I never got the chance to see the church in the little town of Holyoke, Minnesota, where my dad, Al Spencer and his siblings spent much of their growing up years…at least not before it fell into terrible disrepair. My dad’s parents rented a farm in the area, and the little Lutheran Church in town was their church. The kids helped on the farm and went to school in the area, but the church held a special significance to the family. Of course, being a very religious family, church was the center of their lives. Everything else came after time with the Lord. For me and my sisters, that has been something that our parents, Allen and Collene Spencer carried forward into their marriage, and we will be forever grateful for that solid Christian upbringing. That in many ways got started in that little church in Holyoke, Wisconsin.
There was something else that endeared the little church to our family, and really the reason that my family visited it on a trip back to Wisconsin. My Uncle Fritz Fredrick, who was then married to my dad’s sister, Laura, was exceptional at furniture building, and he put that talent into building the baptismal font for the church. It was a really special gift to them. In fact the story of the baptismal font and its special connection to our family is the reason my dad’s brother, Bill Spencer brought the family to the little church in the first place. Of course, my dad knew about the baptismal font, but the rest of the family who were on that trip wanted to see it firsthand. I think the most amazing part of the history of it…to us anyway, was that someone in our family had a part in it.
When the little church closed…sadly, my Uncle Bill asked for the baptismal font. He wanted it to be passed to one of Fritz’s sons. In the end, Fritz’s son Dennis ended up with the baptismal font. I’m sure it was a treasure for him. While the font was a beautiful piece of church furniture, the real treasure is that it was made by his dad’s hands. Many churches have one of a mass produced baptismal font, and they are beautiful, but this one was made with love by the hands of a family member, and that makes this one so much more special. I wish I could have seen that baptismal font, in that little church in Holyoke…in the intended setting for it. It think I would have been in awe of both the baptismal font and the church. It made me very sad to see the little church in its final state…when I was finally able to get back to Holyoke. It just seems so wrong to have a church in such dilapidation…a condition that should never be the fate of a church.
Last night, while my sister, Cheryl Masterson and I were going through several boxes of our parents paperwork to prepare it for shredding, we came across a number of letters from different family members. I was drawn to some from my dad’s brother, William Spencer. One letter was written on March 5, 1990, and told a lot about the small town of Holyoke, Minnesota, where the family lived for a number of years. Uncle Bill talked of how the town was just a skeleton now, and so unlike its former self. I could read the sadness in his thoughts. Holyoke was a place that, in his childhood, had seemed larger than life. He knew every inch of it. He and my dad, their sister, Ruth, and their friends had dodged the trains, played ball, gone to school, fished the stream, and…well, lived life there. Uncle Bill was sad, because now, all that was changing.
Uncle Bill wrote of the passing of this friend, and that friend, as well as all the citizens, teachers, parents, and business owners who had lived in the little town of Holyoke. While the passing of the people he knew and loved was hard enough, the loss of the different buildings in the town was equally devastating to my dear Uncle Bill. I think the building that was the hardest for him to see go was the little church, which held the baptismal font that had been built in 1935 by Fritz Fredrick, who is the father of my cousins Gene and Dennis Fredrick. Fritz also did most of the cabinet work, too. It was very hard for Uncle Bill to think of that baptismal font being left to rot, so he bought it and gave it to one of Fritz’s sons. Uncle Bill writes about how sad it makes him to see the buildings delapitated and, in his words, forlorn. Nevertheless, he continues to be drawn to Holyoke because it feels like going home to him. He loves the people there, and loves to spend time visiting with them. Holyoke is and always will be a part of him…like it’s in his DNA.
Uncle Bill’s letter continues to draw me back to it in much the same way that Holyoke draws Uncle Bill back to it, because even if the feelings are raw and painful to a degree, it is harder not to make the trip than it is the deal with the feelings when you go back there. My mom, Collene Spencer, my sister, Cheryl Masterson, my cousin Bill Spencer (Uncle Bill’s son), and I visited Holyoke this past August while we were back in Superior, Wisconsin, and I can completely understand how Uncle Bill feels about that place. I don’t recall having been there before, but like my Uncle Bill, Holyoke, Minnesota will continue to live in my heart. I guess that some places simply have that affect on you.
On our trek back into our past, we took a drive to see some of the places my dad’s family had lived, like the town of Holyoke, Minnesota…my dad and his siblings’ old stomping grounds, I felt as if I was walking in my dad’s shoes so to speak…or at the very least traveling along on the same journey he had taken as a young boy. As we drove into the area, I recognized the railroad trestle that my dad and Uncle Bill had played on as kids. We had just talked to Uncle Bill, who told us that when a train came, they would just drop down and hang on, because there wasn’t room enough to stand there while a train went over. They said it shook a lot, and I personally wouldn’t recommend such a thing to anyone.
Our next stop was at the park across the street. This park was a favorite hangout for most of the Holyoke kids, and was located just down the hill from the school, making it convenient for after school ball games or hanging out in the creek that ran through it. The park is in great condition, and looks like it is still used a lot today, but I could picture the little boys, who were my dad and uncle hanging out there with their friends and avoiding the chores that probably awaited them at home.
We drove past the old church that they attended, who’s alter had been built by my Aunt Laura Fredrick’s ex-husband, Fritz. We were very sorry to see the state it was in. The front of the building looked pretty good, but when viewed from the side, we could see that the roof had caved in, and all that was still standing was three sides. That really made me sad, because it was the church they had attended for so many years of their lives.
Heading out of town, we came to a section of red dirt road that went for about a mile or so before returning to the pavement. Our cousin, Bill Spencer, who was our tour guide for the day, told us that his dad, our Uncle Bill and our dad had ridden their bikes to Superior, Wisconsin on this road. That was astounding, in that it was about thirty miles…one way…and they went to town and home in the same day, on the old clunky bicycles of those days. It was here, as we drove from Holyoke back into Superior, that I felt like I was traveling along the same journey that my dad had taken so many times. It was a lonely feeling, in that I really missed my dad right then, but it was also an interesting, in that they had gone so far in just one day.
I think that sometimes, we don’t realize just how amazing our parents lives were. We forget that technology and transportation have come a long, long way since their day. It seems like the work was harder and yet, the times easier somehow. I thought of my dad and Uncle Bill riding happily into Superior to spend the day, and what their plans might have been. Maybe it was just the idea of being free for the day…with no one to tell you what to do, or maybe they were meeting friends. I’ll probably never know, but I do know that it was strange to be traveling the same road to Superior, that dad had taken so long ago.
My dad’s family spent quite a few years living in the small town of Holyoke, Minnesota. The area is wooded and very beautiful, with the train tracks bordering the edge of town. As boys, my dad and my Uncle Bill were always fascinated by the trains. I think that is probably very normal for all boys, and especially this living in a small town. The trains become the highlight of the day. My husband, Bob loved to go out and count the cars on the train when his family was living in the small town of Point of Rocks, Wyoming. I’m sure Dad and Uncle Bill did the same thing.
They knew the trains like a lot of guys know cars. Uncle Bill tells us in his family history that the first train is an early 1900’s 1500 Series Locomotive, and the second one is a 1910 1200 Series Locomotive that was used on passenger trains. I can imagine that they spent as much time talking to the employees of the railway as they did looking at the trains. Their curiosity was peeked and they wanted to know everything about those trains. Their dad worked for the Great Northern Railway too, so they were allowed to ride the trains to get to and from school…so any stories about how they walked 10 miles, in the snow, and it was uphill both ways, are probably a little bit of a stretch.
Uncle Bill actually got a job with the railroad one time but he didn’t keep it very long. He thought it was pretty boring work, and since I have had a few boring jobs myself, I can empathize with his thoughts on the matter. Maybe, if he had been doing work that was similar to what his dad did, he would have liked it better. While railroad work was not what they wanted to do, that did not dim their interest in the trains, but then, what else was there for two young boys to do in the small town of Holyoke, Minnesota. I never thought of them as small town boys, but maybe they were.
Sometimes we do things for no real reason…we just feel a need somehow. When my dad’s family was living in Holyoke, Minnesota, the family liked to go down to Oak Lake to fish. The lake is located about 15 miles southwest of Holyoke. The lake was a family favorite location. In fact, the whole area was beautiful. The kids, my Aunt Laura, Uncle Bill, my dad, Aunt Ruth, and their friends, went fishing at the lake as often without their parents as they did with them. The lake became an escape from the boredom of everyday life in a small town.
At some point the kids came across the Fire Warden’s house. You see, the area was very wooded, and there was enough fire danger to warrant not only a fire warden, but a fire watch tower in the area. Of course, the summer season in any wooded area presents a high fire danger, as the summer heat dries out the area. Over time, in their hikes through the area, the kids became friends with the fire warden, and were eventually invited to climb up in the fire tower to check out the view from far above the forest floor. It soon became a tradition. When the kids and their friends went fishing at Oak Lake, they also stopped by the tower, and climbed it every time.
Yes, they loved visiting with the person in the tower, but they also climbed the tower when it was unmanned. I suppose it was partly the challenge of climbing up the high tower. Or it could have been the beauty of the view from the top of the tower. Maybe it was the visit with the watchman in the tower. Somehow, I don’t really think that any of those were the real reason the kids and their friends climbed the tower, every time they went by it. I think they had a very simple reason that they did it…because it was there. And sometimes that is all the reason you need.
I found a picture among my Uncle Bill’s family history books, of my dad, Allen Spencer in a water fight with a friend named Ordie at Pattison Park, in Wisconsin, which is just 15 miles east of Holyoke, Minnesota, where the family was living at the time. I could just hear my dad’s laugh as he pummeled his friend with water. Dad had such a great laugh, and he took great pleasure in getting the best of people…in a friendly way, of course. I remember, as a kid, my dad and I used to have sparring matches. Somehow I had it in my head that I could beat him, if I really tried. Our sparring matches weren’t real, of course, but rather a matter of blocking the other persons attempts to pat their opponents face. Dad always won, and he always laughed all the way through our match. I was like a kid with an adult holding onto my head, while I tried to swing and couldn’t hit anything. Dad never held my head, but he almost always blocked my attempts to pat his face. It wasn’t really the sparring matches that drew me back into them, but rather my dad’s laugh. It amused him so much, he laughed in pure delight.
Some memories are so vivid that it’s almost as if you can hear the person. Dad’s voice, the way he teased his girls, his laugh, dancing with him on New Year’s Eve, the swatting game he always played with the grandkids from his chair in the kitchen as they tried in vain to run past him before he could swat them, and the whisker rubs he used to give us…laughing all the while. So many great memories of the wonderful dad that God blessed me with. He could even turn a moment when we were really angry or had been fighting with one of our sisters, into a laughing matter, because it was really hard to keep from laughing when he was laughing. I remember really trying a few times though. We would come to him tattling on whichever sister had so wrongly offended us, and he would imitate our whining…while we tried to keep a straight face. Before you knew it, we were both laughing, and the sister incident was forgotten. That was my dad…always the peacemaker.
When a loved one has gone to Heaven, you just never know what things will bring a memory of them that engulfs you. Sometimes, the sadness is overwhelming, and sometimes the memory brings a smile to your face. Either way, it is always unexpected and you are completely unprepared for it. My dad passed away 6 years ago today, and the memories continue to bring both tears and smiles. My mind shows me video clips of those moments in time, and the happiness we all shared with our dad. I see his smile. I remember his teasing. I hear his words of wisdom. And yes, I hear Dad’s laugh. These memories keep him in my heart until we see each other again in Heaven. I love you Dad!!