Column: The heavy work of Menno Vander VeenMenno Vander Veen came to America from Holland 100 years ago. He was 10 years old. The Vander Veens found their way to the Ellsworth/Little Rock area.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — The new year is coming too fast. There is very much still to be written about 2012. We have to think 1912 was a landmark year and, thus, 2012 has been the centennial for — we’ve talked about this — everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the construction of Worthington’s Hotel Thompson to Nut Goodies to Life Savers. Life Savers. Quite a story.
Life Savers began — 1912 — with one flavor, Pep O Mint. In 1918, Wint O Green was added. Now there are 40 Life Saver flavors. I had no idea. I’ve never seen 40. The best Life Savers story may be the story from 1942 to 1945. The U.S. government bought 23 million boxes of Life Savers rolls. Life Savers were packed into American soldiers’ ration kits.
Well — 1912. While a sliver of the year still remains there is a centennial story of an immigrant that should be recalled. Immigration is a hot topic.
Menno Vander Veen came to America from Holland 100 years ago. He was 10 years old. The Vander Veens found their way to the Ellsworth/Little Rock area. Menno found his way to Worthington. He became another of myriad Americans, native and immigrant, who were smacked in their teeth by the Great Depression.
One thing that set Menno apart was that he bought two trucks, hired a couple of guys and made a successful business. It has never been clear whether the business succeeded because Menno recognized needs that others overlooked or because Menno was willing to work harder than most.
When coal is burned it makes cinders, in addition to ashes. Cinders are small, dark rocks laced with holes. Cinders were used to cover driveways and alleys before asphalt and concrete. There were heaps of cinders left from service work on steam locomotives at Worthington’s railroad round house.
Menno contracted for these cinders and, with his men, shoveled them on flatbed trucks — heavy work — and then shoveled them over alleys. More heavy work. But a great public service.
Later, (A.C., After Cinders) Menno found work tiling. Digging ditches. He nearly lost his life. Now and again he was buried to his chest by cave-ins. And then, one day — he was 65 years old — he was knocked flat in a ditch and buried.
“They dug like dogs with their hands to get to me,” he remembered. They couldn’t use a machine because they didn’t know where my head was. I thought I was done. The tile saved me; that gave me air. Finally they saw my shirt and they pulled me out.”
One of Menno Vander Veen’s greatest services to his community came in the late 1930s, years of the Depression. At 16th Street (a closed crossing now), the Omaha railroad had an elevated warehouse with a row of coal chutes on either side. Steam locomotives would stop beneath a chute. A fireman would pull a chain and tons of coal would pour into the locomotive’s tender.
A railyard locomotive pushed cars filled with coal up a long, slanted track into the elevated warehouse. It was for men to shovel coal scoop by scoop from those railcars into the chutes. Heavy work. Menno and his crew once again.
“Those were the hard years. We shoveled coal for eight cents a ton. Finally it got to be 10 cents a ton. Some of the bins held three tons, some four. Six.
“If you had a job you were lucky, and you did it.” Menno was sorry for those who had no work.
It was a time when hundreds of Worthington homes were warmed by coal furnaces. Near sunset on December days, January days, a procession of kids would proceed along 16th Street with wagons and sleds heading for the coal chutes to load coal that fell to the ground — and that could heat their homes.
Menno remembered them. “They would only do that if there was nothing to heat the house. The only ones that ever did that were the ones that needed it.”
Fifty years after the fact, Menno confessed, “We would throw coal down — we’d get coal down there so the kids would have something to pick up. They would have froze otherwise.”
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.