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Memories of New Ulm


July 26, 2012
By Gwen Ruff , The Journal

(Editor's note: Gwen Ruff is filling in for Randy Krzmarzick this week.)

I worked at The Journal most of 1981.

My niece, Randy Krzmarzick's oldest daughter, was born in Sleepy Eye in May that year, so it was a great time to be close to my sister. I think. Truth is, I don't remember spending a lot of time with the new little family. I don't remember sitting in the living room of my apartment once. I do remember working a lot. It was a busy year. In addition to the run-of-the-mill city council and county board meetings, police reports and feature stories, there was a murder, which ate up many reporting assignments for some time. Throw in production of a couple special sections, and time flew.

The Journal was considered a great place to start out in newspapers. I worked with a number of reporters and photographers who started here before we all moved on to bigger publications. It was a great training paper because you got a chance to write, edit, shoot, develop and print photos, edit copy and compose headlines. We got the opportunity to become better journalists when the editor tacked up the day's paper, with errors and suggestions for the betterment of our writing skills in red marker. After a particularly brutal critique, one of my colleagues always needed a debriefing session at the Kaiserhoff.

Because my boyfriend, also a Journal alum, lived in another town, I didn't spend my days off here. Now family keeps me coming back. My kids' have many childhood memories tied to this area. My oldest son did his first History Day project on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. We videotaped his introduction amongst the wonderful artifacts on the third floor of the Brown County Historical Museum, where my sister worked for years. The museum was our first stop on many visits, and we felt like VIPs walking downstairs through the treasures to get to her office. My kids begged to put on the gnome costumes.

Another visit, Randy wanted the kids to see the Poor Farm before it was razed, and, coincidently, the ice broke up on the Cottonwood River right as they stopped to check it out.

Not too long ago, a bunch of us were up at Turner Hall, waiting for Prince to show up for his induction into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. He didn't, but we had a great time speculating which of the impressive vehicles driving around might be his. We also enjoyed George's Ballroom without him. It must have been a really fun place to spend an evening back in its day.

And my family did vacation in Sleepy Eye, as Randy has promoted. During Spring Break, no less. My youngest son still complains that we were the only family in Edina that didn't go anywhere for Spring Break.

"But we're going to the farm," I would reply, usually to his back as he was stomping away in disgust.

As the irregular visitor, it's easy to think that nothing's changed. The museum's still there, as is the big old house where the photographer lived with a guy I later worked with at the St. Cloud Times. I still can drive by The Journal building and laugh as I tell my kids there was (is?) a keg tap in the staff break room. Hermann stands above us, if we go up the hill to head over to Sleepy Eye. Downtown still seems a place of commercial uncertainty. The word "polka" appears in a Journal headline, and I swear the people in the Bavarian Blast photos were the same ones dancing at the fairgrounds in 1981.

As "hip" twenty-somethings, it was easy to roll our eyes at a polka festival. It was easy to wish for ethnic cuisine other than schnitzels and spaetzle. I didn't need to see people play softball in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by corn and soybeans. After writing a story, I didn't ponder how to keep young people from moving away, how to stem the rural "brain drain." Hey, I couldn't wait to leave my small hometown, either.

Now, you know where this is heading. I'm not plowing any new fields of insight here; I just have a built-in trigger to think back and ponder ahead every time I drive through town. New Ulm always seemed to have a little more going for it in terms of the arts, festivals, commerce and, of course, history than where I'm from. Not all the efforts have been successful, but people keep trying. I run across many people who go to the area for Oktoberfest, a sports tournament or a fall color drive on their motorcycles.

So, thank goodness those 1981 polka fans passed their interest and enjoyment on to somebody else, that Schell's is adding another fermentation tank, that I can get schnitzels and spaetzle at the Kaiserhoff, that the guy from the Sleepy Eye Railway Bar & Grill cooks the burgers at the Leavenworth ball fields and that Comfrey has two bars right across the street from each other. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Sometimes that's not so bad.



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