“Bode Hall”: a view from the past

ST. JAMES – An article in the Sunday, Sept. 29, edition of the Journal about the burning of a former Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC) dormitory in a fire-fighting exercise brought “a rush of emotions and memories” for Clarice Panning Fastenau, a St. James resident with strong New Ulm roots. (For those familiar with local “dynasties,” she is the daughter of Frieda Bode Panning.)

“That building was my grandparents’ home,” Fastenau remembered recently, in an e-mail message. “Originally it had been the first creamery in Brown County, built in 1883 for the New Ulm Creamery Company. The creamery moved to a new building at 3rd North Street and Broadway in 1919, and the building was converted into a residence.

“Although it was a very large building, it was hardly visible in its location in the hollow just below Center Street and the Hermann hill,” says Fastenau. “Approaching it on the driveway which sloped down from Center Street, the three-story house came into view – the walk-in or drive-in basement on ground level with two floors above it. William Redeker, a semi-retired truck farmer, purchased the building in 1919 and was persuaded to open his spacious home to Dr. Martin Luther College women students in 1923. The 10-12 girls occupied the six bedrooms on the third floor and shared the one bathroom. The co-eds stayed trim as they walked the 90 steps up to the college campus. They exited Redeker Hall from the second floor door, perhaps only 20 feet from the stone retaining wall of the Hermann hill, proceeded up steep steps to Center Street, crossed it, and continued on the curving path and steps known as Excelsior (“higher”), still there today.

“In 1938, my grandparents Henry C. and Maria Bode purchased the house from the Redekers,” continues Fastenau. “Grandpa had been the teacher at Willow Creek Lutheran School near Amboy for 33 years, and health issues caused him to retire from teaching at 60. Most of their 12 children had married, but several were still living with them. Grandpa died in 1942, but Grandma and her son, Eugene, and his wife, Lorene, continued the tradition of keeping 10-12 women college students until 1970. It became Bode Hall and remained so for over 30 years. Grandma lived on one side of the second floor, and Uncle Gene and his family lived on the other. There were no bathrooms on the second floor, but there were one and a half in the basement. Uncle Gene purchased the home from Grandma in 1954. In 1970 the building was condemned because the city wished to improve Center Street. The house, estimated to weigh 80 tons, was moved about 3 miles to the location north of the cemetery by Aldrich Lunak of Le Sueur. Only the top two stories were moved to the new location and jacked up about 8 feet so that a new walk-in basement could be built under them. That became their living quarters. Uncle Gene intended to convert the upper two stories to apartments, but that never happened. He died in 1999, and the family sold the house during the following year.

“My memories of the home go back to my toddler years,” continues Fastenau. “I stayed there quite frequently, watched over by several “tantes” (aunts). I remember that the big kitchen had a toaster with flaps on each side to hold two pieces of bread. We toasted bread on a fork at home. I liked drinking my milk out of the blue Shirley Temple glasses. Sometimes I would go up to DMLC with my Tante Eunice, who graduated from the college in 1945. I would listen to her practice organ in the Music Hall. Sometimes I would visit the girls upstairs. I amused them with my German, and they amused me with their music boxes and other pretty things. One of those girls became my co-worker when I taught in Lannon, Wisconsin, years later. I also spent time with Uncle Gene. I remember helping him wash and bundle vegetables in the basement The large basement of Bode Hall was his work area, but there was also room there for Red Wing crocks containing pickles and, of course, sauerkraut. I rode in his truck with him to deliver vegetables to various places in New Ulm. He was quite a talker, and what was probably only minutes seemed like hours sometimes when he conversed with his customers.”

“When I got older, I loved exploring in the woods below Hermann just above Grandma’s house. There were many shady wooded paths, such a change from the flat farmland of my home near Gibbon. It seemed a long ways to the distillery chimney standing at the edge of the woods. There was a bubbler where Center Street widened out toward Hermann hill very near the steps going to Grandma’s house. We often stopped there for a drink of the cold water which always bubbled from the fountain.

“Grandma’s 70th birthday in 1951, when I was 11, was a special occasion attended by many relatives. The cake actually had 70 candles on it, and all the flames seemed to join together in one big flame. That summer I helped Tante Lorene take care of Steven and Joyce, the two oldest Bode children. Marcia, Beth (Walters), and Brenda were born later.

“I attended Dr. Martin Luther High School and College in 1953-1960,” adds Fastenau. “I did not stay at Bode Hall, but during those seven years I walked down those 90 steps to visit Grandma once a week. Some of my college classmates were now ‘the girls upstairs.’ Grandma died a few months before I graduated in 1960.

“Living away from the New Ulm area from the ’60s through the ’80s, I only remember being in the house at its new location twice once for a family Christmas party in 1990 and then in the late ’90s shortly before Uncle Gene died. Even though he was quite ill when I visited, he still wanted me to try some new seeds he had just gotten and sent some home with me for my vegetable garden…”

“Yes, the Journal article about Bode Hall brought back many memories,” Fastenau concludes. “It was a house with a history – and a home for so many family members and students over the years. I feel fortunate to have had a part in it.”

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