There is a nice story in today’s paper about Peerless Chain, a Winona-based company that has grown to first place in its market share. I feel a certain pride in that fact, not just because Peerless is such a large employer in Winona, but because at one time, a long time ago, it was my employer.
When I graduated from the College of Saint Teresa with an English major and no teaching degree, no one thought I would get a job (especially my father). But Sister Emmanuel always told us that the most important thing we would learn at St. Teresa’s was how to learn, so I had no such qualms. I thought I could learn anything.
I got a job with Title 1, the government education program, in a position which in any self-respecting private business would have been eliminated many years before I got there. I was supposed to drive around Wisconsin and ask principals and superintendents how they were doing spending their Title 1 money on equipment. What I found out was that there were school storerooms full of unused equipment. The schools couldn’t afford not to buy something — anything — each year because if they didn’t spend all their money their budgets would be cut. And some year they might really need something and wouldn’t have the budget from the Feds to pay for it. My tenure there was short-lived, thankfully.
After that, I interviewed for a job at a small insurance company that sold Credit Life Insurance in Minneapolis. They asked if I was a full-charge bookkeeper. I didn’t know what that was, but figured I could learn it. So I said yes, I thought I was. They hired me and I had to learn how to be a bookkeeper in two weeks. Luckily I had a boss who was a good accountant and a good communicator.
Then I married John Edstrom, and moved to Winona, where I was going to go back to school to get my teaching certificate. I went one quarter to WSU, until we discovered that we couldn’t live on John’s salary of $6,600 which he earned teaching ninth grade English at the Junior High. (Well, we probably could have lived on it, but it wouldn’t have involved clothes.) So I applied at Peerless Chain for a full-time bookkeeping position.
My boss was Mrs. Lilla, and my job was to run a NCR bookkeeping machine. Fairly boring after my full-charge days, but I liked the people a lot. Al and Joe Bambenek were still alive, and keeping watch, even though they were supposed to be semiretired. It was my job to take the checks my machine wrote into Al, whose signature the machine put on them. He was very careful and deliberate. I worked in the new office building there for a while, and then was promoted (?) to the office in the manufacturing plant, where we could look out over the floor and see all the machines at work. Sometimes I even got to go down to the floor to deliver something to a foreman, and it was pretty exciting — so noisy and hot and powerful.
But then John decided to go to graduate school and we prepared to move to Seattle. They hired a girl to take my place, and I dutifully began to train her in on her first day. The next day, she didn’t show up, so they asked me to call her and find out if there was a problem. She said she had actually come to the Peerless Chain parking lot, but couldn’t find a place to park, so went home. They hired another girl, and she apparently didn’t have any trouble finding a place to park.
We returned to Winona from Seattle, and started the paper, so I didn’t get the chance to see if Peerless would have hired me back — maybe a good thing. But I still see people I used to work with there, and we share a certain knowledge about the old days when Peerless was a family affair.