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Marshall man looks back on telegraph days

Merlyn Cadwell understands the way texters send abbreviated messages such as “lol” and “omg” because he was performing a similar task many years before that.

Merlyn Cadwell holds a telegraph, a tool he used for 40 years.  Photo by Scott Thoma

Merlyn Cadwell holds a telegraph, a tool he used for 40 years. Photo by Scott Thoma

“We were one of the first texters,” said the 93-year-old resident of Hill Street Place. As Cadwell sat in his easy chair, a telegraph machine that he once used in his job on the railroad for over 40 years sat firmly in his lap.

“I still remember how to use it,” he said, before proceeding to tap the telegraph in rapid-fire fashion while revealing the mock messages he was sending out. “You never forget.”

Cadwell has four telegraph machines in his possession. The first two he was given for nothing after companies modernized.

“The other two I have I had to buy because the companies figured out that they are antique and worth money,” he said.

When asked to give a few examples of his antiquated texting talent, Cadwell was more than happy to test his memory.

“We abbreviated a lot of words like the texters do now,” he remarked. “For instance, if someone sent us a message and we couldn’t answer them back right away, we would send ‘min’ which meant we would be back in a minute or ‘cmg’ for coming or ‘gg’ for going.”

Cadwell grew up in Russell where his father raised popcorn. He graduated in 1941 in a class with only four other boys and 15 girls. He was the leading scorer on his basketball team.

“But the scores were often something like 10-8,” he said, downplaying his achievement. “I also played football and baseball.”

Cadwell actually looks like he could still play sports despite his advanced age. When he wanted to look for something in his bedroom closet, he bounded off his chair and walked briskly down the hall as if he were stealing second base.

“I’ve been blessed,” said Cadwell, who at 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds is the same size he was as a senior in high school. “I can see and hear pretty well. I don’t use a walker or anything. I don’t take any pills. And I still drive. But I do have to wear glasses to drive.”

Cadwell then peeked around his bedroom door.

“I still make my bed every morning, but I wanted to make sure it was made before I told you that,” he said, with a wry smile crossing his face.

Cadwell didn’t go to college after graduating from high school because he felt most college graduates of that era went on to become teachers.

“And I didn’t want to be a teacher,” he noted.

Cadwell was drafted into the military but was rejected because of an ear problem. So he took off for California to build airplanes.

While there, he was drafted again so he came back to Minnesota.

“But I was turned down again,” he said, rolling his eyes.

So he found employment with the railroad in Iowa in 1943. He was hired to be a telegrapher with the Great Northern Railway, which would later become Burlington Northern.

“I always had a love for the telegraph when I was in high school,” said Cadwell. “I taught myself how to use it. I really enjoyed my job most of the time because you could work alone at your pace.”

But his job wasn’t always pleasurable.

“Twice I received a Western Union message from the war department that someone was killed in action,” he said. “And part of my job was to take the message to the family and knock on the door and give them the bad news. That wasn’t an easy thing to do.”

Merlyn wears his depot agent hat while giving a presentation about how he used the telegraph in his line of work for over 40 years. Contributed photo

Merlyn wears his depot agent hat while giving a presentation about how he used the telegraph in his line of work for over 40 years. Contributed photo

Cadwell continued as telegrapher for 41 years until retiring in 1983. His last job was as a depot agent in Clara City, although he still continued to be a telegrapher.

“I was one of the last three or four telegraphers that Great Northern ever had,” he said proudly.

Cadwell may also be one of the eldest members of a band at 93 years old.

“And a half,” he chuckled. “I’m 93 and a half.”

Cadwell plays guitar in a band called The Music Makers, which also included his 88-year-old “kid” brother Art.

“I play lead guitar, and I’ve been in a band since 1935,” said Cadwell. “My father was in a dance band.”

And just like the telegraph, Cadwell taught himself how to play guitar, too.

Cadwell can also play several other instruments, such as the accordion, bass guitar, fiddle, banjo and drums.

“My main objective is music,” he said, while strumming the guitar. “But I don’t sing.”

The Music Makers play mainly at local senior living facilities a couple of times a month, but do have gigs outside the area a couple of times a year.

Cadwell’s wife, Marjorie, passed away in 2013 while the couple lived in Clara City. After that, Merlyn moved to Hill Street Place.

“I like it here a lot,” he said. “It’s a very nice place, but I wish Marjorie could be here with me.”

Cadwell doesn’t have a secret to his longevity. He ponders the thought for a second, shrugs his shoulders and then gives his best educated guess.

“I don’t smoke and I try to eat healthy,” he said. “I try to eat fish at least once a week. But I eat candy and I have a Heineken once in a while.”

And then he concluded with a final wisecrack in a long list during the interview.

“My grandfather lived to be 100 years old,” he said, again bounding from his chair to say goodbye with a firm handshake. “If only I had just taken a little better care of myself.”

And with that he was told he’s doing better than most men that are 93 years old.

“And a half,” he said with a broad smile.

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