There was a town that had a game
READING -- "Bingo!"
The shout came from the back of the room and, amid one person's excitement, there was a suppressed groan or murmured mention about being oh-so-close -- just one number away, in fact.
There were Al and Gert Berning of Adrian, who have rarely missed Tuesday night Bingo at the Reading Community Center for the better part of 30 years; Marie Vortherms of Wilmont, who surrounds herself with four brightly-colored daubers for marking her cards; and Lee Janssen of Worthington, who brings out the good luck charms -- miniature trolls given to her by the grandkids and fortune cookie fortunes -- along with about 40 other regular players of the game. They are all there in hopes of crying out "Bingo" and taking home a share of the weekly winnings.
Bingo has long been a fundraiser for the Reading Community Center -- a share of the earnings helping to pay for the heat and light bills each month -- but in an age when people can log into their computer and play online Bingo, places like Reading are feeling the impact.
People here don't just come for the game, though. They come for the companionship -- the chance to get out of the house, mingle with new friends and share in a two-hour session that is both fun and intense. It provides a sense of community no online game could ever hope to match.
Jesse Leopold accepted the role of gambling manager in 1981 and can be found in the Bingo Hall -- former classrooms of what was once Reading School -- every Tuesday night to monitor Bingo card and pull-tab sales, check winning numbers and answer any questions that may arise. He's one of a handful of people on hand every week to see that people who come to play have an enjoyable time.
The gathering place
The Reading Community Center was officially established in 1975, when a group of farmers bought the former school building at auction for about $20,000. Initially, the building had been offered to Summit Lake Township for $1, but the township turned it down. When it went up for auction, the farmers faced one other bidder -- a Round Lake business that looked at the building as an opportunity for storage space.
The farmers -- Darrell Dawson, Ron Baumhoefner, Melvin Rogers and Garvin Soderholm -- split the cost, knowing at the time they probably wouldn't get their money back.
Numerous fundraisers were conducted in those early years and enough money was raised that at least two of the farmers were paid back for their investment. In 1977, the Reading Community Center board earned non-profit status, and in 1980, a mortgage-burning ceremony brought the entire community together in celebration.
"The purpose (for buying the former school) was to try to keep the community together," said Leopold. It was a centrally located meeting place, home to the Elk Tip Toppers and Reading Pacers 4-H clubs as well as the senior citizens, township board and Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops. The center even served as a distribution site for commodities. Today it hosts both the RSVP Bone Builders program and the monthly meetings of the Reading First Responders.
In December 1978, the Reading Community Center board started a new fundraiser -- a weekly Bingo Night that started in late fall, after farmers were done with their harvest, and continued until early spring when farmers went out to plant their crops.
Each week, the organizers had to drive up Wilmont to borrow tables and chairs from the Catholic church -- a process that continued until they could afford to buy their own.
When Leopold joined the board in the spring of 1980, it was his duty to help oversee the building, the budget and the fundraisers. In October 1981, he took over the Bingo operation and became the gambling manager.
"At that time they were running a New Year's Eve program -- they had a supper and part of the community would put on skits," he recalled. "Bingo was incorporated in that."
As the years went by, the supper and skits stopped, but Bingo has remained an option for New Year's Eve revelers. It also became a weekly event year-round.
For the eve of the new millennium, Leopold said there were buttons made saying, "I played Bingo on Dec. 31, 1999."
"We try to incorporate stuff to make it memorable," he added. During some New Year's Eve Bingo events calendars or daubers -- the markers used to cover up the numbers on a Bingo card -- are given away.
Every Tuesday night, the doors of the Reading Community Center open at 6 p.m. for Bingo. People have an hour to buy their cards, purchase a cup of coffee and converse with other players. When the clock strikes 7 p.m., however, they get down to business. During the course of the next two hours, they go through 26 games of Bingo -- everything from regular Bingo to Blackout, Crazy T, Crazy V, Postage Stamps and several others -- in hopes of winning a portion of the $800 to $900 in cash prizes given away.
On most Bingo nights, Larry Comnick of Worthington can be found behind the Bingo caller's desk, and roughly 35 to 40 Bingo players are seated around banquet tables to play.
"It's less than half what it was five years ago," Leopold said of the crowd. "We had some real good years -- we drew a lot of people. We went through a couple of roof projects; we were able to pay all the fuel bills and the janitor."
Perhaps the decline is a sign of recent economic conditions, or perhaps it's just the result of changing times. Whatever it is, Leopold said every non-profit Bingo has been going downhill -- and if you don't draw the numbers, you're not going to survive.
Nearly all of the regular Bingo players are considered out-of-towners -- people who drive to Reading from Worthington, Adrian, Rushmore, Westbrook, Slayton and even Sibley, Iowa.
"We play 26 games and last week there were 39 people, so the odds are pretty good at winning a Bingo," Leopold said. Bingo players must be 18 years of age or older.
Still, it isn't just the opportunity to win a little money that keeps people coming back week after week to play the game.
"They have such a good program here," said Gert Berning. "We enjoy Jesse and Carolyn -- we couldn't ask for two better people to run Bingo."
"They have a darn good personality that keeps you coming," added her husband, Al Berning.
Olive Volk of Bingham Lake said she's been attending Bingo Night at the Reading Community Center for "forever."
"I like the people here and I like to play Bingo," she said. "I win enough that it keeps me happy."
On her drive to Reading, Volk picks up Lillian Koehn in Heron Lake. The two make the drive over nearly every week.
"I just like to get out of my apartment and get away from everybody else," Koehn said.
"We don't get into Mexican food or anything like that," Bergland said. "You could say I'm a meat and potatoes kind of guy. That's the way I was raised, and that's what I believe in."
During Lent, Bergland said the restaurant is doing its annual fish buffet and three specials at night.
"Soon we will change it up. We have our Easter buffet and Mother's Day buffet are coming up." Bergland said. "Holidays are big days for us."
Bergland said the business is very family oriented.
"Son works down here, daughter works here a lot -- second son works, "Bergland said. "Got a step-daughter, she's only 3, so she doesn't do much. But we're all here all the time. But, of course, if you don't have really good help, you couldn't do it."
Bergland said the employees are great.
"They fill in when we need it," he stated. "We've had three funerals in the last 10 months, and it's amazing to have people pitch in so we can actually have a day off to actually do that."
Bergland said some of the employees go back about 20 years.
"A lot of their kids work with them," Bergland said. "Then, of course, they move on -- go to college, you know."
Bergland said the restaurant has had employees start when they are eligible and continue until they graduate.
"When Spring Break comes, then they're back, summertime they're back and then pretty soon you're doing a wedding for them," Bergland said with a laugh.
The Countryside Inn also does catering.
"It's always nice when you get to cater to one of them when they have worked for you," Bergland said.
The Berglands do appreciation days around their anniversary as well.
"When we did our 10th year, we ran 10-ounce rib eye dinner for $10," Bergland said. "And we ran it for 10 days. We did 2,700 people in those 10 days.
"It was crazy. It was so much fun but when that 10th day came, I was glad it was over," Bergland added with a laugh. "That was a blast. That was two years ago, and it was really something."
Three or fours years ago, a bar was added.
"It's a nice addition," Bergland said. "A couple of cocktails with the meal ... we're not a bar. I don't want to be a bar."
Bergland said the bar complements the restaurant. He said they go well together.
"The bar end is Cindy's deal. I'm too busy in the kitchen. Most nights I'm too tired to come out and have one," Bergland said with a laugh.
Bergland said he and Cindy put in a lot of hours as well.
"I average 80 to 83 hours a week," Bergland said. "You come in the morning and you do dinner. A lot of days you stay straight through; some days you can sneak out for an hour if you have an errand to run or run to the bank. It's time-consuming."
Bergland said when it's not fun anymore, it will be time to step away.
"And I'm not there yet," Bergland said. "It's still fun."
Bergland enjoys meeting people, but admitted he has a problem remembering names.
"I could go up to them and talk ... and tell them what we talked about the whole (previous) conversation. But I can't tell their name -- I'm lousy at it," Bergland said with a laugh. "But it's fun to meet people and hear where they're from."
Bergland said there is a lot of history with the building, and customers often remember going there when others owned it.
"It's always interesting to talk to those people," Bergland said.
Bergland said his biggest theory is that a customer has to want to come through the door.
"You can't make them," Bergland said. "Hopefully we provide a good enough meal that they will want to come back."
Bergland said it is important to have the fresh-cut meat, a nice atmosphere and good conversation to have customers come back.
"They're all fresh-cut steaks and that's the best," Bergland said. "Nineteen years and no one else has cut a steak on that saw. And I still got 10 fingers."
Bergland said it's amazing how fast the time goes. He said it doesn't feel like it's been 12 years since he and Cindy bought the place.
"The older you get, the faster it goes," Bergland said with a laugh. "There are days that are 12-to-14 hour days and you get toward the end of the night and realize you haven't sat down yet today.
"Cindy puts in a ton of hours, too." Bergland added.
Tim and Cindy also own an acreage and raise some cattle.
"I don't know which one's therapy, coming here or doing that," Bergland said with a laugh.