VanHaren: Heading ‘uptown’ was big part of growing up

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

When I was kid growing up in the 1940s and 1950s on Konitzer Road south of Oconto Falls, hardly anything was more thrilling for us farm kids than the chance to go “uptown.” Perhaps you think Oconto Falls was not a very sophisticated place, and you’d probably be right, but then I wasn’t a very sophisticated guy, either. There were many wonderful places to visit uptown. They probably weren’t so exciting for the town kids as they were for me, because they were there all the time.

Still, I wonder if they appreciated all the charms of the town like I did. I’ll bet not many of them ever went to Tait’s Elevator, for example. Tait’s Feed and Fuel was on the northeast side, next to the railroad tracks, and we’d go there often because that’s where we’d take our oats to have them made into something we called “ground feed.” There they’d take the oats we’d brought in and they’d add the nutrients that my dad thought were essential to his increasing his milk production.

The smell of the milling process — the talcum-like dust that settled everywhere, the fragrance of the molasses when it was added into the feed — That ground feed smelled almost good enough to eat. I didn’t know until much later in my life that “elevator” referred to a way of going from one floor to another in a building. There were no “lifts” in Oconto Falls — no escalators, either.

There was a locker plant a block and a half away from Tait’s where people could rent lockers to freeze the meat they’d processed. “Falls Fro.Z.N Foods,” the sign was still there a few years ago, but it was very faded, and now the building looks deserted. It was right next to the Carnation plant where our milk was sent for awhile. What a great place the locker was to go to in the summer. We’d go into that deliciously cold refrigerated building and open our rented locker space and get out a package of rock solid frozen pork chops or ground beef and take it home where Mom would fry up a wonderful dinner.

Fritz Wellnitz’s welding and machine shop on Union Avenue was where you went when a machine part needed welding or grinding and it was too big a job to do at home. The brilliant light of the acetylene welding torches was so dazzling we were always warned not to look at it, but it was hard to obey that rule because it was such a fascinating thing. Fritz’s shop was almost across the street from “The Penguin” (later Lee Spice’s Drive-in), where we could get an ice-milk cone or a shake.

Main Street, wow. Spiegel’s grocery store, Bauman’s clothing store, Raymond’s drug store, Flatley’s furniture store, Paholke’s Standard station, the Co-op (where Peterson’s car lot now stands), Bachall’s clothing store, the dime store (Ben Franklin), Sid Johnson’s candy store next to Vincents’ Grand Theatre, Lemirande’s Bowling Alley, Porky and Chubby Magnin’s hardware store, the Falls Restaurant, Thomson’s Chevrolet, and Landin Motors across from St. Anthony’s.

Dr. Title’s dentist office upstairs in the Oconto Falls Herald building, Dr, Goggins’s office, Tarlton’s Meat Market, Greg Martens’s grocery and Makoski’s Market on the west side, Metzler’s Lumber and Coal, the little diner on the west side next to Drews Trucking. There were so many good places uptown.

Uptown! I went to school uptown, but that was just a case of going through the town to get to the school; it wasn’t the same thing as going there on purpose to visit all those great places. Uptown, however thrilling it was, was a place where you could feel comfortable. The people were a part of the place; they made the place bigger than it really was.

We knew all the people, and they all knew us. Fritz Wellnitz, Tom Tait, Tony Metzler, Porky Magnin, Ster and Joe Bauman, Sid Johnson, Lee Spice, Mrs. Makoski, Greg Martens and Wally Paholke (Wally would let me take a Coke out of the bottle cooler and give me a bag of peanuts) were all great people.

There were lots of other people you could be comfortable with, too, and they all made “uptown” a wonderful experience for an unsophisticated kid from the farm. I appreciated them then but I appreciate them even more now. They knew how to make us comfortable, and I loved going uptown because of the unique place it was. They were all there to make a living, but they also helped to make it a great experience for a big-eyed farm kid.