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Column: Lending a hand, 78 years ago


WINDOM — It was the winter of 1936. The snow banks were high and hard.

The phone line was so busy one evening. I knew in my 5-year-old heart that something was brewing.

The next morning my father got up early and did the chores. He came in and cleaned himself. Mama was busy finding clean clothes and this was not Saturday night, that I knew for certain. Something unusual was going to happen.

Dad put on his heaviest woolen “long johns.” He tucked the ankle cuffs into his brown work socks. This was layer number one. Then he put on old, brown tweed suit pants. Then he out another pair of much heavier stockings that went to his knees. Over this he put his best pair of overalls. He almost looked dressed for a special occasion.

This was yesterday’s answer to today’s layered thermal garments.

I do not remember the layers on top except for the flannel shirt under his overalls. Finally, he laced up his work shoes and pulled on his overshoes. Over all this he put on his long-haired fur coat and a fur hat.

After kissing mama and I goodbye, he went out the porch door. This was a door we had not used all winter. My little mind could not understand all this.

Then I looked out the window and saw a wagon box with runners underneath pulled by a team of horses. But why was my dad so dressed up? Dad jumped in with some other men and off the horses went. Over the hard-packed snow they went stopping to cut the fences as they went. They continued to pick up able-bodied men until they came to the cemetery.

A couple of men had worked all night to keep burning straw fires on the graves to be dug. This thawed the ground to make the digging easier. There were too many bodies waiting in the above-ground vaults in the corner of the cemetery. This was the answer to the problem.

As I think back, it was interesting how my dad still honored the dead by putting on clean clothes and the best overalls he had. I do not remember Mama making any lunch for Dad to carry. Someone in town must have provided it. It also was not “our” cemetery where Dad went to help. But in the Depression of the 1930s, neighbors helped neighbors and all divisions were forgotten.

Lucille Lewis Nelson was a Daily Globe correspondent for many years. She resides in Windom.