veterans until WWII
came along two decades later.)
To us children, formal ceremonies and recognitions aside, the 4
of July was really fireworks, fireworks, fireworks. As there were
no municipal displays of fireworks in those days, each of us was
pretty much on his own. Dirt poor, we were severely restricted
in what we could afford. But all things considered, I had a
rather full arsenal. It included a fountain (a cone-shaped device
with incandescence and smoke erupting from its top), sky
rockets, sparklers, some snakes (tubes that when ignited would
produce squirming and twisting ooze), cap pistols and caps
(insert the cap, pull the trigger, and it would explode with a
"bang"), a ball cup (a small rubber ball would be placed in a
metal cup to be propelled high into the air by the explosion of a
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firecracker underneath) and, of course, large and small
firecrackers. And one absolutely needed "punk," dry gunk on a
stick that when ignited would provide a constant glowing source
of fire for the explosive elements in one's arsenal.
Our fireworks were assembled and reviewed on a daily basis in
anticipation of their detonation on the 4
. A few of the smaller
firecrackers might be ignited in the days leading up to the
celebration, but the big event would take place on the night of
the 4
. Children of today would have difficulty understanding
the joy of that prolonged anticipation.
The event then took place in our own backyards. The children of
the neighborhood might pool their arsenals. And it was over
before it began. "This won't take long, did it?" It invariably
failed to live up to our expectations. Looking at the smelly
burned-out remains the next morning was downright depressing.
But the extended joy of anticipation was not forgotten. Joyful
events were rare in those days. And we would be able to do it all
over again next year. It could be even better next time. Hope did
spring eternal, especially in the young. In the 1930's, hope was
in very short supply.
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John R. Thurston
n the Altoona of the 1930's, we truly enjoyed the advent of
spring. After the long "Freezin Season," we would be warm
again. It was the time of our basketball tournaments. Torrents of
melted water would course down the streets from the south hill.
Invariably, they would produce a large pond that inundated the
street at the corner of Hayden and 2
Street West. And, most
importantly, the boys knew that they would soon be able to
engage in their own "Rite of Spring," the playing of the game of
With the melting of the snow, we would look hard to find
patches of bare earth on which to play this game. A 10' x 20' area
would be sufficient. We would first carve a three foot circle in
the damp ground. This was "the pot." We would then use the
toes of our shoes to dig out a straight, three foot long "lag line"
fifteen feet away. With marbles and "shooters" from last year,
we were ready to play.
Each of would "ante up," i.e scatter an agreed-upon number
of marbles in the pot. These marbles would usually be clay,
round, and maybe 3/8 of an inch in diameter. The more
treasured "Glassies" were rarely used. If they were, they would
substitute for maybe ten of the clay marbles in the pot. While the
glass in "Glassies" would usually be clear or tinted; some
contained beautifully colored swirls.
The shooters were usually shiny steel ball bearings (maybe
1.5 inches in diameter) surreptitiously provided to us by railroad
machinists or local auto mechanics.
The players would stand by the pot and, in turn, toss their
shooters toward the lag line. Closeness to it determined the
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order of play. Standing behind the lag line, the first player would
hurl his shooter at the marbles in the pot. The marbles that he
knocked out of the pot were then his. Each of the players would
get his shot in turn. Then the rotation would start over again,
with the play now being very close to the pot.. Purists would
have had us flick the shooter with our thumbs. At Altoona, we
were content with forceful tosses. Allowing the shooter to come
to rest inside the pot was a no-no. I can't recall the penalty.
Then, there was the game of "Chase." This was usually
played when going to and from school. The "shooters" for this
were much larger than those used in marbles. Sometimes these
were the steel heads sawed off from truck gear shifts. Some were
almost shot put size. The rules were simple. The first player
hurled his shooter up the road in the direction of the school. The
second player then tried to hit that shooter with his. He would
hurl his with great force so that it would not end up close to the
first shooter; being too close meant an easy shot for the first
player when it was his turn again. Hitting the opponent's
shooter was worth a negotiated number of marbles or their
glassy equivalent. The players took turns doing this all the way
to school and back.
Marbles and "glassies" were the coin of this realm. The
more of these one had, the richer he was. At the end of each day,
these would be counted. Special draw-string cloth or leather
purses were used as containers.
These marble games couldn't have been simpler. But our
enjoyment in playing them couldn't have been greater.
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Published in Reminisce Extra-January 2009
Home is the Warrior, Home from the Sea
John R. Thurston
hile sailing up the Columbia and Willamette Rivers to Portland, Oregon in
July of 1945, we sailors were accorded an undeserved hero's welcome. Bridges
had to be lifted to accommodate our passage. Crowds of people applauded us wildly
on each of these occasions. They very probably thought that the sad, battered state of
our ship, the U.S.S. Porter, a destroyer, resulted from the savagery of a Japanese
Kamikaze attack. In truth, our damage clearly caused by incompetence. Our ship had
collided with another ship in broad daylight in the harbor at Adak in the Aleutian
Islands. We were forced to return to Stateside for repairs. But we accepted the plaudits
of the crowd with enthusiasm, waving back at the people while attempting to maintain
what we thought was the posture of very proud, truly heroic sailors.
Once docked at the Portland shipyards, we first learned that we could go home on
leave. And then, the U.S.A. dropped the atomic bombs. Our war was over. There was
finally a glorious light at the end of our tunnel.
We could even fly home if we so desired. I had never been up in a plane before, but I
thought that this was a great idea. I elected to do so and was treated to one of the most
truly marvelous experiences of my life. It was August 1945.
The jaundiced air traveler of today cannot fully appreciate how wonderful my flight
home really was. Here I was, a hick from Altoona, Wisconsin, flying cross-country.
And I was treated as though I was somebody special. There was nothing of the current
cattle car, "pack 'em in" atmosphere of flying today. No security checks. A passenger
had only to wander up to the appropriate gate, show his ticket, and hop on board.
The stewardess of that era was genuinely helpful and caring, not the impersonal,
smiling professional that is the current flight attendant. And this personal, unexpected
attention was most appreciated. After all, tender, loving care of any sort simply did not
exist in my extended wartime experience in the Aleutians and North Pacific.
And the boxed lunches they served on the plane were far different from our customary
navy bill of fare. The food was excellent and there was so much of it. Real milk and
fresh fruit were special. And like a bonus, special circumstances enabled me to eat
and eat and eat.
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The first leg of the flight was very bumpy--------and consequently thrilling –
from Portland to Seattle, Washington. Three soldier passengers ("doggies") became
violently airsick. And I did not!!! This seemed strange to me inasmuch as I was
seasick all the time the U.S.S. Porter was at sea. The soldiers were disinclined to
open their box lunches. And the stewardess offered them to me. I opened them one by
one. And I ate and ate and ate. I was in a very special Seventh Heaven.
Picture my elated state of mind at that time: No more war, no more seasickness, en
route to getting out of the navy, going home, having a future that I could begin to
realize, a country bumpkin on his first flight being treated with respect and
compassion he had never known before. I never had it so good. I have rarely
experienced a comparable high since.
I, John R. Thurston, served for two years (1944-45) aboard a wildly-gyrating
destroyer in the waters adjacent to Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The horror that
was that experience has been documented elsewhere.
These desolate islands have a richly-deserved reputation for eternal fog, cold,
rain, and williwaws, 100 mph plus winds that erupt frequently and unpredictably.
In this arena, if a serviceman became "mad," he was said to have become
"Asiatic" or "Aleutian."
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I have just read an excellent book about the Aleutians: "The Thousand Mile War-
World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians" by Brian Garfield (1969) In it, I
found this.
A sailor stood at the Pearly Gate;
His face was wan and old.
He gently asked the man of fate
Admission to the fold.
'What have you done,' St. Peter asked,
'To gain admission here?'
'I've been in the Aleutians
For nigh unto a year.'
Then the gates swung open sharply
As St. Peter tolled the bell,
'Come right in,' said he, 'and take a harp.
You've had your share of Hell.'
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The Old Altoona Public School Fire
Altoona, Wisconsin
Flames consumed the 38-year-old Altoona Public School building on
Halloween night of 1951. The remains were bulldozed and hauled away.
This school had been located on a hill. Its former site is now merely a paved
block in Division Street between Daniels and Bartlett Avenues (see pictures at
the conclusion of this Introduction).
As a consequence of this fire, an enormous amount of Altoona history was
lost. Valuable records, pictures, trophies, furniture, and memorabilia were
destroyed along with the building. These cannot be replaced; reconstituting
them in any meaningful sense is next to impossible.
Something else was —and is —in danger of being lost. This involves the
memories of all the happenings which took place in that building during the
many years of its existence. There has always been the danger that these
could be lost even if there had been no fire. The building was a mere shell
that was brought to life by its students and teachers. They deserve to be
Memories die. They die along with the person who had had the memory.
Forgetfulness will kill or distort them, perhaps beyond all recognition.
Memories need not die. If they are recorded—and properly safeguarded—they
will never die. They are a form of history and should be accorded respect on
that ground.
Generations of our posterity to follow, interested in genealogy, may find
such memories a treasure trove that will help them understand their
predecessors and the times
in which they lived.
It was a simpler time. Poverty was our common denominator. While we had
contacts few people, we came to know them over prolonged periods of time.
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We felt that we know them well. We knew who we could and could not trust.
This awareness promoted a cohesiveness amongst us that was both reassuring
and somewhat restrictive at the same time. Nowadays, people in an affluent
society may become acquainted with a great many people but fail to know
any of them very well. It has become politically-incorrect to ask and answer
personal questions. "Don't ask, don't tell" has become something of a policy
for many people. As a result, we now operate in a society of semi-isolated
strangers with superficialities making up the bulk of our conversations. A
memory project such as this might
remind the readers that it wasn't always that way.
Without an awareness of out past, we are rootless. To those so afflicted,
look around; there is history and there are roots.
John R. Thurston 10-24-2009
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Poetica Grandma-tica
Memories About Grandmothers
n 2004., Nancy Clark Scobie and I began a new enterprise, the
publication of a book designed to honor and celebrate the
grandmothers of Wisconsin's Chippewa Valley. It would be entitled
"Poetica Grandma-tica." Ms. Scobie and Altoona's own Judy
Bredeson became its editors. The contents were to be supplied by these
grandmothers or those who would write about them.
The subject matter could be personal memories, families, vexations,
stories of the past, poetry, a sketch of a significant other, etc. In short,
anything and everything which would acknowledge the importance of
these very special women, grandmothers.
In November, 2008, "Poetica Grandma-tica. 2008-2009," the fifth book
in the series, was published. Over 100 contributors are represented in this
edition. Five of these have strong connections to Altoona. Excerpts from
their offerings will follow.
Judy Bredeson, a grandmother of eight, chose to tell about a profound
religious experience of her father. Paul Myszka had seen the Virgin
Mary, and in Judy's words, felt "compelled to tell his story, to share it
with others, to witness to God in his life." Judy helped him do just that.
Marvel Schilling Newton, a grandmother of seven, addressed the topic
of prejudice, its many forms, origins, and negative implications. She is
guardedly optimistic about its current status. "Through five generations,
it seems like there is a better acceptance of all people."
Roger Rasmussen writes glowingly about his grandmother, Eva Marie
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Thurston Glassbrenner, and how much she meant to him. He closes his
contribution by saying that "America seems to have forgotten the
valuable role played by grandmothers. It is true: 'the hand that rocks the
cradle rules the world.' I thank God for Grandma Eva!"
Doris (Thompson) Rulien, a grandmother of Kyle Bareis, engages in a
conversation that she wishes she had had with her grandmother, Brita
(Bertha) Iverson Thompson. "I really want to sit down and talk to you,
Grandma. You knew so much about everything." In closing, Doris said
that "only now, when I'm pushing eighty, do I fully realize what a
difficult life you must have led."
As I have done in the previous four books, I wrote about my sainted
grandmother, Gertrude McKilligan McCluskey, and the powerful
impact she had upon me and the course of my life.
There will be a sixth edition next year, Poetica Grandma-tica 2009-
2010. Contributions are currently being accepted. There is no cost for
participation; any proceeds will be divided equally between two
charities. Previous contributors have been very pleased with the
experience. An even greater participation by Altoona residents would be
welcomed. If interested, feel very free to contact me (715.832.0034) for
further information and encouragement. John R. Thurston 04.07.09
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Running Hot and Cold
John R. Thurston
uring my childhood in the 1930's, the winters were bone-
chilling cold and the summers were blazing hot. And we
personally experienced these extremes day-in and day-out for
months on end. Our brief respites from this suffering were few
and far between. But their rarity made them all the more
important and memorable to us. The two articles to follow relate
to this time and to our experiences
A Hot Time in the Old Town
The mid -1930's were especially torrid times. For weeks on
end, the temperature would be in the 90-100 plus degree range in
daytime and retreat into the high 80's or 90's come nightfall. We
would sit outside and pray for a bit of breeze. If the wind stirred
just a little bit, it was a Godsend. We were truly desperate; there
was no air conditioning in our homes and we had few
However, by way of relief, a glass of lemonade might be
served with ice slivers chipped off the huge block in the ice box.
Maybe once a week, there could be a very special ride to
the A and W. Root Beer stand at the corner of Madison and
Hobart Streets in Eau Claire. Nothing in this or any other
world can ever compare with the intensely cold, frosted
mug of their root beer. Every single sip and swallow was
savored. Dirt poor, each of us could afford only one mug.
After all, it did cost 5 cents.
A leisurely drive through Eau Claire's Putnam Park
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might cool our fevered brows for fifteen minutes or so.
And then, wonder of wonders, Eau Claire's State Theater
introduced air-conditioning sometime during this time period.
For ten cents, one could bask it its coolness while watching the
same movie twice.
Otherwise, we had no respite for days and nights on end; we
sat back and sweated, sweltered, and roasted. We had no place to
go. These were not "the good old days."
Nowadays, there is an abundance of oases of coolness. There
are municipal and private swimming pools. Trips to northern
lakes or even Argentina are within the range of many people.
Cold drinks are readily available. Air-conditioning is
everywhere in cars, homes, restaurants, malls, etc. People move
from one cool spot to another. They don't have a clue as to how
good they have it. On the hottest of days now, we may even hear
people complain about being cold because the air-conditioner
has been set wrong.
Freezin' Season
The winters of my childhood may or may not have been
unusually cold. But back then, we suffered infinitely more than
the people of today. In the "Freezin Season, " from November
through March, we were almost always uncomfortably cold,
cold, cold.
As an economy measure during the Great Depression of the
1930's, household fires were allowed to die out during the night.
I had to re-ignite ours when I awakened. A single stove, a
Heatrola, was supposed to provided heat for our
large house. I would alight from my bed, light the fire, get my
cereal, and dive back under the blankets to eat it as the house
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warmed a bit. Our house was never warm. But next to the
Heatrola, it was unbearably hot.
Then, even as a tad, there was my 8-9 block frigid walk to
school, a trip that would be repeated three more times each day.
Lunch was eaten at home. Deep snow and unplowed roads
would introduce further complications. Our bulky clothing was
ineffective. It wasn't warm at school either, despite the diligent
efforts of "Ing" Isaacson, our janitor.
We had a skating rink of sorts in the area north of the
Garfield between West 5-6
" There was no warming house. My
skates, clamped on my regular shoes, would often fall off,
necessitating removal of gloves to get them on again. The
extreme cold, together with an uneven ice surface, made this
skating very unpleasant.
Red's Pool Hall was an exception, an oasis of warmth. He
must have spent a fortune providing heat for us. We hung out
there a lot.
As high school basketeers, we might work up a sweat
practicing in the drafty Auditorium. If lucky, and first in line, we
might get a warm shower to clean up a bit. That worked out
well; most of us didn't have a shower at home. But then, warmed
by the water, we would dry off and dress, and head for a long
walk home in sub-zero weather. The contrast made the frigid
temperatures seem all the colder and the frigid walk all the
For the entirety of the very long "Freezin season," we were
very "cool kids" in the saddest sense of those words.
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Scholarship/Achievement Night
Altoona High School Auditorium Altoona, Wisconsin
By way of introduction, my name is John Thurston. I go back a long
way in Altoona history. Your fair city was crawling with Thurstons
during the 1930s and 1940s.
I graduated from Altoona High School in 1942 in a class of 14 or so. If I
have my math right, that's about 67 years ago.
With my Altoona background, I was able to survive World War II – and my
academic wars that followed it as well. I emerged with bachelor and
masters degrees from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in clinical
psychology from the University of Iowa. Over the years I became a
practicing clinical psychologist, a research psychologist, a university
professor, and an author.
I am indebted to Altoona and to the Altoona school system for the part
each played in whatever personal or professional success I have
How was I to repay that debt? With a scholarship of course. With it, I
could 1) honor the high achievement and potential of this very current
generation of Altoona students and 2) express my gratitude to the
Altoona of my generation.
This scholarship is established in the memory of Mary A. and John H.
Thurston, my parents, as representatives of the old time, hardcore
Altoona railroad working class – the common folk of Altoona, Wisconsin.
While enduring and surviving the incredible hardships of the Great
Depression of the 1930's they, and their fellow townsfolk, provided for
the educational and intellectual stimulation of their children.
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Thompson, Underwood, Schilling, Harris, Semisch, Griese, Sires,
Radawitz, Bundt, Steuding, and many others, are just names to you. But
to me, they're very real people. By today's standards, what they
contributed might not be considered much. But it was their best shot.
And that's all one could have hoped for. They should be remembered for
what they did. Both you and I are the beneficiaries of what they have
done. It is to them, and what they represented, that this Mary A. and John
H. Thurston Scholarship is dedicated.
This is the third awarding of this scholarship.
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Mary and John R. Thurston – 1924
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John H. Thurston – 1944
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Today Decides Tomorrow*
Dear friends, faculty, and parents:
You have gathered here tonight to take part in a rather commonplace event, the Commencement exercises of a
graduating high school class. This happens every year at this school and thousands of others. Speakers speak,
prayers are given, and diplomas are handed out. Last year at this event, we spoke for, hoped for, and prayed for
This year, it is different, for we are at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan, formidable enemies now in control of
many conquered countries.
We graduates now face a new world, a world we have never known before, a world gone mad. Each of us has
greater responsibilities and more unknown challenges than anyone in any generation before us. Albeit reluctantly,
we, the youth of America, now appear to hold the destiny of the world in our hands.
Up until now, we have led sheltered lives. Are we prepared to take on the challenges imposed upon us? Our teachers
have armed us, and armed us well, with the strongest armor that the world has ever known. That armor is
knowledge. It’s a knowledge that is free from prejudices and the harm that they produce. All our institutions, ideas,
and faiths will rise or fall depending on the outcome of this conflict. Abraham Lincoln, confronted with the
incredibly divisive Civil War, repeatedly stated his belief that all men are created equal. We must remember this
now as never before. An American is an American whether he is black or white, Catholic, Protestant, or Jew. As
Americans, we must remain united with a common resolve if we are to win this war.
The poor and oppressed from all over the world look to our nation for leadership, a fighting force, and material aid.
Our flag, emblematic of our heritage, is now a symbol for freedom throughout the world. It has become a beacon of
hope that keeps tired men working and brave men fighting even when their causes may seem lost.
When the war is over, if we have fought and worked hard enough, we shall be able to dictate the peace. After World
War I, it was said that we had won the war but lost the peace. This must not happen this time. We, the people, must
make that peace a firm and lasting one. If we fail, it seems inevitable that death and destruction will once again
sweep across the world. We have a chance to prevent this, an opportunity that we may never have again. We must
not let it slip through our fingers.
When we students leave our hallowed halls of learning, each of us will enter into this conflict at some level. We
must aid our country. Some of us will enter the armed services; others will join the work force. All will aid in an all-
out war effort. Our futures and those of our posterity will depend on the quality of our performances.
Our course lies clear. We cannot fail.
Succeed, we can; succeed, we must!
*Valedictory Address delivered by John R. Thurston at the 1942 graduation ceremonies of Altoona High School.
Altoona Auditorium, Altoona, Wisconsin, May 28, 1942 (this was delivered in the very dark days of WW II about
seven months after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into that conflict)
*Valedictory Address delivered by John R. Thurston at the 1942 graduation ceremonies of Altoona High School.
Altoona Auditorium, Altoona, Wisconsin, May 28, 1942 (this was delivered in the very dark days of WW II about
seven months after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into that conflict)
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John R. Thurston
n days gone by, an auto played a far different role than it does in our
current society. Not everyone had a car in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
We had one. It was a 1928 Pontiac, purchased just in time for the Great
Depression. While the price was well under $1000, it undoubtedly posed
substantial financial problems for my family. My father, a railroad
brakeman, could go for a year without making “a run,” a 100 mile trip,
the equivalent of an eight hour day. There was no unemployment
compensation available then. If one didn’t work, there was no meat on
the table. Much later, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plans were
enacted, my father worked for the W.P.A., the Works Progress
Administration. He shoveled snow and built roads for 25 cents an hour.
My mother returned to work for a short time as a telephone operator in
Eau Claire. With an annual income close to zero, a car was clearly an
unaffordable luxury. But we hung on to it, probably because no one
could afford to buy it. During the winter months, the cars radiator was
drained and it was “put up on blocks” to save tire wear and avoid winter
driving. Roads were rarely plowed in those days. Besides, there was no
place to go. Going to Minneapolis was an adventure, and an expensive
one at that, even though gas cost only 25 cents a gallon.
The fate of the Pontiac
escapes me. But in 1939, a
Plymouth was purchased and
came to play a very large part
in my life. I learned how to
drive with it. As a high school
student, I had access to it. This
was most unusual although I
didn‘t fully realize it at the
time. Many first time
experiences, unique unto late adolescence, were undertaken in it, e.g.
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first kiss and associated pleasures.
In 1942, I was in a car accident with a car owned by someone else. I
broke my leg in the process. The Nash, driven by Lawrence Radisewitz,
collided head on with another at the corner of Brackett and Rudolph
Road in Eau Claire. In a perverse sort of way, this proved to be a
fortuitous event for my extended convalescence postponed my entry into
the Navy by about a year. Who knows what might have become of me
had I entered service at the age of 18?
The 1939 Plymouth loomed large in my leaves at home while in the
Navy. In the 1940’s, my father worked the “Mondovi route.” The
following picture was taken in Mondovi – maybe 1944. My father, John
Henry Thurston, is the one in overalls. The Mondovi Line went from
Mondovi to Marshfield one day and returned to Mondovi the next. This
photo brought back no end of memories for me – my 1944-45 driving
the train crew down there on a Monday, Wednesday and/or Friday – and
then picking them up on a Tuesday, Thursday and/or Saturday – when I
was on leave from the navy and desperately needed a car to use on my
wild nights on the town.
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I remember waiting endlessly for the train to come in, for the engine to
be turned around on the turntable, and for the crew to assemble for the
ride back to Altoona. The job and travel had special advantages: Extra
gas ration coupons and an opportunity to shop in Mondovi for hard to
get butter and toilet paper. – John R. Thurston
Photo provided by Arlyn Colby
Left: Axel Volkman (age 26)
Center: John H. Thurston (about age 46)
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John H. Thurston, Mondovi, Wisconsin – 1945
But let us return to my experiences involving the Plymouth. When I was
home on leave from the Navy, I had an absolute need for this car,
especially on a Saturday night. To get it, I had to drive to Mondovi, pick
up the crew, and drive home with them. It was only then, that I would
have the Plymouth to myself. I could then go wherever I pleased within
the constraints imposed by gas rationing. There were always
complications. I would drive to Mondovi and sit for what seemed to be
endless hours waiting for the train to pull in. Then, the engine had to be
turned around by hand on a turntable so as to be ready for next day’s
return trip to Marshfield. Time hung heavy on my hands. It seemed to
take them forever to do this before we were able to take off, finally for
the long, long trip (really only about 22 miles) to Altoona. Some nights,
the Plymouth and I weren’t emancipated until after 10 o’clock. Precious
time, incredibly precious to a sailor home on leave, had been wasted.
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The Switching Hour
John R. Thurston
t one time or another, almost everyone has seen long freight trains
rumbling over our prairies, through our mountain ranges, and
snaking into our cities. Few, however, have ever considered how these
trains are composed or “made up,” how or why each boxcar came to
occupy a special place up front, to the rear, or somewhere in between
others on the train. If an inquiry were ever made, the questioner would
find the answers to be far from simple ones.
Most railroads had----and still have---distribution points. The rail yard at
Altoona was a very important one throughout the first half of the 20
century. Freight trains would arrive in Altoona to be dissembled, and
then re-assembled as part of other trains outward bound for other local,
regional, or more distant destinations. How was this accomplished?
Enter “Switching.” This involved the fate of each boxcar on every train
that entered Altoona and one of its two “switchyards.” These East and
West Switchyards were where “switching” took place. These were full
of “switches,“ movable sections of railroad track that when moved
would allow boxcars to be shunted from one track to another. A switch
was “thrown” by a switchman to accomplish this. He actually moved
tracks by seizing a large ball-like handle at the end of a lever and
throwing it over toward the ground. The leverage caused the tracks to
Each car was “switched,” i.e. taken from the incoming train and
eventually assigned to a special place on another train or railroad siding.
Who was responsible for this? “Switchmen” They would employ
“switches” to accomplish this sorting. And these switchmen would use
“switch engines” – small workhorse engines, to move the boxcars.
Switching was---and continues to be---a very complicated process. Some
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have likened it to what happens when you are handed a deck of cards
and told to deal them out to individuals playing cards with you. This
may be helpful in understanding what goes on as long as the reader
understands that the dealer must regularly deal proper cards to the fellow
players from the top and bottom of the deck as well as from all points in
How was a box car, loaded with a special cargo, taken from the
incoming train or gathered elsewhere and assigned to a new and proper
position on a new outgoing train? That position was eventually
determined, of course, by its ultimate destination. This held true for
empty boxcars as well. An incoming train would leave the two track
main line and come to rest in the vicinity of the switchyards. Its engine
would detach and proceed to be serviced. Switchyards were composed
of tracks, patterned in a manner that resembled a hand. The wrist was the
shorter feeder track, the fingers were the longer tracks on which a new
train to be formed or “made up.” The switches were at the juncture point
of these two sets of tack.
The switch engine would couple with a string of maybe 10-15 boxcars
from an incoming train and back off with them toward the switchyards.
Once there, on the feeder track, this engine would push these cars with
some speed in the direction of a switch juncture point. At the
appropriate time, the switch engine would slow down and stop. Maybe
one, two, or more boxcars, now uncoupled by the switchmen, would
continue on, cascading onto the correct track where they would slam
into and couple with the other boxcars of a train that was a-building.
Switchmen would “throw” the switch at the juncture point again and
again to insure that every boxcar would go onto the proper track. The
process was fun to watch. The loud crash of boxcars into those already
there was something to anticipate and enjoy repeatedly. Then, the
switch engine would back up, switches would be thrown at the juncture
point, and the process would be repeated until all the boxcars were
distributed on the several tracks. Then, the switch engine would latch on
to some more cars from the incoming train, haul them back into the
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switch yards and repeat the maneuver. This would be repeated again and
again, switch engine busily chugging along, backing up and going
forward, gathering boxcars and distributing them to form new trains with
the help of switchmen throwing switches. At times, it would be
necessary to retrieve and join the boxcars from two or more of the
Eventually, an engine and its tender would be coupled onto the front end
of the assembled cars, the caboose would be coupled onto the tail end,
and a new train would be ready to depart. If I had to guess, I would say
that the trains were made up of between 50 and 80 boxcars in those days.
All of the above was far more complicated than this simple mixing
would suggest. Some incoming boxcars in the mix might have to be
diverted to the “rip” or “rep” track for repairs; refrigerator cars had to
iced at the ice house at a scheduled time; others were switched to local
tracks for unloading. And boxcars from trains that had come in the day
before had to be integrated into these newly-formed outgoing trains.
“Making up” such trains was a very complex, ongoing 24/7 operation.
The switch engines involved in this never seemed to stop. They
undoubtedly accounted for most of the smell of coal smoke and the
incessant noise that was part and parcel of Altoona’s atmosphere during
this early time period. The cessation of train traffic during the Great
Depression led to an alleviation of these problems.
After the newly-constituted train would leave and get to that next stop,
some of its cars would be disconnected from the train. They would then
be “switched” around as they were distributed to various destinations on
the local scene. New cars might then be switched onto the train which
would then proceed to the next station.
This complex process is now computerized, a la UPS. The destination
and route of each box car is determined early on, its location at any point
in time can be observed on the computer screen.
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Switch engines are no longer needed to provide the momentum that
drives the boxcars onto individual tracks to produce individual trains.
Now, they are more likely to rely upon gravity to accomplish this
purpose. The switch engine or some propelling device now pushes a line
of cars up an incline on the feeder line. At the top of this would be
automated switches which would direct the boxcars to the appropriate
track of a developing train. At the top of the incline, a single boxcar or
several are uncoupled electronically, and gravity sends it to its
destination on the track of a new and developing train. A computer now
provides the switching as it continuously opens and closes the switches
which determine access to the various tracks.
As is obvious, this complex switching operation has always been
challenging, getting cars in proper order on a new train takes some
doing. And the process was intensely interesting to the dedicated railroad
workers of the time. Contemplation of this operation would result in
seemingly endless conversations amongst them whenever two or more
railroaders met. This activity was called “talking railroad” or
“railroading.” On many an occasion, my father would dominate our
telephone “party line” as he talked for hours with other railroaders about
mistakes that were made and ways for improvement. They were very
proud and involved in what they did. After all, they were “railroaders.”
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A Star-Crossed Venture
Contributions to the Altoona Star
Altoona, Wisconsin
By John R. Thurston
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An Election of the Distant Past
While I was very much alive long before the "Election of
1940," I choose to reminisce about that event.
Our nation had been crushed by the Wall Street "Crash of 1929."
President Hoover couldn't handle this economic disaster. As he
began to deal with our decade-long "Great Depression,"
Franklin Delano Roosevelt or "FDR," the 1932 Democratic
Presidential candidate, exuded the confidence and hope that we
so desperately needed. His words, "the only thing we have to
fear, is fear itself," resonated with us. He was elected that year
and in 1936. He did things. Some worked. Some-didn't. But
under his administrations, we dealt with the Depression and were
well on our way to economic recovery by 1940. He tried for an
unprecedented third term in that year. The clouds of World War
II were gathering. Before the election, in October, 1940, a draft
call went out for all men 21-31 years of age. FDR clearly saw the
writing on the wall.
His 1940 opponent was Wendell Wilkie, a likeable Republican
from Indiana. Despite big time financial experience, Wilkie liked
to portray himself as one of us common folk. Opponents used to
characterize him sarcastically as "the bare foot boy from Wall
There were great differences between the current election
campaign and those of yore. In the past, campaigns were
mercifully much shorter. Their costs were within the bounds of
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reason. There was no TV and its "talking heads" that babble
pointlessly, albeit authoritatively, about everything the
candidates do or say. There were no TV or sound bytes, cherry-
picked by the candidate to put himself in the most favorable
light. Voters weren't targeted or ignored because of their past
voting records. There were no harassing "Robo-calls" or
savagely negative, misleading radio and TV ads. An opponent
wasn't characterized as the embodiment of evil. There were no
exit polls or statistical-weightings of poll results. There were no
computer-based vote projections and illustrations of red and blue
In 1940, voters talked to one another about the candidates, often
in the barber shop or pool hall or at the kitchen table. Laid-back,
extended discussions such as these often determined the votes of
the participants. Voters back then may have been fully-informed
in very important ways. The Madison Avenue glitz gets in the
way of anyone searching for the truth nowadays.
On election night, all of us listened to the radio. We felt as
though we were truly involved participants. We heard first about
how things were going on the East Coast and discussed amongst
ourselves what that really meant. We would lean forward in our
chairs in anticipation of the next returns. There was no
opportunity, nor any need, to hurry and find out the final result.
FDR eventually won in a landslide with an electoral vote of 449-
On November 4, 2008, it seems likely that the winner will be
established early and the rest of the night will involve
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formalities. It is unlikely that there will be any suspense. If you
watch, it'll be a lot like reading a mystery novel after you've
read the last pages. NBC or CNN will probably make an
announcement early on that "they" have adjudged whomsoever
to be the winner. "They" will make it sound as though they, not
the voters, have made that decision. I find myself now to be
more spectator than participant. And that saddens me. There is
no doubt that things have changed. But sometimes change is
anything but progress.
Submitted to the Altoona Star by John R. Thurston 10.27.08