“No matter where you go in the United States, it has been said, you will find someone who knows that Jesse James raided a Northfield bank and you will find someone who knows Sid Freeman.” So began the obituary in the May 22, 1986, Northfield News, about the death in San Diego of one of the most colorful figures in Northfield history. Sid was clothier to both “town and gown” as long-time proprietor of Freeman’s The Hub and ran a multi-million-dollar chain of men’s wear shops called Skeffington’s, enterprises which led to his hobnobbing with people of note from the sports and entertainment industries. I will be calling Sid by his first name in this column, not only because that is how everyone knew him but because I will be quoting and referencing another Freeman frequently, Sid’s son Dan Freeman. And everyone in town knows him as Dan or Danny – or as “Mr. Northfield.”
Dan may have inherited the name “Mr. Northfield” from his father, but Sid was actually a native of Cannon Falls. Dan told me that Sid’s father Harry came to St. Paul in the late 1800s from Poland and married Sadie Finkelstein from Lithuania. Sid was born on Sept. 24, 1905, the same year Harry established a dry goods and clothing store in Cannon Falls. The Freemans raised their four children there, Beatrice, Sidney, Ralph (known as Rex) and Daniel (after whom Northfield’s Dan was named). Dan said his father Sid grew up working at the store and “really took to it.”
The list of activities in the Cannon Falls High School yearbook for Sid’s senior year in the Class of 1923 included playing baseball, football and basketball and violin in the orchestra. (Sid was, in fact, given All-State quarterback honors for the 1922 football season.) Next to Sid’s picture were the words, “He has a store of knowledge he never learned in books.”
Sid spent two years at Carleton working on a degree in business but after his father bought a bankrupt men’s clothing store in Northfield, Sid dropped out of college in the fall of 1926 to manage and become owner of what was named Freeman’s The Hub. (Harry continued to work at his Cannon Falls store until he died suddenly of heart failure on Dec. 29, 1929.) The Hub was located at 327 Division St. S. on property leased from the First National Bank just to the south until 1976 when the bank needed the space for expansion. The Hub ended up at 413 Division St. S.
During the slow days of the Depression, Sid found time to practice his violin in between customers. (Dan remembered Sid saying he really learned to play the violin when called upon to be a backup to the organist who usually played for silent films at the Grand Theater.) Sid also joined in the regular ongoing poker games held in an upstairs room at the hotel. Dan has heard a story about how Sid’s mother Sadie showed up at the store to see how things were going and someone sounded an alert to Sid at the hotel. Sid said to the players, “Give me all the money! I’ll count it up and we’ll split it and start all over next time!” Since they had been playing all night into the day, “Dad would run over to Carleton, take a shower, clean up,” and then Sid would come back down to the store with this poker money. Sid would tell his mother, “I’ve been out collecting” and put the money in the till. It was Sid’s little trick to cover his tracks.
The Dec. 27, 1935, Northfield News announced the Freeman-Bennett nuptials of Dec. 15, held in St. Paul. Maggie Lee wrote in a Feb. 6, 1975, Northfield News story about how Sid met Lydia Bennett of Owatonna, a student at Carleton College: “When she dropped in at The Hub hoping to find an orange polo shirt, Sid didn’t have one, but promised to get one for her. He admits now that he really didn’t try because he found her so attractive, he wanted to keep her coming back.” Sid finally did find an orange polo shirt for her in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1974.
The Hub (“The store for men – and for women who shop for men”) expanded to Rochester, Winona and Owatonna after World War II and, in 1948, Sid partnered with a former employee, Jack Skeffington, to start a rental firm called Skeffington’s Formal Wear in Minneapolis. In 1952, Sid bought out Skeffington and, according to a July 1979 story in Corporate Report, “In its heyday, in the ’50s and ’60s, the Skeffington’s rental firm had 23 stores, as far away as Cincinnati, New Orleans and Dallas, and boasted a $3.5 million volume.” First-year volume had been $60,000 and, after 1977-1978 when Sid had sold off all but five close-to-home stores, he was “still doing a very respectable $1.2-million volume” at the age of 74. Dan told me that his father “couldn’t keep all those balls in the air, so he finally sold out the clothing stores and concentrated on just The Hub in Northfield and Skeffington’s up in Minneapolis.”
Dan explained that the idea for the formal wear business had come from college students who would bring their tuxedos to The Hub and say, “Sid, what will you give me for this? I’m leaving college and not playing in an orchestra anymore and I don’t need it.” So Sid would buy the tuxedos back for resale or rental to other college musicians or for dances and proms.
Sid and Lydia had four children, Dan, Jim, Jon and Deborah, and welcomed other family members to their household from time to time if the need arose. In fact, the children (Sylvia, Ruth and David Chase) of Lydia’s sister came to live with them and all graduated from Northfield High School. Sylvia Chase went on to be an award-winning broadcast journalist. Dan said that at one point both of his grandmothers were also living with them, “so it was quite a circus.” It made for tight quarters but, Dan said, “As you get older, you understand what is going on, and my dad just loved taking care of people, helping people out.”
Sid loved music and, since there were few entertainment venues in Northfield back then, Dan has many memories of Sid’s friends coming to the house, playing piano, guitar and trombone, with Sid on violin. “I’ve always said my dad was one of the very few Dixieland violinists!” said Dan, who also noted that jazz great Doc Evans (Carleton Class of 1929) would stop by to play when he was in town. Sid would order the kids, “Get upstairs!” but, “We’d come back down,” said Dan, and by the end of the evening 30 or 40 people would have gathered at the house to enjoy the music and have fun.
Dan was involved with The Hub starting with small chores in grade school such as sweeping floors. He then worked part-time as a salesman through high school (he was in the NHS Class of 1958) and became a partner in 1964. The Hub was a hangout for students and young Dan was impressed with “all the affection I saw between these fellows,” as high school and college graduates would come back to Northfield and greet his father with hugs.
There was a “hero board” at The Hub with pictures thumb-tacked onto it of the many celebrity friends Sid had been making through his business dealings and other associations. Sid had known actor Jack Carson dating back to a rowdy couple years Carson had spent at Carleton and Sid brought his good friend, the comedian George Gobel, to be celebrity grand marshal of the Defeat of Jesse James Days parade in 1983 (see sidebar stories). Sid had numerous well-known friends in the fields of entertainment, sports (including Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Calvin Griffith and Vern Gagne) and politics (Hubert Humphrey, Karl Rolvaag and Ed Thye). Dan told me, “You just never knew who was going to walk through the door.” Or who might be taking a nap on Sid’s couch at home. Dan recalled a time he and his kids had been watching re-runs of the Dick Van Dyke Show and then went over to his parents’ house. Dan’s five-year-old daughter Suzanne exclaimed, “It’s Buddy!” when she saw Morey Amsterdam sleeping on the couch there. (Amsterdam played comedy writer Buddy Sorrell on the award-winning TV show of the 1960s). That woke up Amsterdam, who then engaged them in conversation about the episode of the show they had just watched.
Sid was honored on Dec. 1, 1966, as Outstanding Boss by the Northfield Jaycees at a banquet at the Carleton Tearoom. (It was the first of two banquets for Sid that night. He was due at another banquet to celebrate the conclusion of his two years as Carleton Alumni Fund chairman, fund drives that had broken all records.) The Jaycee citation stated that countless men trained in his store had received the “benefit of his zestful approach to life and business” and praised his involvement in many civic projects and his sponsorship of local athletic teams. With his connections, Sid “has filled literally thousands of ticket requests for Minnesota Gopher football and basketball games and, recently, for the Minnesota Vikings and Twins. He was instrumental in bringing professional baseball and football to Minnesota.”
Another honor for Sid came from Carleton College during Carleton’s centennial reunion weekend on June 1, 1967, with an Alumni Achievement Award for his service to Carleton and his business and community accomplishments. Just weeks earlier, Sid had arranged for his friend, Twins’ owner Cal Griffith, to provide the whole college with free tickets for a game on May 22 against the Chicago White Sox at Metropolitan Stadium to celebrate Carleton’s 100th anniversary.
The announcement that “Zestful Freeman” would be retiring came in Maggie Lee’s story in the Feb. 6, 1975, Northfield News. He was handing over The Hub to son Dan and Dave Graff but would continue to commute to Minneapolis as president of Skeffington’s. Sid and Lydia continued their around-the-world travels, with a particular fondness for Mexico, where they had a home in Manzanillo.
Unfortunately, by 1983, Sid’s health was in decline from Alzheimer’s disease. Under care in San Diego, he died there in his sleep on May 16, 1986, at the age of 80. Lydia Freeman died in Northfield at the age of 93 on Nov. 30, 2006. Her obituary in the Northfield News of Jan. 3, 2007, took note of her work with the Girl Scouts (she had held local and regional offices), raising money for the Northfield swimming pool and her tireless efforts in Owatonna to preserve the architectural integrity of the National Farmers Bank (now the Wells Fargo Bank). This bank was designed by the famed architect Louis Sullivan who had been commissioned by her father Carl Kent Bennett in 1906.
Dan was inspired from an early age by his parents, came to admire others who were making Northfield a better place and couldn’t wait to do it himself. Dan began volunteering and “finding ways to give back to the community that gave me so much.” Dan was named “Outstanding Young Man” at a Jaycee dinner in December of 1968 for being active in civic and athletic events, Arts Guild and Fall Festival, while attending St. Olaf and working at The Hub. (He had taken time off from pursuing his degree to manage The Hub but returned in 1968, graduating in 1970.) Dan was proprietor of the Rueb ‘n’ Stein from 1975 to 1983. After The Hub closed and Sid died in 1986, Dan took over Skeffington’s Formal Wear for 12 years. He now runs Freeman’s Formal Wear from his home. He has driven for EcoTrans shuttle service and has been on KYMN radio for more than 40 years, including a Sunday morning radio show. Dan and his former wife, Gretchen Christeson (NHS ‘57), have three children, Nate, Jeff and Suzanne.
Dan has acted in more than 70 stage productions throughout Southern Minnesota. He had a “dream come true” in 2010 when he and his daughter, Suzanne, starred together in On Golden Pond at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault. Dan has been an integral part of Defeat of Jesse James Days activities and many visitors and townspeople are familiar with his long-time narration of the bank raid re-enactments on Division Street. He also stepped up to the plate to be coordinator of the Sesquicentennial celebration of Northfield in 2005 and to find funding for the annual 4th of July fireworks displays. Dan was the recipient of the Joseph Lee Heywood Distinguished Service Award in 1994.
I asked Dan what he thought of the title “Mr. Northfield” that has been bestowed on him by many in the town. He said, “Well, it’s daunting, believe me, because at this age , I can’t keep up with what I used to be able to do but so be it, I’m not going to dismiss it or anything. It brings me to an age I’m not ready to be, how’s that?”
Dan has had recent health setbacks and on Jan. 25 there was a tribute and benefit called “Stepping Out for Mr. Northfield” for him at the Grand Event Center. Dan is grateful for the support of his community and told me, “It’s one of the great things about Northfield, the way we look after each other.”
Sid Freeman once told writer Maggie Lee that he enjoyed life and, if he could, he would come back as a dolphin because “they’re always happy.” Both Sid and Dan Freeman have left a legacy of happiness and service in their wake to the town they both have loved.
Sid’s Friend: George Gobel
Sid had an enduring friendship with the much beloved, amiable comedian with a crew cut, George Gobel. Gobel started singing country music on Chicago’s WLS “Barn Dance” and went on to win an Emmy Award for “Outstanding New Personality” in 1955 for his NBC comedy show, which ran from 1954-60 (with the last season on CBS).
Sid had been introduced to Gobel at an event in Minneapolis by Rev. Robert Dillon, a priest at St. Dominic Church in Northfield, who had served in the military with Gobel. (One of Gobel’s favorite lines was that he had been a B-26 bomber flight instructor for the U.S. Army Air Force in Oklahoma during World War II and “We must have done a good job down there because not one enemy plane got past Tulsa.”) Sid soon became Gobel’s clothing supplier and friend. Scott Richardson wrote in the Northfield News of Sept. 1, 1983, “Gobel would occasionally make reference to Sid Freeman and Northfield on his comedy show…And Gobel once got a big laugh on the Johnny Carson show by wearing a mink tie sent to him from Freeman’s The Hub in Northfield.”
Sid persuaded Gobel to serve as celebrity grand marshal of the Defeat of Jesse James Days parade in 1983. In full “outlaw” regalia, Chip DeMann (chairman of the 1983 DJJD committee) and Wayne Eddy met Gobel and his son Greg at the Minneapolis airport and immediately outfitted Gobel in derby and duster, much to his delight.
The very first of the DJJD banquets was held with former Minnesota governor Al Quie being presented with the first Joseph Lee Heywood Distinguished Service Award. The Northfield News reported on Sept. 15, 1983, “George Gobel was delightful in his role as celebrity grand marshal for the celebration. He kept the 300 who attended the Friday evening banquet in stitches during a 20-minute monologue.” Gobel concluded with the words, “Always remember, you can lead a horse to water but before you push him in, remember how a wet horse smells,” after which he was given a standing ovation. When reminded of this, Dan Freeman said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s what made Gobel so funny because he had a way of being humorous without being harmful. He never would put someone down.” Gobel was “a little daft, a little goofy, but his humor was just so gentle.”
The 1983 DJJD celebration was termed the “best ever” in the Northfield News of Sept. 15. Chairman Chip DeMann estimated that about 60,000 spectators lined the grand parade route to salute Quie and “Lonesome George” Gobel, lonesome no more. Wayne Eddy told me that Gobel expressed how nice the people were to him and what a good time he was having. Gobel was impressed by the small community “with the big hearts” and “he was very receptive to it all,” said Eddy.
Sid’s Friend: Jack Carson
So here’s the story that’s been around about actor Jack Carson and Northfield clothier Sid Freeman. From Jan. 1929 to Jan. 1931, Carson had been a Carleton student and then went off to seek fame. Years later Sid saw Carson playing a role on the screen in a movie at the Grand Theater and said, “That guy owes me a bill!” Sid tracked him down, they became fast friends and when Carson died, Sid was among the pallbearers at his funeral.
True? Probably, Sid’s son Dan Freeman told me. But there is more to the story. Jack and Sid had been drinking buddies during Carson’s time at Carleton and “I think they had their share of fun and perhaps a few troubles together.” Since Northfield was “dry,” Dundas was the place to drink and “Jack would frequently end up in the Dundas jail” and have to be bailed out by Sid.
Carson came to Carleton from Milwaukee and established himself as a “perennial prankster,” as evidenced in the Carleton Archives. When he and his friends became irritated with a speaker at the chapel who habitually talked too long, they planted several alarm clocks set to go off when his time was up. Carson once filled the pipes of the chapel organ with flour before a recital and would amuse himself by taking potshots from his dorm window with a rifle at the campus clock, causing it to chime. “Puzzled maintenance staff repeatedly try to fix the clock before they discover the cause of its malfunction.” In 1931, Carson was asked to leave college after several drinking and gambling episodes. But accounts say he “literally stumbled into his future career” during his time at Carleton when “dressed as Hercules for a college stage production, he tripped and nearly demolished half the set.” Carson and a friend Dave Willock formed a vaudeville act featuring physical comedy for which Carson’s frame (6’ 2”, 220 pounds) was well-suited.
Carson went on to appear in more than 100 movies, playing roles described as “bluff blowhards or happy-go-lucky sidekicks” in pictures such as Strawberry Blonde (1941) with James Cagney and Rita Hayworth, Gentleman Jim with Errol Flynn (1942) and as Officer O‘Hara in Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant (1944). He also teamed up with Dennis Morgan for musical comedies and was in a couple films with Doris Day, with whom he had a brief romance.
Carson found his way into dramas, as well, including A Star is Born (1954) with Judy Garland (where he played a “backstabbing publicity chief”), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Burl Ives, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman (as the brother of Newman’s character) and Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford (1945).
Carol Donelan, associate professor of cinema and media studies at Carleton, told me that when she teaches Mildred Pierce every year in her Film Noir class, she points out Carson’s portrayal of real estate agent Wally Fay, a jerk who is always “on the make.” Yet, Donelan said, “You can’t help liking him. He’s charming. The ability to make us like and empathize with a smarmy jerk is a testament to Jack Carson’s considerable acting skills. You can tell he’s having fun with the role.” Her students are always “thrilled to claim him as a fellow Carl.” (Carson once told an interviewer that Carleton was his school, though “perhaps I’m prouder of it than it is of me.” He joked that its name “doesn’t lead itself easily to any good vaudeville gags. Like Siwash.”)
Carson also was a guest and host on television shows in the 1950s, with his own show on NBC 1954-1955. In the fall of 1962, he collapsed during a rehearsal for a Broadway play. The diagnosis was stomach cancer, which claimed his life Jan. 2, 1963. He was only 52 years old. From his funeral, an AP photo was sent out of his fourth wife, Sandra Jolley, in tears “on the arm of Sid Freeman.”
A columnist once called Carson “the best educated and most erudite actor in the film industry.” In response, Carson wrote: “Thank you. I want you to know I didn’t have to go to the dictionary to see what ‘erudite’ meant.”
According to Dan Freeman, Sid was a “hero worshiper” who actually befriended his heroes. Sid would say, “I like to find out what makes them tick! Sometimes I can’t see it, but you stick around with them for a while and you find out most of them are a lot smarter than people think and most of them are more determined and goal-oriented.” Sid, the clothier, “had a head for business,” said Dan. “He knew when to turn it on and really go to work at it.” And then he “wanted to have fun” and loved meeting famous people. That was, said Dan, sort of Sid’s hobby.
The Jaycee award citation Sid was given in 1966 called Sid “Northfield’s international goodwill ambassador. He has made friends all over the world and has a knack of meeting important and average people in the same easy manner, making them feel comfortable immediately. Counted among his friends are statesmen, entertainers and big-league athletic stars. But more importantly, he has never forgotten his friends at home – here in Northfield.”