“The Heights”

April 1

You Can’t Go Home Again.  ~ Thomas Wolfe

This, of course, is the title of the novel published in 1940.  There are two immediately recognizable reasons why Mr. Wolfe couldn’t go home again:  1) He was dead (the book was published posthumously), and b) it was before the advent of GPS and he was geographically incapable of finding it otherwise. But seriously folks, Wolfe’s novel was not well-received by the residents of his hometown, Asheville, North Carolina, because of how they were depicted in the book.  He would have feared physical endangerment if he ever went back. Sounds very similar to the love/hate relationship between Sinclair Lewis and Sauk Centre, Minnesota, after Main Street was published. 

Anyway, this is not about Mr. Wolfe’s hometown.  It is about mine (it’s my blog, after all).  And specifically remembrances of growing up in Victoria Heights in Alexandria, Minnesota.  Those glorious days of yesteryear, when the white middle class was burgeoning and all was right with the world.  The writers and creators of the Ozzie and Harriet TV show came to Victoria Heights for inspiration.  Thus, when I retired 19 years ago in Washington, D.C., and people asked where I was going to live in retirement, I said Alexandria, Minnesota.  They were alternately amused and confused, most thinking federal law required one to retire in Florida or Arizona, that there were no other choices . . . 

The following was recently shared with the local populace by the Douglas County Historical Society and was the inspiration for this missive . . . 

[Dad was the editor of the Park Region Echo; Dick Dyke was the general manager of the paper.  Our families were thusly very close – Dad always said that in all the years he and Dick worked together, they never shared a cross word . . . ]

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[The “Heights” was like the first suburb of Alexandria, though it was in the city limits.  We were geographically distant (by a whole two miles) from downtown and were separated from downtown by a farm, some sand pits, a slough, and the city dump.  In rural schools, you were identified as either a townie or a farm kid – but in Alex we Heighters were the third option.  We were isolated from town – in those days families had one car, dad drove it to work, and mom stayed home with the kids – so we became a close knit community.  Everybody knew everybody else and all their kids and all their pets (by name).  I learned 50 years later that the townies thought Victoria Heights is where the rich people lived?  All households had a mom & dad and 4 kids and one dog and other animals and lived in 1,500 square foot ramblers with one car garages that were turned into summer porches (when a large screen door replaced the garage door) and a few households had 14 foot aluminum boats with 5 hp motors that they kept at our Lake Victoria public landing and the yearly excitement was when everybody raked their leaves into piles on our dirt roads and then set ablaze to provide that burning leaf aroma throughout the neighborhood and at Christmas there would be a bit of one upmanship when it came to outdoor decorating and where a most memorable childhood memory was running behind the road grader when it came to level out our dirt roads – that cool hardness of compressed graded sand on our bare feet was magic – and where as school approached Wencil Kroupa would drive his dump truck down from his sand pit and throw pencils out his window to the kids as we chased down the street after him.  It was all almost as good as sourdough toast with butter . . . ]

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[So, let me take you back to those halcyon years of childhood, where “angst” was just a 5-letter word that only applied to your father when he thought about mortgage payments.  The wishing well below was on our founder’s, Fred J. Foslien, property on Lake Victoria.  We called him “Friendly” Fred.  Fred had to drive through the Heights to get to his house and when we kids saw him coming, we would line up on both sides of the street to wave to him as he passed and he’d wave back with both hands, thus with hands free driving.  The photo below the wishing well is of the road through the Heights to our public boat landing on Lake Victoria . . . ]

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[I never understood why it was called Victoria “Heights”?  It was actually down hill from town . . . ]

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[The Brandenburg’s backyard abutted our backyard.  They had three daughters, the one in the middle is Linnea who moved back to Alex a few years ago and who I run into at high school basketball games.  I bet I hadn’t seen her for 60 years until then.  In the next photo, Smitty.  Smitty was the handyman every neighborhood needs.  Dad called on him many a time over the years . . . ]

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[The first four houses one encountered on the left after turning into the Heights off Highway 52. The bottom houses were on the lakeside of the circle formed by Knut Street Fingal Drive, and Victoria Street . . . ]

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[We played baseball and football in the park across from the boat landing, we played starlight, moonlight (wondering how parents ever let us stay out after dark in the summer – must have been at least past 10:00), we fished off peoples’ docks without asking (it was generically accepted), we would walk along the highway (where we always found coins?) to the channel between Lakes Victoria and Geneva where there was a nice sandy bottom for swimming, we built forts and tree houses in the surrounding woods, we played in the constantly being constructed new houses when the workers left for the day (obviously in violation of every OSHA regulation today), we played sack which may not yet be beyond the statute of limitations for further explanation, we sat on the front steps listening to rock ‘n roll on KDWB or WLS (Chicago, at night) and to baseball games on WCCO (Twins) or KOMA (Cardinals); in winter we played basketball outdoors at the Skaar, Hintzen, and Sherry backyard hoops, we rode our sleds down the Big Hill and parents would hook the sleds on their car back bumpers and drive us up the hill again, we skated on the lake (when we could get away with it), our house never had a TV until I was a sophomore so we were all big readers (all the Mel Martin baseball books), we collected and traded baseball cards.  We had fun.]

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[Knut Street had not yet been completed along the lake to the east where it wrapped around and provided another connection to the highway.   We lived on Lot 24, the Seims Lot 25, the Gaffaneys Lot 26, Smitty was Lot 27, the Brandenburgs Lot 28, the Sherrys Lot 54, the two houses on the bottom of the previous photos were Lots 46 & 47, and Fred Foslien was on Lot 42 (next to the boat landing) . . . ]

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[Although I was born in Minneapolis, we had already lived in two places in Alex before we arrived here, 1406 Elm Street, in 1949 (Gretch was born in February but Mom must have stashed her someplace before this picture was taken) . . . ]

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[It was while we lived on Elm that my first memories of life took place.  This is the first song I remember.  It was the theme song of “Bingo” on KXRA radio, and I remember Mom played along using Creamettes to mark her numbers.  I don’t know how you won?  Called in (before speed dial) to yell out, “Bingo”?)]

Mom and Dad were both from the Cities (and that’s where their parents continued to live), but after Dad graduated from the U (under the GI Bill after the Big One) with a degree in journalism (Mom & Dad lived in married student quonset huts where I ‘arrived’ before graduation) there were only two newspapers in the state with job openings . . . Alexandria and International Falls.  So, they pulled out an atlas – Alexandria was 140 miles from Minneapolis; International Falls was a two-week trip by wagon train.  They opted for Alex.

[And shortly thereafter, the move to the “forever” Alexandria address – Victoria Heights.  This is a photo of our new home being built c. 1950.  This is where the family lived until 1966.  Initially, a 3 BR rambler for Mom, Dad, Gretchen, and me.  . . . ]

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The above photo gives you an idea how Mom felt about living in Alexandria.  She hated it; thought it was in the middle of nowhere.  Dad asked her to give it 18 months.  The bleak construction gave way to a livable home below with three little chidrun playing in the front yard . . . 

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[An early visit by the “rellies,” Great Grandma, Aunt Gail (Uncle Tom’s wife), Uncle Mike (holding Chris), and Grandma and Grandpa all drove up from Mpls. together.  This has to be the summer of ’55.  You will note Knut Street and Fingal Drive were still dirt roads at this time.  Fingal Court did not yet exist but would cut up hill just to the left of the tree line.  At the top center, there is a lone tree that pretty much marks the location of the replica Runestone park – and just to the right of that you can see old Highway 52 going up the hill on the way to downtown.  Since Highway 52 was the major highway into Alexandria in those days, the Runestone park was the town greeter for visitors . . . ]

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[My birthday!  With Mom, Grandpa Obert holding Chris, Uncle Mike on the far right, I believe that’s a great aunt and uncle in the middle, Grandma Obert is holding the cake for Gretch and me . . . ]

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[A true scene out of Ozzie and Harriet.  Parading down Knut Street, with moms likely requesting that we go out and play in the middle of the street.  With our house in the middle with the woody in the driveway, I’m leading the way, followed by Pete Hintzen (a classmate who lived up the hill in the direction we were heading), Jim Sherry (whose house is immediately to the paraders’ right), sister Gretch, Kathy Sherry (a classmate, see Jim), and only Gretch can figure out the last two kids in line . . . ]

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[The neighborhood kids on our front steps, to the best of my knowledge not a juvenile delinquent among them.  Yes, I can name them all, which is frightening because I can’t remember the names of people I see on a regular basis today.  To at least name my class mates, the 2nd row from the top (in front of the Gaffaney sisters, Joyce and Judy) were me (with a substantial melon on top of my neck), next door neighbor John Seim (taught at Alex Tech (thus a forever Alexandrian, and whose daughter Amanda is the head honcho of the Runestone Museum)), and Russ Bey (a professor at the University of Minnesota who also retired back to Alex) . . . ]

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[Life B.C. (before Cam).  My birthday (again?), with Mom standing in the door behind us (not having to chase after Cam) . . . ]

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[My cousin, Katherine Conner.  We are the same age.  Our moms were sisters.  We didn’t see much of each other after this.  The Conner family lived in Wilmington, Delaware . . . ]

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[Cam, the youngest, was born in 1954 so dating the photo is possible.  This was running through the lawn sprinkler weather.  Our St. Bernard, Buck, was named after the dog in The Call of the Wild . . . ]

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[Gretch with her Easter bunny snowman, c. mid-50’s.  Before global climate change, such was possible at Easter . . . ]

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[Christmas in the mid-50’s.  True Americana.  Mom (likely comfy looking after a Highball), 4 kids (how did they do it? Highballs?), a Christmas tree, and Dad’s art work on the living room wall . . . ]

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[Dad with Great Grandma Obert, the only great grandparent we kids ever knew.  The ubiquitous bicycle in the driveway, with a good chance of being backed over by the car.  Cam, was that our blue ’52 Dodge?  Dad bought the car from the Echo sports editor, Jake.  It may have been one of the two cars that died in St. Joseph (or Waite Park) on our way to  Minneapolis to visit the grandparents – trunk fires in both instances.  Go figure?  Anyway, Dad did not own a car when we moved into this house.  He’d hitchhike to work every day on old US Highway 52 (now Highway 29/Co. Rd. 82). ]

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[Dad (based on me in the background) in his mid-30’s.  He had 4 kids and a mortgage then.  At age 35 I had none of those five and thus did not have to wander the house in the middle of the night . . . ]

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[From the Sherry archives:  Jim and Kathy here with their cousins, Seim’s house across the street, the Obert house on the far left, and the Brandenburg’s house in the distance right . . . ]

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[Here I demonstrate the proper technique for dragging a younger brother across concrete . . . ]

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[Moving into the Polaroid era (dated June 1962), here’s Uncle Dick (Mom’s brother) playing badminton with the aforementioned Pete Hintzen on Knut Street, where such activity often took place . . . ]

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[Uncle Dick was a regular visitor to Victoria Heights.  He took the Greyhound bus up from Minneapolis, and he was such a regular passenger that the bus drivers would drop him off at the Heights, right on Highway 52, so we wouldn’t have to go into town to pick him up . . . ]

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[All the kids loved Uncle Dick because he would play ball with us.  And then lead a parade of kids up to Lilac Lodge Resort (the closest place we had to a convenience store) for Pepsis and Nut Goodies . . . ]

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[Here Rick Gorham joins Pete and me in the middle of the street.  Rick was the first native Alexandrian to win the Resorters Golf Tournament.  His sister Sue was also a classmate of mine . . . ]

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[Grandma Thompson, Mom’s and Dick’s mom, would occasionally make the trip up to Alex with Dick . . . ]

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[And then almost before we knew it, the high school class of ’65 graduated . . . ]

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[From the Heights it was Russ Bey, Sue Gorham, Pete Hintzen, Dave Jarvey, Chris McCabe, John Seim, Kathy Sherry, and me; 8 of the 264 graduates . . . ]

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[The cut ups who survived all of Viola Halverson’s math classes together . . . ]

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[In 1962 we grew a second floor on the house.  For my sophomore year I got my own bedroom after sharing one with the two Pigpens all those years.  And home now 6 BR’s, 2 bathrooms, and a den.  And the driveway featured our 1954 Buick Century, a\k\a, the Yellow Rocket . . . ]

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[But within a year of my graduation, it was time for the family to move on.  With one kid already in college and three more on the way, Dad decided the only way he could afford all that was to take a job in Washington, D.C.  Mom and Dad actually ended up living in Arlington, Virginia, longer than they lived in Alex.  But despite their early apprehensions, Alex was now home for them and it’s where they were going to retire.  Dad never made it, but Mom moved back in 1987 with Uncle Dick – where they lived happily ever after.]

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[Laura and Larry McCoy bought our house then – and lived there for over 50 years.]

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Let’s go window peeping.  ~  Coed kids group in The Heights back in the day (an unusual and illegal preoccupation of small town Americana, specifically addressed by Dick Cavett in his autobiography about growing up in Nebraska)

Up Next:  All the houses (or as many photos as I could take before somebody called 911) in the Heights, if the demand is there . . .

4 thoughts on ““The Heights”

  1. What a fun history. A memory of mine is swimming across Lake Victoria with John Siemens, Sue Gorham and an air mattress! Unfortunately we had to swim back!

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  2. Tom. Thanks for the well written article. It brings back memories of the 40’s-50’s So glad Ruth and I could read it. I spent those summers in Camp Ballentine on Lake Darling Jim McElwain

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  3. Very fun!! I have some of the old flyers etc. advertising the neighborhood but I don’t think I had the one you shared. It was a great life to grow up in the “Height” ….thanks ! Shelly

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