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Remembering the beginning: old friends celebrate new improvements at Tom Prince Memorial Park

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX  —  Thirty-five years after the first slowpitch softball tournament at Tom Prince Memorial Park, electric scoreboards and lights on the second ball field were installed this summer.

To mark that milestone, several of the original softball players got together to reminisce just before the Colfax Softball Association’s annual Bushwhacker Tournament August 26 to August 28.

Gary Stene recalled that the first tournament played at the ball park was a fund raiser for Colfax resident Al Johnson.

“Everybody just leaned into it. Jazz was a jack-of-all trades before he got hurt,” said Stene, who has served as president of the Colfax Village Board in the past and who currently is serving as a supervisor on the Dunn County Board.

Stene recalled that the Al Johnson fund raiser was in 1983, but archived issues of the Colfax Messenger show that the tournament was in September of 1982.

As it turns out, the fund raiser for Al Johnson was the first fund-raising tournament at the ball park. The very first slowpitch softball tournament took place the year before in August of 1981.

“We were out here all night, roasting a pig, for Jazzy’s benefit,” Stene said.

A picture on the front page of the September 23, 1982, does indeed show a pig roasting on a spit.

“We got matching funds from (Aid Association for Lutherans or Lutheran Brotherhood). The stores donated meat. They donated everything. (The beer distributor) sold it to us for cost. We made $6,900, and they matched it, so we could buy a car for Jazzy,” Stene said.

The July 22, 1982, Messenger reported that Al Johnson was injured July 7, 1982, when he took a fall while sawing off a tree branch.

AAL Branch 4594 provided the matching funds.

“A couple of years after it got going, you guys were pointed to an electric scoreboard. It just never panned out,”  said Jeff Prince, president of the Colfax Softball Association.

“Your field needs to be nicer before you get the scoreboard, in my estimation. We got the light poles here from the high school. The school worked with us on that,” Stene said.

Tom Prince, who was a trustee on the Colfax Village Board at the time, was the guiding force in developing the ball field.

Tom Prince also served on the parks, recreation and cemetery committee both as a member of the committee and as chair of the committee.

“He guided it through the village board,” Stene said.

Tom Prince died December 6, 1991.

A ceremony on September 10, 1994, formally dedicated the Colfax softball field in memory of Tom Prince.

Draft

“Talk about the draft you used to have,” Jeff Prince said.

Clyde Prince, Jeff’s dad, recalled that the first players at what was then called the Colfax Recreation Park used a “draft” system to choose teams.

“We put everybody’s name in a hat. Each guy took a turn to draw out a name, and we did that until they were all out. You couldn’t have all of the good players on one team. Nobody would want to play. That way it evened it out,” Clyde Prince said.

“The draft was fun. You had some good players, and some weren’t so very good. But we had a good time,” he said.

“It was all about playing. We had a lot of guys that had a lot of fun. It was kind of too bad, though, because they’d get a little older, and they would quit and never come back. I suppose like anything else, you drive toward being more competitive … when you get old, you’re just happy to breathe,” Stene said with a laugh.

“I remember the draft. You’d draft it back and forth. You’d end up pretty equal. Larry (Knudson) was at the top of our team,” said Colfax resident Dave Hovre.

“We had a lot of fun. I always enjoyed it,” he said.

Pine trees

“Can you remember when we were out here cutting pine trees?” Stene asked.

The May 3, 1979, Colfax Messenger reported, “It was a mighty big bonfire that Ken Tape started Saturday, April 28, as Colfax Area Jaycees began a clean-up effort on the site of the proposed community ballpark.”

“I remember it was on a Saturday. Rick Hainstock and Roger and the ‘old man,’” said Sid Hoke, who played Little League at the ball park when he was a kid.

Planted pine trees on the site of the ball park needed to be cut down and the site cleaned up before a ball park could be built.

“We hauled a lot of wheelbarrows of dirt out here. It would rain. We’d see a low spot. We’d haul in some dirt,” Clyde Prince said.

“This field was nice. You could get an inch or two of rain, and a couple of hours later, it was dry enough to play,” he said.

“We’ve had Little League here. We’ve had girls’ softball here. We’ve had FFA. We’ve had 4-H. Men’s softball. Co-ed softball. It has really been used. Then the younger guys got going and got the second field going. The (Minnesota) Twins gave us $8,000 for that,” Stene said.

“For the backstop,” Jeff Prince said.

“Now we’ve got water on the whole thing and lights,” Stene said.

“My dad (Manley Stene) could remember walking into town from where they lived out by Norton to pitch,” he said.

“The field was here then, too, but it was pointed the other way. And then he would walk home. Isn’t it funny that many years later the ball park would be back here. Except it was planted into pines in between then. And we were out here cutting pines down. Then we got the field laid out,” Stene said.

Lights

“When we didn’t have any lights, we started out playing two games a night,” Stene said.

“Over the years, we wrote a Bremer Foundation Grant. And when you write a grant, you want to make it sound pretty good. It sounded like we maybe had 10,000 kids playing here. (Bremer has) been really good to us over the years,” he said.

“For such a small town, we have a really nice park. The guys wanted a place to play. And (Tom Prince) was on the village board. So we worked and worked to get some support from the community,” Stene said.

According to the May 14, 1979, village board proceedings published in the Colfax Messenger on May 24 under the parks, recreation and cemetery committee: It was reported that the village has purchased from Colfax High School the athletic field lights for the proposed Colfax Recreation Park.

Under the list of invoices approved by the village board for payment at the May 14 meeting was $1,593 for parks and recreation lights and poles.

At the February 11, 1980 village board meeting, “Prince (chair of the parks, recreation and cemetery committee) reported that he has obtained some information on the installation of the lights and poles at the Colfax Recreation Park ball field.  Jim’s Electric out of Menomonie had wired the lights at the high school. He also talked to a representative of N.S.P. about setting the poles.”

At June 10, 1980, village board meeting: “Chairman Prince advised the board that the cross arms and brackets have been attached to the light poles. Jim’s Electric will do the wiring for $4,990.”

The July 14, 1980, village board proceedings stated, “Chairman Prince reported that the light poles have been set.”

In the invoices approved for payment by the village board July 14 was amount of $3,999.90 to Jim’s Electric.

“I remember when they put lights in at the high school. I was sophomore,” said Clyde Prince, who is now 83.

“We dug the holes by hand (for the poles). They were 12 feet deep. The poles were 90 feet. We were down in there with a pail, hauling up dirt. If OSHA had seen that. But the whole football team was out there digging,” he said.

“Lights were a big deal,” Stene said.

“When we added the bathrooms, I was working for a place in Menomonie. We donated the fixtures,” said Sid Hoke, co-owner of H&H Plumbing in Colfax.

“There has been a myriad of businesses that have supported the field,” Stene said.

Still going

“But the really cool thing is it is still going. It has ebbed and flowed, but the object was to keep it going,” Stene said.

“We had an over-30 league, but then we couldn’t get enough guys so we dropped it down,” he said.

“As a League, we didn’t make a lot of money, but we’d always buy bases for the Little League and other small things. These guys were playing Little League when we built the field,” Stene said, referring to Jeff Prince and Sid Hoke.

“We had the deal where you weren’t supposed to slide into home. We had a line so everything was non-contact. I remember coming home that one time, and Donny Berge was there, and I tried to stop, and I started leaning over, and I couldn’t stop, and I fell on him and broke his ankle. Geez I felt bad,” Stene said.

“I’m still playing ball, but now I’m on an over-60 team. You’ve got to go through about five counties to find enough guys. We had a lot of sponsors here. The bank, both banks. The bowling alley. The Messenger. CTL. Whitetail,” Stene said.

“You see people here all the time,” Hoke said.

“The only thing that got vandalized was the pop machine,” Stan Knudson said.

“They kept dumping salt water down it,” Jeff Prince said.

“It was a good moneymaker. We’d get $600 a summer, and all we’d have to do was fill it,” Stene said.

“We had aluminum bats. Back then, you could drive metal fence posts with those bats. Now the bats don’t last a year,” Stene said.

“And they’re $300,” Jeff Prince said.

“I quit when I hit the ball out of the fence but barely made it to first base. My wife said, ‘you hit the ball, but then you stood in place to run,’” Hovre recalled with a laugh.

State tournament 

Hoke says he remembers a couple of all-night tournaments.

“And did we have the state tournament here one year? With Menomonie?” Jeff Prince said.

“Yes, we had the state tournament,” Stene said.

“I remember it was foggy that night. Somebody hit the ball up into the air, just to see where the ball was and it dropped down right next to them. Didn’t see it until it dropped,” Jeff Prince said.

“We had the state tournament. Didn’t get home until two in the morning. The one team beat the other team 32 to 31. What slug fest that was,” Stene said.

All of the men remembered “Puke” Johnson hitting the ball. Johnson died in 2010.

“He was 6’6” and weighed bout 320. From Eau Claire,” Stene said.

“It was still going up when it hit the light (at center field),” Clyde Prince said.

Stene noted that tallest pole is at center field.

“The ball was still going up (when it hit the lights). So we don’t know where it would have ended up. In the river maybe,” he said.

“The village has always been very supportive (of the ball park). And we always kept our prices reasonable because we wanted it to be used. We didn’t want it priced out of existence,” Stene said.

“The other thing I remember, Stanley here went to bar-tending classes with me. We had eight guys, maybe ten. We had to get a bartender’s license. A state cop taught four hours, and then a bar owner taught another four hours. That was kind of fun,” Stene said.

“I can’t recall that we’ve ever had to arrest anybody out here for underage drinking or for fighting or vandalism. We kind of policed ourselves. It’s a community thing,” Stene said.

“I remember the mixed couples and how we played a lot of years with mixed couples,” Sid Hoke said.

“And they still have fun. I umpire for them. A couple of teams are kind of serious about it, but they all have a good time,” Stene said.

“Tim, Rick and Jeff spent a lot of time out here taking care of the fields,” Clyde Prince recalled.

“Did it the whole time I was growing up,” Jeff Prince said.

“Stanley’s wife and my wife and Dave Hovre’s wife, Lorney Dressel’s wife. They spent a lot of time out here over the years,” Stene said.

“We always had good help,” Clyde Prince said.

The men agreed that the women were instrumental in making the games and tournaments successful since they spent so much time in the concession stand, cooking and serving food.

New teams

While Tom Prince Memorial Park has always been used — and is quite busy during the summer with Little League teams as well as slowpitch softball — this year, the park experienced a surge in usage.

All together, 21 teams played Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, Jeff Prince said.

The Bushwhacker Tournament included 22 teams this year — 11 mixed couples and 11 men’s teams.

The group of men noted that Fall Creek no longer has a league. Elk Point Resort also no longer has a league, and a bar west of Menomonie no longer has a league.

“That’s why they came over here. A couple of teams went to New Richmond, but their players lived closer there,” Jeff Prince said.

As Stene noted earlier, he is still playing softball.

“The age group stuff I’m involved with is fun. They’re guys your own age, and they can’t run or throw either. We can all still hit pretty good,” Stene said with a laugh.

“I used to think I couldn’t wait to get on the over 30 league. I finally got on the over 30, then I didn’t play anymore,” said Sid Hoke, who noted that the day the men got together to talk about Tom Prince Memorial Park was his 47th birthday.

The other older men thought they would not mind being 47 again.

“Dave can remember this, and Stan will, and Clyde. We had a fast-pitch team. We played at the high school in the 1950s,” Stene said.

The men recalled that Curt Knutson had a Figure-8 pitch, and that Lloyd Hainstock, who served as the Colfax fire chief for a number of years, also played softball.

Stene recalled that the softballs used to be made of cork, and that after while, they would turn “soft.”

One such mushy softball ended up breaking out a car window when one of the team members took a mighty swing at the ball — and hit it into his own car window.

The ball field “really has been a good investment all the way around,” Stene said.

“It’s nice to see people using it,” Hoke said. “It’s nice to see younger people using it and taking over.”

“Because I’m still playing ball, I get around a little bit, and this is remarkable,” Stene said.

“At Casper Park in Chippewa Falls, that was donated by the Leinenkugel family — it’s  a beautiful park. Four 300-foot fields. A big soccer complex. A nice baseball field. And they don’t have one slowpitch league over there. They have one modified league. Menomonie has that nice 300-foot fence and two small fields, and not a slowpitch league there,” Stene said.

The group of men agreed that the hard work of all of the people involved over the years to build Tom Prince Memorial Park has paid off handsomely.