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  (ARCHIVES)Back to Current
What a way to ride (09/23/2012)

by Kent O. Stever

In 1949, a New York woman called to request a taxicab come to pick her up. With a new-fangled radio system from office to cab, the dispatcher gave details to the driver who happened to already be near the address. Barely hung up, the driver arrived.

“I won’t ride with you,” the woman said sternly. “You drive too fast, young man.”

She proceeded to call another cab company. (April 1949)

In the Winona of the 1950s, there were lots of pleased passengers who took radio-dispatched, quickly arriving cabs from home to downtown—or from work to bar. With three full-time train depots serving the many daily arrivals of passengers to town, taxi drivers were kept busy morning through night with train arrivals and serving local customers. I was pleased to be one of Vets Cab’s part-time drivers in the later ‘50s.

A plethora of neighborhood Winona bars and late night dens across the river attracted all manner of folk for taxi travels in the wee hours of the morning.

A favorite run for the barflies was to finish up at 1:00 a.m. at Shorty’s Restaurant and Bar (across from the Milwaukee Depot) or Sloppy Joe’s, or the Main Tavern (on Main Street) in town. They would then grab a cab to the Midway Bar across the river for a final bump or two before the closing at two o’clock or 2:15. As we traveled back and forth on the ten-minute journey, we frequently met other cabs (Vets and Royal Cab alike) with top lights lit to indicate “on duty” status. We repeated the trip in reverse an hour later and sometimes grabbed two or three returnees headed in the same direction - which increased our fare, income, and potential for tips.

The early years

From 1903 to 1909 the city created a listing of owners of autos (with a $2 state license fee.) It included J.R. Watkins, Max Conrad, and other distinguished Winonans; but no taxi owners. In the “Years in History” section of the newspaper it was reported that the first taxicab actually arrived in town in 1912–“not heretofore offered here.”

In October of that year, Nevius added a seven-seat taxicab (possibly a Haynes “of medium size”) “with continuous service day and night.” The Haynes vehicle, with a leaky radiator, may have been involved in an accident with a Mr. Smart several years later, “breaking both legs,” to result in a $25,000 lawsuit against Nevius.

Taxicab company owners Bert Beyerstedt and Mr. Mallery, of Mallery’s Livery, were at a city council meeting in 1916 to address concerns of safety–possibly due in part to Mr. Mallery’s running his taxicab into the side of a streetcar. Mr. Mallery’s taxi was “of the new Ford model and presents an attractive appearance” – at least previous to the accident.

Nevius Livery and Transfer continued as competition in 1915 with their “latest type of taxicab” – the Dodge “winter car.” A “short circuit in electrical wires in the car” caused a Nevius taxicab fire in 1918. A Safety Cab Company vehicle collided with a streetcar in 1930 at Fifth and Center streets. (Those darn streetcars!)

Cecil Baldwin reported that the horses were gone by the early 1920s.

Nevius Livery and J.P. Cooley of the Ross Livery were reportedly bilked by an “alleged tax sharper” in 1919, who claimed to be representing the state in collecting a per vehicle tax on taxis. He collected $40.00 from Nevius, with Ross losing a few dollars. Although suspicious to each, neither reported the incident to police – yet it made the news on April 26, 1919.

There was apparent concern for the safety of drivers, as well. In 1918 Mr. F.R. Stevenson, night clerk at the Park Hotel, shot and killed Elmer Mead, a taxicab driver, at the Home Hotel. In 1923, a Nevius cab was commandeered by Officer John Malosh to “overtake a drunken driver at Broadway and Liberty.”

A.H. (Harry) Beyerstedt and his brother Albert (Bert) had “the oldest established taxicab company” (among five) in 1933. Harry had been the manager of Nevius earlier. But there were too many unregulated drivers, many uninsured, who were cutting their rates and making it tough for legitimate, insured companies to pay their drivers. Bert appealed to the city council that there “needed to be city regulation of the cab companies to give a living wage to drivers.” An ordinance was passed, with licensing and insurance required. The ordinance included a stipulation that “no driver can wait at any place for employment without approval of the Police Chief” – subject to arrest.

The Beyerstedts offered a Christmas special for shoppers – “a round trip downtown for a one-way price” in 1933. Before their special, they took some time away from the cab business, with the sale of their company to Harry and Al Voss in December 1926 - creating the Voss Bros. Cab Co. (Phone 80-J.)

Harry and Al Voss did well. They advertised prominently in December of 1929 that their 27 vehicles were used for all manner of transport – people, funerals, trucks and buses. The advertised taxi rate was “50 cents anywhere within the City of Winona.” Their apparent success led to the resale of the company to the Beyerstedts in 1930.

One of the competitors at the time advertised itself as the Sayboy Drivurself and Taxicab Company at Third and Johnson Street. You could get a ride or rent a car from this early Hertz affiliate. The Winona Taxi and Baggage Company (phone 2618) advertised a rate during this depression-era time of “25 cents – for one passenger or five.” Cabs were heated, insured and “drivers are all a ‘hand-picked’ lot of men with courtesy for all passengers.”

The 30s and beyond

Arthur S. Cunningham proposed his cab company idea in the early 1930s. From observations at his job while attending Winona Normal School (Winona State), he felt he could do better. Working part-time at the Oaks Supper Club, he noticed that some of the cab drivers were drinking on the job. Art suggested to his brother Frank that they join the competition, without the drinking. Operating out of a small annex to Frank’s Duncan Hines-endorsed Steak Shop Restaurant, Art enticed his older brother to become co-owner. After a sorting out of companies over the years, his Royal Cab Company at 125 Main emerged in 1946 as Winona’s only cab company.

According to his daughter Sheila, Art visited the nuns in charge of the College of Saint Teresa, since several of his family members were already nuns–to seek business from the students. Given their endorsement, Royal Cab (named after a soap that his mother used) became the exclusive cab of choice for nuns and Saint Teresa students—who most definitely followed regulations. Throughout the years, “Tel. 3331” was posted in Lourdes Residence Hall and across Winona. The number today remains a part of the Yellow Cab Company of Winona, albeit extended, phone number (507-452-3331.) The company is now located at at 260 West Third Street.

Soon to follow in 1947, the Vets (Winona) Cab Company joined in and was located in a small office behind Ruth’s Restaurant at 126 East Third Street, telephone 3354. Five cabs were licensed in 1948. As had been done in neighboring Rochester, the Vets Cab was created to become a favorite of city laborers and veterans. Following original proprietor Willard Mayotte, Shorty and Dave Krause were soon at the helm—and on the radiophone. By 1953, Royal had 24 full-time drivers, with Vets showing 16-18 full and part-time drivers.

There was no need for the embroidered “Shorty” over the shirt pocket.

Everyone knew who he was. As always, too many notes and paper tags stuck out of his left front shirt pocket and covered his name. His right pocket contained the extra-long Pall Mall cigarette pack he emptied and exchanged for a new one every eight hours or so.

A warm and comfortable human about five feet in size, he enjoyed the theatrics of domination when in charge of his twelve-hour shift. His ever-present cigarette and flattened leather-brimmed cap worn year-round were his signature and stature. The tin and metallic chauffeur’s pins tacked to the front represented his many years of service to the people of the community.

Shorty ran the shop and the drivers with his younger brother, Dave —a big old galoot who seemed to live on huge hot pork sandwiches that came through the back door of Ruth’s Restaurant. With a mound of catsup and a side of fries, Dave enjoyed sandwiches that we often drooled over - but the $1.85 he spent was always beyond our means.

In 1948, Cecil Baldwin joined with Mr. Seifert (as in Seifert-Baldwin Dodge/Plymouth) and with owners of Nelson Tire Company to purchase the Beyerstedt Building on Fourth and Johnson. Cecil remembered working from that building as one of the first taxicab drivers in Winona. The oversized building originally housed the largest horse and buggy livery in the city–yet allowed space for two taxicabs in 1915.

During the very challenging and competitive era of 1933, the rate for all companies was down to 25 cents, with Royal Cab and the newly-formed Safety Cab and Transfer having joined the fray. From the home farm at Janesville, Minn., Frank Cunningham came to Normal, with his brother Art following. Soon came their company’s success and Art’s meeting of his future wife, Marion, in his taxi.

She recently explained the circumstances in the story “How I Met the One I Love” in the Winona Post. He “got her to sit in the front seat of the taxi – and I stayed there for 69 years,” Marion recently recalled from the family home on West Broadway – where she today resides at age 97! It’s the same home to which Art occasionally brought taxi “fares” home for dinner, said Marion.

With 25-cent fares, cash was limited for all the companies, but the Cunningham boys had a steady income. The Beyerstedt boys needed to chase after theirs – at least on one occasion.

In June of 1933, a swarthy smoothie of a horse trader from Cavalier, South Dakota rolled into town, took a Beyerstedt cab to Minneapolis to buy a new Cadillac with a dealer-accepted $4,000.00 check - and proceeded to return to Winona with two girls gathered for the occasion. One was in the cab and one in the Cadillac. The taxi driver lost the Cadillac and ended up alone in Winona with the girl.

The swarthy dude had crashed the “Caddie” in Red Wing, and needed further rescue. A second trip was made by cab and driver to return the girls and the dude to Minneapolis - where the authorities took over.

By 1934, the boys had recovered and bought a new fleet of Ford “V-8s” from the newly refurbished Owl Motor Company on Fourth and Main, with the addition of a new ambulance to their fleet. Harry Beyerstedt died in 1937, Albert in 1939. Descendants are still looking for that fare for the two unpaid round trips to Minneapolis.

There was a bit of a rush on taxis by car thieves, and thieves in general, over the years with Royal Cab losing cars in 1933, 1935, 1936 and 1938. All were recovered. Kelly Cab and Ambulance lost one in 1938, a 1936 Chevrolet. In 1935, a Royal Cab driver was robbed and his car stolen by three Minneapolis youths who then received “up to 20 years in state prison.”

Visiting soldiers in 1944 (probably from Camp McCoy) skipped out on a fare and broke a window of a Royal cab. They weren’t found.

In September of 1938, Eitel Guthman, late of the Green Bay Reformatory, “was sentenced to a term of up to ten years in prison” for three separate abductions of cabs and drivers in July and August. The Kelly Cab driver was forced to drive to Wisconsin under duress of Guthman’s “two revolvers.” Drivers two and three were directed to Houston, Minn., and the Michigan border, respectively, by “the blonde taxi bandit.” “On all three occasions, Guthman had been smoking marijuana cigarettes,” the police chief commented. He added; “the location of marijuana beds in Winona is being checked.”

Accidents were prevalent throughout the years - with icy roads generally to blame. A little sand on icy streets didn’t make for ease of stopping in winters of Winona. Listed Royal incidents are shown in 1942 (overturned), 1943 (5), 1944 (speeding), 1947 (3), 1948 (2) and 1953. Of particular interest was the collision on Nov. 7, 1947, at the Airport Road between a Royal cab and a 1936 Chevrolet whose driver was smacked in the side as he turned into the passing cab. He said that he had “opened the left door to signal the turn.” Apparently the cab driver missed the unique signal.

The term “taxicab” was defined in a 1932 Republican-Herald ad for the new Webster’s Dictionary (Merriam) with a drawing of a goat as the header - suggesting the two to be similar. Taxicab is an abbreviation of “taximeter-cabriolet,” a vehicle carrying an instrument to measure fare. The French word cabriolet has meaning of a leap – thus likened to a goat, since the carriage has a light, bouncing motion.

The cabs continued to bounce along, but WWII was a challenge for all drivers, due to a shortage of rubber for tires. Federal guidelines were imposed to reduce their overall mileage – thus using less of the tire where “the rubber hits the road.” Cab companies were particularly challenged to reduce miles in New York, Minneapolis, and Winona, too.

An initial May lockout in 1946 led to a ten-day strike in June against Royal - “Winona’s only cab company.” The strike resulted in a signed contract with Royal and a new competitor borne of the strike – Winona Cab Company, led by Willard Mayotte.  In 1951-52 Winona Cab was awarded the annual contract to carry special students to school each day, with Royal just a few cents behind.  In 1953 both companies increased rates for the “first time since 1947” - as high as 75 cents to the 1800 block west.

Today’s Yellow Cab of Winona retains the quality of service and the “Royal” treatment started eighty years ago. Continuing on in a tradition of family ownership, the Walter and Vernetta Nustad family purchased the business from the Cunninghams in 1967, becoming Yellow Cab of Winona. The initial leadership came from “Bruce,” an experienced “cabbie” in his own right at Yellow Cab of LaCrosse.

With his passing, current owner Janet Nustad “fell in love with the business” and took over as president in 1997. Now operating four taxis with dispatcher Mike Szewell at her side, these service leaders have many shared years and exciting moments of responding to the needs of Winonans. Both have a great sense of history in cabs, with Mike remembering his “free rides with Shorty and Dave” (of Vets Cab) in the 1950s.

Economy Cab Company today operates six Winona cabs and provides handicapped van services to Winona, LaCrosse, and Rochester from the space formerly dedicated to “Ralph’s Tackle Box” at 200 East Third. Bob Christopherson, owner, purchased the business in 1992 after driving for the White Cab Company. Sheri Meyer, his “right hand person” has been driver and dispatcher over the twenty-year history. She suggests the company “has grown far beyond their early imaginings.”

Economy and Yellow Cab drivers continue to share their service to Winona, meeting the two lone Amtrak trains each day at the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company (Milwaukee Road) Depot. Rochester Express joins them to meet the trains and provide shuttle service to Rochester. The depot, across from the former “Shorty’s Bar,” was built in the late 1800s and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Radio calls continue to take today’s drivers to their many patrons with maximum speed, efficiency and concern. Drivers of both companies continue early-morning runs to church services, offer special service to downtown on snowy days, and shuttle regular late-evening regulars to “the hot spots” across the river.

It has been “A Century of Personal Service” of which all can be proud.

Kent Stever has “been around the block” in a taxi. He loved time spent on the evening streets of Winona - and the activity generated from Winona’s downtown in a “boom time” era. He writes and researches from his home in Lakeville, with great appreciation for the Winona Research Project at WSU - and the cooperation and interest of named contributors and Winona Post.

Contact him at kostever35@gmail.com

 

 

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