Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hard work, good food, cribbage... 90 years and going strong...

From Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal:

"Today, surrounded by the fields along Highway 1 that have been part and parcel of his entire lifetime, Holmes enjoys life at a little slower – but equally lively – pace....
His parents came to the Wrenshall area from Iowa in 1901 after his dad first moved there to build a house for them. When Holmes’ two half brothers moved to the area to work in the brick yards, one of them bought 80 acres of property which the family later divvied up and settled on.

His dad and uncle were carpenters and they built several of the houses throughout the area.

In 1919, an adjoining farm came up for sale and Holmes’ parents bought it at the time Kenny was just six months old. There, they raised dairy cattle and vegetables, starting out with potatoes and later expanding to include cabbage as well.

Many of the vegetables they raised went out by rail from Duluth, though some went to supply local markets as well.

“My dad sold the first carload of vegetables – mainly potatoes, cabbage, carrots and beets – to Gersgohl’s Economy Market when they first opened in a tent on Second Avenue West,” related Holmes.

Holmes was one of a family of seven boys and one girl, and his earliest memory of growing up on the farm was “Hard work!” he exclaimed.

“We made our own fun, though,” he added. “There was no money to buy toys like there is today. In the summer we were kept pretty busy working on the farm, but in the winter we liked skating and skiing – outdoor things.

“We were lucky enough to have factory-made skis, but they weren’t anything like the ones people have today,” he continued. “They had just a strap over the top, and you stuck your foot in there. We’d go a little ways and then the ice would build up and we’d have to stop and get rid of it. The first skates we had just clamped onto the bottom of our shoes.”

The family’s original farmhouse burned down in 1927.

“It happened on a Sunday when we were at the neighbors for dinner,” Holmes recollected. “They think it was the wood cook stove that started it.”

They rebuilt on the same site in 1928, living in the brick house next door in the interim.

When Holmes started school in Wrenshall, he and his brothers and sister rode to class in a horse-drawn school bus.

“It carried around 20 people, and we were picked up around 8:15 in the morning,” he recalled. “There was one bus that came from down south, around Pleasant Valley, and another from out on County 18.”

The school was built around 1920, and Holmes started classes there in 1924.

“My second oldest brother was among the first ones to graduate from 12th grade in that building,” Holmes said.

Back then, and for several years after, they used to have “cabbage vacations” in Wrenshall, usually on the first Thursday and Friday of October, as the geese were flying south and most of the kids had to go out and help their families cut cabbage.

Holmes graduated as part of a class of 12 students in 1936.

“Surprisingly, there are four of us still living,” he related.

He recalls going to prom with a girl who graduated a year ahead of him (“One of the DeCaigny girls...” he recalled), which was held at the school, along with a banquet. Their class trip – all the way down to the park in Fond du Lac.

After high school, Holmes said it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that he would stay on the farm and help his dad. From that time on, he continued farming until 1966.

While Holmes was still on the farm, his sister went to work for an attorney in Duluth and later introduced Kenny to his future bride, Margaret.

“The two of them used to have lunch at one of the dime stores in Duluth, and one day Margaret invited my sister up to her house for a meal,” said Holmes. “Then my sister invited Margaret out to our house for a meal, and that’s when I met her.”

Holmes was 24 years old at the time, and it didn’t take long before the lovely girl from Duluth stole his heart.

“She came out one weekend and we went to the Military Inn for a dance. It was pretty much sparks right off the bat,” he admitted with a grin.

“I can attest that the sparks were still there for all the years they were married!” chuckled long-time friend and neighbor, Dale Wolfe.

The two were married in St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Duluth, he in a business suit, and she in a long, white dress. Holmes said they went “all the way to Fort Francis!” for their honeymoon.

Margaret and Kenny were happily married for 57 years and had three daughters.

“He had the advantage of being married to not only a great spouse,” recalled Wolfe fondly, “but everybody’s mother.”

The Holmeses built a place right next to his parents’ house, where they lived until 1969, continuing to farm. It was a big step for a “big city” girl to move to the country – but one Margaret grew to love.

“At first, she was kind of lonesome and she mentioned it was dark and there were no street lights,” Holmes reflected. “But she adapted!”

After many years of farming, Holmes decided the time had come to make a change.

“It was either spend a lot of money to upgrade the dairy or get out of it and go to work at the school,” he said. “I’m glad I made the change.”

He went to work at the Wrenshall school as the bus foreman, where he stayed for the next 26 years. He did all the bus route scheduling, took care of the mechanical repairs and also drove bus.

“I started out west and south of here down County 3, and then I went to the County 18 route,” he said.

“Everybody knew and loved Kenny,” Wolfe reminisced of Holmes’ years as bus foreman. “Very few people called him Mr. Holmes. It was always Kenny.”

And as most any rural route bus driver will attest, there were times that being a bus driver could test one’s mettle – such as the inevitable blizzards.

“One time the weather was so bad the parents were calling in because the superintendent wouldn’t let school out,” recalled Holmes. “He finally did at 2 p.m., and by then there was one route I couldn’t make – County 102. Usually, if the weather got bad, we just put chains on the bus and drove anyway.”

Holmes can recall another, more hair-raising incident that could very well have led to tragic circumstances.

“I was going north on Highway 23 and stopped at the house of two girls,” he explained. “They were standing on their side of the highway, ready to cross, and I had the stop arm out and the flashing lights on. The two of them set out, and the second one had almost stepped out when a car swerved out and passed me on the shoulder, narrowly missing the girl. I got his license number, but we didn’t press charges because the guy was so distraught. I’m sure that was punishment enough.”

“Of course, back then all the bus drivers had to do was call the parents,” added Wolfe. “There was nothing worse than to have Kenny Holmes call them, because he was so highly regarded.”

Holmes said he never had a problem with discipline until the last year that he drove bus.

“It was getting worse at that time, and I can only imagine what it must be like today,” he related. “The first time I ever had to take anyone to the office was also the last. Before that, I had always dealt with it myself. There were two kids involved, and the superintendent and the principal were there. too. When they called the parents, this lady said, ‘My kids can do no wrong.’ I thought right then and there, ‘I’ve had enough....’”

Having already reached the Rule of 90 (the time a teacher qualifies for retirement benefits), Holmes retired in 1982.

“I’ll never forget the remark my brother-in-law made to me at the time,” said Holmes. “He said, ‘Before you retire, you’d better get a physical and make sure you’re in good shape!’”

After that, it seemed Holmes was busier than ever. He became active in the Wrenshall Development group, which he and two others organized in order to build a restaurant in town.

“There were three of us, including Hugh Line and the late Cliff Goad,” Holmes said. “Hugh was the instigator and we all pitched in. It took us five years. The first two years were spent raising money and selling shares, and the next three years we spent putting up the building. We got the bricks from an old barn that had once housed horses for the brick yards. The walls were all bricks, so we demolished that and salvaged them for the restaurant.”

It has been 15-16 years since it opened, and the Brickyard Restaurant is still going strong today.

Holmes and the rest of the Wrenshall Development group also arranged to have a sign installed at the Silverbrook Cemetery and trees planted throughout the city, where it was once all farmland.

“They had a lot of foresight, those three,” commented Wolfe.

Throughout his life, Holmes has always liked to hunt and fish, and he once went bear hunting with his brother in the Boundary Waters.

“I never really shot a bear,” he admitted, ”though I did see one!”

He especially liked going fishing in the Gunflint Trail area, as well as in Ely and Canada.

“Ken is the consummate deer hunter,” said Wolfe. “Everyone always wanted to find out how the Holmes family did.”

“I shot my first deer when I was 13, on Mud Creek,” recalled Holmes. “We never had a deer camp. We were always home at night because we had to do chores. We did a lot of walking, because that was before Highway 23 was built and there were no inroads into the areas where we hunted.”

He and his wife also traveled a lot.

“We have been in 45 of the lower 48 states,” he attested. “I’ve also been in Alaska. I think we most liked the Southwest in the winter time. I saw the desert one time when it was in bloom, and it was gorgeous. We probably would have spent our winters down there, but Margaret wouldn’t leave her sisters or our daughter, Mary Kay, who had Down Syndrome.”

Holmes has served on the board at Pinewood for some 16 years – and is still going strong.

“I told them I was going to retire when I got to be 90,” he said, “and they accepted that. But so far, they haven’t found a replacement, and at the last meeting I told them I wouldn’t leave them short-handed and I’d stay until they found someone.”

He also recently joined the Morning Kiwanis Club in Cloquet, and he gets together with his cribbage buddies every chance he can get.

“I used to go to the Brickyard every Wednesday night to play cribbage,” he said, “but the group just kind of fizzled out. Now I just get together with friends and neighbors.”

“It’s tough when you’re going up against the best,” commented Wolfe, who regularly faces off with Holmes over the cribbage board. “He’s really shrewd!”

When asked about the changes he’s seen in Wrenshall over the years, he said probably the most significant was the closing of the brick yards.

“During the war, they couldn’t get anybody to work there,” he explained. “They reopened one brick yard after the war, but they just couldn’t get any help. Then the refinery came in.”

Holmes still does all his own grass mowing on the two and a half acres where he now lives.

“He’s a doer, and there’s not one thing he’s ever done that has not been positive,” said Wolfe, “ – either for the family, the community or friends... I can’t think of anything in his life that he’s done that anyone would ever question.”

Holmes said if he had one wish at this stage of his life, he would like most to go back to Alaska to fish, though he admitted he probably never will.

“The one time I went up there, it was a really great trip,” he reflected. “We went up into Glacier Bay. It’s amazing up there. Five of us went up in a float plane and we were able to look down and see a grizzly bear!”

When asked if he has any words of wisdom for younger folks these days, Holmes thoughtfully looked back over his 90 years and reflected on what it takes to make a happy life.

“Hard work, good food...” he began, as his voice then grew husky with emotion, “...a loving family, good friends and good neighbors.”"

Original Article

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