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Column: There is White House shadow across swath of our local region

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Sept. 11, 2004.

WORTHINGTON — “That’s it? That’s all?” a man asked me, with a smile flitting across his face.

He wanted to talk to me about a column last month that told of the boyhood months Herbert Hoover spent at Kingsley, Iowa, 90 miles south of Worthington. “There was one president — ONE president — who lived anywhere near here as a boy?”

“Well, now listen,” I said. “There are a lot of places that don’t have that much — well, Montana, Wyoming. Nevada. Louisiana, Alabama. Maine. Vermont. No president ever spent one day of his boyhood near those places.” (I was surprised I thought of so many states.)

“But listen,” I said. He bore with me while I remembered Worthington Turkey Days with Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Winthrop Rockefeller, Robert Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Averell Harriman, Estes Kefauver, Harold Stassen. “That’s a big mix of presidents and presidential candidates and vice presidents,” I said. “Stand on the 10th Street lawn of the Nobles County government building. Every one of those men stood there at one time and another. I don’t know of one block just like that at Washington, D.C.”

“They were here only for hours,” the man said. He was baiting me.

I went on. I recalled an oft-told story of Walter Mondale, the boy who became vice president and a Democratic nominee for the White House, walking with his parents along Worthington’s 10th Street in a black Christmas season night, reveling in the strings of lights and pine boughs which spanned 10th Street from Second Avenue to Sixth Avenue. Walter Mondale remembers those visits still.

The Mondales lived at Heron Lake in that era before World War II. The father was pastor at the Methodist church. With just tiny imagination you can picture Walter, the preacher’s boy who would be vice president, standing on the sidewalk outside that good church, wearing a white shirt and necktie and suit on a winter Sunday morning or a summer Sunday morning, as boys did in that time.

At Ceylon, not 60 miles distant, you still can see, on the east side of the church, the bungalow parsonage where Walter Mondale was born.

There is another nearby place — Larchwood, Iowa, straight west of Sibley on Iowa 9. Larchwood might be called “Jesse Fell’s town” and Iowa Republicans well could place a monument there. Jesse Fell was launching Larchwood in the same years Worthington was emerging. Jesse Fell was a founder of the Republican party, close and genuine friend of Abraham Lincoln, the man who first proposed Lincoln for president.

You still may walk along Fell Street at Larchwood, along the wonderful, two-block park with the ancient larchwood trees, which Jesse Fell created. One more interesting thing: Jesse Fell is a great grandfather of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956.

Do you know the word ‘poignant” — stinging, penetrating — something pressing to make itself memorable? One of my most poignant memories of sites that have to do with White House contenders came one September afternoon when I stopped at Wallace, S.D. Wallace is in Codington County, near Watertown. The population when I visited was 86. The single business along main street was a U.S. Post Office in an aged frame shanty.

The post office was on a corner. Across that intersection, on the north, the people of Wallace had made a tiny park. They planted a cottonwood tree, which had grown enormous, and they planted grass that had become sparse and brown. There was a chain link fence around the park and there was a swing set — it wouldn’t be a park without swings.

At the back was a sign that had faded through a dozen South Dakota summers: ‘Birth Place of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey’. The name was painted in cursive letters, a simile of Humphrey’s handwriting.

It was on that park site that Humphrey’s father had his drugstore. Hubert Jr., was born (1911) in the apartment on the second floor. In that day, nothing in Wallace was more than five years old. The Humphreys could look out their windows and see all of Wallace beneath them. In the spring, they could look out and see green emerging on the saplings that had been planted and in winter they could look down on the successive blankets of snow that covered their town.

This might have been the birthplace of a U.S. president. It made me gulp.