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Part I - 10/6/2010
Among Friends and Neighbors - as published in the Spring Valley Sun/Argus

Mary Louise Olson remembers

By Kaye Bird

RIVER FALLS, WI - When Mary Louise Olson looks back on her childhood in Spring Valley, she does so with a sense of gratitude, and it's not just the charm of a small town that she remembers. She also recalls the people and the strong sense of community in her hometown.

Mary Louise Olson looks back on her chilhood in Spring Valley with a sense of gratitude.

Photo by Kaye Bird

    The daughter of Harold K. (H.K.) and Louise Olson, Mary Louise grew up with her two brothers in one of the early homes in Spring Valley located on Blegen Drive. The house overlooked the small town, and that was a good place to live in a valley that often flooded. "Continuous floods occurred from 1935 to 1942. We wondered when the 'big one' would come," said Mary Louise. It came in 1941, and she remembers that day.
   "The Black Bridge was used to get to our house," she said. "On the day of the flood, my dad and my brother were the last ones to cross the bridge." They had gone to help her uncle, Pete Blegen move groceries to the top shelves of his store. The family was safe in their home on the hill, but Mary Louise remembers looking at the lightning flashes and the torrents of rains filling the streets of Spring Valley. "I was so scared, but there was nothing we could do. We could hear the cattle (in town for Farm Days) trying to survive."

   "The Zimmer's tin roof collapsed; the sound was unbelievable," she remembers. "The next morning there was a big crater at the bottom of the hill. The bridge was still there, but the approach was gone."
   "All the books in the bottom floor of the school, which housed the elementary classrooms, and library were gone; we were out of school for weeks," she said adding, "I often wondered how the teachers managed [without books]. It must have been a real challenge."
    Living in town meant the Olson children walked to school and walked home for lunch. She has some very clear memories of her elementary school days. "We were always in combined grades. First and second were combined as were third and fourth, fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth. Eighth grade graduation was such a special event. Relatives were invited to the house, and the family gathered to celebrate," she said.
    School officials felt that religious instruction was important enough to release students early on Wednesday afternoon to attend classes. "The Catholic children were excused to attend Catechism at their church. We went to classes in private homes," said Olson. Duane Olson's mother and Ken Klanderman's mother were two of their instructors. "We were told to have our lessons ready and whose house we should go to. We were trusted to do this, and we did."
Those students with perfect attendance were given Half a Holiday. "We had an afternoon free. I would get to go with my dad to work. He worked in Elmwood. I got all dressed up, and then he came and got me," she remembered. H.K. Olson was a prominent figure in the community. He was the village president and he also served on the Pierce County Board of Supervisors.
    One teacher in particular stands out for Mary Louise. "Luella Holt was my third grade teacher. She was wonderful. One day my dad offered to let us visit Mrs. Holt. My friend Marilyn Anderson and I spent a morning with Mrs. Holt at her home in Elmwood. We thought we were really special."
    Mary Louise's memories continued. "In summer time during grade school we had a Vacation Bible School at St. John's. We had to memorize the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the meanings."
    Confirmation classes were for 7th and 8th grade students. "Those of us who lived in town had to attend two years; country kids had to go one year," she said adding, "That all ended with a public examination in front of the congregation. Expectations were high, and as I look back on our teachers and our pastors, I know the lessons were well-taught." She paused and then added, "We respected them, and they believed in us."
    Prom night was different back in the 1950s. "Prom was community event, so that meant even our folks got dressed up and went to prom. Everyone looked forward to this grand event," she remembered
    Today Mary Louise, who is a retired English teacher, lives in River Falls with her husband Craig. They have two children-Trygve and Kjersti and two grandchildren, each one year old. Their names are Ula Louise and Espen Harold, named after their great grandparents.
    Next week Mary Louise shares some powerful memories of her life during World War II and fun fishing stories.


Part II - 10/18/2010
Among Friends and Neighbors - as published in the Spring Valley Sun/Argus

Mary Louise Olson shares 'Valley' stories Part II

By Kaye Bird

RIVER FALLS, WI - Bruce Springsteen sings, "I was born in a small town, and it's good enough for me."    For Mary Louise Olson, being born in a small town went way beyond being "good enough." It was great.  "I thank God that I grew up in Spring Valley," she said. But as idyllic as it may have been, outside events during the 1940s and 1950s affected everyone in town-events like World War II.

For Mary Louise Olson, being born in a small town was beyond being "good enough." It was great.

Photo by Kaye Bird

   Mary Louise remembers the rationing and the shortages. Among the items being rationed were new shoes, tires and gasoline. "We didn't get new bikes, [during the war] so when the first new bike came into to town after the war ended, my friend Marilyn Anderson and I stood and looked longingly at the bike that was in the Coast to Coast window. She was the fortunate one to get that new blue bike. My dad looked around and found a pre-World War II bike and refurbished it for me," she said.
    Sugar was also in short supply. "We baked cakes using honey, and it was a really big deal when we were allowed, once a year, to have a taffy pull," she said adding, "When the candy truck came to town, sweets were saved and savored. We chewed the same piece of gum over and over again."
    She continued. "Mom and dad talked about the war, and they were blood donors. We used our dimes to buy Saving Stamps to support the war effort." And that wasn't the only thing Mary Louise did. "Everyone was aware of the war. We stood with pride on Armistice Day. It brought home the fact that our country was important, and people were making sacrifices for us," she said and perhaps that's what inspired her and her friend Marilyn Anderson to make their own contribution to the war effort. "We picked milk weed pods and got a few cents for them. It was a really big deal for us," said Olson. (Note: The value of the milkweed floss lay in its buoyancy. The armed forces used it in the manufacture of life preservers needed for its airmen and sailors.)
    "We (the community) also saved money to buy a jeep for the war effort," she said. As a thank you, a jeep was brought to town. "We got to ride in it; it was very patriotic."
    Spring Valley, like so many towns across the country, lost people to the war. "One of the Marquart boys was killed; he lived below us," remembered Mary Louise. Another young man, Thomas Anderson came home with malaria. "He recovered, but we were so shocked to see how sick he was," she said.
    And then the war ended. "I remember church bells ringing on that day. We went to see Mrs. Zimmer, and she was sobbing with happiness," said Mary Louise.
    In the 1950s polio came calling. We had a polio scare, and all of a sudden we weren't allowed to play with our wider circle of friends. Marilyn and I had always been together, so we could see one another, but we didn't leave the north end of town," she said.
    Long, long before cell phones there were party lines."We had a good time with a party line. Andersons were on same line, and my neighbor Mrs. Palmer was also on that line, so it was two longs and a short to get Marilyn. We could call our friend Millie Joe Peterson for what I suppose today would be a conference call. We thought that was clever," said Mary Louise.
    But a real high point for her and her friend Marilyn was fishing season. "Every Spring we made elaborate plans for fishing season. Should we try and sleep and join others at midnight, or should we stay up all night? The latter idea usually won, and lined creek banks greeted our arrival," she said.
    Fishing season opened no matter the weather, and when it came, they were prepared. Mary Louise remembers."Worms languished under cow pies. We put them in coffee cans. We wore matching sweatshirts, and the food was important. We brought along RC Coke and potato chips. Eau Galle didn't require a long walk, but it was a slippery walk; flashlight guided our way. We only had one instruction from our folks-don't fall in!"
    The girls made their way to the deepest hole. Most of the other fishermen were just that-men and they were over 50 years old. "We had to be quiet. There were muffled words of congratulations when a fish was caught. The men were drinking alcohol. One time we heard a huge splash; it startled everyone. One of the city founders had gotten drunk and fallen in-laughter echoed."
    Next to fishing, the most glorious event for Mary Louise and Marilyn was the Pierce County Fair. "We would talk about it for months afterwards," she recalled. Another special memory was riding the train from Spring Valley to Elmwood and back again. "My brother Gail took me on one of those train rides. We came home with blackened faces because we would stick our heads out the window when we traveled. We were dirty but thrilled," she said.
    Small towns are also about next door neighbors, and the Olson's neighbor was Mrs. Kate Palmer. "She was very important when mom wasn't home," said Olson. Her front porch was falling down, and the upstairs was closed off, but that didn't matter to Mary Louise who would visit her after school and tell her neighbor all about her day.
    One day Mrs. Palmer set fire to the hill above the Valley. "She decided to burn on wash day, and the fire was raging. She was on the hillside with gunny bags. My brothers were dispatched, and eventually the fire was brought under control," remembers Mary Louise. The only casualty, besides some burned grass, was some blackened laundry.
   "I kept and treasured many of the items she gave me. A treasure of my life was Mrs. Palmer. She occupied the place of grandmother in my wedding."
    Every year on the first Friday in August, Mary Louise meets with former classmates. "On that day each year we get together and remember Spring Valley-that funny little town at a particular period in time has allowed us to be attached forever."