Historic Happenings, The Book
Originally Published in the January 2015 Entertainment Guide
I have occasionally been asked, “When will there be a book of your columns?” Now I have an answer: A book with the catchy title Historic Happenings was published last month, through a partnership of The Entertainment Guide and Northfield Historical Society Press. It is a compilation of selected columns which were originally published in the Guide between 2007 and 2013. Other volumes will follow, including historic happenings at St. Olaf and Carleton colleges.
A book signing was held during Winter Walk on Dec. 11, 2014 at the Northfield Historical Society (right next to picture-taking with the James-Younger Gang) and, on Jan. 15, 2015, I will be giving a presentation at the Northfield Historical Society at 6:30 pm which can be considered the official “book launch” (outlaws invited).
Because I have written 95 columns since the first one in February of 2007, I had the hard task of choosing 20 topics for this first book. But there was no doubt at all about one column I would be including from May of 2011, titled “Maggie Lee: Northfield’s Purple People-Pleaser.” Maggie, whose love of cats and wearing the color purple was legendary, was in her 67th year of having worked for the Northfield News as writer and editor when I wrote about her. During Northfield’s Sesquicentennial celebration in 2005, her book, Northfield Ink: Community Stories Along Division Street, was published and she had a far more daunting task than I had. She had written 990 Do You Remember? columns about people and events in Northfield’s past and had room for only 75.
I am pleased at the idea that, as time goes by, a newcomer may pick up my book and say, “This Maggie Lee, what an amazing character!” In this column, I plan to tell you what happened after I wrote about several amazing people in our community. My column on Maggie was written just before a celebration of her 90th year was held at the Grand Event Center on June 5, 2011. Maggie’s minister, Will Healy, emceed and entertainment was by Northfield’s Hall of Fame performers, Marilyn Sellars and Johnny Western. Craig Wasner played a song with Scott Richardson’s lyrics to the tune of Rawhide, including the words, “Rolling, rolling, rolling, keep those presses rolling, Maggie!” Maggie basked in the attention.
Maggie kept on writing columns until June of 2012, when she was hospitalized and ended up at Three Links Care Center. A few weeks later, I was among a group on the patio of the Contented Cow, talking about our concern for her. John Thomas said, “We should have a day when everyone wears purple for her.” A light bulb could have been sketched above my head. I said, “Why not?” On July 26, 2012, we held a “Wear Purple for Maggie Lee Day” in downtown Northfield, in conjunction with Crazy Daze and Taste of Northfield. Richardson emceed what he called our “pop-up concert,” leading the singing of his Rawhide-inspired tribute song, The Ballad of Maggie Lee. Randy Ferguson helped with the music – including an arrangement of Purple People Eater, a song with Maggie’s favorite color in it. Maggie’s great friend, Marilyn Sellars, came down from Edina to sing several songs, including her own hit, One Day at a Time. During the day, the Northfield News office hosted Prairie’s Edge Humane Society with cages of cats for adoption which was called “Meows for Maggie.” WCCO-TV in Minneapolis sent down a crew to take in the event, as the community came together to wear purple and honor Maggie Lee.
Maggie held on for more than a year at Three Links until she passed away at the age of 92 on July 8, 2013. Her friends Char Bezanson and Linda Wasner had kept watch over her, as did Sharon Gates Hull until her untimely death in an auto accident. Linda, a family friend who had worked with Maggie at the Northfield News in the late 1980s, told me that Maggie “accepted growing old with such grace. That was probably the most valuable gift she taught me.” Chip DeMann visited her often and made phone connections so she could contact Marilyn Sellars and Johnny Western. He told me, “It meant a lot to them to be able to talk to Maggie in her final days.” DeMann, who is the leader of the James-Younger Gang, credits Maggie for her “helpful guidance” in getting details of the bank raid right for Defeat of Jesse James Days re-creations. He served with Maggie on the board of the Northfield Historical Society (of which she was a founder). When she was uncomfortable, DeMann said she was not hesitant to express this loudly at Three Links, but he told me she was “lucid to the end.”
One final contribution came from Maggie Lee upon her death: She willed her body to the Mayo Clinic for educational purposes.
There was also no doubt that I would include in my book a column I wrote for May of 2008 about Northfield’s two music Hall of Fame performers already mentioned as Maggie Lee’s friends, Marilyn Sellars and Johnny Western. Both are graduates of Northfield High School. (Marilyn is from Bridgewater Township and attended District 97 country school before high school.) Their careers are covered in the book. Both have maintained affectionate ties with this area. Most recently, Marilyn performed with Steven C. Anderson last Nov. 30 at a benefit for Ruth’s House in Faribault which provides emergency and transitional housing for women and children. In 2013, Marilyn was featured in Joan Kennedy’s book Unlocking the Secrets of Successful Women, about Minnesota women who shared strategies for achieving goals. Marilyn’s website is marilynsellars.com.
Johnny Western had his own show at the age of 15, singing and playing guitar for Faribault’s radio station KDHL in 1949. He went on to perform with Gene Autry and Johnny Cash and, in 1958, he wrote and sang the theme song, The Ballad of Paladin, for the CBS-TV show Have Gun, Will Travel. He recently sent me an e-mail from Mesa, Arizona, to update his activities. He said he had retired from the concert circuit a year ago and from his KFDI radio show in Wichita, Kansas, four and a half years ago. He told me, “I turned 80 on Oct. 28 and am loving having no schedule for the first time in 64 years.” He continued, “After working with Johnny Cash for 40 years, on stage and playing guitar on 71 singles and five albums with him, I did many interviews for the best-selling book Johnny Cash – The Life, by Robert Hilburn, longtime critic for the L.A. Times.” He was about to fly to Hollywood, “to tape a documentary on Johnny’s life and the years that I spent with him.” Johnny has been the chairman of the Hall of Fame Committee for the Western Music Association and will continue to do that. But, he said, “after several million miles on the road and those 64 years in radio, records, TV and movies, I am very happy to stay home here in Mesa, Arizona, with my wife, Jo. The temp here was 75 today!” Johnny concluded, “Whenever I do an interview, I am still so proud to say that Northfield was my hometown and the greatest place in the world to have grown up in.”
Another obvious choice for inclusion in the book was “Unforgettable Sid Freeman” from February of 2013. Sid Freeman, native of Cannon Falls, made his fortune with a chain of men’s clothing shops called the Hub which started in Northfield and with formal wear rentals called Skeffington’s which had 23 stores in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Sid hobnobbed with celebrities in the fields of entertainment, sports and politics and was instrumental in bringing professional baseball and football to Minnesota. In truth, one reason I wrote this story was because I wanted to also include Sid’s son, Dan Freeman, who had such a presence in Northfield that he was called “Mr. Northfield.” When I interviewed Dan about his father, he said that he could get more photos of his father for the story if I waited until summer when he could get them from storage. But I could tell Dan was in failing health and his time was running out.
Dan wore a variety of hats (sometimes literally), including running Freeman’s Formal Wear from his home and driving for EcoTrans. He acted in more than 70 stage productions throughout Southern Minnesota. He was a familiar sight as narrator of the bank raid re-enactments on Division Street during Defeat of Jesse James Days and a familiar voice on KYMN radio for more than 40 years, ending up as host of a Sunday morning program. A true raconteur, Dan reveled in regaling newcomers with stories of his beloved hometown of Northfield and in reminiscing with old-timers.
Dan told me that from an early age he was inspired by his parents to find ways to “give back to the community that gave me so much.” In 2005, he stepped up to be coordinator of Northfield’s Sesquicentennial activities. He also took it upon himself to get funding (with metaphoric hat in hand) for Northfield’s annual 4th of July fireworks display (around $10,000), using what Rob Schanilec calls his “incredible charisma and connections” to do so, year after year.
On Jan. 25, 2013, a tribute and benefit for Dan called “Stepping Out for Mr. Northfield” was held at the Grand Event Center, both to honor him and ease his financial concerns. Afterwards, he told me, “It’s one of the great things about Northfield, the way we look after each other.”
Unfortunately, Dan passed away just months later, on May 6, 2013. After a funeral reception, a group of his friends gathered at the Rueb ‘n’ Stein (which Dan had been proprietor of from 1975 to 1983), wondering how they might keep Dan’s legacy alive, especially in regard to fireworks. From that and many conversations which followed, the Freeman Fireworks Endowment Fund was established with the aim of generating funds to provide fireworks on the Fourth of July for Northfield in perpetuity. More can be found at fireworks55057.org.
“You’re listening to the new sound in town, KYMN radio. Let’s boogie!” This was the opening of the Sept. 2008 story, “Wayne Eddy Recounts 40 Years of KYMN,” and these were Wayne’s words as the strains of Up, Up and Away, sung by the Fifth Dimension, soared out over the air waves on Sept. 27, 1968. Of course, no way could I leave out Wayne from my book. The story details the St. Paul native’s rise from WTMB radio in Toma, Wisconsin, through radio and TV work at KAUS in Austin, Minn., to KYMN (1080 on your AM dial) where he still masterfully conducts his show, The Wayne Eddy Affair, interviewing an array of people each weekday morning. It is no wonder that, in 2007, Wayne was inducted into the Minnesota Museum of Broadcasting’s Hall of Fame. Wayne, one of the founders of the Northfield Historical Society, has quite a legacy with the Defeat of Jesse James Days, too, as you can read in the book – including the reason he rode in the parade one year with a small fire extinguisher attached to his saddle.
August of 2014 marked Wayne’s 50th year in broadcasting and he was honored with an open house at the Grand Event Center on Sept. 13. The tables were turned when KYMN station owner Jeff Johnson did a series of interviews with Wayne on Wayne’s own show. Wayne has now conducted more than 1,000 interviews for The Wayne Eddy Affair since April of 2006, an accomplishment of inestimable historic value. Many are accessible at the Northfield Historical Society and kymnradio.net. He has also been the subject of a videotaped NHS oral history.
“Laura MacKenzie: Celtic Music Wizard” appeared in June of 2013, in our annual June music issue. The first sentence declared that “You cannot be much more of a ‘townie’ than Laura MacKenzie, even though she left Northfield for a while before returning in 2011 to live on the same street where she grew up.” Her paternal grandfather was the only Northfield mayor elected to three successive terms, her maternal grandfather was a distinguished Carleton College English professor and her parents ran a well-known Northfield gift shop on Division Street called MacKenzie’s for more than 25 years. Laura’s story includes her musical experiences at Northfield High School, her introduction to Scottish music in Edinburgh during college and her varied career as a performer on various wind instruments and as promoter of Celtic music.
In the fall of 2013, Laura performed in the world premiere of a play about the immigrant experience, Steerage Song, which was produced by Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis. She also toured Minnesota with the company this past November. Shortly thereafter, Laura was honored by the Irish and Music Dance Association at The Celtic Junction in St. Paul, with the City of St. Paul and mayor Chris Coleman declaring Nov. 22, 2014, as “Laura MacKenzie Day” in St. Paul by proclamation.
Also in 2014, Laura’s latest CD, From Uig to Duluth, was launched in Northfield, Duluth and Minneapolis. The CD is a collection of traditional Scots Gaelic music and song with a special connection to Scottish heritage in Minnesota. This past holiday season, Laura was a member of the ensemble of SimpleGifts with Billy McLaughlin. The Traditional Irish Music Sessions which she initiated in Northfield continue on Wednesdays, 7-9 pm, at the Corner Room of the Rueb ‘n’ Stein, open to both musicians and listeners. Laura’s website is lauramackenzie.com.
Other people featured in the book are Laura Baker, who moved her school for what were then called “nervous and backward children” from Minneapolis to Northfield in 1898 and whose legacy is preserved in the Laura Baker Services Association; Yosh Murakami, the beloved vocal teacher in Northfield schools; and three residents who were the Jeopardy! answer to the question, “Who are Northfield’s Quiz Show Aces?”– Hillemann, Crippen and Soule.
The book also contains stories about early merchant Hiram Scriver and John North, who founded Northfield in 1855. I wrote about North’s ties to Abraham Lincoln and the Lyceum he established where settlers could seek “intellectual improvement” through a reading room, library and debate on issues of the day. North inserted a clause into every deed of land that “No intoxicating drinks shall be sold or in any manner furnished as a beverage on said premises” and I included a story of how ax-wielding settlers promoted temperance in 1858.
Also included are stories on the Archer House (which opened in 1877) and the 1899 openings of the Ware Auditorium (now the Grand Event Center) and Odd Fellows building (at the site of Three Links today). There is a recounting of the day General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech before 10,000 in Laird Stadium in 1952, just before he was elected president, of the tragic day in 1915 when lions attacked their trainer during a carnival, the 1997 Northfield Raiders’ state football championship season and the beloved popcorn wagon brought to Bridge Square by Vera Johansen in 1979. And, of course, I had to include the infamous day of “Robbery & Murder!” on Sept. 7, 1876, when the James-Younger Gang tried to rob First National Bank but met its match, along with a story about the 1981 filming of In Search of Jesse James in Northfield.
When I do the book presentation and book signing at the Northfield Historical Society (408 Division St.) at 6:30 pm on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 I have a special treat in store for those who come. A few weeks before Christmas, what to my wondering eyes did appear in Econofoods but a display rack filled with Chicago Mix popped corn, from “G.H. Cretors, Since 1885,” with a picture on all the packages of a popcorn wagon very much like our 1918 wagon. And, indeed, our popcorn wagon was made by a Cretors family company. I loaded up my car trunk with packages of this “buttery caramel corn & rich cheddar cheese corn, two favorites in every handful,” and if I don’t go through them all myself by mid-January, I will share them with you!
Susan Hvistendahl’s Historic Happenings book is being sold at the Northfield Historical Society, 408 Division St., at By All Means Graphics, 17 Bridge Square and at northfield history.org.
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