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John W. Kress book One of the Last 'Rugged Individualists'
minds of all . how the folks at home must be enjoying this event.
In a very few moments victor and vanquished were meeting on all sides, and the American was displaying his characteristic spirit by giving his last cigarettes to his former enemy. Heinle developed a remarkable love and fraternity for our troops in short order; so much so that orders soon came forbidding tne mingling of the troops. Many of these visitors across the line spoke English well, and some of them had the regular American slang acquired by residence in America. They were husky fighters, and were by no means in the dilapidated condition that we had heard about. We were an outrageous combination, considering our personal appearances. Most of us had not had the opportunity to wash or shave for the past ten days.
Three more casualties were suffered in this short morning's work, making five in all. Corporals R. Rineer and John Bremble, and Private Spaulding were all injured and taken to the rear.
All too soon dusk was upon us and a display of now useless fireworks arose from the German lines for miles. We were soon off to bed, lulled by the music of a German band in the distance. What cannot happen in the course of a day?
CHAPTER XIThe next morning, November 12, was an unusual one for the Americans. No reveille or fighting to do . nothing to do but lie there and wonder when they would be going home. In but a few hours the big topic of conversation had changed from "When will the war end?" to "When will we go home?"
The path of glory leads but to the grave. The beginning of the big Romagne cemetery. This was the day to harvest souvenirs. The Germans had vacated this last piece of ground in a great deal of haste. We had taken one dressing station in the last hour of our attack. Several wounded men had been left behind. In another dugout we found the entire paraphernalia of a German officer, including his sectored maps. The slopes of Hill 328 and 319 were covered with innumerable barracks and even some fine cottages so that there were plenty of souvenirs for all.
We were still doing duty with our machine guns mounted and in position ready for immediate action, but from our observations, there was no doubt that Fritz had had enough. From our hill we could see the Germans busy making preparations to leave the area. Occasionally a few would wander over toward the guards, but they didn't receive a very warm reception.
At 2 p.m. on the 13th of November, the Company formed on top of Hill 319, returned guns and equipment to the carts, and wearily but happily left the place that had meant so much to them. After about an hour and a half of slow walking, the Company came to the ruins of Moirey and established a home there.
The time spent at Moirey was one long period of rest and recuperation, with practically no work being performed. Reveille was held at a late 7:30 a.m. Long walks through the country were our only diversion.
On November 23rd, due to bad weather, we got orders to vacate the ruins and move to a set of German dugouts near Wavrille, which were in better condition. This was a former German rest area. The dugouts and barracks were supreme in comforts and construction. Almost all of them had electric lights, running water and other comforts. There were groups of buildings constructed like bungalows. Other camps, or "lagers," as the Germans called them, reminded one of western boom towns of frame construction. Just to the rear of our camp was the former headquarters of a German army corps, and this building was like a millionaire's home. The amount of labor, time, and material spent by the Boehe in this vicinity was astounding. It was on a par with, or was perhaps even more elaborate than, their system of defense, which was staggering in its magnitude and thoroughness.
Around Thanksgiving time the first leaves were granted to the men. Each man was given two weeks to visit some regulated leave area of the A.E.F. Their good time was marred by the difficulties of travel, however, and this caused many of them to decide not to go.
A schedule of five hours of drill per day arrived, and was none too willingly put into effect. The spare hours were devoted to trips through the German lagers and woods, prying out the secrets of their camps. Inspections became the order of the day; every day some new officer came on the scene with an ambitious desire to inspect. One of them was General Wynn, the new brigade general. He criticised our transport. As a result of this, we set to work on horses, harnesses, and equipment until we gained a reputation throughout the Division for excellent condition of transport.
One of the most trying things forced upon us was additional mimic warfare during which we maneuvered again and again over the fields on which we had so recently battled. Five days in one week .we iought these \>attVes m a toenchmg ram. TYiis -was cmty ona ot the many things that brought the universal saying into the Army: "War is hell, but ... an Armistice." There is a distinct line between good, logical, sane action and mandatory unreasoning performance . a line quite clear even to the lowest "buck."
Now and then we met some of the unfortunate wanderers who had given their all to the war. To my mind there was no more pathetic sight than an unfortunate Frenchman hovering about the ruins of his home. There is no higher type of bravery than that demanded of those who return to face bitter memories that will haunt them until the day they die.
Five weeks passed slowly, with nothing more exciting happening than the approach of Christmas. Our Christmas was made more cheerful by German-made sauerkraut from the Regimental supply company, and candy from home.
Early on the morning of December 26th, we bade farewell to our happy home and the battlefields and moved south to Verdun. We took the road over the hill, past Crepion and through Death Valley, where all was silent and desolate. In Verdun we passed the night in an old hospital and set out the next morning for the woods near Benoite Vaux. The final day, December 28th, we plodded in the pouring rain until we came to Rosnes. Here we were to stay indefinitely. Our entrance into Rosnes was, in a way, a return to semi-civilization. The country was not as deserted or desolate as that which we had left.
About the first of February a new captain was placed in charge of the Company, depriving Lieutenant Keeley of the post he so well deserved and had done so much to merit. But such is the army system. Captain Mackie, formerly of the 80th Division, was placed in command, but left a few days later to attend school.
Two new lieutenants were also received into the Company to assist Lieutenants Keeley and Kress, who were the only two officers remaining with the Company when the Armistice came into force. They were Lieutenant Hamilton, formerly of the First Division, and Lieutenant Mayhaw, formerly of the 314th Regiment.
Life at best was a drab existence in Rosnes, and the restless spirit of the men grew as the months of January, February, and March slowly passed without word of the trip home. Finally, late in March, we packed for a trip which forecast our departure for the States.
TOMAH MAN ESCAPES DEATH WITH TROOPS WHEN FIRING ENDS
Lieutenant Kress Surrounded by Huns at Eleven O'clock November Eleventh
GOES OVER THE TOP WITH COLLIER MEN
Trades Souvenirs With Officer of Prussian TroopsTOMAH, Wis., Dec. 17..(Special).The story of how Lieutenant John W. Kress, 314th Infantry, Seventy-ninth division, went over the top with a Colliers Weekly correspondent, and fought up to the very minute of the end of hostilities on November 11, being saved from death only because the firing ceased when it did, is told in thrilling fashion by the lieutenant in a letter to his family in To-mah. The letter follows:
"It is now two weeks or more since I wrote you and the war is over! I can't tell you all that has happened since I last wrote, only can say that I now feel as if I had come back from the dead and have had a new life given me. The last nine days I spent fighting every day and every night. Did you read of Belleau Wood? We held that for six days with its unburied boche and Americans. "November 9th we were in an attack 'over the top' and were driven back in the afternoon.
"November 10th at 6 a.m. we went in again and took the big hill to the top, and at 4:30 p.m. we pushed over the top in the dark onto another hill. A correspondent of Collier's Weekly, Mr. Whittaker, joined me that night and in the morning took, a picture. I signed a statement that he went 'over the top' with us.
"Then came November llth the day of the end. At 9 a.m' we went for the boche again. It was so foggy you could see only a few yards away. At 10:30 we were driven back after an advance At sixteen minutes of eleven, word came for hostilities to cease at 11 We all climbed into dugouts and waited, the boche, firing continuously.
"Eleven a.m. the hour. Upon all sides of us in the fog, came cheers and cries at the top of the men's voices. Never will I forget that hour! And we certainly could not have seen the end at a better time. Soon the fog lifted and we found the boche on all sides of us. God was surely with us, for we would have been wiped completely out as soon as the foe lifted!
"I talked with many of the boche. They were as happy as could be. But, although I had had murder in my heart only an hour before, I now felt sorry for them. A Prussian officer showed me the picture of his family and we all swapped souvenirs. I have seven varieties of shoulder straps of the Prussian guards, pistols and souvenirs galore, about a bushel in all. I hope to send them to you some time. For eleven days I had not shaved, washed or cleaned up and I was coved with lice, mud and grime. Gradually I am becoming clean.
"For worlds I would not have missed that last fight and for worlds I would not again go throught it. It is too much to try to tell of all we saw and did. Our sector was near Damvilliers, east of the Meuse and we fought only Prussian guards. We started with six officers; there are two of us left. Our captain was killed two days before the war ended. We are now resting on the battle field and waiting for orders."
At 8:30 p.m. we moved out of Rosnes, down the Aire Valley south to Bar le Due. Early the next morning the march was resumed. The Company was marching with Headquarters and Supply companies as one unit under command of the Headquarters Company commanding officer.
On that day we lost our way and traveled eleven miles out of the way, arriving finally at the village of Villers le Sec after a 22-mile march in light snow and rain.
The next two nights were spent in Soalincourt and Leurville. We arrived finally at the village of St. Blin. Here we had the best billets we ever found in France and here we parted with our guns, horses and mules, the latter entailing many sad farewells.
On April 12th the men of our Company passed in review before the Expeditionary Force Commander, General Pershing, and were duly praised by him. This was the final review preliminary to the shipment to the coast and home.
After a short walk to Rimaucourt on April 23rd, we boarded the cars waiting there, and at 4 p.m. were moving swiftly through the small villages toward Dijon. The route taken was practically the same as that of our entrance to France, except this time it was an American train and there were no halts along the way. Dijon, Tours, and Angers were some of the larger cities passed through on the route.
Who can say with what feelings of gladness and lack of regrets we left these cities behind on our way to a more hospitable land?
At Chemille we boarded trucks for a ride into the interior and arrived that night at the village of La Chapelle du Genet. This village will always be remembered as our most pleasant experience m France. We were the first American troops to be quartered there, and therefore, we were given the opportunity to see the Frenchman as he was before the American "spoiled" him. The entire population flocked to the square and stood for hours, watching every move we made. Everywhere good humor and enjoyment prevailed.
I am sure our contact did much good for all of us. We realized that, after all, we had seen only a small part of France and the French people, and this experience softened our impressions of the fair Republic. On the other hand, the French learned that we were not quite so bad as we had been painted, but rather were just a lot of good natured boys with too much time on our hands.
The country was a veritable paradise. The villages were extremely clean, and each home was a model of comfort. The children were good-looking and sturdy, and were always busily occupied, some even knitting and embroidering. Our time here was devoted to the last thorough cleanup for the embarkation inspection on May 8th. It was a very thorough inspection, so much so that two other regiments of the Division failed to pass the test. The 314th Regiment and the Machine Gun Company passed with flying colors.
Saturday, May 10th, we bade farewell to the people of La Chapelle and marched 12 miles to Cholet where we were taken by rail to the port of St. Nazairre. There we were taken to the embarkation camp and placed jn quarters for the night.
The Statue of Liberty on the left as we passed into the harbour No adjectives are adequate to describe the immensity of the American war preparations we saw at St. Nazairre. We spent billions of dollars in this short war of ours. Billions sound big wonderful, gigantic. But I think those who followed the war from beginning through America and France will agree that the billion* accomplished miracles.
Early the next day we began the purging process. Every man had to be physically, morally and bodily clean to reenter the land he had left. If a man failed to pass the test, he was dropped by his comrades and held in France for a labor battalion.
The facilities in the camp were a study in themselves. The mes* hall was one of the largest in France, where 3,000 men could easily be fed in an hour. The delousing plant had capacity for 500 per hour. In this plant the soldier entered with all his worldy possessions in his arms. These he left with the attendants, who. sent him through a hot steam bath _ where the cooties were exterminated« When he came from this bath, the soldier was given a new outfit of inner clothing, and his newly cleaned outer garments.
The whole camp was divided into a Camp Number One and Number Two. The change in residence from Number One to Number Two represented the transition from France to America Wednesday, May 14th, the Regiment had orders to board the ship 'Mmnesotan." As we formed up for the trip to the boat however, word came that our move was postponed indefinitely. Postpone- ment at this stage was almost intolerable. But we were reassured the next day upon learning that we were to take a bigger and better boat, the "Princess Matoika," formerly the German steamer, "Princess Alice."
At 8 p.m. on May 15, we packed our possessions on our backs and headed for the boat. We were shortly placed in quarters on the vessel and were soon lost in slumber. At 9 a.m. we were all up and at the rail gazing with relief at the mainland of France, which was then slowly fading out of sight.
The "Princess Matoika" was a comfortable, clean, boat carrying about 3,500 men and was manned by the U.S. Navy. Its running time to New York was about 11 days. The mess was far inferior to that served on the Leviathan. On the night of the third day out, the wind burst into a gale which continued for almost a week. Seasickness prevailed until the storm was over.
Slowly the days passed, and each day more eager and hopeful glances were cast toward the west until the morning of the 10th, when the lightship of Nantucket was sighted. It was almost pathetic from this point on to watch the eagerness with which the lads hung on the rail, for hours at a time, waiting for their f.i*st glimpse of friendly shores.
Early the next morning, on May 26th, the pilot was landed aboard the ship before many were even awake. Of all dramatic moments during many, I think the arrival at the port of New York was the epitome. Every boat, no matter what the size, was greeted with a burst of applause. Men swarmed on the rigging, on the rails, and on the lifeboats, causing the ship to list dangerously. At 9 a.m. we cast anchor in sight of the Statue of Liberty and New York City.
The official welcoming committee of the City of New York was on hand to greet us. At 11 a.m. we raised anchor and steamed) up the river with bands playing and wild cries of delight coming from all sides. Slowly we passed the Statue of Liberty. What thoughts welled in our minds as we passed . . . thoughts of the past, of our good fortune to return once more to a sight of Miss Liberty, thoughts of the golden promise of the future, and, above all, thoughts of what that symbol before would represent to us forevermore. She stood as a giantess, welcoming as again to the bosoms of those we left so many months before. She stood before us as a symbol of the culmination of months of hope and promise . . . THE END OF THE GREAT ADVENTURE.
THE BUSINESS YEARSBeing discharged at Camp Upton, New Jersey, I was allowed railroad fare to Pittsburgh and arrived there shortly after my discharge. While in the army, I had come to the conclusion that I was not cut out for confining office work, and that I would have to choose some other way of making my way in the world. Looking back now I think this was a wise decision, though of course one can never tell. Not too many opportunities were available then in the fall of 1918 but the automobile was then making a big impression and accordingly I finally decided to enlist as a salesman with a concern established in Pittsburgh and doing a considerable business in the old Maxwell car of Jack Benny fame. After some weeks of training, I was sent to a small steel town in the vicinity of Pittsburgh where the steel men were getting the munificent sum of $1.00 per hour - a tremendous wage in those days. Even in those days no one ever had all the money to pay cash outright for a car and I always remember each sale as tying a millstone around the neck of the buyer, and especially more so since there were no roads as we know them for anyone to drive on. On various trips to Cleveland to bring back cars, I found this out only too well as it was next to impossible to find your way on a road between Cleveland and Pittsburgh in those times. Finally after some correspondence with my aged father and a brother I resolved to cut loose from the east and return to Tomah and take over the monument business from my father. For some years before influenza had stricken the country and for some years after this the monument business had been flourishing. Thus it was that I took over the business with another brother - a business with which I had been familiar since early childhood and was capable of doing the carving, the selling, the erection and the office work involved.
I enjoyed this work to the fullest, for it involved a lot of field work, meeting people, visiting the small towns around and erecting the monuments. To say that we both applied ourselves, is to put it mildly, and success rewarded our efforts in many ways. It was a wonderful growing period when roads were being established in every direction, towns were just getting acquainted with each other, and the tin lizzie was prominent in every town. In summertime when one traveled he had to contend with mud on every road and every Sunday the chore was to wash the car and get the mud off for the next weeks run. Winters were a different story, it was then impossible to drive other than with a sleigh and horse, and with a rented horse and sleigh, I often went out a week at a time covering territory for 50 miles around and staying at night any place that would be kind enough to put me up for the night. In this way I met some wonderful people who proved to be friends for many years after. On one memorable occasion I remember selling a monument at a farm about 25 miles distant from Tomah at Shamrock at 2 P.M. in the afternoon, and driving the 25 miles to Tomah and pushing the horse and cutter into Tomah at about 11 P.M. that night. In these years things changed fast in the community, especially because of the automobile and of course we naturally had to build a completely new building especially for the production of and handling of monuments, that is in existence today and serves the purpose well after all these years. From a gas engine power we soon turned to electricity for power and later adopted the newer sandblasting operation which eased the carving on monuments a lot. It was also about this time we invested in a big four wheel drive Oshkosh truck, a marvel in its day, and because of its four wheel drive could go anywhere a mule could go. One of the pleasant memories of those days is the memory of driving this huge beast thru the countryside at night with the cutout wide open and waking up the countryside as I returned home from delivery of some monument to a neighboring town .
In 1922, taking enough time out to do some courtm, I married a young and beautiful lady living just across the street, Laura Rein-ehr the daughter of the superintendent of the railroad shops.
Now enters a phase of my life that looking back is hard to understand. The Schultz Roller Mills near the uptown was engaged in a small way in making buckwheat flour in the fall of the year - an old decrepit mill that at the time of the purchase had an inventory of exactly $10.00 in merchandise. To this day I cannot understand what possessed me to acquire this property and I know most of the people must have thought I was crazy, for this was an old piece ot property in those days and has long since disappeared from the scene. However having considerable money to invest I soon had the property going installing a complete flour mill for the making of white flour, put in a feed grinding machine for handling the local dairy farmers' feeds as milk was beginning to be a product of the community, and establishing a brand of 5 Ib. sacks for different kinds of Blue Ribbon pancake flours and even some Blue Ribbon feeds. Since a lot of buckwheat was at that time grown in the northern sections of the county I even undertook to deliver to Washburn Crosby mills in Chicago a complete carload of buckwheat flour in 100 Ib. sacks, which deal was duly consumated. Whether with a financial return or not I will not undertake to say, at this late date. In my travels to the small towns in the area I promoted the sale of the pancake flours against the old established firm of Timme Brothers at Kilbourn covering the same territory selling monuments.
In the course of my travels I uncovered an old mill at Sparta, The Grand Rapids Milling Co., about as decrepit as the mill at Tomah and nothing must do that I must invest in this property, which was merely a rye buying station for a plant at Grand Rapids, as the Sparta vicinity for many years had been a rye raising territory. This original property has too long since vanished from the scene.
In the meantime having discovered that there was a great potential in the distribution of beer in the Tomah and surrounding towns, a couple of trucks were purchased, a cooler room provided at the mill and one truck made three trips weekly to Milwaukee while the other established routes to towns around distributing Miller High Life beer.
Another brother, younger, had come into the monument business and since the efforts devoted to the two businesses engaged all my time, it was proposed that we dissolve partnership in the monument business and that I take over the milling properties entirely, and since this was satisfactory all around, this was done and the Western Supply Co. definitely established.
This company was created to engage in the merchandising of anything that would develop in the future and I wish to say at this point that my share of the venture was a considerable amount proving the success of our venture to this point.
In developing ideas for the Western Supply Co. it was found necessary to change the base of operations to Sparta because of its being on a track location and seeming to be a little more progressive and the county seat - accordingly the old mill was torn down and in its place a warehouse and store building was built wherein groceries, feeds, hardware, clothing and many other items were handled including appliances, which were then beginning to come on the market. A grinding machine for grinding feeds was installed and four big steel tanks for the bulk storage of grains which could be gotten in in carload lots and stored for distribution.
Now begins the Rugged Individualist part of the story. In an attempt to follow in the footsteps of the giants then busy creating their groups of stores I had seen in my travels around in the surrounding towns, I decided to establish a number of stores in imitation of them. Accordingly in the years ahead stores were built up at Cashton, Kendall and rented at West Salem and Viroqua and an uptown store in Sparta with groceries only, making a total of seven established thru the following years. All these stores handled the same products as Sparta and trucks were busy at all times delivering items to the various stores.
The magnitude of our volume enabled us in the summertime to buy carloads of peaches and pears in bushels so that thousands of bushels of same were delivered to our customers, as in those days people canned their own things or went without, thru the winter. Today it is next to impossible to find bushels of these items handled as it is easier to buy the product now canned by a factory at the source of the supply. However in those days we bought even pears in bulk carloads and apples from New York state in bulk and delivered them around to each store.
In these years Sparta was also a great strawberry country and thousands of crates of 16 quart boxes were purchased at our Sparta store by buyers from various cities, and even delivery of truckloads made to Milwaukee. Today, some 25 years later, it is next to impossible to find a crate of strawberries for sale in the vicinity as for some reason the strawberry has disappeared from the scene. It was about this time because of the over speculation in farm lands due to the changing to dairying and the new prosperity over the entire country that the Great Depression struck the country. While I had ventured and expanded in a business way much the same as the rest of the country, I had never over-estimated my capacity to handle the ventures taken on, due to a devotion of day and night effort to accomplish my ends. It was because of this and the fact that I was engaged mostly in supplying the needs of both the human food needs and the animal food needs that I came thru with flying colors, turning to a strictly cash business.
One of the events remembered in particular during these trying years was rather typical of my lack of sophistication. A prominent farmer in the Toman vicinity, in fact the big man of the community, had been dealing with us for many years and finally charged all his buying to our books, running up an account that amounted to several thousands of dollars. When he was informed that we could carry him no further he advised he would give us a note for the amount and we could cash it at the bank where he was president. I still remember presenting the note at the bank and being told in a consid-ate manner by the cashier that it was impossible to honor the amount, but he suggested that we present it to the other bank in the city. Today, as I write this, I can still see the face of the neighbor banker as I presented the note of the president of the competitive bank, and I am sure he wondered how simple can one get. This debtor in a few brief months became the final holder of as many as 33 farms he had bought and resold to others who threw them back to him at a considerable loss, and while he at the time was considered one of the richest men in the community, he eventually ended up in almost a pauper's grave. As for the note, I cannot say to this day that I ever collected, but I am sure I did not and it was written off eventually as a loss. Today I am sure this man and many others could never understand to their dying day what had happened in that trying period in the early 30's.
A second episode well remembered is the day I went to a few lock boxes in the local bank and with a pail took out several thousand dollars stashed therein and took it to the Sparta banker to pay off a note coming due. I am sure he felt that I was on the way to the poor house as so many others of those times, but due to the money coming in in cash I was enabled to stave it off.
To thousands of the younger folks of today, come now and then words from the mouths of their elders telling of the hardships of those times, and trying to impress them with a word of caution, but altogether too few of the memories are conveyed to the youngsters or some of the tragedy of future years might be avoided - though youth, thru all of history, has a way of not heeding the older folks with their experience.
It was during this period that I became involved with a side venture that gave me considerable experience with the vagaries of men's minds. I had been a prominent Democrat in the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and because of this when Roosevelt called for the formation of the first great Welfare project, I was called to Madison with other county officials and accepted the appointment as Director of the great Civil Works or C W A as it was known in Monroe County.
Because of the desperate conditions of unemployment at the time, our instructions were to go home and put anybody and everybody to work on projects so that they would have money in their pockets to keep from starvation.
Because business was very quiet I could devote my usual talents to this end and within three weeks using some of the best help available in the office, we turned out payrolls that were the second highest in the state next to Racine county. It was only a few short weeks when this was uncovered and we were compelled to get our county payroll in proportion to population which meant about one-fourth of the present enrollment.
You can only imagine the trouble and grief this entailed for us and the parties forced to be eliminated from the payroll as this was their only source of income at the time. It was because of this I decided to remove myself from the project as director as it now involved only paper work. However, I am sure to this day many never forgave me for the loss of their income when in reality I should have had credit for the weeks of employment they did get.
Looking back now thru the course of years, it seems to me I had a remarkable penchant for taking on things just at the time they were dying out, and the wonder is that I ever succeeded in overcoming these losses. It was perhaps due to the energy and sacrifice and unlimited devotion to duty that said losses were overcome. One such venture was the taking on of the coal business with the building of the most modern plant obtainable for the handling of coal so that no manual labor was involved other than to put in the customer's bin. This involved the expenditure of about $10,000 at a time when coal was soon displaced by other forms of heating, and after a few years of fair turnover the plant was entirely deserted and the four big concrete silos still stand as a monument to this folly. During this time a permit was secured thru the railroad commission at Madison enabling us to bring in carloads of feeds from Minneapolis and to store them and reship to our various surrounding stores in varied carload assortments without any freight charge. This gave us the carload price at each store though we did not have to invest in the car price.
In 1941 the United States became involved in the second world war and Camp McCoy indeed became a busy place where thousands of soldiers trained. It was perhaps in these years that we did our biggest business working day and night to supply the necessities to the many visitors and the local people.
In the meantime, having had a good accounting training, I had come to the belief and the proof through actual checking each year that for the period of 1935 to 1941, no progress had been made in a financial way and no profit was shown for the many thousands of dollars of business in that period. The fault perhaps was in not having enough good supervisors to handle things properly and to check and see where the losses were occurring. Anyway the decision was made to give up the stores and the idea of becoming a chain store magnate, and taking life a little easier. Part of this decision also was due to son John Jr. graduating the next season from the University and the desire for him to come into the business. For many years we had known that as a matter of health it was impossible for him to put up with the dust of the feed stores and some other business must be found to replace this.
We were fortunate in this respect that just at this time the war was going on and items of every nature were in great demand, in fact the government had enforced the sale of practically all items by the sale of coupons required to purchase any and all items. Because of this we were able to bring in all stocks from the outlying stores and easily dispose of them thru the Sparta store.
The tickets secured thru the sale to the customer allowed a merchant to replace his stock from the wholesaler, if the item could be found, but not being of a mind to replace the merchandise, our stocks soon vanished into many willing and friendly hands.
The old Roller Mills at Tomah first vanished from the scene and was sold for the value of the land only, and today a modern telephone building replaces the old mill. Cashton and Kendall were shortly liquidated and the rentals in Viroqua, West Salem and uptown given up and business was down to a standstill. Even the grinders and the four big steel grain tanks at Sparta were sold to distant parties.
It was thru this period that I rather enjoyed a quiet year or two finally getting down to one employee who remained with me and has to this day - many years later - Lester M. De Bow - who later became our master plumber in an entirely new business.
At this point son John enters the business, and after deep consideration, because of the inability of the people to build thru the years, it was decided to engage in fields associated with building needs. Accordingly we entered the plumbing and heating, floor and wall coverings, kitchen cabinets, hardware and associated fields engaging Mr. De Bow as our master plumber.
In those days it was tremendously difficult to get any of the supplies necessary to carry on this type of work, however having the money in cash available from, the sale of the stores we were in a position to offer same and accept almost any conditions. Somehow, it is not remembered just how, we came in contact with a Jewish firm in Chicago by the name of Klein who seemed to possess everything and anything we needed in carload lots. To this day I have never met up with these people, though we did a lot of business in the years to come and never had occasion to regret any transaction. Time after time in negotiations with them it was never a question of price, but of their ability to get the goods, and often we never questioned the price but only the ability to get same delivered.
Their success in providing us with the merchandise in short supply was indeed remarkable, and with carload purchases we were at this time enabled to advertise over a wider territory due to the fact radio communication was just coming into its own, and thus we were able to secure the many customers needed to move the large volume of merchandise. Customers turned up in areas as far away as Madison, La Crosse and Eau Claire where most of the building of that time was being done. Indeed, for almost 25 years after, it was not unusual for people to come to us and thank us for their ability to get the badly needed needed items to do their building, at that time.
Having the buildings, the help and the financial ability to handle the merchandise it was not long before we were taking on many other items such as General Electric appliances, hardware, kitchen cabinets and heating furnaces in addition to plumbing supplies. This was of course followed with a good many lines of small hand appliances and soon by the addition of the line of Maytag washers.
In the meantime to keep our own help busy in plumbing work we invested in large old homes in Sparta, West Salem and La Crosse. converting them into apartments so that soon we had on our hands 22 apartments to supervise. To complete the change over of the many apartments we found it necessary to engage in floor and wall work such as linoleum and tile and this became another business feature.
Kitchen cabinets became a great field for us and hundreds of kitchens were installed thru the area long before the many new and competitive numbers came into being and at times we carried a stock of hundreds of cabinets in order to give prompt delivery.
It was in the fall of 1951 that friends persuaded me to give up work for a few weeks, leave the business in the hands of son John and indulge in a flying trip to Mexico City. This trip resulted in a return trip for the next 20 years to this area each winter when work was quiet, and I personally believe that it prolonged the life of the writer as nothing else could have done, for no other form of relaxation was ever indulged in other than these trips to Mexico, in the long years covered.
Testimony to the delightful times enjoyed is the many friends accumulated throughout the country, and even among the friendly people of Mexico, some of whom even saw fit to visit us in Sparta. These friendships have endured for many years though seven of the men who enjoyed the trips with us have long since died - all of them much younger than myself. I firmly believe the hard work indulged in thru a lifetime had much to do with keeping me well.
It was now we found that our present buildings were entirely inadequate to handle the business we contemplated for the future and accordingly, looking over the area we found an ideal spot about two blocks from the center of the city where an old lumber yard was being abandoned. Here there was plenty room to expand for the future and accordingly a new Butler type building was erected with the latest in heating and air conditioning features to which was added the large storage warehouse moved from the old location and added to the rear.
Having accumulated some idle funds and looking around for an opportunity to invest them, and still being of a mind to become a chain store magnate, we decided to purchase a fine building in the center of the business district at La Crosse and establish the same sort of business there as in Sparta, giving us added purchasing power and a wider distribution. A newly built modern building of the war Veterans in La Crosse, who had gone bankrupt, was then purchased by us and the stage in the front torn out and modern windows installed, an elevator installed, two apartments installed in the second story and many other improvements made to put it in order for merchandising.
I am frank to admit this was never a roaring success and I sometimes wonder now if it was not due to age and a general wearing down of energy and a desire to take life easier. The first few years showed a small profit but later began to sag off until in 1960, having gone thru eight years of endeavor and being 68 years of age a magnificent offer was made to us to lease the building for many years -we accepted and reverted to the Sparta store entirely.
With the funds secured from the closed out inventory the purchase of a large tobacco warehouse next door and 100 feet of additional front was accumulated and another 100 feet of Butler building added to the first building wherein a complete line of furniture was displayed. Now with our complete layout we had a complete display and service and storage area of over 60,000 square feet and could really begain operations.
About this time I began to pay attention to reports of my former regimental buddies of the first world war who each September for over 40 years had been having reunions in Pennsylvania. I finally got up the nerve to face my former buddies and attended the 40th reunion. Putting it mildly I found that I knew none of them anymore by sight, after the 40 years, but it was not long before I and my gracious wife found my former captain and brother lieutenants still alive and mighty glad to welcome us, after all the years. I am proud to say that every year since we have found time to revisit them each fall and enjoy the few remaining years we know we have left to us.
It was now that we began to set a goal for our business and planned to attain a half million dollar sales in our little town, which would really make a mark for a small town such as Sparta. In a few years, I am proud to say, this goad was attained but has been hard to outdo since, and seems to be our maximum capacity.
Now, finding that the many things we handled were becoming crowded, we decided to make use of the three floors of the big tobacco warehouse and change part of two floors to a modern showroom. This building was 200 by 50 feet in size and built like a fort and often handled a million pounds of tobacco in the old days. Connecting this to our present display area, and using the basement as a bargain basement and converting the first floor to an Early American display, we now had the ultimate in merchandising in a small town operation with almost a 100,000 square feet of display and warehouse. Though business is not booming at the present time, we, like others, have big hopes for the future. A son, three grandsons, a daughter-in-law and a nephew are now involved in the business and it is about time that I take a back seat. In fact I find I have no choice, the younger set relegates me to a back seat without any ceremony, but I guess that has been the way since ancient times.
FinaleJudging by the many, many friends who have long ago departed this earth in their prime, one can conclude that it is not given to many to serve almost 60 years in this modern, busy, hectic business world, and to attain almost 80 years of active living. Sometimes I often wonder if they should not be envied their departure in the prime of life - long before they begin to lose their strength, their memory, their teeth, their many other faculties along with numerous friends along the way - so that finally life becomes a rather lonely existence. This, coupled with agonizing over the many foul changes one sees taking over in this beloved country of ours, this detracts much from the joy of living.
I cannot close this story without a reminder to the youth who follow in our footsteps, and I often wonder if they appreciate the wonders accomplished in my short lifetime, by their elders who have gone on before. Can they appreciate with all the millions of cars around today, that only in my short life there was once not a single car to be seen, that a simple thing like a tire on a car was at first only good for a hundred miles or two in contrast with the tire of today good for thousands of miles. That today with all our modern access to almost any point on the compass, that in one short lifetime before there was no such thing as a road to anywhere, no autos to travel with, no gas statons to supply the power, no motels to patronize, no restaurants to feed the traveler, and in this period their forebears changed all this in addition to putting a man on the moon. This country has indeed been blessed, and the only one of the many on the face of the earth. People who are supposed to know now tell us that the accomplishments of the present time are nothing to the things that the future holds for us, if, and it's a big IF, we devote the same energy and labor as our forbears to its accomplishment. It is with this hope in mind I now pass the torch to the future generations.
The following two poems, and several others were composed by John W. Kress, showing his prowess as a poet.
My friends at home, they want to know, Just why I leave for Mexico. For many months, I always pray, For the day we'll leave for Monterrey. And this is why we always stay, At dear old sunny Monterrey. Minnilie, and Ivan too, They'll never know just what to do. Gar and Dottle, what a pair, He is the guy without any hair. Marie and Jack, two turtle doves, He always comes to see his loves. Andy and Laura - they have real fun, Trying to make a hole in one. Therese, and Bill, oh how I swore, Every time I heard him snore. Jack and Laura, they stay too long, She loves to listen to his song. (Like Hell - ME) And Freda dear, she is one more, She's noted for Norwegian lore. Leo and Helen, they're not so old And still there's stories they never tola. The Bridges pair, I can't say much, For if I do, I'll get in dutch. Then Eddie dear, he works them all, We call him our Mex Fireball. (A real Mexican hustler) We have one friend, his name's Raul, And now and then he sticks a BOOL. There's other friends - and they are many But names for them I haven't any. And then it's time to go on home, So here I'll end this lousy poem.
Composed by John W. Kress
M G Company - 314 Infantry A E Fduring the 45th annual reunion of the above regiment
Scranton, Pa., 1963
Long years ago, we went to war, How lucky: we, to the THREE ONE FOUR. They found us soft and raw, indeed, So we spent a year at old Camp Meade. Then off we went to a distant shore, A land, renowned for blood and gore. On Montfaucon, we carved our name; Our deeds of valor spread our fame. Near Montfaucon, we placed our dead; We lay them gently in a muddy bed. Though there they rest, forever more: They still belong to the THREE ONE FOUR. For those of us, who remain alive, We meet today, year forty-five. Yes, soon we too will pass away; But we'll always remember this happy day. And though we meet - say nevermore, We'll never forget the THREE ONE FOUR.The old Schultz mill about 60 years ago. Originally stood where the
Telephone Building is now located. At the time of purchase from
Schultz the inventory of merchandise was $10.00.
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John W. Kress book One of the Last 'Rugged Individualists'