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Tuesday, Mar. 3, 2015

Going home

Monday, January 20, 2014

(Photo)
Plainview -- Locust Street (before paved streets) looking west, hotel on right.
(Courtesy photo)
Who says you can't go home again? I just had a wonderful visit to my old home town -- Plainview, NE -- via the silver screen, in the new movie, "Nebraska."

I had heard that parts of the movie were filmed in Plainview (Hawthorne in the movie), but I was really surprised, and delighted to find that so many of the scenes took place on the main street (Locust Street) of Plainview. It was a vicarious stroll through the streets where I grew up -- in Plain View.

As way of a disclaimer, I should warn you, dear reader, that the column today is a brazen attempt to recapture a bit of my past. The buildings in the movie were just buildings, but each one brought back memories of people from long ago. So you are warned. The following is pure nostalgia for me, but no doubt of no interest to anyone else. So I'll see you next week!

(Photo)
Going east on Locust Street in Plainview -- Opera House Building on left.
(Courtesy photo)
Nebraska is a fun movie, but well deserving of its R rating. After one scene of salty language on the part of Woody's wife, the woman sitting next to me (not Jean -- the other side) walked out of the theater in disgust. And the film is shot in black and white, depicting (what I always thought of as beautiful countryside) a stark and forbidding landscape.

The subject of the film is a bit unsettling as well -- a slightly deranged father (Woody) nearing the end, desperately attempting to score big for his family before he goes, and his family, especially younger son, Will, attempting to understand, then establishing a positive relationship with the old man.

All of this was interesting, and despite the darker parts, a very funny movie. But for me the real star of the film was Plainview itself, not the modern scene, but the memory of the Plainview of my youth, memories which those movie scenes still managed to bring back.

The entrances to Plainview were all made from the south, off Highway 13, instead of from the east or west via the main Highway 20. This brought the characters past the old, round, sale barn, past the grain elevators. When I was there all of this was owned by E.G. Dickinson, a very prominent figure in PV. Thursdays were Sale Days, important business days in PV. E.G. had a large family. I was in school with two of the younger kids. Kenny was in my scout troop and a good football player. Alice and I started to Sunday School together at age 4, and had an on again-off again boy/girl relationship all through the grades, church and high school.

None of the boys in our class danced, so the school dances were a bit of a bust, with girls dancing with girls. Alice changed all that and taught us all (boys) to dance. After that the school dances and Saturday nights at Baber's Café Mini Ballroom (juke box) were a lot more fun.

The house, which belonged to Aunt Martha in the movie, was the old Dickinson house, on the west side of town when I was little. It was one of the older houses in PV. It had been quite a mansion originally, but as aptly depicted in the movie, its best days were behind. Later, when the Dickinson clan grew they moved to a bigger home, which had belonged to Mrs. Dickinson's folks, more in the center of town. This house was the Headquarters for the PV Civil Defense at the beginning of World War II. E.G. was the Civil Defense Chairman, and his committee met there, around the dining room table on nights of the drills. Alice and I were runners to take messages to the Civil Defense Patrolmen. While we waited for new orders we sat in the shadows of the room holding hands, while the grownups played war.

Most of the scenes in Hawthorne (in the movie) took place on Locust Street, Plainview's Main Drag. At the West end, the garage, which had belonged to Woody, was the Farmers Union Gas Station when I lived there. Harry W. was the manager. He was a happy fellow, who loved telling jokes, and he had an infectious laugh. When station funds were found to be missing, Harry took his own life. I think the amount involved was 3 or 4 thousand dollars.

Steinkraus Oil Co. has been in the Steinkraus family for generations, at least since the 1920s. Women loved that station. Those boys took the word Service in Service Station seriously. They pumped your gas, washed the windshield, checked the oil, aired your tires, reminded you of an oil change, and arranged to pick up and deliver your car. They still do.

In one scene, Will and Woody cross the street from my Dad's last bakery to his old bakery. The "new bakery" was originally Houston's Grocery. Harry was a progressive grocer, and one of the founders of the giant Affiliated Foods Wholesale Grocery. The first warehouse of the Co-Op was in the back room of this building. Dad bought this building in 1944 and virtually gutted the interior. Before moving he had a big (free) dance there---a really fun evening.

Upstairs, in the old bakery building, had been the first telephone office in Plainview, but when we lived there my folks took those rooms and incorporated them into our apartment. Much of the movie revolved around the bars in Hawthorne. The east one was Wilson Brothers Store when I was there, run by prim Miss Elizabeth Prinz and her sister. Mainly a women's store, they did have children's clothes as well. When the last sister died they had a big auction sale. There was an amazing array of high top shoes, corsets, and long long dresses. They sold cheap -- enough that we boys paraded through the street in costume -- like drag queens.

The Hotel, shown prominently, was originally built by a Mr. Austerlitz -- just a footnote to history, except that his grandchildren, Adele and Fred, used to come to spend summers in PV, before they went on to fame, fortune and screen immortality as Fred and Adele Astaire.

When I was there it was the Johnson Hotel, run by Mr. Green. Mr. Green was blind, but managed his duties quite adequately. His wife, Mabel, set a splendid table. It was a popular place to go for Sunday dinner. People sat at large tables, and the food, except for the entrée was served in large bowls, passed around, family style. Mrs. Green was known for her fried chicken. I liked the chicken, but my favorite was her jumbo frankfurters and sauerkraut main dish.

The other bar shown prominently (The Blinker Lounge in the movie), is Fats Bar, in what was known as the Opera House Building. There were a number of businesses in that building -- a bank (there were banks on all four corners of the main intersection before the crash in 1929), Council Oak Grocery, Hills Drug Store, and Russell's Hardware. Upstairs was the Masonic Temple. Originally the Opera House had been the place of activity in Plainview. Traveling Opera and Theater groups were regulars, and the HS basketball team played their games there, but I never got in on that. The Opera House was the place we went for Eastern Star functions (I liked the pot-luck dinners best).

Across the alley, shown briefly in the film, was The Fats Bar signature -- a distinctive, larger than life "fat man," carved from a large tree. When I was there, this was the site of Deck Grafe's Tailor Shop. Deck was one of PV's early settlers, and he made suits for most of Plainview's leaders even up to World War II. He never married and he never did really learn English.

He spoke with a heavy German accent. Sometimes, when he was in the mood, he told great stories about "Der Alte Country." I'm half ashamed to say, but what I remember most about him was his toupee. It had to be the worst "rug" anyone ever chose to wear. Deck didn't care, and when he came down to the restaurant for breakfast his toupee might be turned half way around, the part running from ear to ear. We used to speculate about how his wig would look. His was the first toupee I ever saw, and I guess (after some 70 years) the most memorable.

I'm grateful to Alexander Payne for bringing us the movie and giving me a chance to relive some happy times, and remember some great folks, most long gone, but still very much alive in my mind's eye, and in my memory of that time so long ago.


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Walt,

I always enjoyed reading your column in the Plainview News when my parents were still alive and subscribing to the P-view News. Don Blank is a friend and has sent me a couple of your recent stories about Plainview. They are terrific! I remember going downtown to Sehnert's Bakery as a child, and I loved it. It's sad to see the downtown in its current state. It was so vibrant, even in the 60's...but it's bleak now, as depicted in the movie. Of course, Millnitz family gatherings were nothing like the ones depicted in the movie...they were loud and raucous, as you may imagine! I'll always remember them. Anyway, thanks for taking me back...

Roger Millnitz

-- Posted by millnitz on Mon, Jan 27, 2014, at 2:56 PM

Loved the movie - had to see it twice - and love your columns when they used to be in the Plainview News! Still drool when thinking of the nutted doughnuts your dad made! Some of the Las Vegas buffets have an almost imitation but not quite as good - we had an hour noon - and after the school cafeteria made a quick run to the bakery for doughnuts! We also always loaded up on bread and rolls every Saturday night for the week - long before "Wonder Bread" hit Falters grocery! I remember 2 for a quarter Ice Cream Sundaes on Saturday nights at Baber's after the movie - and the darken "forbidden to little kids" dances in the back room. The movie brought back all those days - Saturday nights sitting in the car watching people go by! Your dad and my Uncle Art Furstenau traveled a bit together after your mother died. Thanks for all the memories - as we get older than get more precious!

-- Posted by ba65531 on Wed, Feb 19, 2014, at 3:23 PM

Walt,

Thank you for this great article. The Alice which you speak of is my grandmother, and your words depicted her as I will always remember. Thank you for thinking and writing of her and Plainview so fondly. It's a very special place to me and will always remind me of my terrific grandmother.

Thanks,

Rohan Andresen

-- Posted by R_Andresen on Thu, Feb 20, 2014, at 1:19 AM

Walt,

I have yet to view the movie "Nebraska", but you have added a personal perspective that will make it that much more enjoyable as you do with all your writings.

Thanks,

Don Stake

-- Posted by corndogdon on Sat, Jun 7, 2014, at 1:44 AM


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By