Robert Whitney Colehour


The year was 1906. The San Francisco earthquake and fire happened in April, and I was born May 9th in Minnesota. These events had no connection but I thought I would place in your mind some event that is history now.

I have to tell you a few things that I remember.

My mother died when I was 3 and my sister, Doris was about 18 months. She went down and lived with our Uncle Willis Stearns, a doctor in Mason City, Iowa.

I went up to Battle Lake, Minnesota to live with my grandparents, "Cap" and Grandmother Colehour.

They ran the Prospect Inn in the summer so that I had to be kept clean and on good behavior all summer.

The summer people were all kind to me and I remember quite a few of them.

When they built the Fairleigh house I was there. I smashed one finger on a rock and lost a finger nail, but it did grow back.

Those that are still young have no recollection of what it was like, when we, who are over seventy were young.

Your town of Battle Lake as you know it today was quite different back around 1912.

The train brought to town new people, tourists, and salesman.

As a young boy the train always a source of interest, to be there when it came in and watch the people, the freight unloaded, and hear the sounds of the engine, was quite a thrill.

They usually stopped at the water tank for water, a large funnel like thing was placed on the engine and the boiler filled.

On the track things were spilled and I remember picking peanuts that were unroasted and carting them home. Guess what I did with them? I put them in the big oven in the hotel kitchen, when I came for them they were all burned up.

The station was worth watching. We could hear the telegraph keys clicking messages and the station master sending back messages.

I think when they painted the station they missed the paint with sand because it was always rough.

We always explored every inch of the town, we knew which mothers made the best cookies and begged for them.

The boat house on Battle Lake attracted us and we examined the old bowling alley, which at that time was pretty well wrecked. We liked to watch the men come in with the day's catch of fish, sometimes as many as fifty.

Out near the road north, which is #74 now, was the old brick kilns which had been abandoned. I am not sure who built it. Climbing around the bricks was great fun.

What really interested us was the old slaughter house slough, where we were told animals were killed at one time. There were old bones lying around the soft ground in the center.

We would walk around the edge and could go over to Silver Lake. It was woods right up to the lake shore. Quite different than today.

I remember one afternoon Ed Everts and I went there and built a lean-to expecting to stay all night, but when it started to get dark we got scared and went back to town.

We went over to Grandma Everts and she gave us cookies and milk. We really got it when we got home. We weren't supposed to be out after dark and the Justice of Peace would have picked us up. I believe his name was Simonson.

People have asked me, "What was the Prospect Inn like?" What were the buildings surrounding it?" Beginning with the first home built, I believe the material cost about $800.00. "Cap" was a good carpenter, and I think that he built most of it himself. It was a 2 story structure and was just in front of the hotel with doors and the house going into the hotel on both floors. Zimmermans rented the new home in the summer until they built their own summer home. Upstairs were sleeping rooms, rented out or used by the family at times in summer after the new home was built. Around the front and south sides were screened porches.

The living room was used by the ladies in the evening for cards and refreshments. They were served Welsh Rabbit frequently.

The back room was for the gentlemen for cards; sometimes "Cap" had to sit in to make a foursome. I sometimes played in this room the evenings "Cap" had to play cards.

Around the yard, on the north, was the gas house, used for lighting the hotel. In back of the gas house were the outhouses, also the mangle room, for laundry.

Back of the hotel was the ice house, two stories for ice and one above for storage. Every winter the men would go out to the lake and cut ice, chunks that could be moved.

Ice was carted up to the ice house and piled, one layer of sawdust and one layer of ice, until it was filled up.

In summer the help would cut out a chunk of ice and with a wheel barrow take it over to the side of the hotel and with block and tackle lift the ice up on a platform and push it into the ice box. All the perishable food was stored in the ice box.

On the south was the "Coop", which was built first for a recreation room for the children, later on it was rented out in the summer.

To the south was the water pump house, with a gas engine that pumped up the water to fill the water tank, which was right in back of the hotel. This tank at first had a windmill.

My father once chased his brother, Jim up the windmill and he was too scared to come down, I think "Cap" must have settled that.

The home that we called "Cap's" house; he built with a store fireplace, a basement and 3 bedrooms upstairs. He built a front porch and screened it in, also the kitchen must have been added and a small room for wood.

After "Cap" died this house was rented to the Bjorke family and later on, Charley, "Cap's" youngest son and his wife moved in. They sold their home a block south of the house.

From the time I was 3 until I was 8, I lived in this house with my grandparents.

The main part of the hotel had one room called the office just in back of it was the small dining room where the children and their nursemaids ate their 3 meals. The summer tourists from the south brought up teen-age black girls to watch their children. To the south was the large dining room where the grown-ups ate.

The tables were round and covered with white linen tablecloths, white linen napkins with napkin rings, in the center was placed the cruet containers that had salt, sugar, olive oil and other things.

Sunday was always the big day. The meals were really something out of this world. The Prospect Inn ice cream topped it off. The ice cream was made out of doors and the ice cream machine was cranked by hand. Sometimes I would help; but when it started getting hard some adult had to take over.

Back of the small dining room was the kitchen, quite large, with a wood and coal range that must have been at least 10 feet long. There were also large tables here and the food was prepared by many helpers.

On the second floor were rooms for the guests. The third floor had at least 3 bedrooms and space for storage.

Some of the help would live in and when they had time they would get together and sing songs from the country they came from. Most of them were fresh from the Scandinavian countries and knew their own language better than English.

I must not forget the front porch of the hotel. It had a wooden railing about 2 feet high all around. There were Captain's stairs placed so that the men could put their feet on the railing when they wanted to. This was a place to smoke cigars and chat.

At one side near the front door was the chair for shining shoes. "Cap" usually had some teen ager from the village ready to shine shoes for the guests. This summer. I remember a man, who had become a doctor, telling me he had worked for "Cap".

Several of the farm ladies had worked for "Cap" and later married, some had farms outside the town.

"Cap" had a dog name Slipper, when the dog was 13 years old he crawled underneath the porch and died. Animals seem to always go off by themselves when their time comes.

I might add that I tried to start a fire in the big dining room once. I also got into the paint and painted a patch on the north side of the hotel. White on barn red.

One winter "Cap" rented out the front part of the hotel to a family. They got sick with Diphtheria. All their toys, clothing, and other things were thrown in the back of the ice house. I was told to stay away from them.

When the summer tourists left in the fall they sometimes gave me toys that were too much to take back home on the train.

The year that "Cap" went down to the Mayo Clinic, Grandma went along. I was sent out to the Oakwood stock farm that was run by Ernest Wilkins and "Cap's" only daughter, Kay. I remember riding on an old horse, having to run from the goat, and watching all the animals.

"Cap" had surgery on his lip, cancer of the lip, and he always wore a goatee afterward to hide the stitches.

The year 1914, when I was 7 or 8 years old was quite eventful.

I was baptized, I suppose around Easter, in the Baptist Chapel. At that time they had a baptistery in the back of the pulpit. I remember being in the Christmas exercises and having lines to give.

On my 8th birthday I had quite a party. I was told I could invite any of the children my own age to come. We had food and games for all.

My mother's cousin, Geraldine Stearns was a teacher in Battle Lake and coached the girls' basketball team.

Autos were a rare sight and everything was drawn by horses. In the winter the farmers used cutters and could go over the fields.

I remember going from the Oak Wood farms to old Clitheral in the cutter with two dogs following behinds. The dogs were named Czar and Rex.

The road to the Wilkins cottage on the north side of West Battle Lake was just ruts and wound through the woods.

The ladies when bathing in the lake wore clothes covering everything, they even wore shoes and stockings.

I would like to mention the nursery that was run by the DeSmidt family north of town. I used to visit there and when they paid us for gathering seeds from the trees, I earned some spending money. I gathered quite a number of seeds from the grounds of the hotel.

For entertainment we had a small circus in the summer. The Cole Circus would be in town a week and the owner would always come up and visit with "Cap".

A minstrel show would probably play one night and I sold tickets and got in free. The music and jokes were great fun. I must tell you about the silent movies. A generator for electricity was outside and made a constant noise; but this was overcome by a piano player who played through the whole show. She would play according to the action on the screen; sometimes it was lively for the "Cowboys and Indians" and perhaps "hearts and Flowers" for a sad scene. The local merchants always had cards that would flash on. The silent movies had captions telling about the plot.

The boys usually played games when they got together. I remember one evening someone told ghost stories and I wouldn't go to bed until I got a flashlight to take to bed with me.

I remember the Drug store, it was run by the Swansons. Bob Swanson and I went down to the basement with pestal and mortar and put together some mixture. The druggist had to mix most of the medicine himself from bulk drugs.

I had the usual sicknesses that small boys get.

I went down to Fairbault with my Grandmother to visit Charlie at the School for the Deaf. We went on from there to Sioux City, Iowa and visited her sister, Mrs. Hoyt. Her husband was a Judge there.

I'm sure that my great grandmother visited in Battle Lake, but I don't remember her. She lived at Detroit Lakes, Minnesota with her daughter. My great grandmother was Mrs. Henry Colehour, before she married she was Hannah Richards. She lived ninety-two years.

A lot of relatives visited and some I do remember. I remember a picture in a sand box with two that were my own age. I think their name was Crissy.

People had to devise their own way to handle problems. "Cap" had made his own sewer for the hotel. A trench was dug and a square wooded box thing was laid from the hotel to the back. I'm sure the garden was well fed with this.

The stores were a lot different than today. Most everything was in bulk, with barrels around holding sugar, flour, spices, rice, pickles, oysters, and many other staples. Everything was weighed and wrapped in the store. The hardware store had horse collars, harnesses, horse shoes, parts for plows, and looked very different than the stores in 1981. Heat was furnished from the pot belly stove or from one in the basement with a register in the floor. This made it hot near the stove and cool away from it. The store was a gathering place for the men to talk and gossip. The stores were full of items for the farmers who would come to town Saturday night, to shop and visit with each other. Saturday was the only night that the stores were open at night. Some of the farmers conversed in their native tongue. They were all from Scandinavian countries, there were 4 different countries represented so the language was confusing to me.

I remember visiting New York Mills north of town. The people up there were mostly from Finland.

One summer I had one of the young girls from the town as a nursemaid. She was pretty and one of the boys from town was going with her. He got the bright idea of taking me along in his model T Ford. I sat in the back seat and they sat in the front. We went around the lakes, through Clitheral and Otter Tail City. Later on they were married. Mr. and Mrs. Carl Ranstad. Carl had a restaurant in town.

Later in the summer my father, who had re-married, came to Battle Lake and they stayed on the third floor in the south bedroom. When it came time for them to return to Minneapolis, I was asked what I would like to do, stay in Battle Lake or return with them. I liked my new step-mother very much. I thought that having a father and mother would be much nicer than staying with my grandparents.

By Robert Whitney Colehour-April 1981

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