Editor’s note: Welcome to a new feature that looks at Litchfield history, from the perspective of a native of the area. Terry Shaw is a sort of unofficial recorder of Litchfield history, having researched and written two books — Terry Tales” and “Terry Tales II” — of his remembrances of growing up here. In recent years, Shaw has made daily posts on the Old Litchfield & Meeker County Facebook page. This new column will include snippets of history from both his books and Facebook posts.
- The original owner of the land where Litchfield’s downtown now stands, George Baker Waller Sr., deeded one-half interest in 150 acres of his land to the railroad company to plat a town upon, and upon which a part of the original township was laid out in July of 1869. Waller moved his family here in November of 1869. Could we have been named Waller, Minnesota?
- On Nov. 3, 1881, a grand opening ball was held on the main floor of the new Howard House hotel located at the north corner of West Depot and North Sibley. In November of 1978, the Bachman Construction Co. of Hutchinson bought the vacant building and lot. An auction was held of all the furniture and fixtures. What wasn’t sold, unfortunately, was thrown away, except for a few treasures my friend Pete Hughes had been given by one-time manager Vic Forte. Those treasures are on display at the Meeker County Historical Society (G.A.R. Hall). The hotel was torn down in December.
- The G.A.R. Hall was dedicated on Nov. 14, 1885. One week after the dedication, on Nov. 21, 1885, the members deeded the Memorial Hall, as they called it, to the Village of Litchfield with the stipulation that it be kept as it was “in memory of the 300,000 soldiers who fell in defense of the Union” and be opened to the public for reading. So, the Hall naturally became the first public library in Meeker County. You can visit the hall for free (a donation is asked) and see it just like it was more than a century ago. The meeting room still contains the “kitchen chairs” each member brought from home to sit on at meetings.
- The new Litchfield Opera House was designed by architect William T. Towner and built in late 1900. Opening night was Thursday, Nov. 8, 1900. The William Owens’ traveling troupe performed “The Marble Heart” that night.
- In November 1925, a cross was burned on the lawn between Norwegian Reverend Martinus O. Silseth’s and lawyer Nelson Daniel March’s houses on Sibley Avenue South, only a block and a half from the railroad tracks. Litchfield had a 100 members strong chapter of the KKK back then. Not all of our news of the past is something we can be proud of.
- Remembering that Electus Darwin Litchfield’s son was an architect, our town petitioned the government to have him design our new U.S. Post Office. Washington, D. C., gave the job to the son in November 1933, and so the son of Litchfield’s namesake designed that brick building on the northwest corner of East Second Street and North Marshall Avenue that is still used as our Post Office today.
- Calvin Franklin “Frank” Schnee built the Hollywood Theater and opened it on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 1936. On the Grand Opening night, the movie shown was “Libeled Lady,” starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. Adult tickets were 35 cents and children’s tickets were a dime. It had “mirrophonic sound.” The opening night souvenir program told the patrons to leave their names with the usher or usherette if they were doctors, nurses, or professional people. Generally, these people would call the telephone office and tell the operator they were attending movies at the Hollywood Theater. Then if someone called the operator needing a doctor, the operator would call the movie theater and the usherette would be directed to get the physician and give him the message. The new building included a soundproof cry room for parents with young children. As with the Unique Theater, also run by the Schnee family, children under 12 were encouraged to sit in the first six rows. The water fountain with an electric eye was activated by bending down to it. Usherettes wore navy blue skirts with a gold trimmed red jacket and a pill box hat. The Schnees had quite a reputation for cleanliness. They did not allow popcorn in the theater until later years.
- On a Sunday morning in November 1940, 56-year-old Walter Johnson, his wife and 18-year-old Walter Jr. were hit by the west bound Great Northern Empire Builder at the Armstrong Avenue crossing in Litchfield on their way to church. Eight-foot high snowbanks had blocked their view and Walter’s car got stuck in the deep, ice-filled ruts of the crossing’s approach. Walter’s son Bob was walking home from an earlier church service and had stopped at the Traveler’s Inn to warm up. He heard the train’s whistle blow and turned to look from the café’s doorway just in time to see his dad’s car being tossed into the air. He ran to the Sibley Avenue crossing, where the car had ended up, and saw his father dead in the car and his brother and mother laying on the gravel. Help came and Rosalind and Junior were taken to the hospital.
Bob ran back to the church and came in during the middle of the sermon. He found his other brothers, ran to their pew, and he told them the news. They all ran out of the church. Others in the church had overheard what Bob had told his brothers, and they stood and told the preacher who stopped the service. Walter’s wife survived but Junior died later that day at the hospital. Rosalind spent five months in the hospital. George, who had a house of his own, moved back home to help raise the other kids. The sons got together and decided to not let the tragedy stop the company’s growth. Abe dropped out of college and came home to pick up the slack in the company. Walter’s son Jim, who had taken over as the manager of the company, told Abe, “Dad had a plan about you goin’ to college and we’re gonna keep with Dad’s plans. You’re goin’ back to school.” Abe finished up at Harvard majoring in business. The company, of course, was the world-famous Johnson Brothers Construction Co.
- My youngest brother, Patrick Francis “Pat” Shaw was born on Nov. 19, 1946, in the Meeker County Hospital (the old one).
- Eighteen-year-old James Henry “Jim” Bachman, home on leave from the Army on Nov. 1, 1957, tried to beat the train at the Sibley Avenue crossing with his beautiful fender skirted ’49 Chevy at 4:35 p.m. that day. Fifteen-year-old Lyle Allen Rosenow witnessed the accident and told the police that Bachman took off south from the traffic light by the hotel and never slowed down for the tracks, even though the signal lights were flashing. Bachman had just dropped 13-year-old David Charles Lindell off at his home at 4:30 p.m. Ironically, David would be killed in a traffic accident five years later.
- Michael Scott “Mick” Weber had his dad Clarence Peter Weber’s brand new 1960 Plymouth Valiant at school on Friday, Nov. 3, 1961. Clarence Weber had bought the car for his oldest son, Jack, to set him up in a taxi business. Mick Weber had promised to give football teammates Ralph Koelln and Kenny Fenner, Police Chief George Fenner’s son, a ride home after school at three o’clock. They had a football game that night and wanted some time at home first. Ralph and Kenny went to the school parking lot and found Clarence’s car and got in, waiting for Mick, who had given them the car keys. Mick never showed up. For some reason, he had forgotten about the arrangement and had walked uptown.
- Along came my friend, Jerry Aloysius Wimmer. “What’s up guys?” Jerry asked. They told him and the three of them concocted a scheme where Ralph would drive Kenny home, drive himself home from Kenny’s and then turn the car over to Jerry and have him return it to the parking lot and explain it all to Mick, who would have realized his mistake by then and gone back to school. Jerry was an amazing athlete, but a terrible driver. Everything went well dropping off Ralph and Kenny, but as Jerry’s luck would have it, driving back to the school alone, he managed to stall the car right in the middle of the Holcombe Avenue railroad crossing. He put the car in park and tried over and over to get the ignition to fire. Nothing happened. Hearing an oncoming freight train, Jerry panicked, and he jumped out of the car. He tried to push the car off the tracks, first from the front of the car, and then from the rear. Unfortunately, he had forgotten that he had put the car in park and that’s why it wouldn’t budge. Jerry was very excitable. I can just imagine what he went through, struggling to push that car, his face turning redder than his bright red-orange hair. He must have finally realized that there was nothing he could do because he wisely turned and ran, just as the horn-blasting and speeding Great Northern freight train plowed into the “borrowed” car.
The train slammed the Valiant into the automatic crossing signal lights, shearing them off their standard. The car sailed another 50 yards before it came to a rest beside the tracks and up against the rest of the train that had finally come to a screeching halt. Jerry just stood there, paralyzed, staring at the car. He must have been thinking, “My life is over. I’m dead. They will put me in jail.” Before long, people ran up, asking Jerry if he was OK. He just stood there, mumbling, staring at the car, and crying. After he had completely broken down, he was taken to the doctor, who sedated him. Jerry, the football team’s star QB couldn’t play that night either and Litchfield got beat bad. Jerry was never the same after that and all of us, to this day, are a little more cautious when we drive across a railroad track crossing.
- Litchfield Coin-Operated Dry Cleaners owners Ed Fitzloff and his wife were on their way home to Hutchinson from Litchfield when a train at the Sibley Avenue crossing killed them both in November of 1963.
- 1936 Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress and Litchfield born, Gale Sondergaard was performing at the Guthrie Theater in 1967 and she made a trip out to Litchfield one day in November of that year. She visited friends, stood in the bandstand for a while, and then she spoke for about an hour to the high school Thespian Club, which had been named after her. Gale did a few more movies in the ’70s, including “A Man Named Horse,” before her death in 1985.
- On Nov. 1, 1968, a Litchfield man, who survived six months of precarious mine detection duty with the U.S. Army combat engineers without incurring a scratch, was killed instantly at 6 o’clock in the morning when his car was struck by a Great Northern freight train at the Sibley Avenue crossing. His name was Wayne Henry Heyer, and he was the 21-year-old son of Henry Harlen and Ellen W. Heyer. Wayne, a 1965 graduate of LHS, was discharged from the Army on July 2 after serving 16 months in Vietnam, the last six months on mine detection duty. The day before the accident, he had just completed his first day of work as a construction worker at Litchfield’s new Ripley Elementary School and was on his way to work again when the accident happened.
- On Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1986, my brother Mike Shaw, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, Howard Holtz (who was Mike’s “heart-lung machine during Mick’s world-famous operation), and my mother were reunited in Litchfield for the filming of a BBC and Boston PBS Nova documentary about the developments in surgery since the end of World War II. Mike had had the first successful open-heart surgery which had been invented by Dr Lillehei of the Heart Hospital in Minneapolis. Mick and Dr. Lillehei were filmed walking through Central Park. Then the entire group was filmed sitting around our mother’s kitchen table discussing the operation.
- Most of us can remember the famous Halloween blizzard that happened on Nov. 3, 1991.
- Longtime Carnegie Library head librarian Gertrude Johnson died in November 2008. Her son Jim asked me to sing at her funeral at the Ness Church. It was then that I found out that she had been baptized, confirmed, married, and then buried at that same church.
- In November 2019, the Worden mink farm finally went out of business. Of course, the closing of the business was the result of the change in people’s attitudes towards wearing furs among other things.