Rod Bernu

There wasn’t much for people to cheer about in small Minnesota towns in the 1930s. New York Mills, with a population of some 600 people located in Otter Tail County on US Highway 10 between Wadena and Perham, was among them.

After the end of the first World War in 1918, where 26,000 American volunteers gave up their lives fighting for French freedom, returning veterans encountered hard times. The turbulent 1920s, and the stock market crash of 1929, left families in cities and rural areas bleeding in economic depression. Work was hard to find and seasonal at best. Our family, and many others like us, put aside our feelings of pride and shame as we looked forward to the “Relief Train” that came through town every thirty days delivering gunny sacks of fresh oranges, grapefruit, bananas, canned goods and potatoes for distribution among the needy.

When Frankling Delano Roosevelt became president, there was a new hope “blowin’ in the wind” that conditions would improve as he pushed through public programs like WPA (Works Progress Administration, employing 8.5 million people from 1935-43) and the CCC camps (Civilian Conservation Corps). WPA hired men to work on public projects by extending and installing town municipal water and sewer lines, improving streets and highways, building bridges, drainage, and erosion ditches, by providing overall land management.

By the end of 1930, New York Mills had constructed a modern two-story city hall on the site of the old livery barn that had burned to the ground. This was done through Federal government assistance programs, as was also the new concrete main highway running halfway to Perham, Minnesota. Yes, the town had come to life. Kela and Vaughn Motors even sold a few new Ford and Chevrolet automobiles.

As living conditions improved, the town became more energized, and free from its doldrums. Special holidays like the Independence Day, 4th of July celebration, gave the farmers and town people a chance to intermingle and get their minds off their problems by enjoying the festivities. The town restaurants set up tents to serve food and refreshments on Main Street, and of course, there was the Ferris-Wheel, Merry-go-Round, Miller’s baseball game, WWI Veteran’s town band, and fireworks as a finale.

The news traveled fast. A mysterious celebrity, who was touring the state promoting the International Shoe Company’s products, was scheduled to stop in our small town. Shortly, we learned that the visitor was none other than the publicized Alton, Illinois giant, Robert Wadlow, the 20-year old 8-foot 11-inch tallest man in the world. He weighed 439 pounds, had an 18 1/2-inch foot, and a 37AA size shoe that cost as much as $100.00 a pair. He was born on February 22, 1918 and, as we learned later, passed away from an incurable foot infection on July 15, 1940 at the young age of twenty-two.

The excitement was building, as the mayor and his welcoming committee roped off the town’s one-block main street to receive the visitors. As a young eight-year old lad, my friends and I were running through the crowd enjoying the commotion when someone shouted, “Here they come, here they come.”

The town band started playing and everyone was clapping and cheering as two black cars slowly entered Main Street and parked in front of the Farmers and Merchants Bank. The driver of the lead car, dressed in a black tuxedo, exited and assisted the giant visitor as he rose to the sidewalk. Mayor John Mark stepped forward and made a short welcoming speech about what an honor it was to have the world’s tallest man visit his community; and presented him with a “token” key to the town.

It was rumored that Robert Wadlow had an IQ of 135. He graciously and humbly bowed as he acknowledged the reception and said, “It gives me great pleasure to visit your fine community. I thank you for your warm welcome because it gives me hope. Hope, because as I travel around on my tour, I see a bright future for our great nation. I see a new day dawning, filled with progress from public works programs and growth in the private sector that will put more people to work. I predict that prosperity will soon permeate our nation’s societies, both city and country, as we approach the next decade in our history.”

When he finished his speech, he saluted the applauding crowd and said, “God bless you all.” In parting, he bent down, smothered Mayor Mark with a shoulder hug, and slowly retreated to the quiet solitude of his refurbished custom-fit Dodge sedan.

The Veteran’s band played “America the Beautiful” as its farewell song to Robert Wadlow, the International Shoe Company’s giant who left a life-changing experience of hope and prosperity “blowin’ in the wind” for that little eight-year-old boy and the people of New York Mills, Minnesota.

Author’s Note: This author adopted the lyrics “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a Bob Dylan song.