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Al Batt: The first motorcycle in all of the township of Hartland

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

We learn to live in a new way each new day.

I’m part of the generation that’s afraid of quicksand. I’ve never seen quicksand, but I witnessed its treachery in plenty of old black-and-white movies. It was a standard trope in the old action films featuring jungles. I watched the enemies of Tarzan, dastardly fellows, fall prey to quicksand. It made a good story.

I love it when someone begins a sentence with, “Well, the story goes,” because it causes me to lean in. It’s a professional development workshop.

This story began before there was Barney Fife or McDonald’s, and after people planted hot peppers in their gardens to keep the Norwegians out. It was back when nothing was beyond repair.

I grew up in Hartland Township — land of enchantment and golden opportunity, and the honeymoon capital of the northern part of the county. Hartland Township was organized in 1858. I don’t know what the Native Americans called it, but I’m sure it wasn’t New York City.

Like all places, this township is vested with stories that teach listeners what not to do and what might be fun to do. The stories I heard while growing up were often told by an old farmer who took off his hat to present a forehead that was as two-toned as a Ford sedan. The stories rarely included dates. They were more likely to be tied to an event that few other than the teller found useful. “It must have been around the year when Merle Larson’s sister Maude ran off with the rural mail carrier.”

The first rural routes in the township were established on Sept. 1, 1904. The first in Minnesota began in Farmington on Jan. 1, 1897.

“It was the year Grandpa Johnson built a chicken house out of cottonwood. What a fiasco that was. He couldn’t get it to dry straight. That soft hardwood twisted and warped. He tried using it for firewood, but found it difficult to split when green and gave off an unpleasant aroma if not seasoned properly. He did build himself a dandy casket out of the stuff.”

To place that in time, it would be accurate to say I didn’t have any idea.     

“Speaking of Minneapolis, one of the Olson Brothers who lived near Mule Lake followed the money and moved to that fair city, got a job in the office of a haberdashery and did right well for himself. He bought a motorcycle. It purred like a kitten. One weekend, he rode it to his oldest brother’s farm. Nobody around these parts had ever seen a motorcycle. He taught his nephew Oscar to ride the contraption. Oscar had a wild streak and a particular genius for mischief. He had two speeds — too fast and even faster — and shouldn’t have been on anything other than shank’s pony. He took off in a roar and a cloud of dust.”

He hadn’t been speaking about Minneapolis, but there was a boom in manufacturing motorcycles in 1890-1930. The Minnesota Historical Society has a photo of a man named Guy Webb of Minneapolis who rode a motorcycle 100 miles on New Year’s Day in around 1910.

“Oscar snorted down the road as if the world was all downhill, zooming past kids, crops and cows before heading towards Ole and Ingeborg Hendrickson’s place. Ingeborg was taking the wash off the line while wishing her Cousin Clara from Chicago would mail her more of those funny cat drawings when she heard the sound of that motorcycle. She had no idea what it was. She ran into the house and told Ole of it. Ole had been shaving and was working on that sensitive area under his smeller. ‘Clean shave, clean thoughts’ was Ole’s motto. Ole had a heavy beard. When he was a baby, his mother had to tuck his beard into his diaper. Ole dropped his straight razor and ran outside, but not before grabbing his old double-barreled shotgun. Ingeborg hid in the bedroom. Ole got outside just in time to see that young fool Oscar Olson riding past on the motorcycle.

Ole had a significant character flaw. He shot first and asked questions later. Ole let fly with both barrels, hitting the rear tire of the motorcycle. Ole strutted back into the house believing he’d saved the world. Ingeborg asked him what in the world that beast was.

Ole said, ‘I don’t know what the dang thing was but I made it let loose of that crazy Olson boy.’”

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.