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Column: Got a car? Wilmont's just up the road

WORTHINGTON -- Wilmont is having a bad time. The liquor store was closed on Monday, New Year's Eve. A question mark hangs over the bowling alley/cafe. It is just hard to keep Wilmont World rolling.

You know who is to blame? In part, Peter Spartz of Wilmont. Pete Spartz built and drove the first automobile in Nobles County. It was a chain-driven, two-cylinder car. Some called it a chugger. There is a historic picture showing Pete at the wheel of his driving machine with three other family members -- John, Henry and William -- along for the ride.

If it weren't for automobiles and County Road 25 (Minnesota 266), if it weren't for all the traffic heading for Worthington day by day, Wilmont would be just fine. But golly: Pete Spartz built his car in 1900. Wilmont was barely begun. There has to be more to the story of Wilmont's woes than automobiles.

Wilmont was brought into being by the railroad, the Burlington Road (Rock Island). It certainly did not help matters when the Rock Island called it quits and ripped out its tracks in the 1970s.

There is a story in my family. My mother's father -- Grampa -- was bass drummer for the first Pfingsten Center Cornet Band. The Pfingsten church (Immanuel American) is north and east of Wilmont. Back in 1900 again, on Wilmont's first Fourth of July, the Pfingsten band rolled into town in a farm wagon pulled by a team of horses. The bandsmen were all farmers; the bewhiskered driver was a forebear of Worthington mayor Alan Oberloh.

As the event is remembered, the band went from one Wilmont saloon to another, standing out front and playing patriotic airs. The story has it that they never went inside. I don't know about that.

There were three saloons then. Three saloons and two churches. No one thought the liquor store might one day have to close.

Later -- well, nearly a quarter-century later -- my father's parents were buried in Wilmont's cemetery. In those years, Wilmont bustled.

There is a newspaper story -- Dec. 22, 1899 -- a reporter for the Worthington Advance and two railroad employees rode one of the first trains into Wilmont. The railroad opened on Dec. 16. The reporter said the first passenger car would leave Worthington for Wilmont at 10 a.m. "on Monday." The return trip from Wilmont would be at 12 noon.

The reporter also said "excavating has commenced for the Wilmont depot" In that time the townsite still was marked by a straw stack and a stubble field.

Historian A.P. Rose wrote, "From the day the first train pulled in all was activity. ... A number of farmers had their loads of grain on hand, backed up ready to load in the first car. ... W.J. Corbett was there with his check book ..."

It wasn't long before Wilmont was Nobles County's fourth-largest community, behind Worthington, Adrian and Ellsworth.

Well -- Wilmont still is not tiny. There were 339 people in the 2010 census, seven more than in the 2000 census. The census bureau says there are 143 households. In one report, the Census Bureau said Wilmont has the highest percentage of residents with German ancestry of any community in Minnesota.

Automobiles. The loss of the railroad. Then there was the loss of the school. Wilmont's two-story, frame school stood at the peak of what now is Hilltop Park. (Was Lyle Schlichte the first Wilmont student to transfer to Worthington? He was one of the first.)

There are some great Wilmont stories. Lucy Bertrand was one who told the story of the first Wilmont school:

"They built the first sisters' school at Wilmont in 1915. There were two rooms, one up and one down. They just finished the school; the priest had his sermon all ready for that Sunday morning. The school burned down on Saturday night.

"I remember that priest had tears in his eyes. He couldn't even talk. No one ever knew what caused it; they always said someone started it."

Jake Fath, another Wilmont pioneer, remembered the price of gas at Wilmont in an earlier time.

"Of course gas was expensive in those days. I think gas was twenty-five cents a gallon. So people didn't drive too much."

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.