Tales of Mountain Lake’s Pete Falk Sr. have been re’Pete’ed, preserved for posterity
His mother died in 1910, when he was just three-years-old.
Eight years later, at age 11, he was orphaned when his father passed away.
After that time, he bounced between living with his grandmother and his aunt. Along with another orphaned friend, Pete Sr. scrounged for food from the garbage cans behind the local grocery store.
He left school after eighth-grade, and, given loose rein in his comings-and-goings, the “lapsed” Mennonite continued his slide into wild times – liking fast cars and strong hooch.
Eventually, in the late 193os – after he had married his wife, Hilda – he opened his gas station on the east side of Mountain Lake.
But. his side business was of equal importance to him. To say it as plainly as possible, the way it was – Pete Sr. was a bootlegger – a bootlegger in “dry” Mountain Lake and an equally “dry” (at that time) Cottonwood County. And – he operated a booming business in the ’40s and ’50s.
In the station’s basement – known as “Falk’s Tea Room” – is where Pete Sr. kept his stash. Common knowledge of Pete Sr.’s diversification often led to a packed house. Which makes sense, as, according to Peter Falk Jr., his dad had always advised him that – “Whiskey was to sell; not to drink” – and sell his stock he did. Reminiscing on from where his father would pull his merchandise, Peter Jr. recalled that a lot of the product came from “Buff’s Blossom Bar in Springfield.”
Pete Sr. was a guy who would always “shoot from the hip” – literally.
In addition, he loved to play edgy practical jokes on his gas pumping competitors – the Parr Brothers – whose own gas station was located directly across the road to the north. Many were the times that Pete Sr. – wearing his trademark pith helmet – would drive over the rubber strip on the Parr’s apron that rang a bell inside, alerting them that a customer had a tank needing to be filled. Back on his side of the street, he would cackle with glee as either Elmer or Frank- or both – would pop outside the building to find no one there. And then – Pete Sr. would do it all over again.
Or, how about when he would lower the price of gas 5 cents a gallon at noon – and following the move – take off for the afternoon. It didn’t matter to him; he would be back keeping watch at the corner – all seven days of the week.
In its heyday, the station sat along Minnesota State Highway #60 as it flowed through Mountain Lake. Even the late Hubert Humphrey would stop in on his way through to catch a little of Pete Sr.’s raw and unfiltered wit, tinted with obvious intelligence. However, according to Pete Sr., it was Humphrey that did all of the talking.
If someone drove up to the alleged “full-service” station’s pump in the wrong direction, with the tank on the opposite side, he would more-often-than-not tell them to pump it themselves. Same for washing the windshield, pointing out the pail and water.
And then, despite all of that, he was the kind of proprietor and person who would, if someone came in who didn’t have any money for gas, but needed to get somewhere – fill up the tank and send him on his way.
To merely call the late Pete Falk Sr. of Mountain Lake “a character” makes the definition of the noun phrase pale in its meaning.
In June 1987, when Mankato Free Press Staff Write Brian Ojanpa interviewed Pete Sr. – then almost 80-years-old and on tap to serve as that year’s Grand Marshal of the Mountain Lake Pow Wow’s Monday night Grande Parade, he left with a string of adjectives to spice up that phrase “a character.” These included cantankerous, ribald, wry – and accurately – a living legend.
Those tales and memories – Pete Sr.’s legacy – have now been preserved in a pair of projects completed by Mountain Lake native Tamara “T” Carter, who now lives near Washington, D. C.
“I find the lives of ordinary people – like Pete Sr. – the most fascinating and important stories of our culture,” T stresses. “If not committed to writing – over time these narratives can often become lost and forgotten.” The goal – preserve Pete Sr. and his stories for posterity and for the historical record.
To preserve the lore and legacy of Pete Sr. for the historical record, T created an art quilt focusing on Pete Sr.’s station, with her fiber art work enhanced by a coffee table-quality history book of reminiscing and photographs.
“In order to do both of these, T acknowledges, “I lived with Pete Sr. for a year – in the memories of him that were shared with me. They ran ’round-and-’round-and-’round in my head.
“The stories of those days gone by, as presented to me by Peter Jr., ‘colorized’ the quilt for me as I viewed it in my mind’s eye, later transferring that vision to the quilt.”
Beneath an early morning Minnesota sunrise (following a long night of liquor sales and frivolity) stands Pete Falk Sr.’s off-white stucco gas station with green roof, just as it appeared during the late 1940s and early 1950s. This is the larger section of T’s quilt.
A second, smaller section highlights the man himself with photo replications – including a rectangular-shaped area which T calls “repeated Pete.”
The two sections are connected by a series of vintage pop and beer bottle caps – Dad’s Root Beer, Orange, Bubble-Up, Grain Belt and August Schell – each one strung between strands of beads. Each bottle cap is attached to the top quilt with seed beads. T notes that the August Schell Brewing Company of New Ulm beer bottle caps were provided by Julie Busch.
The quilt’s back pays homage – if you will – to Pete Sr.’s “side” profession – bootlegging – with fabric featuring repeated images of whiskey bottles.
T designed the quilt, and JoAnn Hoffman longarmed the fiber art.
T entered this fiber artwork in the 2015 Mid-Atlantic Quilt Festival held earlier this year. And, “‘Pete’ earned polyester” – a blue ribbon – in the juried and judged national competition. The work then was accepted into the 2015 Minnesota Quilters Inc. Annual Quilt Show and Conference, held Wednesday, June 11 through Friday, June 13, in Duluth, Minnesota.
Just as Pete Sr. was recognized for his individuality, so too, was the quilt – as were all of the “Pete” stories embedded in the cloth. No, it did not win any awards, but it “spoke” its tales to those who stopped to observe and listen. In addition to T telling the tales of Pete Sr., on hand to add extra “color” were Pete Sr. and Hilda’s daughter, Sandi Falk Hoffmann, Sandi’s son and Pete and Hilda’s grandson, Michael Hoffman and Tori Frye, Pete and Hilda’s granddaughter, the daughter of Pete and Hilda’s eldest daughter, the late Maxine Falk Morgan.
“Pete Falk and His Gas Station – History, Legend and Lore” is the title of the book that includes reflections and family photographs.
T drew the information from both primary and secondary documents provided by Pete Sr.’s family, newspaper articles, his obituary and oral histories/living memories as told to her by people who knew Pete Sr. personally or professionally. Family members assisting included three children, Sandi Falk Hoffman, Joanna Falk Bristol and her husband, Richard Bristol and Peter Falk Jr. Pete Sr. and Hilda had six children- one son and five daughters. Additional children include Pamela Falk Penner, Cheryl Falk Hustad and the late Maxine Falk Morgan.
There is also information devoted to Pete Sr.’s wife, Hilda “Tish” Falk in the publication – a registered nurse by training and trade – and a voracious reader by interest.
T Carter grew up in Mountain Lake, graduating with the Class of 1984, and now lives near Washington, D. C.
She is an accomplished fiber artist, master quilter, author, historian, researcher and activist with expertise in the areas of social justice and Native American history. She holds a master’s degree in American History from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communications and Art from Minnesota State University-Mankato.
T serves as president of the Indigenous Nations Alumni Alliance, George Mason University and as Vice-President of Mount Vernon Quilters Unlimited.
Her Pete Falk Sr. quilt will be on display in Mountain Lake Public Library through the summer. In addition, the book of Pete Falk Sr. memories may be ordered at the library for $40 a copy (with checks payable to: T Carter).
Also at the library is a journal; a journal left behind by T in which the public can jot down their own Pete Sr. remembrances in order to collect more colorful tales of the local legend – as there certainly are many more to be shared.
During summer 2018, T is slated to present a solo show at the Cottonwood County Historical Society in Windom, featuring 21 of the fiber artist’s quilts.
Included in the display will be the Pete Falk Sr. piece, another of her Grandpa George and Grandma Marie Schriock’s house and yard that was once stood in the Dreispitz area of Mountain Lake – and, as well a series of yet-to-be-completed quilts on the history of Dreispitz itself. (The name “Dreispitz” hearkens back to the area in Russia from which German Lutherans immigrants left to come and settle in Mountain Lake. By 1893, about 30 people had migrated to the area. They settled for the most part on the east end of Mountain Lake in the area called Dreispitz – which means triangle. This triangle was formed by former Minnesota State Highway #60 (now Cottonwood County Road #27) to the north, the railroad tracks to the south and to the west (the city of Mountain Lake’s eastern city limits) by what is now Cottonwood County Road #1..
T has also completed a quilt recognizing the 38 Dakota men hanged on December 26, 1862 for alleged atrocities done during the United States-Dakota War of 1862. It remains the largest mass execution in American history.
Following the close of her one-woman show on September 1, 2018, the Pete Falk Sr. quilt will become the property of the family.
The legend leaves
Towards the close of his life, Pete Sr. returned to the Mennonite church – sort of. His return was not to the worship service – but to the Sunday School of First Mennonite. That suited him fine because, as he said, he could ask the teacher questions.
Pete died at the age of 90 on July 14, 1998 at the now-gone Eventide Home in Mountain Lake. He died less than two months after his wife, Hilda, also 90-years-old, passed away.
But, the local legend lives on with lengthy legs – including the quilt paying homage to the lore that was the life of Pete Sr., as well as a history book of photographs and re”Pete”ed tales from family, friends and historical sources.
Bringing to life this Mountain Lake man from an era now gone, T testifies that, “Pete Sr. taught me to embrace my individuality. He showed me how to dance with my shadow.”