By Rodney Bernu

Special tot he Dispatch

New York Mills, a small town located in central Minnesota with a population of some 650-people had ballooned to eight hundred or more for the 1936 Fourth of July celebration. The town’s main highway and streets were lined with horses and buggies, Model A Fords, and shiny new Chevrolets. At the end of the one-block main street, the Ferris Wheel, Merry-Go-Round, and Chair-O-Plane bustled with excited children waiting in line to capture a ride.

The town baseball team had just defeated Verndale, one of its neighboring baseball rivals, in a close ball game. The town band, led by its majorette and WWI veterans, marched from the baseball field to the central park playing the Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and other patriotic songs to entertain the excited public. Both teams and their fans congregated at the decorated sidewalk tents, eating hamburgers and brats, drinking beer, sharing stories, and enjoying the festive atmosphere. And the band played on.

Our family, cousins, and friends had settled with blankets under a shade tree on the edge of the town park for a picnic in celebration of the occasion. Suddenly, Mother asked, “Where’s Joyce?” Caught up in the jubilation she had  lost track of her 3 1/2-year old daughter Joyce. Her neighbor said, “The last time I noticed her she was holding hands with my 5-year-old son, Marvin. They were waving their stars and stripes stick flags at the homeless vagrants riding on top of the railroad cattle cars as the train rambled through town.” And the band played on.

Suddenly, the celebration turned into hysteria. The kidnapping of Charles Lindberg Jr., a few years earlier on March 1, 1932, with connections to Little Falls, Minnesota, some sixty miles away from our town, was still fresh in the minds of most Minnesotans.

Everyone spread out to search for them around the busy town streets, taverns, circus tents, railroad tracks, and local hobo jungle. Bill Gilso, the town constable, cautioned the panic-stricken celebrants to keep civil order so that he could conduct a thorough step-by-step investigation in the matter.

Marvin’s older brother Wesley had been ill with the flu, so he had bypassed the celebration and stayed home to rest. He rode his bicycle to the park and was astounded by the frantic activity. “What the heck is going on?” he asked. “Haven’t you heard?” Wesley’s mother sobbed, “Your brother and Joyce have been kidnapped!” Wesley said, “What are you talking about Mom, I just left them!” “Where?” she asked. “That’s why I’m here. Joyce told Marvin that she was feeling sick, so he took her to see the litter of our new baby puppies to cheer her up. Since it’s a half mile to our house from here, when Grandmother saw them, she panicked. She got me up from the couch and sent me to let everyone know that they are safe and well.”

Panic turned to jubilation in New York Mills on that 1936 Independence Day. And the band played on.