Highway 61 Revisited

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks
Week Eighteen "Road Trip" I love a good road trip! Here are a few ways you might interpret this prompt: an ancestor who moved a long distance, an ancestor who traveled for work, an ancestor you took a road trip in order to research, an ancestor who was a mechanic or was involved in the automobile business.

In July 1955, when I was just three months shy of turning four, my mother gave birth to my sister, Joan. That’s when my parents became the proud owners of a quartet of children, ages three and under—a lone boy and three girls.

At that time, our family lived in Richfield, Minnesota—just a stone’s throw from Bloomington—in a suburban neighborhood built for, and bought by, GIs. The homes stood in rows as straight as soldiers at attention. Only the ramblers’ assorted shake-cedar siding colors broke their uniform look.

Postwar peace held the promise of a new prosperity, christened the American Dream. It included home ownership, 2.5 children, full employment, a car in the driveway, and a family vacation every year.

We were the lucky ones. It would be naïve to look back  on my cultural experience of the 1950s and assume everyone had access to its good fortune. However, its comfortable affluence was also tempered with an economic practicality from many whose parents had experienced economic devastation during the Depression.

Most families usually had only one vehicle then. And although Disneyland opened July 17, 1955, just three days after Joan was born, our family wouldn’t be driving cross-country from the Midwest for that kind of family vacation.

Instead, during the 1950s and ‘60s, we drove Minnesota’s Highway 61 to our pleasure destinations, where we stayed for a few hours (a day trip), a few days (a short stay), or a week (a family vacation). In many ways, traveling Highway 61, created its own unique tourist experience, depending which part of its corridor we took. Its southern winding route followed Minnesota’s scenic bluff lines. Its east-Central portion cut through Minnesota’s old pine-logging region. And its northeastern section navigated Lake Superior’s north shoreline—as it still does today. 

Northward Bound 
This Stylemaster carried us to our vacation destination in Northern Minnesota.
My earliest memories of Highway 61 are marked with Dad behind the wheel of the 1948, light blue, Chevrolet Stylemaster sedan, driving us on its northbound route. We four kids wedged into its back seat, and a car top carrier on its roof, crammed with a week’s worth of clothing and supplies, let us and the rest of the world know we were going on vacation.

Many times, our destination took us off this main travel artery onto lesser roads. Family slides of a small Minnesota resort, possibly located on Cass Lake, testify to one of our first road trips north, where we vacationed for a week with other young families like ours. My parents had forged friendships with Dad’s work colleagues at Warner Hardware in Minneapolis. Their families also had more than the average 2.5 children.

Maloney, McMahon & Simkins families gather for their vacation.
Vacationing with them offered a welcome relief from the usual routine for everyone. The men fished together. Women relaxed more as the extra eyes of other women helped watch their children. Sibling rivalry disappeared, replaced by a celebratory revelry that came from playing with kids other than our own brothers and sisters.

When we arrived at the lake, we passed through an invisible portal into a new time zone—lake time. Lake time operated on a nature-driven, not a clock-driven, schedule. It’s where the lake became our local grocery store, and its beach, water and the woods surrounding it turned into our new playground.

Checking out an upcoming meal
Breakfast, lunch and dinner menus could all include fish without anyone objecting or calling it unusual. The only play equipment we needed were our own bodies and imaginations.

Waning light determined our bedtimes. When the sun set, which wasn’t  until almost 10 p.m., we headed to our cabins to put on our pajamas. Then we rendezvoused  around the nightly campfire, where s’mores, songs and stories waited to close out our day.

Dry kindling and fallen tree branches fueled that fire. Larger logs became our benches and sturdy, green sapling branches served as roasting sticks for marshmallows. Whether plump-golden perfection or fire-blackened failure, those marshmallows were sandwiched between two graham
"Some more s'mores," was the nightly cry around the campfire.
crackers, after being topped with two squares from a Hershey chocolate bar. I didn’t know then who had come up with this gooey, delicious treat called s’mores. I’ve learned since then that no one knows for sure when they came to be. However, Loretta Scott Crews, who made s’mores for Girl Scouts around a campfire, is credited with the recipe, which
Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts published in 1927.

We licked off any sticky mess this iconic campfire treat left on our fingers, or had its residue haphazardly wiped from our faces. Lake time had no scheduled bathing times. The body of water we moved through during the day naturally cleaned our own bodies.

Songs around the campfire included folk classics like Michael Row the Boat Ashore and Kumbaya. Both songs had been sung and recorded by The Weavers, a folk group formed by Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger in 1948.

During the Red Scare of the McCarthy era, the entertainment industry blacklisted Pete Seeger as a purported Communist, causing the FBI to put the entire group under surveillance. Radio and television banned their performances, their songs got no airplay and music stores refused to sell their records. Decca Records’ refusal to renew their recording contract, in 1953, caused the Weavers to disband.** But no one could keep us from singing their songs around our beloved campfires.

We ended our fireside evenings by sharing stories—about our days, our lives, our memories. The sunfish my brother, Buck, caught from the dock early in the morning had grown into a 31-inch, 20-pound Walleye by the time we gathered around the campfire. The squirrel that skittered through the underbrush, while we hiked through the woods that afternoon, turned into a black bear we outran to safety. But the most epic renderings of all were the ghost stories the adults told just before putting us to bed. They were frightening, but our exhaustion from another day at the lake in the Northwoods kept the fear at bay that those terrifying tales delivered. Sleep saved us.

For me, nothing has ever replaced the campfire experience. The crackling sound made by the flames licking the logs were like the finger snaps and distant applause of the gods joining in our nightly celebration of a day well- and fully-lived. Those same gods sent us to bed wrapped in and blessed by the incense from the campfire’s smoke. 

Heading South 
Our family’s southern treks on Highway 61, usually day trips, took us to Lake City or Red Wing. Lake City was Dad’s first home after he was born in Minneapolis in 1926. Shortly before his birth, his dad, my grandfather, Thomas Maloney, left his job in Hibbing, Minnesota’s iron ore mines when the Minnesota State Highway Department undertook a Highway 61 improvement project between Wabasha and Lake City, Minnesota.

An article from The Dead Pioneer website** notes that even though most of the road between Lake City and Wabasha was improved in the early 1920s, it remained a gravel surface when first marked as Highway 61 in 1926. With plans to resurface, as well as to realign the highway along the southern shore of Lake Pepin, this opportunity fit my grandfather’s heavy equipment skills, which he first learned from his father, Dennis Maloney,  and then honed by running steam shovels and other heavy equipment and machinery in the iron mines of Michigan and Minnesota.

Dad’s family lived in Lake City until 1935, when the Highway 61 project wound down. That’s when Grandpa Tom decided to return to the Northern Minnesota iron mines and moved his family to Keewatin.

I didn’t know about Grandpa’s work or Dad’s childhood connection to Lake City when we took those southern treks down Highway 61 to spend time on the shore of Lake Pepin. In my teen  years, when camping vacations and day trips had given way to a family too large to accommodate them, Grandpa Tom would visit and regale us with stories about Dad’s boyhood antics there.

Mom with my sister, Rita, and brother, Buck, on the shores of Lake Pepin, circa 1957
At five years old, Dad attempted to take a cruise on Lake Pepin by boarding the excursion ferry. When he embarked, he positioned himself between a young couple to make it look like they were his parents. However, a captain with a good eye spotted the pretender and escorted the potential stowaway off the boat before launching.

A couple of years later, this young adventurer, undaunted by any sort of fear, seized the opportunity to be an uninvited passenger on a delivery truck. When he observed its driver hauling produce into the local grocery store, Dad hoisted himself into the back of the truck where he remained undiscovered until the driver’s next delivery in Wabasha, 15 miles down the road. Most likely, the trucker’s greatest displeasure that day was the extra delivery added to his schedule that required him to return a seven-year-old package to Lake City. Perhaps his greatest pleasure was unloading that package, or maybe spending time with a delightful, red-headed imp.

When Dad drove that part of Highway 61 with us, I wonder if he looked at it with a sense of pride, knowing his father’s part in carving it out. I also wonder if it put him in touch with that boy who lived the first nine years of his life in Lake City.

If Dad didn’t feel like driving as far as Lake City from Richfield, we’d often stop in Red Wing. Although the Mighty Mississippi runs through it, we didn’t spend our time near the water there, like we had in Lake City. Instead, we drove to the top of its bluffs where we hiked to a safe perch in the rocks to get an eagle’s eye view of the town.

At left, Mary, Buck & Rita take in Red Wing. At right, Buck and Mary broke away from Rita to get a different viewpoint. Joan, most likely, was hanging out with Mom

We worked up an appetite climbing the rocks and running atop the bluffs. Our hunger was the signal to find a park to eat lunch. Mom always packed a large wicker picnic basket for our day trips. Recently she told me, “We didn’t have any money then, but we always had food. That was a priority.”

Hearty appetities devour a picnic in the park.
She unpacked a feast for us at those picnics. It might have included mustard-slathered bologna sandwiches on Wonder Bread, potato chips, pickles and Thermos bottles filled with Kool Aid or homemade lemonade. Occasionally, there might be a six-pack of soda.

Red Wing Pottery Salesroom, circa 1958
When we finished eating, one of two things would happen.  We would either pack up and head home or, if our behavior warranted it, we would take a tour of the Red Wing Pottery Salesroom and take a tour of the factory. That’s where we learned about the history of the pottery industry in Minnesota and witnessed the manufacturing steps it took to transform Red Wing clay into a pickle crock, a flower vase, a water pitcher, or any number of other practical and decorative creations produced at the pottery factory.

Red Wing Pottery decorating room, circa 1950
Mom and Dad used side trips like this in our travels in the state to introduce and connect us to a bit of Minnesota history, tradition or culture. The exposure may have been over our heads at the time, but Mom and Dad infused jaunts like this with so much enthusiasm, it truly made them memorable experiences.

It wasn’t until after Dad died in 2016 that I learned he had two strong connections to Red Wing. After graduating from Duluth Business University in 1947, he got his first job there. He went to work for Kernkamp’s Firestone, but only for a couple of years. That’s because Red Wing was the place where he met a woman he fell in love with who agreed to become his wife. But she broke the engagement, along with his heart. That’s when he left Red Wing for Minneapolis.  His experience at Kernkamps helped him secure a job with Warner Hardware.

Kernkamp's, c. 1948, Dad's first workplace after graduating from Duluth Business University

After learning about Dad’s Red Wing ties, I tried to remember if we ever stopped at a store where Dad told us he once worked. If we did, it didn’t leave an impression on me. I also wonder if he ever hoped to get a glimpse of that lost love on one of our treks through town. Or, if he did. 

Back to the Northland 
Camping trips in Northern Minnesota would eventually continue to be our vacation choice, but not with other families, as in the early years. Life got in the way of our annual vacations for about four years.

In 1958, my maternal grandmother, Agnes, was dying from brain cancer. We used our summer vacation time to travel to Wisconsin to visit her as often as we could. She died on December 15 that year. Although expected, Grandma’s death sent Mom reeling. Two weeks later, she received even more staggering news. Her 23-year old brother, Frank, became the first 1959 traffic fatality in Wisconsin,  when he lost control of his car on an icy highway in Polk County.

In the summer of 1959, Mom wasn’t in the mood for summer camping since my sister, Nancy, was due in September. The following summer, we moved from Richfield to North St. Paul at the beginning of June and spent the summer unpacking and settling in. In April, 1961, Mom gave birth to her sixth child—Barb. Camping wasn’t in the cards for that summer either.

However, in 1962, former neighbors from Richfield, the Tichiches, offered us their camper for our summer vacation. By this time, Mom was pregnant with my brother, Pat, but he wasn’t due until mid-October. Since the camper had its own cooking facilities to make meal preparation easier, she agreed to go. The other big selling point for her was Dad’s agreement to her stipulation that she and the two youngest children would sleep in the camper, while Dad and we four oldest would tent it.

Thanks to our old friends, the Tichiches, we got a summer vacation in 1962

There may have been campfires that summer, but I don’t have a clear memory of them. We usually took day trips to see some of the Great North’s tourist attractions. That summer, we visited the shores of Lake Bemidji to see the statues of Paul Bunyan and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox.

The City of Bemidji’s tourism website*** says that “big as a mountain and strong as a grizzly bear” is how folks describe Paul Bunyan, their local folk hero.  The town claimed Paul Bunyan as its native son and marked that distinction by building the statues in 1937.

It’s rumored that the idea for building the giant statue of Paul Bunyan was hatched by Bemidji Rotary Club members over a pint—or two—for the town’s annual carnival. It came to fruition 737 man-hours later. Cyril Dickinson directed construction of the 18-foot tall,  2.5-ton, steel-and-mortar giant, using then-mayor, Earl Bucklen, as his model. In 1988, the National Parks Service officially honored this tourism legend as a cultural resource worthy of preservation, adding it to the National Register of Historic Places.

Our family alongside Minnesota's best-know roadside colossus
The statues have also been identified as Minnesota’s first and best-known example of “roadside colossus.” Additionally, Bemidji gets credit for being pioneers in promoting tourism in northern Minnesota. In 2010, Time Magazine rated this pair as one of the Top 50 roadside attractions in America. Prior to that, Eastman Kodak had recognized the statues as the second most-photographed roadside attraction in the nation. Our family took one of those photographs in 1962.

However, by this time, I was on the cusp of adolescence and merely tolerating some of the tourist stops on our vacation. Without that photo, I doubt that I would have any memory of visiting Paul and Babe in Bemidji. But that same year, we stopped at another Paul Bunyan venue in Baxter, Minnesota. I carry an indelible memory of that visit.

The animated Paul Bunyan in Brainerd, Minnesota
This Paul Bunyan, situated just beyond the entrance to a small amusement park, greeted every child, who walked through the turnstile, by name. The fact that the esteemed giant, who was 27 feet tall in a sitting position, knew my name, as well as my siblings’ names, and greeted us with both a wave and a welcome, had me floating on air, despite my impending adolescence.

There was one more giant we stopped to meet in the Northland that year—a myth from literature, not folklore. In 1959, the Minnesota State Fair featured a 26-foot, one-ton statue depicting Neptune wielding his trident in his right hand and cradling a replica of the freighter Ramon de Larrinaga in his left hand.

The King of the Sea ruled over Duluth Harbor for a time
The State Fair Board had commissioned the statue to commemorate the arrival of that freighter in Duluth from Liverpool, England. As the first saltwater vessel to pass through the Duluth Canal, on May 3, 1959, it marked the opening of St. Lawrence Seaway and tied Duluth to the ports of the world, making it an international shipping center. Following the Fair, the State Fair Board gave the statue to the city, which placed it in Canal Park.

We visited Duluth Harbor, an international shipping port in 1962
Luckily, we also got  a photo of our visit to Neptune in 1962. The next year, the statue burned to the ground. On June 3, when a maintenance crew used torches to remove the statue from its base for cleaning and repair, they discovered the monument was only papier mâché covered in plastic. This Neptune met his demise when errant sparks from those torches made contact.

There is nothing in my memory, or the family slide collection, to prove that we took a family vacation in the summer of ’63. The seventh child, and baby of the family, would have only been eight months old. Mom had been a trooper the year before, despite the comfort of the camper. That vacation required her to pack both a playpen and stroller to rail in the youngest of her brood then—15-month old Barb. Mom deserved a vacation from the family vacation that year.

In 1964, photographic evidence suggests we stuck more closely to the Highway 61 route, taking in its roadside tourist attractions, including one of its numerous iconic souvenir shops. These shops, much like those today, sold spoons, post cards, maps and a plethora of other Minnesota merchandise, so customers could prove they had been in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Buck fights the bad guy while the Sheriff looks on
However, yesteryear’s souvenir shops offered more than just
buying opportunities for tourists. A fenced area in back of the souvenir shop where we stopped—my sister recalls its name was Ponderosa—had live deer we could pet, both does and fawns. A taxidermized, open-mouthed, sharp-toothed bear, up on its haunches, with spiked-claw paws in attack mode, brought us safely closer to nature. A gunfight with an inanimate, bad-guy cowboy gave my 11-year old brother a dose of big-man excitement.

I’m not sure we camped that year. No photographs attest to it.  Perhaps we stayed at my paternal-grandparents’ home in Keewatin, an hour outside of Duluth, and took side trips from there.

This double-exposure is a surreal documentation of Mary, Buck, Rita & Joan's first crossing of the Mississippi.
I believe 1964 was when we four oldest—who have often referred to ourselves as The First Family—walked across the Mississippi River at its headwaters on Lake Itasca. It may have also been the year we learned our grandparents’ neighbor was Jerry Mathers’ aunt. Mathers, the star of the television show Leave It to Beaver,  had been the Grand Marshal of the Keewatin 4th of July parade, which we missed by a week.

As far as I can remember, 1964 ended our family treks along Highway 61. Apparently seven children and two adults traveling with vacation accoutrements would have even been taxing for the nine-passenger station wagons of that era. There would be three more children who arrived in our household in 1966, 1967 and 1969. They would have their own family vacations that I wouldn’t be part of, since I was off to college when the youngest was only 6 months old.

I’m not sure what their vacations were like or if they included the same budgetary constraints as our family’s early vacations did. I remember how I often longed for some of those souvenirs from the wayside shops, but the abundance of children restricted that. The distance between then and now has changed my perspective. There’s no way I would trade the rich experiences from those vacations, for cheap souvenirs from roadside shops.



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