We could have been neighbors, if I had been born 118 years ago. When I lived in Eau Claire, I could see where he lived from my front door, although I am not sure which house his father had built. The block, which is actually two blocks, is designated the 1000 and 1100 block now, and Venski’s address was 132 Omaha. I am sure that is the block he lived on because he listed the neighbors on each side of him, and including the house he lived in, the number of houses was six. It is the only block that could accommodate that many houses on the whole street of Omaha. He was a northsider, and very proud of that fact.
He was born in 1890, the fourth of nine children, and his father’s profession was that of a blacksmith, a fact that he was very proud of also. Whenever something heavy needed to be lifted, Venski would jump right in and say, “Let me do it, I am the son of a blacksmith.” He worked for the post office for 37 years and was a World War I veteran. He married, but because he and his wife could not have children, they adopted two girls and raised them as their own.
I know all of this because Anton took the time, at the age of 75, to sit down and write his life story. My wife brought the book home from the Regis library in Eau Claire, where it had been sitting at the end of a bookrack since 1966. His story had been read only twice in those 41 years, according to the checkout slip in the back of the book. Too bad, as once I started reading it, I had a hard time putting it down. A lot of forgotten Eau Claire history lies among those 173 pages.
When he was a young boy just before the turn of the 20th century, the north side of Eau Claire was still in the wild. He refers to a time that he was on the south side of Mt. Tom with one of his sisters picking blueberries, and they got turned around. They were lost in the deep underbrush when they stumbled onto the Soo Line railroad tracks and some men repairing the rail line. The railroad workers shared their lunch with the Venskis and then steered them in the right direction toward Omaha Street.
This was before the dam by the paper company was built and there was no Dells Pond, just the flow of the Chippewa River coming from the north, carrying logs to be separated according to the lumber company that had cut them. Each company branded its logs with a company brand. But in clearing the woods, all trees were cut and thrown in the river to enable the tree to be moved more easily. The lumber companies didn’t brand the trees that weren’t desirable; those trees were up for grab. So the Venski family spent many summer days snagging non-branded trees and hauling them up the bank to their backyard. This wood was bucked up, split, stacked and used as heating and cooking wood during the winter months. Sitting atop the ridge that ran above the river proved to be a frigid spot during the winter months, and that salvaged wood from the river was their only respite.
Work was the central theme of the Venski family as Anton was growing up. There were always chores to be done, and when the boys in the family became old enough, their father found them all jobs, before and after school, and had them hand over their paychecks at the end of the week. Anton’s first job, at age 8, was to assist a local cow herder who herded the neighborhood cows out to pastureland out where Starr Avenue is now. After school he would have to return them to their individual homes.
There was playtime before they were old enough for jobs. They spent all their free time down at the river, building clubhouses and swimming. They went swimming au natural, as there was no such thing as swimsuits back then. When a freight train was heading up north toward Chippewa Falls, the trains were slowed by the steep grade. The naked swimmers would take their cue from the slow-moving train and jump aboard for a free ride until the grade evened out and the train’s speed started to increase. They would then jump off the train, run down the hill to the river, and then float back down to their swim spot and clothes.
This hopping the train was banned by the parents because of the obvious danger, but the boys still took the chance that they wouldn’t have an accident or get caught. One time a neighbor boy lost his grip, fell off the train and got his foot cut off at the instep. He lay there screaming, and Venski and his buddy said they would go get help. But as they neared home, they realized they would get in trouble for hopping the train, so they told no one. Luckily a couple who were in the cemetery leaving flowers heard the screams and went and gave the boy a ride in their buggy to Sacred Heart Hospital.
Milk was a valuable commodity when Venski was young. It was only used to sweeten their coffee and for cooking because it was so expensive. But the neighborhood had a milkman who had a barrel-type cart in which he carried the milk around the neighborhood. This oversized barrel had a spigot that the milkman drew the milk from into the customers’ containers. During the winter months when the milkman wasn’t attending his wagon, Venski and his brothers would climb under the wagon and break off the frozen milkcicle that was caused from the spigot leaking.
This story continues next week on Page 1B and on our website.