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From Under Every Spreading Tree

The Raspberry Prince.

Walter Burwell arrived in Holcombe in 1922 from New York State. This photograph is dated 1928, a year after the Holcombe Register nicknamed him The Raspberry Prince and two years before he disappeared from town under warrant for bootlegging. While in New York, where he operated several small fruit farms, Burwell heard reports from fellow horticulturists that the Lake Reed area, situated on a climatic boundary that separated southern Minnesota from the less temperate central part of the state, was an excellent zone for the cross breeding of various resilient berry plants. Consequently, when he pulled into town in late winter, the back of his truck was packed not with furniture or clothes, but with a dozen and a half raspberry plants of species he’d culled in New York and Maryland before heading west. Purchasing a modest ten acres from second generation farmers who had wearied of growing corn and were moving into the city, as many of the original farm families around Lake Reed had been doing in recent years, Burwell began his experiments in earnest. He grew summer bearing and ever bearing varieties; large firm Amities and smaller, rounder Lathams; deep purple Brandywines and the sweet, golden varieties of Autumn Bliss. In subsequent years he sent away for more plants: August Reds from New Hampshire and Black Hawks from Iowa, even a berry plant from Poland that burst with enormous fruit in mid fall. Eventually, he derived his own species, the Burwell, a red, sweet, ever bearing fruit, the plants of which thrived on the land he’d bought south of Lake Reed, giving off two harvests annually. He sold them in bushels at the markets in every town nearby from late spring until just before frost. He began making jams and preserves, the production of which soon required a canning house with five workers on the south end of his farms, which had expanded after three years to more than seven-hundred acres. He began drying the leaves and selling them as medicinal teas to treat colds and speed childbirth. He produced ointments and balms. He even invented a tonic he claimed would cure heart ailments. Inevitably, as was the case with so many businessmen during the decade of the Eighteenth Amendment, he turned his interests to producing varieties of liquor. He created the mash himself, careful to buy the corn in small quantities from various local farmers, anyone who bought large amounts of it in those days naturally falling under suspicion, and after two seasons of him tinkering with his stills hidden in marshland west of his farms, using a homemade sort of aqueduct to run cold lake water along the worms and condense the alcohol in its strongest state, any reveler out on the town in Holcombe could come by a bottle of Burwell’s Berry Cordial should he or she know where to ask. It was the big time bootleggers in Minneapolis who did him in. When Burwell’s Berry Cordial began encroaching on their sales in the city during the winter following the crash, they bribed a federal judge to issue a warrant for Burwell’s arrest. He left Holcombe for four years, placing his raspberry farms in an associate’s name, and returned only after Prohibition ended and the warrant was rescinded. He continued to grow raspberries, but allowed his stills to corrode in the swamp unused. Today, an annual festival celebrates The Raspberry Prince and his horticultural ingenuity. His fruit products are still sold locally, and an older generation continues to swear by Burwell tea leaves whenever head colds and sore throats accompany seasonal changes in the weather.

The New Suburbia.

Until the 1940s, the Lake Reed area was divided up between two main types of property owners: wealthy families who built houses along the lakeshore, houses that were often their owners’ second residence; and small farmers. During that decade, however, Robert McMillan developed a new class of citizens, and it is his image that we see in this photograph, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of his home in Salt Rock. McMillan’s business acumen was developed during his apprenticeship to old James Holcombe, for whom McMillan worked throughout the Depression, managing the real estate portion of the tycoon’s empire. The aging patriarch, who would live to see the outbreak of a second world war in Europe before succumbing to tuberculosis while on retreat at a hot springs sanatorium in Arkansas, put greater faith in McMillan than his other lieutenants, and his generous salary, along with shrewd investments, allowed McMillan to begin buying up defunct farms in 1936. By the start of the following decade, McMillan had undertaken a sweeping residentialization project, converting these fields into block upon block of family homes, spreading slowly away from the lake in all directions. With such uniformity did these neighborhoods spread, that throughout the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, as McMillan’s endeavor was run to its natural conclusion, town residents began to speak of the Line, a literal boundary where the outermost ring of homeowners saw their backyards terminate in acres of corn fields and wild grasslands, a boundary that was pushed back with each new subdivision, so that if observed from space with a time lapse of twenty or thirty years, the Lake Reed area would be seen to concentrically homogenize itself outward, these homes filled with successful members of the white collar upper middle class looking to escape the perceived overcrowding of Minneapolis and St. Paul, until this new suburbia came into contact and merged with the other townships ringing the Twin Cities, the circle around Lake Reed now subsumed in a larger one encompassing the entire metro area, that term itself a recent coinage, with all farmland pushed out beyond the western horizon of Holcombe, beyond a bigger Line that continued its encroachment as the demand for housing increased seemingly without cessation.

The Strategic Value of Holcombe High.

And here we see an aerial view of the land bought up by the town for the new high school, with the structural foundations already laid. The new state highway runs past the front of the property; trees have been cleared in all directions for nearly a mile, and the low hills have been reshaped by construction vehicles, giving the land more the look of a desolate outpost than the site of an educational institution in a leafy suburb. The clarity of post war photographs, still black and white but nevertheless crisply focused, along with the elevated viewpoint, makes us feel as if this shot was taken by a potential enemy sizing up a critical target. Indeed, the architects of the new Holcombe High School and the board members who approved their plans had enemies in mind when they designed the building in the late 1940s and broke ground in 1952. The school was to be used as a gathering point, or, to repeat the jargonic term bandied about in back room discussions, a command center, for town officials, in the event of a Communist strike on America and more specifically Lake Reed. Consequently, the new school had three nuclear fallout shelters: two large, unfurnished rooms on the basement level at either end of the school, for faculty and students; and a small bunker seventy feet below the basement, stocked with food, water, radio equipment and even a small arms locker, which could house about fifty people, intended for the council members of the towns served by the Holcombe Independent School District and any dignitaries who happened to be in the area at the time of a hypothetical strike. This bunker was accessible by an elevator in the foyer at the bottom of a stairwell behind the gymnasium. Next to the elevator was a locked door.  The school also had a network of tunnels that ran under many of the classrooms and could be accessed by small hatches in the floor. Of course, the students of Holcombe High School have known about the tunnels practically since the school opened in 1954, as well as the fact that, though the hatches could not be opened from the outside, the tunnel system could be accessed by an entry point behind the weight room in the basement, which led at least once each school year to the phenomenon of an enterprising group of students popping up out of the floor in the middle of an English or History or Science class. They also knew about the secret bunker, though no student had ever seen it. What students and faculty didn’t know, however, was that the tunnel system extended beyond the bounds of the high school’s property, with conduits that ran down past the athletic fields to emerge in what appeared to be a storm drain on the south hill; west along the state highway to downtown Holcombe and the basement of the old library; and also nearly two miles north to the site of the new City Hall and Civic Center, which was just beginning construction during the same time period. In case of an attack, city officials were to use the tunnel system to get to Holcombe High School, where the principal, having already gathered the school’s population in the two larger shelters, would greet them with his key and pass code at the locked door next to the elevator, which would then convey them to the bunker deep underground, where they could wait out the concussions rumbling through the earth in safety while formulating plans for reclaiming the surface.

The Architect’s Apprentice.

Of course, if there was controversy regarding the construction of the new high school, it was nothing compared to the furor roused by the architecture of the Holcombe City Hall and Civic Center, built during the same period at the beginning of the Cold War. At the center of this turmoil was Margaret Robie, whose picture we see here. Margaret was born in Holcombe during the first years of the twentieth century. Her father started his career as a local lawyer before getting elected to the state legislature when Margaret was in grade school. As her father progressed up the political pecking order, a new world was opened to Margaret, men and women of notoriety often visiting her family’s home on the lake. In 1926, when she was a young woman newly married to one of her father’s former law clerks who had earned his way to the rank of junior partner, she attended a dinner party at her parents’ house where Frank Lloyd Wright was the guest of honor. The two spent the long hours of the evening talking together and went on a walk, the infamous architect eager to see what building styles the former resort town had to offer. It was always suspected by her family that the young Margaret fell somewhat in love with Wright that evening, perhaps because of his intellect, or the tragedies that had befallen him, or the scandal that seemed to hound him everywhere. (The following week, near the end of their stay in Holcombe, Wright and his mistress Olgivanna were brought up on kidnapping charges by Olgivanna’s estranged husband, who was seeking custody of his daughter. It’s believed that Margaret’s father helped get the charges dropped.) They began a correspondence that continued sporadically for the rest of Wright’s life, and when her son Kenneth was born the year after Wright’s visit, Margaret stated in a letter to Wright that it was her goal to apprentice the boy to him at some later stage of his education. And so, in 1945, after he graduated from high school, Kenneth was sent to study with Wright and his fellows, summering at the Wisconsin compound called Taliesin East and wintering at its counterpart in Arizona, Taliesin West. After two years, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he could maintain a seasonal proximity to his mentor, and returned to Holcombe in 1950 after taking a degree. By this time, Margaret had been elected to the city council and was the head of the committee overseeing proposals for the new City Hall and Civic Center. Obviously, she had in mind that her son would design this building, and in fact for years she had been encouraging him to focus on larger, more experimental structures. The other committee members were eager to see the plans, but contention arose when Kenneth delivered the blueprints and a local consulting firm declared them all but incomprehensible. Kenneth, who offered only one public statement in defense of his work, during a committee meeting at the old City Hall on Heron Street, said that the design brought together the best elements of his mentor’s different periods, including his trademark cantilevered balconies, jutting out all around Kenneth’s structure; his organic style, which Kenneth had employed to try and achieve a communion between the different wings of the building and the surrounding landscape; and his newer Usonian look, the simple geometry of which Kenneth had borrowed to tackle the larger Banquet Room in the eastern end of the complex. One of Margaret’s adversaries on the committee proclaimed that the design was utter nonsense, that Kenneth had no real skill as an architect, and that he had simply stolen Wright’s strategies and combined them to devastating effect at the expense of local taxpayers. After three years of arguments and postponements, Margaret managed to force the plan through the committee, and construction began in 1954. Failing health prevented Margaret Robie from attending the grand opening of the facility in 1959, though she did live long enough to see the architecture derided by newspapers and magazines as far away as Chicago and St. Louis, whose commentators questioned whether this cacophony was to be Wright’s legacy to North American architecture. Since its completion, various elements of the Holcombe City Hall and Civic Center have required four separate reinforcement projects, and after the third, in the late Seventies, Kenneth Robie moved to Los Angeles, where he built beachfront houses until his death in 1991.

The Decathlete.

The most famous competitor in Holcombe’s history, Bill Emerson, is pictured here having just returned with the gold medal in the decathlon from the Tokyo Games in 1964. During his brief ascension to international athletic prominence, he excelled at the throwing events in particular: shot put, discus, javelin. From the photo, it’s not hard to see why; with the classical build common among the ancient Greek warriors renowned for their love of multi event competition, it’s almost possible to see him storming the plains in front of Troy with Diomedes and Odysseus between bouts of wrestling and racing on the beach. He was a decent sprinter, but it was the jumping events that continually threatened to hold him back. He was young, too, only twenty-three when he won the title in a sport which, going back as far as the Greeks who’d invented it, had been considered an older man’s venue, where an older man’s understanding of balance won out against the extremes and intemperance of youth. In this picture, he stands wearing his U.S. Olympic Team warm-ups in the bleachers at the Holcombe High School athletic fields, where he set and then reset state records in several track events throughout the late Fifties. He took over as track coach for Holcombe High in 1968, the year after a knee injury ended his competitive career. Unfortunately, as he grew older, it seemed Emerson lost the inclination toward balance and well roundedness that allowed him to achieve success as a young man. Throughout the Seventies, he developed a training regimen for his student athletes that became so intense, many of them broke down and couldn’t compete. Nevertheless, because of his relentless drive, the Lake Reed area produced several stars of international caliber during that decade, and Holcombe High School won six boys’ track and field state championships before 1981, when the school board, prompted by concerned parents, forced Emerson to retire as track coach. He was permitted to continue teaching American History at Holcombe High, a job he still holds today. Although his students now are unaware of his former athletic prowess, and he is banned from attending high school track and field events in the state of Minnesota owing to an incident in 1985, on late fall and early spring mornings, kids arriving for Zero Period detention will often see their history teacher, Mr. Emerson, launching a shot put a surprising distance across the upper athletic field in the dawn light, his thick trunk and strong legs pivoting marvelously as plumes of frozen breath jet from his mouth and steam rises off his bare head.


Carl Peterson

Carl Peterson teaches at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He is currently working on a new novel populated by card sharps, thieves, and entrepreneurial taxidermists set in the contemporary South.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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