Lessons learned from a December evening in 1952

Published 4:17 pm Wednesday, December 23, 2020

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By Bev Jackson Cotter

It was a beautiful December evening in 1952. Several inches of snow on the ground sparkled from the glow of street lights. Seven girls from the south side of Albert Lea were riding in the back of the Arneson Hardware pick up truck, all bundled up with caps and scarves and mittens and boots and snuggled together under blankets.

For several years, Sandy’s mom, Mrs. Arneson, had hauled us around in the back of the pickup when our excursions took us beyond town, and it had become a tradition for us in December to ride up and down Broadway singing Christmas carols.  Mrs. Arneson patiently drove us back and forth, back and forth as we sang to the people who were on the streets shopping.  That was before the malls were built on the outskirts of town, and for a couple of weeks before Christmas, the downtown stores stayed open evenings to accommodate the shoppers.  They would smile and wave to us, and we would wave back and keep on singing. 

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We had been friends since grade school and now that we were in junior high, we did everything together.  We walked the two miles to school every day, oftentimes stopping at the Big Dipper hamburger shop after school for a coke.  In the summertime we walked to the beach and car hopped at the A&W root beer stand. Most of us sang in the Lutheran church choir and the high school chorus, and we even sang sometimes for a group or organization’s meeting. We agreed on almost everything.

When Sandy’s mother died unexpectedly, we thought our pickup caroling days were over, but Sandy’s older brothers were talked into hauling us seven giggling girls back and forth on Broadway. They were patient as long as they could be, and after making the trip several times, they pulled over to the curb.

Gary leaned his head out of the window and said, “Hey, we dare you to sing your carols at the Simms sisters.” We all looked at each other and then back at him. And we said, “Yes!”  How do you ignore a big brother’s dare?

Everybody knew that the Simms sisters were really different. They lived on Park Avenue, one of the loveliest streets in town, a neighborhood of elegant old turn-of-the-century Victorian homes. But this house was unusual. It needed paint, the porch roof was sagging, the yard and flower gardens were overgrown and unkempt, and there were stories of junk stacked inside the house and lots of cats.  They didn’t even have electricity.  Everybody got the picture when you mentioned “the Simms sisters.”  We were all nervous about the dare and giggly about our bravery.

Sandy’s brother drove the pickup north to the elegant Park Avenue neighborhood, past the beautiful homes, decorated with pine boughs and wreaths and lights, and then stopped in front of the house that was dark and scary looking.  Gary and Ivan looked at us through the rear window of the pickup cab. It was as if they were saying, “OK, here you are.  Are you going to chicken out?” Seven girls looked at each other, took a deep breath and climbed out of the pickup. We hesitantly walked up the narrow path shoveled to the porch.  The weeds sticking up through the snow caused long, eerie shadows. The big oak trees in the yard blocked the glow from the streetlights and made the yard look even gloomier.

Single file we slowly made our way towards the house and stopped near the porch. Then we started to sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night…” Young, sweet voices singing age-old carols. Then, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear…” Slowly the front door opened and three elderly ladies stepped out on to the porch.  They were bundled in sweaters and shawls, and they just stood there listening. We continued singing, “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful, joyful and triumphant…”  Their appearance on the porch was not what we had expected.

We did not know the Simms sisters. Almost everyone in town considered them unusual, and we never thought to ask about their lives.

We did not know that their father James E. Simms had attended college in Wisconsin and had moved to Freeborn County when Albert Lea was a brand new community.  He had taught school, worked in the county auditor’s office and served as justice of the peace. His bride, Josephine Crandall, had also attended college, very unusual for a young woman in the 19th century.  The music store he opened became famous for the quality of its pianos, instruments and even the newly invented disk phonograph.

James and Josephine had four children, all talented and interested in music.  Elwyn eventually moved to Ohio, where he operated a business involved with the new movie industry, creating equipment for showing silent movies and the new talkies. Jessie and Hattie both continued their music training in Boston and New York, performing with opera and theater companies and Chautauquas, and Jessie even sang in Carnegie Hall.

Mildred stayed in Albert Lea working in her father’s music store, giving piano and voice lessons and playing the organ at the Broadway Theater for silent movies. She was much in demand as the pianist for many organizations in town. The Simms were well known for their support of the cultural activities in the community. In fact, the night James Simms died, he had just returned home from a recital at the Presbyterian Church.

On that beautiful December evening in 1952, we did not know that the three ladies on the porch were Jessie of Carnegie Hall fame, Mildred, talented pianist, and their maid, Margaret.

When we sang “Jingle Bells” and then turned to leave, the ladies applauded.  They told us how lovely our voices were and how beautiful our songs, and that our music brought tears to their eyes. We did not know what to do. We shyly told them, “Thank you, and Merry Christmas” and then began walking single file down that narrow shoveled path. After we had climbed into the back of the pickup, Joie, who had been the last one in line, said in a whisper, “She wanted to give me a hug … but I kept right on walking.”

When Gary stuck his head out the window and said rather conspiratorially, “We saw the old ladies.  What did they say?” we quietly responded, “We’re ready to go to the Big Dipper for cocoa. We don’t want to sing anymore tonight.”

We did not know that five years later there would be a fire in the house.  The two sisters, Jessie, 82 years old, and Mildred, 72, were living alone now.  Jessie was going to prepare dinner one evening, and when she struck a match to light their gas stove, she accidentally dropped it into a stack of old newspapers.  A fire started and while trying to put it out, her dress caught on fire.  Mildred, hearing her screams, attempted to squelch the flames and then frantically called the fire department.  They arrived within minutes, but could not save her sister. Mildred was badly burned and hospitalized.  She never returned to that home. For several years she lived in apartments over the main street businesses in downtown Albert Lea, moving whenever the rent was raised. She died in a nursing home in 1966.

After the fire the house was razed, and for years people talked about the poverty in that tumble down home owned by the Simms sisters, the 20 cats that shared their lives, and the faded, unkempt Victorian parlor with the beautiful grand piano.