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A gal named Alice

By Lowell Hunt, 93, of Detroit Lakes

Alice Bertemes was a grain elevator manager in Taunton, Minn., for many years. She started out as a bookkeeper and then became the manager. She retired on Jan. 31, 1979, after about 40 years in the grain elevator business, and was a very successful manager.

Here is how I got acquainted with Alice... I was a warehouse examiner for the USDA. We were like bank examiners except we kept track of government-owned grain being stored at grain elevators as well as grain owned by producers that was being stored at these elevators. Our job was to visit the elevators and take a measured inventory of all grains being stored at the facility, and make sure there was a list of all of it. We also checked the quality and compared our findings according to the elevator records and their obligation to the government and producers (farmers).

Taunton Co-op Elevator was in my “territory.” It was my day to examine and do inventory there. I was raised in rural Canby, Minn., and I had heard about Alice on a few occasions. Some of my high school classmates had mentioned the fact that there was a lady elevator manager in Taunton and their parents sold and stored their grain there.

I had been a warehouse examiner for six years by that time. I was finally going to meet this lady called Alice. I got there early, went into her office, introduced myself, and told her what I was doing there. She said “Hello. So you’re one of those government guys?” and I said, “Yes.”

We visited a little while and I mentioned the fact that several of my high school classmates did business there, and were in fact members of the co-op. Well that broke the ice. She called Greg, her grain manager, to give me the contents of the bins so I could start the measuring process. I got to work. I thought “I like this old gal.”

I proceeded with my measuring and then it was time to do the calculating. I needed a desk to work at and she had that all ready. I got out my calculator and plugged it in. It was about 11:30 a.m., and Alice said,

“Do you eat lunch?” asked Alice.

“Yes,” I said, thinking we might go over to the Corner Cafe, have lunch together and get better acquainted. But she said, “I go home for lunch and check on my cat, but they serve a hell of a lunch over there. That guy they call Franz is the owner and he does a good job.”

So I went over to the cafe. It was Friday. Well, on Friday the Corner Cafe in Taunton served oyster stew. I like oyster stew, but I’d never had it for lunch. In fact, the only time I’d had oyster stew was on special occasions like Christmas, New Years, and holidays like that. It was delicious. It had butter floating on top and fresh little oyster crackers. It was the first of many oyster stew lunches at the Taunton Corner Cafe. I got back to the elevator, finished my examination, measurements came out and the gram quality was good, and so was my visit to the Taunton Co-op elevator to meet Alice. Over the next five years I completed this process at least once or twice a year. I really got to know Alice.

Time went on and with my job I got to travel more, to places like Montana, where the government had a big problem with a certain grain company with shortages that needed special inspections. I was sent there a few times and I finally got it solved... but it only led to more travel and being away from home more than I wanted to be.

I had 12 years on the government job, but didn’t see an end to the traveling problem, and I was thinking about doing something else.

A good friend of mine, Jim, was on the board of the Taunton Co-op elevator. One Saturday in the summer of 1978, I bumped into Jim and his wife at a park function in Canby.

Jim knew that I knew a lot of elevator managers so he asked me to look for a manager for the Taunton Co-op Elevator, because Alice had announced that she wanted to retire on Jan. 31, 1979. So I said I would keep my eyes peeled and try to send someone their way.

It wasn’t too long and I found a young elevator manager who was interested. They interviewed him, but his wife didn’t want to move so he turned down the job. Then another man, and another one, but no one took the job.

It got to be October of 1978 and I had just been on one of my trips to Montana. I had enough of it. When I got home, I called Jim. I said, “I found a candidate for the manager job in Taunton.” He said “Who is he? Where is he from?” I said, “Me!” He said, “You mean to tell me you are going to leave that good government job to manage a grain elevator?” I said “If you will have me.”

We met and they agreed to hire me starting on Feb. 1, 1979. I went home and called my superior at my government job and told him my intentions. He wanted me to bring my equipment, calculator, tape measure, and to explain how it all works when a person resigns from a government job. So I did that between Christmas and New Years in 1978 and started my new job on Feb. 1, 1979.

Now, I was very confident in dealing with people, the bookkeeping and negotiations, but I was a little nervous about the marketing part. I asked Alice if she would train me on that part. She said she would spend as much time with me as she could. She told me I shouldn’t even worry about it.

Here’s what happened to that grand plan. I reported at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, and Alice came in about 10 a.m. to begin the personal seminar on marketing. We spent a few hours on the basics and then she came in again on Wednesday. We once again spent most of the day on marketing. We closed the elevator and went home.

At about 10:30 p.m., I got a call that Alice had a heart attack and was in the Canby Hospital. I got dressed and went to the hospital. Her sister, nephew and niece were all there. The hospital had her on oxygen, but she was alert and told us her old ticker almost quit ticking!

I thought that school was out on the marketing, but no...

“You come here after work tomorrow and tell me what happened and we will discuss it,” she said. I said “Maybe we should wait a few days.” She said “No, I’ll be fine.”

So my marketing classes got moved to the foot of Alice’s hospital bed. I would go see her before work in the morning and after work at night. She taught me more than marketing from the foot of that bed. She told me how to deal with certain customers, the stockholders, and customers of the Taunton Co-op Elevator.

I spent the next seven years there, met some of the finest people in the world and supported a complete stranger that wanted to manage an elevator. It’s been 27 years since I left and I will cherish those seven years -- terrible years, good years, dry years, wet years -- but mostly good years.

On Dec. 27, 1994, I was honored to be a casket bearer for Alice’s funeral.

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