Childhood Recollections of Montfort, Wisconsin
The following essay was created from speaking notes prepared in the 1970s by the late Donald Hill, son of Victor and Emma (Carr) Hill. He was asked to speak in Montfort, Wisconsin, for the occasion of the town's 150th anniversary in the 1970s.
Don's goal was to amuse the audience with his early recollections of Montfort -- so the stories are mostly humorous, and not intended to be taken as entirely factual or as a complete history of Montfort in that era. The essay was transcribed from his handwritten notecards, so any misspelling of names is mostly the fault of the transcriber (his son).
I really appreciate the honor of speaking to you on the 150th anniversary of the founding of Montfort. I am always happy to return to Montfort even if it's for only a weekend. I'm always interested in seeing what changes have taken place and to see familiar faces. It is really the people that make up the character of a community, but in a village like Montfort you have many other favorable assets--gentle hills, woods, streams, waterfalls, Perish's Bluff, Tucker's Spring and surrounding fields and farms.
In some parts of the world such as China, India, and certain Near East countries it is considered a lifelong obligation to maintain fidelity to one's place of birth. This is not so in the United States, but I firmly believe that there are hundreds, of people like me who were born -or lived in Montfort feel the same kind of close identification with it. I'm confident that I am speaking for all former residents who are here today to help you celebrate this important occasion.
I want to try to give you my impressions of what life was like in Montfort during the years I lived here. This would cover roughly the late 1920's up to 1950.
The last house I lived in was the big red brick on the hill near the school now owned by Bob Klindt. It was thought for many years to be haunted because it had been vacant for a long time before we bought it. Before we moved in my father had to stay in it alone for a few nights to prove to us it wasn't really haunted. [Editor's note: the late Dr. Robert W. Klindt, D.V.M. was a veterinarian in Montfort from 1961-95 or so. Here's a link to his obituary].
One of the main sources of entertainment in Montfort was watching the volunteer firemen in action. When the siren sounded, you simply called central and the operator told you where the fire was.
One fire I recall very vividly was the John Dewitt Fire. At the outset the fire truck had two flat tires and the battery was dead. It had to be pushed down to Jessie Bower's filling station on the corner where Merle's Barber shop is. After finally getting the motor started and some air in the tires, it chugged up the hill to the John Dewitt house in the northwest part of town.
Upon arrival a fireman asked everyone in the audience for a stick match to find the wrench to turn on the fire hydrant. Finally the wrench was found in the toolbox and someone ran up the street to the hydrant with one end of the hose. The connection was made and the water was turned on. The only trouble was that no one was manning the end of the hose with the nozzle. It started to snake around all over the place getting all the audience and the firemen drenched.
The Harry Divall Fire was significant in another respect. I remember I was standing below the upper story window on the lawn when all of a sudden I saw a cardboard box flying through the air. It was a box of dishes and every dish in the box was broken upon impact. A little later two firemen came casually walking down the stairs carrying a mattress. Everyone near me went into hysterics at the logic of the situation.
The best solution to any firefighting problem was to first knock out all the windows and chop a hole in the roof. This gave the fire a little air and a fighting chance.
I really want to say, despite these incidents, that the fire department, which was completely voluntary, generally did a very good job in putting out the fires.
Halloween was another occasion for entertainment in Montfort, particularly if the weather was favorable. There were approximately four different classes of participants:
The regular trick or treaters and bell ringers
Moving Crews -- everything not nailed down was moved. Corn shocks decorated most of the downtown area. Usually at least one of the old fashioned wooden sanitary structures was placed in the square along with old cars, buggies and farm implements. One of the recipients of the movable material was inevitably Bill Moise. One year apparently he felt he'd had enough and got out his shotgun. One blast from it and everybody scattered. Catherine Divall happened to be an onlooker near me and was almost decapitated on Haney's clothesline in her flight.
The fourth class consisted of the hard core vandals. I was not usually permitted to join this group because my father was always waiting nearby to escort his boys home. If we didn't get home fast enough to suit him, he'd make us go out and split some wood saying that if we had that much energy he might as well put it to use.
Charivaris were somewhat akin to Halloween. Whenever anyone got married a large group serenaded the newlyweds with tin cans, horns, bells and whatever else could be found to make noise. After a while the bride and groom would appear. A reward of money to get ice cream at one of the stores was usually given.
There were at least six doctors in Montfort that I can remember:
Dr. Ketterer, the MD; Doc Ketterer was the typical country doctor and practiced in the community for over 40 years. When I went in for some disablement he would invariably say "Now what's the matter with you?" Actually he was very kind hearted and went far beyond the call of duty at all times of the day or night in any kind of weather to take care of someone. When my brother Jerry was born and we were giving him his first wagon ride down the hill in front of Ketterer's house, Mrs. Ketterer ran out and said "For heavens' sake, let me see him before you kill him."
Dr. Pope, the Dentist
Dr. Stanton, a Veterinarian
Dr. Kalfonda, our Optometrist
Dr. Rudolph, who I guess could be considered a doctor of Mystical Sciences
Dr. Nechkash. I could never figure out how Dr. Nechkash got his title.
Rufus Quick edited the Montfort Mail and Tillie Frankland wrote for the Fennimore Times. If you had relatives from far away points like Preston it was sure to get in the papers. No one who died in Montfort appeared in the obituary column as having done anything but good all their lives.
One time Rufus had a headline in the paper during World War II "TANK RUNS OVER A HILL (DON W. THAT IS)."[Editor’s note: Don Hill was in fact run over by a tank in Europe during WWII, luckily avoiding the treads on either side. This incident may have been the source of Don’s mild case of claustrophobia].
The Village Marshall in my earliest years was Nels T. Nelson. He was followed by Bill Heddin. Nels T. was very good in solving the most difficult cases. Once he had a very exciting experience because John Dillinger was reported to be heading for Montfort. I can remember that many people took the same kind of precautions as you would in a tornado watch. They crouched in their basements and turned out the lights.
Bill Frankland was the postmaster when I first came on the scene. In the mid thirties Henry O'Brien took over. It was about this time that I developed a deep interest in getting a lot of mail. I started to send in dozens of coupons for samples and answered ads just to get a response. In order to get medical samples I became Dr. Hill. Other samples required establishment of the Hill Corporation. The address was 110 Pine Drive.
Soon I was getting so much mail that they almost had to hire additional help at the post office. Our small box was always overflowing and a special box had to be created to handle my mail.
The whole thing finally reached a climax when a man from a Military Academy in West Virginia came to pay my father a visit and wanted to know when I would be enrolling in the academy.
A small crowd always gathered in the post office while the mail was being sorted and put in the boxes. This was a small social hour. I often remember that this was an occasion for Father Mlsna and Reverend Campbell to meet and discuss the weather. This was well before the Ecumenical Movement got underway.
My strongest memories of church center around the activities of the Epworth League, being given the privilege by Benny La Falsh of riding up and down on the bell rope, and in the Christmas pageants being dressed up as one of the "We Three Kings of Orient Are."
Montfort has always been fortunate in having a good drug store. I am most familiar with it when it was owned by Leo Hild. Leo used to enjoy talking a sort of baby talk to his customers. For example, he never said orange crush or strawberry, but "ormage clutch" and "stromberry." If you bought an ice cream cone at Buddy's you had to sneak past so he didn't see you and vice versa. As a matter of fact you didn't ordinarily go from store to store with a shopping bag, because it would be embarrassing to show up in one store with merchandise from another.
Sundaes reached a low price of a nickel in the depression. This included sand and gravel (malted milk powder and chopped nuts) if you wanted it. Sometimes if you asked Leo for a glass of water and made no other purchases he might ask you to sit down at a table and say, "lido you want a straw and a napkin to go with your water?" Leo might ask you if you had ever heard about the man "who ran over himself."
Jasper Palmer's was the only place in Montfort where you could go in to buy regular merchandise and come out with an antique. By modern retailing standards his inventory turnover was rather low. However, you were almost always favored with an organ solo while you were browsing.
By Montieth's and Less Turner's resembled the typical store of yesterday. Cookies were mounted in rows of cardboard boxes with windows in them so you could pick out the kind and mix of cookies you wanted. You bought them by the bag. Cheese was under a glass dome and you cut off the amount you needed.
Boxes of cereals and other things which were high on the shelf were reached with a long pole which had wire tweezers on the end. For some things a step ladder on wheels and mounted to the ceiling would be used. Crackers and pickles were usually in small barrels. Some people sat on the ledge in front or, in inclement weather, inside the store to visit. It was automatically assumed that the apples and grapes were there to be eaten.
It was quite an ordeal to have to pass the group sitting on the ledge in front of Monteith's or Puddy's. Ore La Flash sometimes stationed himself in the middle of the sidewalk with his hands behind his back and simply stared at you. Some of the ladies in town were nearly driven to hysteria by this stare of his.
We had a door-to-door salesman named Grant House. He was the forerunner of the Avon lady. He often complained about having to be out in the hot heat, but said it would be O.K. if he had some ice--but its "got to be cold ice."
We had four filling stations:
Jessie Bowers (Texaco) downtown
Harold Cook's (Shell) (Cook's College)
Merle Munson's (Standard) (now owned by Roy Biddick and relocated farther west. When you went to see Roy he could relate all of the news that happened in Montfort or surrounding towns.)
Bowers Station (Texaco)
At one time there were three garages in town:
Nuendorf's, directly south of the bank (Chevrolet); there was Gus the father, Ben the son and Ben's two sons were nicknamed "Engine" and "Motor."
Art Manley had a Ford garage west of Frank Gould's welding shop and next to Lenny Ohmstead's house. Art Manley should have been a test driver for racing cars. He assisted with the soft ball team and drove us to games in his Model A. It would be very unusual if at least one chicken wasn't killed en route. The average speed in his Model A would be about 75 m.p.h. I think he tried to match his driving speed with his age.
Joe Pettera had a shop west of Kennedy's shoe repair shop.
I can recall Clyde and Tony Moller owned a cut down old Chevrolet. It only had two axles, a motor and a seat. Their favorite entertainment was to take it out on Highway 18 and drive it up and down the shoulders. George Gibson and Joe Bepius also had an old car, a Model 'T that they paid $10.00 for. I think it was disabled more often than not.
Dave and Chuck Ritchie drove the family coal truck. They never drove down hill in winter, in the normal manner but always slid or spun their way down the hill leaving big tire marks and sometimes getting the truck mired in the mud and snow.
My father often parked his car downtown in front of Puddy's. On one occasion the idea occurred to someone, probably Doc Stanton, to park another car identical to ours next to it and see what my father would do. He came out of Puddy's and drove off in the other car and didn't notice the difference until two days later.
In the days when milk was about a dime a quart delivered, Montfort had two dairies.
One was Frank Kamms dairy. For at least 30 years the mainstay of Kamms dairy was "Pet," the horse. Many youngsters made their first dollar by driving Pet around town hauling milk.
The most unique drivers were Bill and Butler Turner. At least they gave the most personalized service, because if it was at all possible they would drive the wagon up on your porch.
George Gibson also drove the route but this was in Pet's final years and it was very difficult to get Pet to go.
Charlie Jackson was a common sight on his route every evening with his Model A. Normally things would go routinely but on a few occasions a group of boys would lift up the back end of his car just as he was ready to go and he couldn't get any traction. After roaring the motor a while he would go around to the back of the car to see what was wrong, but by this time all of the boys would have disappeared. The same result would be accomplished by putting a block under the axle.
There were several bicycles in Montfort, but it took so much work going up and down the hills, that many did without them. There were a few motorcycles in town. Luke and Leo Moffett each had one and they drove them up banks, through pastures and sometimes tried to drive them on the railroad tracks.
Horse and Buggies had practically disappeared by the time I came on the scene, but I do remember the one owned by Sam Johns. Joe Poblovsky was one of the last to use a horse-drawn sled. It was always fun to either hook your sled onto the back of his sled or jump up on the pile of straw and ride to the top of Creamery Hill. Actually, it was quite common in the winter to hook rides with your sled up Depot Hill and then ride back down.
You could get an airplane ride for a quarter or 50¢ on certain Sunday afternoons when a fellow by the name of Steil came over from Muscoda. I went a couple of times but after a fatal accident occurred at an air show at the Livingston Fair where the pilot came down in an acorn field north of Elmer Biddick's, I decided that was enough.
Montfort had both bus and train service. At one time the bus was actually an elongated car. The train was called the Puddle Jumper and ran between Madison and Lancaster. You could sometimes have an enjoyable Saturday by hiking first to the O~P. David mine·· then on to the Junction where you could hop onto a train. One time I did this and ended up in Livingston. I don't want to recommend hitching onto a present day train, however.
I was told that my Aunt Bess's car once got stuck in the snow in front of the store and she went back in the store to get some ashes. Some men across the street swear that she put the ashes in front of the rear tires rather than in back. But to their utter amazement she got into the car and backed right out.
The closest thing we had to the Wild West was Clifford Bowers, Sr. with his horses. For many years he kept them in the village near our house. Later he moved them to his farm just southwest of Montfort where the road to Badger Hollow meets Highway 80. He often appeared in parades, complete with cowboy hat, belt and boots.
On a smaller scale, George Gibson had two Shetland Ponies. I remember when he got to be about 6 feet tall; all he needed to do to get off Blossom was to stand up and walk away.
Memorial Day parades were highlighted by Montfort's oldest Civil War veteran, George Woodruff, riding in an open car.
The old opera house was the scene of many old movies, first the silent ones usually in blue or brown shades accompanied by piano music. Finally the talkies came along with serials running for several weeks. Around the edge of the screen on the stage were advertisements of Montfort business establishments.
Despite a slightly sagging floor, many dances were held in the opera house. There was also roller skating in about 1933 or 1934. I think the high-school prom was held here a few times.
I can remember several talent shows at the opera house. One in particular involved half of the village of Montfort. One of the stars of the show was Margaret Stevens Biddick, my first grade teacher, singing both solo and with a large chorus. Dozens of skits were performed. I can recall vividly that the dressing rooms left much to be desired.
For several seasons we had stock shows comedies where a fellow by the name of Toby was the producer, director, actor, and played the piano. He was sort of a Harpo and Groucho Marx wrapped into one. During intermission they sold boxes of salt water taffy. If you got a box with pink taffy you brought it up to the stage and got a prize.
The completion in 1938 of the community building and Fort Theater was an exciting development in Montfort. Before the building was completed the empty lot was used for free movies in the summer. During construction they ran into a bad water problem and it was like a lake for several months.
The Fort Theater specialized in Westerns--particularly with Gene Autrey, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers. Generally they were narrated by Ore La Flash. Gene or Hopalong could never be surprised by the bad guys because Ore would always warn them in advance.
Sometimes there were band concerts in the park in the summer. These were generally led by Ben Biddick. I can remember one time when Pete Devoe took over on the drums. He was one of Montfort's most famous musicians, having played for a nationally known circus band.
In winter a favorite entertainment was ice skating on the ice pond directly across the road from the NelsonPeterson Creamery. The ice skating was interrupted when they cut the ice for storage. Generally there was a big fire going in a big steel oil drum so you could stop and warm yourself. I think the best skaters were Sidney Vinje and Walt Heffern. Walt was never to my knowledge seen skating frontwards.
Usually when we think of the WPA in Montfort we are reminded of the construction of the Community Building. Many people probably do not recall that a function of WPA in the thirties was to provide a sports program. Bob Marcum had charge of this program and held many tournaments. The only trouble was that no matter what the event was KiKi Moller would invariably win it whether he had ever seen the game played before or not. One time he took a group to a tennis tournament in Cuba City. Don Vacha and I were eliminated early and decided to start off home by hitchhiking. We ended up walking all but two miles of the distance. We had to sleep all night in an oats bin near Platteville.
Before the swimming pool was built we had to go to the old swimming hole below the Water Falls, or to Seven Foot or Badger Hollow. Swimming suits were practically unheard of in those days.
Montfort had some very good basketball teams over the years. Before the consolidation of high schools we had -to play basketball in a gym in Linden where they had a pot-bellied stove in one corner and no showers. In Rewey you could not arch your shots because of the low ceiling. Our own gym had its shortcomings--particularly having to use the wall as a boundary line.
Baseball was played on a field known as Cad McDonalds. The Montfort city team often played there on Sundays. I recall one day Frank Houston was acting as a water boy. I wondered why Squire Biddick and others passed up the drinking water until I saw that Frank's corn-cob pipe was floating on top of the water.
One fear I had before going to school was that someone was going to cut off my ears. Whenever I encountered one of the Timmons brothers he would get out his jackknife and pretend he was going to cut off my ears.
My fifth grade teacher, like many before and after me, was Miss Olson. I was severely criticized one day because I forgot to say "Good Morning, Miss Olson." She ended each day with a ceremony for getting your wraps. It went something like this: "First row, turn, stand, pass. Second row, turn, stand, pass." Despite her strict rules she was a very good teacher and well liked. George can testify to this because one time we prepared a May Basket that we were going to deliver to her house. We had real flowers in it together with a contribution from Blossom to fertilize the flowers. We got as far as the door and changed our minds. We decided that she may think that our intentions were less than honorable.
I was quite naïve in my early years. I remember a couple of men were doing some carpentry work on Mrs. Yanna's house. As I walked by they called me over, asked if I would go down to Bowden-Nowaks and ask Johnny Bowden for a SKY-HOOK. Johnny told me to go back and tell them he didn't have one but could they use a BOARD STRETCHER. They said "No, that wouldn't do," but to go back down and pick up a ROUND-SQUARE. After a couple more trips back and forth I finally caught on.
EARLY DAYS OF TELEPHONES
One of the favorite pastimes of old and young alike was "rubbering" on the telephone. This means listening in on someone, else's conversation on a two or four party line. The trouble is many life-long friendships were broken or sadly bent because of what they heard about themselves.
Sometime after leaving Montfort I remember putting through a long distance call from Milwaukee to my parents. The Montfort operator tried the house and there was no answer. The operator then said: "I think Vic and Emma have already gone to bed and can't hear the phone because it's down in the living room." I thought the Milwaukee operator was going to go into hysterics.
Again let me thank the members of the committee for the kind invitation to be your speaker. Let's hope that Montfort will continue to be one of the prettiest towns in the state and that it will be thriving when we all come back for the bicentennial celebration in two thousand twenty seven.
Don Hill as a boy in the early 1930s