DONNA — It seems people were stronger back “in those days.” Life was tougher, there weren’t as many gadgets to ease life’s travails. People did what they had to in order to make a life. It wasn’t always easy. Certainly it seems, life was all around harder “back then.”
Bob Erickson was the oldest of 11 children. None of his three sisters lived past two years of age. Born and raised in Markville, Minnesota, the town was named after his grandfather.
“He was a surveyor, a land dealer and a drunk,” said Bob, with a knowing grin. “Otherwise we would have had money.”
Leaving home at 13, Bob took a job at a local farm.
“It was a very small town and at that time there was no money, no nothing. The country was just coming out of the depression,” he said.
Always in the top of his class as far as passing tests, he simply didn’t believe the teachers were qualified. There were no choices in class and their sports department consisted of a sack with a football, a couple of baseballs and two bats.
“I was living on a farm at that time,” Bob said. “I’d help milk the cows in the morning, go to school, come home and milk the cows at night. I didn’t think of it as a hard life. I thought I was doing great. I got $.75 (cents) a day. When I was going to school I got $.25 (cents) a day. At least I had more money than most of the kids. I only did that until I was 15.”
Wanting to travel and see what was out there, he went to work with the Great Northern Railroad.
“I chose it because it was higher pay at 57 cents/hour than the Northern Pacific at 55 cents/hour. In 1944, the war was going on and the trains were crowded. They were hiring anybody they could,” he said.
Working only one trip as a dishwasher, he was moved to third cook in a car about 12 feet long and three to four feet walking space wide. Four men (three cooks and a dishwasher) worked in that space cooking up delights for their customers on two coal stoves — soups, roasts, salads and dessert.
Bob learned on the job.
“I began by making pancakes and muffins,” he said. “I got up around five in the morning and built a fire because all we had were the coal stoves. I would go steal some fusees (railroad flares), throw a couple in each stove with charcoal to get them started.”
Instead of refrigeration they had ice boxes. Both the ice and coal had chutes from the roof into the car.
“They would drop in these great big chunks of ice and we would chisel and chop them down,” Bob said.
Moving up to second cook, Bob began making the pies — apple, blueberry and cherry.
“The second cook also did all the fry work — frying the chickens,” he said. “The chickens came all in one piece, only with no feathers. It was the only way they could tell how old they were — looking at their eyes to see if they were sunken.”
By the end he had become the Dining Room Steward in charge of the Dining Car, handling the liquor, all the checks, money and doing payroll, among the rest of his duties.
“They provided a linen vest with pearl buttons and paid for half my suit,” he said. “We wore a black and silver striped tie and slept in the Pullman car instead of the dormitory cars and had a little better pay.”
Movie stars mixed with regular folk and he dealt with them all. Pat O’Brien, the actor, once wanted to see who did the cooking and called Bob out.
“He was a very gracious man,” Bob said. “Another time a gentleman was asking for a beer before his meal — a Heileman Old Style Beer. Whatever they ordered, I always told them it was an excellent beer. When he ordered a second one since his food wasn’t there yet, he began giving me a rundown of the beer. ‘What are you — a salesman or something?’ I asked him. He said, ‘I’m the president of the brewery. If you give me the waiter and your name and address I’ll send you a case of beer.’ And he did!”
One of his favorite things about his life of traveling from Chicago to St. Paul back to Chicago, out to Seattle and back was the hours. Though he might work 16 to 18 hours a day for five days, he would then have five days off which gave him time to have a life. That he did with a little lady named Virginia he had known all his life.
“We were from the same hometown,” said Virginia. Though they “kind of” dated in high school, they went their separate ways.
“I had a nice childhood,” she said. “I’m the oldest of seven — and for some reason had moved into town with my grandmother and grandfather. We went to the farm every day to do gardening, berry picking, canning.”
“The grandfather still ran the farm,” said Bob. “He was all German and still was in charge.”
Still gardening after all these years, Virginia and Bob just bought a new pressure cooker after 45 years with their old one.
“We can our own tomatoes, string beans and my own pickles,” she said, with pride.
As many of the young people did back then, Virginia went away to finish her Junior and Senior high school years — sharing an apartment with two other girls, cooking their own meals.
After school, with $5 in her pocket, Virginia moved to St. Paul to work for Montgomery Ward. It seemed a gutsy thing to do.
“That was just a way of life,” she said. “If you wanted to succeed you went out and did something you could. Hopefully you got a job, and I did in accounting at Montgomery Ward.”
Meantime Bob took four years off to fulfill his military duty as a Marine. On his overseas tour he started out as a cook but ended up as a truck driver on Guam for 24 months and three days. After being discharged in 1949 he headed right back to the trains, looking up Virginia along the way.
“I did my own thing for a year and a half after I left school,” said Virginia. “I made friends and wasn’t even thinking about him until he came by when he got out. Then we got together and got married.”
“What attracted me to her were her eyes,” he said, with conviction. Virginia blushed.
Called back to the service for another year in 1951, this time Virginia went with him to California. His self-proclaimed stubborn streak landed him as a Drill Sergeant. Not exactly what he wanted to do since he had left his good job as a Supply Sergeant behind.
“I had two corporals and a Pfc working for me. I sat in a chair, leaned back and did the book work. As a Drill Instructor I’m romping, stomping and raising hell with the recruits. That was hard work!” he said, laughing.
Again he went back to the trains, staying this time until the handwriting on the wall told him the show was over. The Dining Car business was going out and Amtrak was taking over. Moving on to working with the Federal Prison system, he stayed there as Cook Foreman until 1988 when he retired. Meanwhile, Virginia finished her career with 22 years at Professional Medical in Cambridge, Minn., after having a successful career in bookkeeping.
Thanks to the farm they lived on for 32 years, they are now able to enjoy their Winter Texan lifestyle at their favorite park — Koenig RV park. Having worked for Habitat, starting their own affiliate in Minnesota, and bringing fixed-up, donated bicycles down to distribute to the low income children in the Valley, the Ericksons give back in many different ways.
As with all the stories of the Winter Texans, there is never enough room to tell the rest of the story. But as for Bob and Virginia, enjoying their children, grand and great-grandchildren . . .
“Life has been good,” said Virginia. “We’re the oldest of all our friends, we’re very healthy (after a scare last year from Bob) and we’re very grateful.”