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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — When asked by a family member what it felt like to turn 104, Melvina Solberg Evenson reportedly replied, “No different than yesterday when I was 103.”
Evenson celebrated her 104th birthday on Friday, August 7.
At the time of her birthday, Evenson still lived by herself in the apartment in Colfax where she has resided for more than 60 years, although the general news of the day was that she planned to move to Menomonie soon to live with her granddaughter.
Melvina still walks to the post office, too, down the block to Main Street, where sometimes traffic stops for her and sometimes she has to wait for traffic before she can proceed to the post office.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a birthday party indoors would not have been a good idea, so Colfax residents Troy and Michelle Knutson arranged for a “birthday party parade” for Evenson.
Friends and family gathered in their vehicles on West Railroad Avenue, and at 11 a.m., with Colfax Police Chief William Anderson in the lead with lights and siren, followed by two Dunn County Sheriff’s Department squads with activated lights and one of the Colfax ambulances with lights flashing, the parade proceeded to West Street and turned down West River Street.
The Knutsons had arranged for Evenson to be seated under the awning of the building next door, with balloons, a basket to hold birthday cards, a sign proclaiming “Happy Birthday,” and four chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting and gold numbers stating “104.”
Although it had rained earlier Friday morning, by the time of Melvina’s parade, it was still cloudy, but the rain was only a soft mist
Everyone was so caught up in the moment that no one thought to count the cars in the parade, but Melvina’s birthday parade stretched the entire length of West River Street out to Main Street — several times over.
The parade included newer vehicles, but there were a number of classic cars and pickup trucks in the parade as well.
With their windows rolled down, people called out “Happy Birthday!” — and while some stopped their vehicles to get out and bring a card for Melvina, others motioned to Troy Knutson, who would jog across the street to accept the card and put it in the basket.
Many residents in the Colfax area will remember Melvina Solberg Evenson for the Solberg’s Ready-to-Wear clothing store in the brick building on the corner of West River and Main Street.
During the summer of 2008, at the time of the commemoration for the 50th anniversary of the June 4, 1958, Colfax tornado, the Colfax Messenger interviewed Melvina.
Here is the story that was published in August of 2008.
At the time of the June 4, 1958, tornado, Melvina Solberg and her husband, Arnold, were operating Solberg’s clothing store on Main Street. Melvina preferred not to say much about taking clothing from the store after the tornado and distributing it to those in need. She was, however, willing to share the story of how Solberg’s started.
Here is Melvina’s story:
We weren’t in the tornado. We really didn’t have any damage from the tornado. We were not part of all that.
We had just eaten supper. I had the store at that time, and I was always so busy with everything there. I could see that it was really storming. The weather was so humid. So I went all the way to the window (overlooking River Street) to take a look to see what it looked like out there.
I thought that maybe we should go to the basement. But the wind. We didn’t have a garage at that time, so our car was parked in the front. The wind took the car and moved it. Then it slid back again. That’s all that happened as far as the tornado was concerned.
The other thing that happened was the sign over the side door — it broke down. But that’s all that happened. That was it. We were spared so completely. But when I got out of the house and walked up Main Street, I could already see that it was not good all over.
Some of the Fjelsteds, I think it was, came to stay at our place. Their place was completely gone. And the only other thing I could do was to help out where I could, getting some merchandise to people who needed it. Otherwise we were spared the whole thing.
I went over to my mother-in-law’s. Their house was really messed up. So they came here for a while and caught their breath. But they were able to go back and stay in their house. And then I took some clothing from the store to give to people who really needed it.
We started that store without any money. It was really a rough time. By that time (of the tornado) we were doing all right. It was a struggle and a half, though, to pay for everything and keep the merchandise in stock.
In the beginning
Arnold was working at Gillette’s and we were living on Highway 29 in a little house that we bought for $300. It wasn’t much of a house. A little tarpaper shack that was 22 x 22. The windows were all boarded up. But it was three acres right on the creek there just on the east side of the Pine Grove Store. We hired Ole Kravik to sheetrock the living room and the kitchen. There was a kitchen, a bedroom and a living room. We took some space off the living room big enough to put in a bathroom.
Arnold said he would tape the joints when he came home from work. One day when he came home something was wrong with the car so he had to go someplace for that and then after that it was something else and then something else.
After a while, I said, “It looks to me like if we are ever going to get those joints taped, probably I should do it.” I had the two little boys at the time. So we bought the joint cement. You got it in a bag where you had to mix it yourself. I got a new trowel and a little paddle.
And so I started to see if I couldn’t do something with those joints. I got along really very well. The neighbors came over and they said, “Oh, you did such a good job. Will you come over and help us?” They said the carpenters had done theirs and they had been sanding and sanding and couldn’t get it nice at all. So I went over there.
Pretty soon the job that Arnold had, being a guard, they didn’t need those anymore. He would have to do hard labor. But his heart condition was such that he just couldn’t do it. So he was out of a job. Someone from the state came out to say he would need to learn a new trade and that the state would help him to learn something new.
The easiest trade to get into would be a shoe repairman. He could go to Eau Claire and work with the shoe repair guy to learn the trade. He said he couldn’t do it every day because he would have to do some painting so we could at least eat, so he went two or three days a week. It took him longer that way.
When he got through with the training, he had to start fixing shoes.
The shop next door here was available. Dave Braaten owned it, and he was fixing shoes, but he never had any training. He did the best he could. Arnold had the training, so he could do it pretty well.
We sold the house for $4,250 that we bought for $300. By that time we’d fixed it up and put the bathroom in and also had put a basement under it. We put an oil-burning furnace in the basement. It was considerably nicer than when we bought it.
We took $2,500 of it and bought the shoe shop. All day on the Fourth of July, we worked to clean it up so we would be ready to open up on Monday. From the fifth of July until the end of the year, we had taken in $1,900. We had to buy our leathers and other material to work with.
We knew very well that we would never be able to do very much financially in that kind of business.
Arnold trained two people (in shoe repair), and I went out full time and took on whole houses and textured the whole house, in Bloomer and Chippewa and Elk Mound, all over the place. Two whole winters I went through the whole winter. I did a whole bunch of ceilings.
One lady wanted the swirls in her ceiling. So I had to learn how to do that. Arnold made something for it. He fixed a thing with a sponge over the edge, and it worked really good for making swirls.
You had to have two stepladders and an extension plank so you could start at one end and go right straight through. I did a lot of those swirl ceilings. You’d paint over it first and then mark it. This one lady wanted deep marks. That meant you had to put on more paint.
Shoe repair lady
After we opened up (the shoe shop), in the spring, Arnold got rheumatic fever. We took him to the hospital, but we told them he can’t stay long because we don’t have any insurance.
They found out he had rheumatic fever, and they said he had to be in bed for three months. So I got to be the shoe repair lady. I didn’t know beans about fixing shoes. All I could do was sew up the rips. And that was so simple. You used some glue first and glued them down and then you could stitch it.
Arnold went to his mother’s on the south side of Colfax. Ronald went to Jake Dahl’s. Ross, my other son, went to Louis Solberg’s. And I was fixing shoes. I didn’t know anything except how to sew them up.
I got so I could half-sole shoes. I even half-soled a ladies dress shoe. I read in a book how to run the stitches so I could stitch. I could manage most of everything. Except some of those old workshoes you had to nail to the insole.
I was no good at nailing. But Arnold’s father could do that. So when he was through with the mail route, he would stop and nail up those shoes. We managed to keep the shoe shop going.
We had $900 left out of our money (from selling the house) that we didn’t touch because I was able to go out and do some taping for different people. We decided we would buy $900 worth of shoes to put in with the shoe repair.
We could buy the shoes from the International Shoe Company. You could buy for men, women, for everybody from the same company, which was really very nice.
Except we bought the wrong shoes because the Farmers’ Store had International shoes. They had different names, but they were the same shoes.
And as soon as the Farmers’ Store found out we had a little bit of shoes, they cut their prices right to the bottom.
There we were. We spent our $900 and had the wrong shoes. Now what were we going to do.
Pretty soon the Red Wing salesman came along, and he said, “Well, just fill in. When you sell a pair of these workshoes, fill in with a pair of Red Wings. You can just order one pair.” So we started with Red Wing.
Then we added some Ballband footwear. Then we got into B.F. Goodrich for tennis shoes because tennis shoes were starting to be a good seller. Then we got Glovettes for women. Then came a guy from Williams Shoe Company, and we could buy about a thousand pair, and he would give us three months to pay for them.
We stuck our necks out really big and did that. They were reasonable shoes, nice-looking. But then our place was way too small. There was no way we could handle that many shoes.
Move to Main Street
We found out we could borrow a thousand dollars from Arnold’s father. We were going to build onto the shoe shop and build an upstairs on it so we could live upstairs and have the shop downstairs.
Dave Sundby lived right here (in the place where Melvina lives on River Street). He said, “Absolutely not. I do not want you to put a big, high building right alongside this one. Move up to Main Street.”
We said we can’t possibly move up to Main Street and pay Main Street rent. And he said, “I own the building up there, and I’ll make the rent so reasonable that you can’t resist.” We moved up to Main Street. We were able to sell (the shoe shop) for $2,500 to help us along.
But when we got our stuff up there to Main Street, it looked like nothing because it was such a big space. A guy came along from the Cities. He had a cargo wagon, and he hauled all kinds of stuff. You could buy two things or three things. You had to pay a little more. But you didn’t have to buy so many things.
We got some kids’ outfits and some other things. You had to pay for it right away so you knew how much you could buy.
It seems like it took a long time, but finally we got the store on Main Street filled up. Now we had shoes and clothes. And we started going to Minneapolis to see his brother. Then we’d leave the car there and get on the streetcar to go downtown to shop at the clothing places. Sometimes Arnold would go along and sometimes I had to go alone.
One time when we went, I said to Arnold, “You know, we can drive downtown. The streetcar follows the highway all the way down. That’s all there is to it.” He said, “If we’re going down there, you’re going to drive.” And I said, “I’ll drive.” Then we could pick up some stuff.
We could stop at St. Paul and pick up the Glovettes and we could stop and pick up all kinds of things. We come home with our car full of stuff. We could save some freight that way. Freight was nothing like it is now, but it was an expense item, anyway.
In 1962, Arnold passed away. By that time, we had gotten the store going pretty well. We started in 1949.
I was the buyer. I worked steady in the store. I did all the cleaning. I did all the advertising and all the bookwork.
It was so easy to buy more than you were comfortable paying for. When I finally got to the point where I wanted to retire, by that time, we had the upstairs full and the basement full.
There was a basement under the whole building. But it was so divided with great big cement walls this thick (Melvina held her hands about two feet apart), because the building had been built onto time and time again.
In order to make any sense out of the basement, we had to take this one big wall out of there. We started knocking down the wall. I helped all along. I helped carry up all that rock. We fixed the floor and put in tile. We had the whole basement full and the upstairs.
We closed out completely in 1983. So many times people would say, “I got this at your store.” They’d show me what they had gotten. Even yet they sometimes do that. So many were sad to see that I closed up. Then the Clothesline took over and they did a good job, too. But it just got harder and harder, the way things are.
Arnold died in ’62. I married Art (Evenson) in ’72. We bought this building then. I never dreamed that I would own a store. I never thought of it. God has really blessed me to be able to fit into any situation.