by Kent O. Stever
The backyard of the small yellow house faced the railroad tracks at Mark and Grand Streets.
The Burbachs weren’t auspicious customers in any way, but their little house happened to be the first drop on my paper route — Route 42. Whoever set up the routes so many years ago must have favored this starting point at Grand and Mark streets. With the Republican-Herald newspaper in existence for over 100 years and virtually every household in the nine-square block route area a customer, there must have been a lot of “Starts” at the Burbach corner.
The only bad thing about the starting point was that there was no entry point on the corner to the sidewalk except over the standard-sized city curb. With a large basket full of folded papers in my canvas mailbag, it was dangerous to “bump” up the curb on my bike as I often did when unloaded. I needed to head up to the tracks and cut in their driveway access to their old shed by the tracks and head back to the corner for a left turn. From there on, I was flying.
I would head toward Olmstead Street, past the Hoover house that was loaded with kids who needed a face wash. Their place always reminded me of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies I saw on Saturday afternoons at the State Theater for twelve cents. There were kids everywhere. Shooting past my friend “Army’s” house, I cut the drive in the back of the next corner house, crossed the street and began a new block and cycle. Waving at friends and customers in yards or on porches, I was all business of ride and grab and sail and connect.
Reaching into the bag at each home, I grabbed a pre-folded paper that I had folded only moments ago on the front porch at home. I used the fold-and-pack system I had learned from my brothers to stuff my official Republican-Herald canvas bag. The “paper guy” had dropped the bundle of papers at the curb. I hustled the bundle onto the porch and began the routine. When the papers were large, I needed to cut the twine on the bundles to make two trips to the porch with the approximately 100 papers.
From years of practice “subbing” on Route 42 for an older brother or three, I had learned the route, perfect bike balance, and how to fold papers and sail them accurately toward the front stoop. A strong fold was the key. They didn’t need to land on the top step, but it was a special treat if they did. I never let an unfolded paper be delivered, unless it was a rainy or snowy day when I tucked each carefully into the door threshold.
After covering Mark Street, my daily exhilarating ride continued in the blocks bounded by Sioux and Grand, Mark and King streets. The small houses on sixty-foot lots varied in style and appearance. In them were the real people of our small river town who worked in the bakeries, railroad shops, beauty shops, meat processing plant or flax processing factory. They lived mostly in small clapboard or asphalt-covered, brick-patterned homes maintained with richness and integrity. Here and there a gingerbread-and-brick house sat on a lush green lot giving a sense of fortress to the neighborhood. Across the route, there seemed to be a lot of white houses.
The Giel house, a small white house on Sioux Street, was the home of everyone’s hero, University of Minnesota All-American Paul Giel. And he was on my route! The very small lot was covered mostly with house. The porch was nearly to the front sidewalk—an easy drop for the paper. The sidewalk on the side hugged the house on the “shotgun” size lot.
Thank goodness for the wonderful parks and playlots of the community where Paul could exercise his many skills. The only early play area for this two-sport All-American in his yard was in an area stretching from the alley to the back of the house. In the sixty-foot strip, Paul could back up, wind up and pitch his fastball toward the wooden clapboard siding – or a catcher if he had one. He had to hit the streets if he wanted to fire a long football pass.
About the time I reached the Giel home I seemed to be distracted. My friend Joanie lived in the house across the street. She was not on my route. Sighting her house, nevertheless, caused my attention to business to waver and my heart to skip a beat.
The Einhorn and Pelowski and Arntsen white, single-story homes were interspersed in the blocks. They were immaculate and consistent with the personal appearances of the Chief of Municipal Works, the foreman of the Swift Meat Company and the Captain of the Winona Fire Department. It was obvious they had pride about self and home, carried from garden to porch to workplace. They were but a few of the many – but especially well-remembered for their pleasant tone and beautiful homes.
The occasional two (or three!)-story homes appeared on larger corner lots along Howard Street. Company owners, bankers or attorneys seemed to live in these houses. Beautifully maintained by the artisans and workers of our small city, the homes offered cold stature to an otherwise working-class environment. Over all the years of wandering the neighborhood and delivering the papers, I don’t recall seeing one of these owners in a garden – or even answering the door.
They seemed to stay inside their houses by the light of their lamps in comfortable chairs smoking their pipes—while someone else was designated to answer the door. They may have even pre-paid their accounts to the Republican-Herald with a check to the office, so as to not be involved mixing with delivery boys.
Mr. and Mrs. Kline were the exception. A pudgy, balding man in a white shirt and spectacles who continually smoked a cigar, he owned a most successful electrical company. Well-dressed and always at home when I collected on Saturday mornings, he not only greeted me and paid the bill, but insisted that I come into their beautiful home on West Howard Street and see Mrs. Kline, who always seemed to have a fresh-baked item from the oven. Together, we would sit at their kitchen table in the most luxurious of Winona’s homes and share a quiet moment. These were genuine “rich” people who especially enriched the life of a paperboy.
Around the corner and across the block I saw the O’Deas, the Ziebells, the Kings, the Blanks and the Kammerers. One ran a theater, one was a police officer, one a carpenter, one a worker at Wingold Flour. Along with the others each had a story to tell. I spent moments on their front porches — or simply said “hi” a hundred times as I passed their house on my bike — but somehow we made a connection. As years went on, I worked small jobs for several of them and went to school with the kids of the households. From the Kings I dragged home a large console radio that had small colored lights on the dial that I slowly turned to pick up ships at sea and foreign countries via the short-wave band. There were the Dondlinger, the Rihs, Rolbiecki, Schneider and Pomeroy families—all grand folks in their small houses of the early 1950’s.
One house was simply not a pleasure at which to collect. The mother and father were nice folks, but they seemed to have been overwhelmed by the number of kids in their large family – especially the babies running around in diapers. The smell was overwhelming. My eyes almost watered from the pungent urine smell, as I held my breath and tried to conduct business in collection of the thirty-five-cents-per-week subscription.
For each customer collection, I punched “Paid” in my collection book with a metal paper punch about the size of a good western cap gun. I felt like a “quick-draw” artist when I pulled it out of my rear pocket to punch the appropriate page of the green, cloth-covered hard cardboard book. In addition to handling the paper route’s duties and collection, I learned my multiplication tables quickly as I multiplied 35 cents times the number of weeks paid.
Route 42 had been ours for at least ten years. Five boys of the family took a turn in folding the papers, delivering daily in all kinds of weather and checking in with the office every Saturday for an accounting. The payoff was immediate as each turned in the collected cash – to realize about $7.00 per week of profit and pay. When people paid ahead a few weeks, it increased the money in the pot for that week. But we had to be careful to turn it all in, or we would get caught short in each of the weeks ahead. Like my brothers before me, I was totally responsible for the duties of the day. And enjoyed every moment.
The only largesse we received in the year was at Christmastime, when the paper gave us small calendars to place in the hands of each customer as we collected. It was their single opportunity to reward our quality service throughout the year with a “tip” payment for the calendar and for services rendered. It was a windfall that allowed me to buy a few Christmas presents for my teacher, Grandma and Pa —and to help Pa out if he was “short” of funds during wintertime unemployment.
Pa’s Christmas present was easy – a carton of Raleigh cigarettes for $2.00. He smoked so many of them that we counted the coupons enclosed in each pack and sent fifty or a hundred in for an item shown in the catalogue. The more he smoked, the bigger the prize! We never thought of the outcome. As one of the magazine ads of the times stated; “More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand.”
Paperboys were a part of the social fabric of our small town in the 1950s. We made a daily impact upon the neighborhood as watchful eyes. A strange car in our nine-square block area was easily identified – and information was shared with Pa. If something were out of the ordinary, Pa would suggest that we mention it to a police officer. A couple of officers lived on the route, but squads regularly trolled the neighborhood and were easily accessible.
The buildup of more than three of four papers on the front step was a cause for wonder and possible concern. If people were to be gone for an extended time period, they would either cancel or let us know they were off for a vacation or visit, and ask that we tuck the papers inside the door. There were customers who were single and elderly and occasionally needed looking after. In winter, when it was obvious that snow was built up around their front steps, I would grab the shovel off the porch and open the entryway for them.
Experiences as paperboy taught me skills and responsibility that carried me into a strong future. I learned multiplication and accounting and diligence and personal ownership for a “missed” paper. Daily sharing in the lives of a hundred households left a strong impression on me as I observed how I was treated by people - and learned how I was to treat people in return.
I haven’t folded and tossed in a number of years, but I am daily touched by (and thankful for) the memories of the wonderful people on Route 42.