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Memories of Lost Humboldt


Michael Rustad

The purpose of this rambling essay is to give my thoughts on growing up in Humboldt and our farm. I am presently a law professor in Boston and live in Vermont. My children wonder why I am so interested in the Red River Valley.

I use examples of farm stories in all of my law school classes. My sister and brother-in-laws beefalo, Alvin, is a law school legend. Each class receives a picture of Alvin the beefalo with his father, the buffalo. I use the example of Alvin to illustrate the question of whether a beefalo should be classified as a wild animal or a domestic animal. In the field of tort law, strict liability is applied to wild animals, whereas the negligence standard applies to domestic animals. With strict liability, the owner must whip out their checkbook if the animal causes property or personal injury. A person whose domestic animal causes damages is not liable unless proof of negligence.

In my sales and leases class, I use numerous examples of farm stories to illustrate commercial law. As a child, I do not recall that we ever had a good crop. There was always excessive rain, high wind, rust, or grasshoppers that robbed us of our harvest. The doctrines of frustration of purpose, commercial iimpracticability, and impossibility are illustrated with childhood experiences. Our little corner of Minnesota always seemed to have more than its share of miserable weather: floods, tornadoes, and massive snow storms. As a small child, I remember hearing stories of the flood of 1950. Ralph Giffen swears that he remembers viewing the flood. It seemed that there was always a natural disaster wiping out our homes, crops, and livestock. 

My law school students seem to enjoy hearing about our little corner of Minnesota. In all of the years of teaching, I have had only one student from N.W. Minnesota. In the mid-1990s, I had Ole Rolvaag's great, great grandaughter who hailed from Thief River Falls. While it has been many years since I've lived in the Red River Valley, I am as interested in the history and people. My interest extends to St. Vincent and Noyes.  

 I am a member of the Class of 1967 of Humboldt-St. Vincent High School. My parents were A.H. "Rustee" Rustad and Patricia Carrigan Rustad. My siblings are Tony Rustad (born 1951); Jamie Rustad Meagher (born 1955) and Janine Rustad Moris (born 1958). Our family lived in the village of Humboldt from 1949 to 1957. When the Harvey Diamonds built a new home across the street, we moved in their house. The village of Humboldt was a place with lots of families with large numbers of children. The Baldwins, Hunts, Tris, Boatzes, Diamonds, and Giffens were perhaps the largest families. Sarah and Vern Hunt had the largest number of children with at least one child in every grade in the Humboldt school. Don and Marian Brown had three boys: Tom, David, and John. Tom Brown, Dave Boatz, Jeff Lofberg, and I organized rubber gun fights in the boxcars along the railroad. Tom's father Don ran the service station so there was always a good supply of inner tubes. We became expert rubber gun shots and learned how to get the maximum fire power from the stretched rubber bands.

If my memory serves me right, the Hunts were into the double digits in number of children by 1957 and there were more to come. Humboldt had a particularly good group of kids who always seemed to include the smaller kids in activities at dusk such as kick the can, around the house, and hide and seek (our favorite). John Isely, Dennis Diamond, and Mick Boatz were in the older kid group who gave the younger kids guidance and kept us in line. Cathy Tri, Amy Johnson, & Nancy Diamond were very good to the younger kids and helped to organize community wide hide and seek games. We played baseball in Diamond's pasture as well as the Humboldt ball field. One of the challenges of baseball games in their pasture was not to upset the sheep. Brownie, the Diamond's beloved dog, was an omni-presence and loved all of the kids.

Our home in town did not have indoor plumbing. Laundry was always dried on the clothes line except in severe snow storms. The only paved road in town was Highway 75 which ran right through town. Despite the primitive conditions, there was a sense of civic-mindedness. Virgil Bockwitz was especially generous to the kids in town. He flooded one of his large farm sheds for a skating rink.

The town fathers also had outdoor rinks for us each winter. Another memory I have is receiving bags of candy from Humboldt's men's club at Christmas. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was Herb Diamond who organized these events.   

Humboldt Restaurant: Selmer and Selma Locken

Our little town was a paradise for kids. One of our favorite hangouts was the Humboldt cafe run by Selmer and Selma Locken. The Lockens organized the restaurant in the old bank building. It was a great location for a restaurant in the regal old bank building. I remember the wonderful old booths. I can still smell the cooking odors of fries and hamburgers. I had my first elk meat at the restaurant when Kenny Matthew shot an elk in Montana and cooked it at the restaurant for everyone to taste. There was a locker plant next to the restaurant which made it convenient and cheap to serve good meat. Selma and Selmer did not mind having a pack of kids hanging out in the restaurant. Selmer and Selma Locken's daughter Sandra was another attraction at the cafe. Ralph Giffen and I spent all of our small change in the vain hope of winning a ring with a small plastic red stone for a girl we liked in our class. Neither of us were successful in getting the ring or the girl.  

Selma Locken made the thickest chocolate malts, but I usually opted for a soda. which we called pop. In those days, small sodas were four cents (6 ounces) and the 10 ounce bottle sold for .10. Another memory I have is having a bottle of Nesbitt orange with Bob Boatz and my Dad in the restaurant. The Humboldt restaurant was replaced by the It Cafe run by Kenny and Jean Voit in the 1960s.    

Early Television in Humboldt: Circa 1955-57

The Baldwin family was perhaps the anchor of the community with an open door policy for all kids. Mark and Joyce Larson Baldwin had the first television set in town which made their home the functional equivalent of our movie theatre.

I remember days when we occupied every square foot of the Baldwin living room. The shows that we loved the most were Davey Crockett, Howdy Doody, and the Mickey Mouse Club. Later, Mark Baldwin and Curt Miller ran the Baldwin/Miller Appliance Business out of a big attractive shop on the Baldwin farm.    

We bought our first television in 1957. My memory is that we could get snowy reception from a Valley City station and two Canadian stations. Channel 12 in Pembina went on the air around 1960. Channel 12 had such colorful television personalities as Bo and his Bucaneers. It turned out that Channel 12 was a financial bonanza for a few years because of advertising to the Canadian market. One of the memories I have of appearing on Channel 12 during the Christmas season with our elementary school chorus. Another memory I have is watching the North Dakota State High School Basketball Tournament of 1959. A sophomore from Williston named Phil Jackson (now coach of the Lakers and former Chicago coach). Phil was a 6'8" sophomore who scored 50 plus points in one of the games.

Life on the Farm

My life changed dramatically when my grandparents (Rustad side) moved into town and we were sent to the farm in 1957. I felt that it was an unfair exile to be relegated to the farm and cried when I moved to the farm. To make matters even worse, our dog died right after the move to the farm. Rex actually was my grandparents' dog who did not make the move to town. There are pictures of Rex and I when I was a baby so I assume he died of old age.

My Mother did not care much for the farm. It was incredibily difficult for a Hallock city girl to live in the rather primitive conditions on the farm. We did have indoor plumbing installed on the farm, which was an advance. However, we did not have a central water supply and had to watch our use of the water. Tony and I were required to use the outhouse. We were fortunate to have some excellent and inviting neighbors near our farmhouse. Tony and I became close friends with the Loer family who always seemed to have a succession of cousins and friends staying at the farm. Diane and Carolyn Loer formed the Lark club with us. The name, Lark, stood for Loer & Rustad Klub. Our Motto was: Do Good Deeds.

My memory was that we did only one good deed and that was to send flowers to Alice Loer who was hospitalized in a car accident.

We spent countless hours at Alfred and Clara Loer's home. Alfred was a very joyful person who knew the value of hard work. We would frequently have afternoon lunch with the Loer girls. Alfred would often join us after cleaning up at the wash basin in the entry way. I knew every nook and cranny of the Loer house and we played for hours and hours. We also enjoyed playing in the hay loft and discovering new batches of kitchens. One of our favorite drinks was the nectar sold by the Watkins man. Watkins was a Minnesota company that sold household goods door to door assuming that farmers would not have the time to get to town.       

Tony and I headed for town whenever we had the opportunity. We were located 1 1/2 northwest of town. Riding our bikes to town was always a cost-benefit equation. We invited danger as we drove past Virgil Bockwtiz's complex on the edge of town. Rodney had a fierce police dog and frequently chased us. We were never bitten, but our nerves were shattered by bicycling past that farm.

Once we were past the Bockwitz farm, we had to worry about crossing the railway as well as Highway 75. 

Our first stop was always at Mayme Jury's store. Melvie Stewart was the welcoming clerk at the store. I remember talking with Melvie for hours. On hot summer days, we headed for the freezer where we consumed pop and frozen confections. Cynthia Baldwin's nice little essay on the store documents how much all of the kids liked the store. I agree with Cynthia that the best candy bar in the world was the 7-up bar with seven sections including one with a Brazil nut.

I also like snaps which were candy-covered licorice. My memory of Mayme is that she wore her hair in a bun. She always had a pencil or other writing instrument in her hair. In the 1950s and 1960s, our family purchased all of our groceries from Mayme's. When families begin to shop for groceries in Thief River Falls and Grand Forks, our town store suffered. It has been nearly forty years since I've shopped at Maymes. Today, Humboldt is largely lost from history. The town resembles a ghost town. The school has been demolished. There are no real businesses other than the gas station and the elevator. When I was selected for Suffolk University Law School's endowed chair in 2000, my Uncle Jim Carrigan sent me a letter about his pride in my accomplishments. He wrote that the achievement was even sweeter given our starting point. I am interested in the question of how the Humboldt/St. Vincent school system produced so many students who distinguished themselves in their fields.

Take the Boatz family. Jerry Boatz (youngest son of Bob and Dotty Boatz) is Humboldt's only rocket scientist. His brother Mickey became a legendary mathematics teacher whose students went on to attain considerable success at renowned institutions such as M.I.T. Sister Sue has had an excellent career in the medical field. 

The Hunt family produced college graduates in double digits. Joe and Alice Giffen's son Ralph became a fellow the Brookings Institution and worked with Senator Bingaman and other Senators. Ralph received his B.A. and M.A. in biology and is respected policymaker at the Department of Agriculture.

The Baldwins have produced more college professors, Deans, and lawyers than any single family. 

Cynthia Baldwin became a nationally known professor at the University of Wyoming and the University of Nevada. Her brother Tom became a Dean at leading Kansas University. Brother Mark became a lawyer. I am leaving out many, many more achievers from the Humboldt. Garyle Stewart became a leading Fargo lawyer. The Diamond family produced outstanding teachers, farmers, and professionals.  

The Tri family has also had its successes. Marie Tri became a Vice President of a major insurance company. Her sister Cathy and brother Pete became teachers.  

Nearly every family in Humbold has at least one member who achieved success. I am leaving out the Wieses, Bahrs, and many others in this litany of successes.

In early generations, Dennis Matthews has had a brilliant career as a businessman and Deane Matthews as an engineer. Margaret Mathew Patzer received an advanced degree at the University of Wisconsin. I get a great deal of vicarious satisfaction in learning of the successes of my former classmates and fellow villagers. Recently, I learned that Trish Short was a network administrator and her sister, Sharon, a prominent Illinois attorney. I identify very strongly with the area and take collective pride in what we have attained. None of us came over on the Mayflower or had large trust funds, but we managed to hold our own.