Kerkhoven man, pushing 90, has been loading and hauling livestock for 75 years
He may not be a farmer, but for the past 75 years he’s rounded up, loaded and hauled more hogs, cattle and sheep than your average Joe. And today, at age 89, Walden Nelson of Kerkhoven is still on the job. It may be more on a part-time basis, but only because the hauling of livestock has slowed down, not because he’s almost 90 and thinking he needs to retire.
Since he started trucking he’s been in numerous situations, some humorous, some that could have turned bad, some that were just enjoyable, and some that can’t be included in this article since it’s a family newspaper. Those are stories you’re going to have to ask him about.
One of the stories he told happened in the stockyards in South St. Paul one night when he went to get into his semi and go home. “I came to get into my truck, and there was a guy standing there, and he said “I want your billfold, give me your billfold.” “Just a minute,” I said, “I’ve got to reach in the cab and get the billfold.” Instead of getting the billfold I got a crowbar and a shocker, and I said I’ve got my billfold right here you so and so, and I was ready to swing at him and away he went. I never did see anymore of him. I guess he got scared.”
Loading the livestock is a lot of work, Nelson said, not to mention dirty and tiring, plus sometimes the cattle didn’t want to cooperate. He said they’d load the cattle on the farm sites, then bring them to the yard and load them onto the semis.
Of course, the weather factor is something else they have to deal with, especially during the winter months. One night about 10 p.m., Nelson was going down with a load in 33 below zero temperatures. He got west of Kandiyohi, and the truck started missing and finally stopped. “I had a big fur coat on, and I walked a mile into Kandiyohi. It was really cold.” He said the Log Cabin Café was closed, but there was a light on, and he was able to get them to open the door so he could use the phone. He was able to get another truck hooked onto the load and got as far as Litchfield before that one stopped as well. An outfit in Benson had to come give him a pull. He got to South St. Paul and got unloaded.
They didn’t have diesel back in those years, Nelson said, everything was gas. “The first diesel we had was in 1968.” Eventually, he said, they did switch over to some diesel trucks.
Usually when they spent the night in South St. Paul they’d stay at the Shipper’s Club, which was a restaurant and a place where the truckers could shower and sleep. Nelson and Herman Johnson got there about 3 a.m. one morning, unloaded and cleaned the truck out, had a bite to eat and headed for bed. Usually they slept in a room where someone would wake them up, but this time Johnson wanted to stay in the no-call room since it was nicer.
Nelson wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. He was afraid they wouldn’t wake up in time to pick up the freight they were hauling back. “He said he would wake up….it seemed like a little while and someone come and shook me and said ‘are you guys gonna sleep all day?’” It was 1:30 in the afternoon. They jumped out of bed, had a quick cup of coffee, got the freight picked up and were in Montrose by 7 p.m., which is where they always stopped at Red’s Café for a meal. They have a book there with pictures of all the trucks and truckers. Nelson knows everyone in the book.
Nelson also experienced what it was like to take a load down after the Armistice storm. Nelson wasn’t quite old enough to drive, but he went along anyway. “The roads were just terrible, and we were picking up (livestock) all over. They had two semi loads of sheep, and two straight jobs filled with hogs and some steers. The one straight job didn’t have a roof on, but the other driver didn’t think that would be a problem. He said the hogs wouldn’t fight and jump over. Nelson said they got as far as Litchfield, and it was pretty much a one-way road; the snow banks were as high as the ceiling in his house. Nelson was riding with his boss, Sam Nyquist. They glanced over and saw a hog on the other truck had his feet hanging over the top. The hog got back down, but when they were between Darwin and Dassel, it jumped right over the box of the truck onto the pavement. The fall killed the hog, but they had to pick the hog up and take it with them to the cities for insurance purposes.
Before they could get the dead hog loaded, two boys from Dassel came driving a 1936 Chevy, hit the dead hog and down in the ditch they went. “The snow flew. There was about 20 feet of snow in the ditch. The boys, who were stuck in the snowdrift, came walking up and asked if they had hit a hog.” Nelson told him they had, and their insurance would take care of whatever damage there was to their car.
When they got to Montrose, the other driver was sitting there eating supper, wondering what happened to them. He didn’t realize the hog had jumped out of his truck. “I told you that, but you didn’t listen,” Nelson said he told him.
The NFO Strike
The NFO (National Farmers Organization) was another experience for Nelson. He said the NFO people would stop the truckers; they’d even put nails on the roadway. “They were mean. They were tough. They’d come down to the barn and not want us to load.” The trucks would end up going down in convoys, he said, and the highway patrol would watch the truckers.
Nelson said he wasn’t 100 percent against the NFO, he was for them in a way. “What I didn’t like about them was they went after the trucks after they were out on the highway. They should have kept them home in the yard.” He said they flattened a tire or two on his truck when it was parked.
At one point, Nelson said, they were loading livestock at a farm, when he looked up and a highway cop was standing there. “He (the officer) said he was there to help and would stay until we got loaded.” When the drivers left, Nelson said, the cop was right behind them. They hadn’t been gone 10 minutes before a car with six men pulled up. Nelson’s straight job with the chute behind it was sitting there in plain sight. “They asked if we’d been loading cattle. I said ‘what does it look like?’ He said ‘we know you have but you’ll never get out of here with them.’ I said ‘they’re long gone.’”
The driver called Nelson to let him know they had made it down to South St. Paul and had unloaded. About 8 p.m. that night Nelson’s phone rang and a man told him they had his truck stopped at Dassel, and they were letting the cattle out. “I said, ‘the truck is in South St. Paul, and he’s unloaded because he called me.’” They hung up without another word, he said.
Nelson has hauled feeder cattle out of a lot of areas, one of which was Belle Fourche, S.D., north of Rapid City on the Wyoming border. That was a tough grind, he said, because he had just come home from the Cities and hadn’t yet been to bed.
Another time his dad went along to South St. Paul to help Nelson stay awake. On the return trip on the curve in Litchfield he hit the west side of the sidewalk with the truck. “My dad hollered ‘wake up, you’re heading for the motel,’ and I slammed on the brakes, or I would have hit the motel. I was fast asleep.”
Another time a girl in Litchfield rode down with him and back just to talk to him and keep him awake. “I was so tired and had not been to bed for a night or two.”
Three Saturday nights in a row he went to Sisseton with feeder lambs. “We hauled about 300 to a load and that was quite a deal too. We got out there, and the whole barn was full of sheep.” There was no one there, he said, but he knew he’d find the workers-in the liquor store and that’s where they were. They came back and helped him sort and load those feeder lambs.
On the way home, when he was halfway to Browns Valley, a car with its lights on was stopped up the road. “I blew the air horn on the semi. The Indians were having a party on the highway. They were having a ball. I blew the horn, and they scattered like a bunch of birds onto the side of the road.”
In 1943 there was a glut of hogs at South St. Paul. “They had so many hogs coming in they just didn’t know what to do with them, 30,000 a day or more.” There was truckload after truckload of hogs coming in, and one time Nelson got to South St. Paul about 2:30 one morning, and it was 4:30 that afternoon before he got to the hog chutes to unload. Nelson was told they were going to put an embargo on hogs and he should bring in cattle and sheep instead.
One farmer opted to keep his hogs at home until they wanted hogs again. “He kept them until harvest time, and then shipped them. We loaded the 40 hogs….they weighed 674 pounds, average, the biggest butcher hogs they’d ever had.”
Of course when you’re a trucker you have to improvise, and that’s what happened when Martin Grove and Nelson went down with a load of cattle. It was bad weather with rain and heavy wind, making driving slow and difficult.
“When we got to Litchfield the water was so deep we couldn’t park on the south side, we had to go behind the station where it was level. They got in that next morning about 6 a.m., unloaded, picked up freight to haul back when Grove said he had forgotten his daughter was graduating that night and he had to be there. He called his wife who brought clean clothes to Hank’s Station where he was able to wash and change so he could make it to the graduation.
Another experience was picking up twine at the prison in Stillwater. Nelson said he loaded both inside and outside, and the trailer gate had to be open and a guard rode in the back. “There were some tough-looking characters, and the guards were right there.”
One of the most unusual animals Nelson has hauled are buffalo about five years ago from John Arndt’s buffalo ranch near Willmar. “I hauled six of them wild devils, and they’re dangerous.”
Another interesting incident happened in Dassel when he was hauling a piano back from the Cities. Nelson had a young man along who claimed he could play piano, so they stopped on the main street, went in the back of the semi and he played the piano. “A cop stopped, pulled up behind us and said ‘what in the world is going on here.’ I said, we got a new piano we’re bringing home, and this kid can play piano, and he wanted to try it out to see how it works.” The cop told Nelson he’d been on the force for many years but he had never seen anybody playing a piano in a semi before. He told them to have a good time and left.
Nelson started trucking back in 1938 when he was 14 years old. His uncle, Sam Nyquist, bought a new truck that year and started hauling livestock. “I wasn’t quite old enough to drive, but I was with him and helped him pick up the livestock, and of course, we also farmed a lot of land at that time too.”
He trucked with Nyquist for 35 years, hauling not only cattle, but grain and gasoline as well. They had seven semis and five additional drivers. “We hauled cattle out of here to South St. Paul, and we hauled cattle out of Fargo to Norfolk, Neb. We also hauled a lot of feeder cattle out of Montana and North and South Dakota and sometimes from Fargo into southern Minnesota.”
Nelson worked for Marvin Timmons for nine years when he was hauling livestock. “I did a lot of his livestock picking up plus some over- the-road driving besides. Then I drove for the Farmers Elevator in Kerkhoven for eight years hauling grain and feed to Dawson, and the Cities.”
In 1973, the livestock business was sold to Donny Larson, and Nelson worked for him until 1976. Nelson had kept his grain trailers and hauled grain besides working for him. Larson sold out to B Winters Trucking, and Nelson worked for Winters until Winters sold out to Kolling. Nelson then worked for Kolling until he sold out to Marvin Timmons and Eldon Duskin. Nelson then worked for Timmons until he quit the livestock hauling eight to nine years later.
Jim Johnson took over the livestock after Timmons quit. Nelson helped him as well. Then Johnson’s father had it for a while, and once he quit, Nelson took over and is still working in the business. “We were busier back then. There ain’t much livestock left in the country anymore, except for the big guys, but I’m still hauling livestock, whatever comes up. I drive and Rick Kidrowski helps load and drive.”
Nelson does have a commercial driver’s license, which he renews every four years. He also has a health card for driving. He keeps his commercial rig in the shed he once owned but which is now owned by Joel Johnson.
Kidrowski said he first met Nelson in the ‘70s. “He needed someone to help him drive because he had two rigs at one time, and I said I’d do it.” Now it’s just part time, he said, and more something to do since he’s retired. “Walden has told me some interesting stories.”
Nelson said they lived on a farm when he was trucking, and as a youngster, he used to walk to school, and by the time they got to school their lunch, which they carried in a gallon pail, was frozen solid.
Nelson chuckled and started telling more stories, smiling at the memories as he told one after the other – memories that will always be a part of him, memories he can take out and treasure over and over, memories he’s willing to share with anyone who wants to listen.