by Dennis Dalman
Myrna Pfau vividly remembers, while living on Riverside Avenue 70-plus years ago, her father walking across the foot bridge above the dam to his job at the Watab Pulp and Paper Co.
Bob Pitschka, her father, was the chief electrician at the plant.
Most mill workers, those who lived on the west side of the Mississippi River, used that footbridge because as Pfau said, “It sure beat having to walk all the way down and across the other bridge.”
That mill, which became Verso so many years later, was a daily part of Pfau’s life when she was a little girl. It also had a daily place, literally, in the lives of everyone who lived in Sartell at that time.
When Pfau heard about Verso closing, she was stunned. She’d known the plant so long, she just assumed it would be there forever and a day. It was, she said, like hearing a friend had died.
“It’s shocking that the paper mill is closing,” she said. “Shocking. Shocking!”
Last week, Pfau’s daughter-in-law, Sharon Pfau of Sartell, took her on a trip down memory lane, visiting her old haunts in Sartell. They saw the places where the Pfau houses once stood; they visited the cemetery where so many of her relatives lie buried. And, of course, they spent some time looking at the big paper plant.
In the mid-to-late 1930s, Pfau and her family lived in a house just south of where the River Boat Depot is now. Myrna’s mother, Elvera, died of a sudden illness in 1939, when Myrna was only 5. Shortly after, Myrna’s father moved to Wisconsin to work in a paper mill there, but three years later he returned to Sartell and resumed his job at Watab. At one point, Myrna lived with her grandmother in a house on Sartell Street, where the Daisy-A-Day floral shop was, until recently when it was torn down to make room for an apartment complex.
Pfau now lives in St. Cloud, near St. Joseph, but in many ways her heart still belongs to Sartell for more reasons than one. For instance, her great-grandfather is Joseph B. Sartell, the man for whom the city was named and the man who worked as a millwright in a sawmill that eventually became the paper mill. Sartell moved from his home state, Massachusetts, to what is now Sartell in 1854. He later opened a flour mill (where Watab Park is now) and still later, in 1884, he and his sons founded the Sartell Brothers Lumber Co.
Pfau’s grandfather is Joseph S. Sartell (son of Joseph B. Sartell). One of Joseph S. Sartell’s daughters, Elvera, was Pfau’s mother.
Myrna knew just about every Sartell there was, and there were lots of them to know, as the Sartell family was quite prolific.
“We lived next door to Ripley Sartell, who owned the grocery store,” Pfau said in an interview with the Newsleader. “We lived across the street from a lumber yard. And right across the river was the paper mill.”
Oddly enough, Pfau always liked the rotten-egg smell of the mill.
“That smell to us was like the smell of a security blanket,” she recalled. “Security because the smell reminded us the mill was there and that father had a job to go to every day. Jobs were hard to find in other places in the 1930s. The Great Depression. Everybody worked at the mill. Every work day, we’d see a long line of men carrying lunch pails crossing the foot bridge. There were only about 300 people living in Sartell at that time — in the 1930s. Oh yes, everybody worked at the mill.”
Even Pfau worked there for a time. Every now and then, she used to help her aunt, Edith Wesenburg, clean and dust the paper mill’s office.
When Pfau talks, her memories tumble forth: picking strawberries, roasting potatoes in campfires, having fun at Sartell’s annual Winter Haven, visiting the post office in the local store (“That post office was our window on the world,” she said, with a hint of a mischievous smile.)
And as she talks, Pfau’s memories never fail to return to “the mill.”
“I remember my father one day suffered a terrible electrical burn while working there,” she said. “And I’ll never forget how he told me when things got a bit slow, he and other men would drop a fish line right out the long, tall windows right over the river and catch fish. The men usually stopped at Perry’s Bar after work for a drink or two. That was where the DeZurik Co. is now.”
Pfau said she is so sorry to see the end of the paper-making era in Sartell. She had always hoped it would go on and on forever, outliving even her.
“I’m so sad it’s closed now,” she said. “It’s shocking!”