Stories of city dump, storm sewer adventures entertain at museum event

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Corky Bickel was one of the featured speakers at the McGregor Historical Museum’s fall event on Oct. 26. Here, he showed a photo of himself, Bob Myers and two other boys on a boat they built. He estimated they were around 12 years old at the time. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Herb Collins regaled the crowd with stories about the baseball field at Turner Park, back when it was located by the river.

Bob Myers shared about how he began working on the docks and when he started making house boats.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Herb Collins, Corky Bickel and Bob Myers took people on a walk down memory lane at the McGregor Historical Museum’s fall event on Oct. 26. The three shared stories of growing up in the community, highlighting everything from baseball at old Turner Park to time spent on the Mississippi River.

Collins, who came to McGregor in 1945, started the night reminiscing about the old city dump, which he said was located past the elevator. It wasn’t necessarily the most sanitary site.

“For those who remember what it was like before the EPA, you used to drive down there, back a pickup truck up and dump your garbage there,” he recalled. “Then the river would rise up in the springtime and pretty well take care of the dump and you’d start over.”

People even used to swim by the dump.

“That’s why we’re like we are now,” Collins joked.

But that wasn’t the only pastime the area provided. The dump was filled with rats, explained Collins, and kids would sit along the bank by the railroad tracks and shoot them. When they tired of shooting the creatures, the kids would collect glass bottles from the dump, throw them into the river, then shoot them as they went by.

“That was life in McGregor,” Collins remarked.

Collins also had fond memories of playing baseball at Turner Park, when it was located by the river. The field had some unique dimensions and features: 250 up the left field line to the railroad tracks with “brush and jungle” near the visitor’s bench, while the right field line was 230 feet.

“Center field was like four miles, where the elevator is now,” he quipped.

One part of the field had a set of 10 or 12 trees in play. Collins said McGregor was sometimes accused of hiding balls in there.

Left field would often flood, with 8 to 12 feet of water creeping onto the playing surface. 

“One of the rules was, if a ball was looped down there and the outfielder didn’t touch the ball and it landed in the water, it was a ground rule double,” Collins said. “They just stood by the water and let it hit.”

The backstop hung over home plate, meaning a ball fouled straight up could result in the umpire, catcher or batter getting plunked.

Bickel’s and Myers’ memories focused more on water—not just from the river, but also the storm sewer. The two recalled one stormy day where they, along with two other boys, tried to emulate the show “Victory at Sea” by tying a raft to the side of the storm sewer and attempting to roll into it, like Navy frogmen in World War II. 

“You went into the storm sewer where the fire hall is now,” Bickel explained. “We thought we could ride in [the raft] and get the same sensation. But we wanted to check to make sure this was a viable plan.”

Myers said their friend’s little brother “volunteered” to go. But when he got into the raft, which sat in about 2.5 feet of swift water, it tipped over, and he went rushing down the storm sewer, screaming and hollering.

“I went running down the street, yelling at the top of my lungs, ‘Boy in the sewer, boy in the sewer,’” Bickel said.

Luckily, the boy was rescued right before he would have went underground.

“I came back up the street and saw my father and said ‘Dad, please don’t give me heck. I’m too scared,’” Bickel noted. “My father never said a bad word.”

Bickel said his father even used to take people on tours of the city’s storm sewer, using two double-cab Volkswagon trucks.

“They were small enough we could drive in,” he said, recalling how his dad once told people, “This is something you’ll only find in McGregor and Paris, France—a tour of the sewer system.”

For Myers and Bickel, the river also brought a lot of excitement. Myers said he first started working on the docks when he was 10, for Alan Butterfield. His father first got the idea of building and renting house boats after attending the Chicago Boat Show in the 1950s. 

“They had just started Hertz Rent-a-Car,” Myers said.

Myers started making houseboats himself in the 1970s, and has since built 52.

One of Bickel’s favorite memories of the river was the steamboats that used to visit. He can still remember hearing the calliope.

“That was the live announcement that the steamboat was in town,” he said.

One day, the steamboat Avalon took an excursion out of Prairie du Chien. As it returned to the dock at night, the rowdy crowd tossed 10 to 12 chairs into the river. Bickel’s parents and some of their friends happened to be nearby, in another boat, and collected the chairs.

“The next day, my father put me in the boat, we went over to Prairie du Chien, pulled up and he said, ‘Could I see the captain,’” Bickel noted. “This giant of a man came out and said, ‘Can I help you?’ My father said, ‘Yes, captain. I think we have something that belongs to you.’” 

Bickel said the captain—Ernest Wagner—was shocked: “He said, ‘My gosh, no one has ever brought anything back to this boat.’”

That was the start of a unique friendship for Bickel. Later that day, he got to take a ride on the steamboat. The best part, he said, was visiting the top deck, where the calliope was located.

“Extremely loud, but I get to smell that fresh steam coming off of it and hear those sounds,” he remarked. “I was immediately hooked.” 

The next year, Bickel got asked to work on the Avalon, as a cabin boy.

To hear more stories from the event, check out the videos on the McGregor Historical Museum Facebook page.

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