Tim Bertrand is a lifelong Wilmont man who realizes better than most how the once-bustling little town has dwindled in population.
He’s doing what he can to help.
The Bertrand family includes six kids from age 12 on down. And one on the way in February.
“I’m pretty passionate about kids,” he says, “and also sports. I like seeing good facilities and kids being excited about playing there.”
Tim is working on that, too. The City of Wilmont maintenance employee applied for and received a Minnesota Twins Community Fund grant that is enabling baseball backers in the Nobles County town to rebuild historic Lawrence Edward “Butts” Probst Field.
The aim is for the dozens and dozens of youth in the Wilmont area to grow up with the game that has been part of the city’s history for 100 years or more. The field, dormant for nearly 10 years and its fabulous old grandstand condemned and finally torn down, was named for the late Probst in 2005, a former Wilmont mayor and longtime amateur baseball figure in southwest Minnesota who died in 2004.
The kids of today in Wilmont might not remember old Butts, but soon they’ll be playing on his yard.
“We’d like to see them play on a real ball field instead of on the sandlot,” Tim says. “It’s a beautiful field, one of the best in the area, I think.”
There is a similar scenario unfolding these days in Lake Wilson, which like Wilmont is a tradition-rich baseball community with an aging ballpark that hasn’t been used much the past few decades.
Lake Wilson’s Heins Park, where high school and amateur ball teams flourished in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, hasn’t seen much activity for about two decades and was flooded when uncommonly severe rainstorms hit the area several years ago.
But the ball field is once again being used by Lake Wilson youth. And thanks to a large grant recently obtained from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), plans are in place to restore and refurbish Heins Park into a desirable destination for ball fans of all ages.
“Our area has so many wonderful volunteers that work hard to keep the interest up in both T-Ball and (softball),” says Jolene (Carlson) Johnson, a lifelong Lake Wilson resident and current City Council member. “It feels so good to see so many people down there enjoying the park and the baseball field.”
This, then, is a tale of two towns that won’t allow their baseball parks to die. And for many in those communities, it makes living a lot better.
Lake Wilson was once an amateur baseball hotbed, the home of many excellent ball players. Men such as Jolene’s husband, Bradley Johnson, and his brother Neal (Bear) were among many standouts who helped the Lake Wilson Bison earn five amateur ball state tournament berths from 1977-89.
The FEMA grant enables Lake Wilson to repair the playing surface and fencing, construct bleachers and an expanded concession stand/storage shed, and perform other needed maintenance.
It’s mostly for the youth of Lake Wilson, but of course ball is for folks of all ages.
“The field also gets used by the 4-H Club for their softball and kickball,” says Jolene, who urges those interested in getting their kids involved to follow the Lake Wilson Sports and Recreation site on Facebook. “We’re hoping to get enough adults interested in forming a beer softball league to compete with other area softball leagues in the future.”
Steve Brake grew up near Wilmont and has never left. He’s now a city councilman interested in revitalizing his hometown.
The Twins Community Fund grant is helping.
“We’ve got new ag-lime and we’re planning to re-do the infield and eventually get new fencing up,” he says. “The field is available to play on now, but we might not get completely done this fall. I’m optimistic about next spring, though. I’d really like to get a couple of local town teams, like maybe Hadley or Worthington, to come over and play an exhibition game for us to have a grand opening.”
The plan is to update the scoreboard and concession stand, construct new restroom facilities and erect bleachers. While most of the light towers are still up, they’re not in working order.
The big hole in the ballpark is the empty spot up the third-base line where a majestic wooden grandstand once stood. On many a summer night in Wilmont it was filled to capacity.
“We tore out probably one of the greatest baseball grandstands in the history of the area, because it was condemned and too costly to repair,” Steve says. “But the grant allows us to get new fencing where the grandstand was and put in a new backstop.
“My goal is to get the lights going again. But that’s going to take another big chunk of cash.”
He says many people are excited about the project and have opened their wallets. Anyone looking for information or wishing to help should contact the Wilmont City Council.
Wilmont’s amateur baseball history is glorious and extends back more than 100 years. In 1949, the Wilmont Cardinals were charter members of the newly formed First Nite League.
Many great players toiled for Wilmont, including the famed Baumgartner brothers (Virg, Bob, Pat and Don). They helped the Cardinals earn their first Minnesota Amateur Baseball state tourney berth in 1969.
Sam Baumgartner, son of Bob, was later among those instrumental in helping the Cardinals qualify for eight state tournaments from 2002-2013. In those days, Butts Probst Field was the place to be.
“It was always one of the greatest settings to watch a ballgame,” Steve says. “My dad played and I remember watching my uncle Ray, who was a real good player back in the day.
“We’re just really excited about getting the ballpark back.”
And maybe, just maybe, one day soon Wilmont could rejoin the First Nite or Gopher Leagues. What would Butts think of it all?
“He’d say, why don’t you roll me a cigarette and open a beer and let’s watch a game,” he says. “He’d think it was great.”
Scott Mansch is a part-time sports writer at The Globe who always appreciates tips and story ideas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org