Battle Ax Railroad named after tobacco brand
Glimpses of Yesteryear
Thursday, November 29, 2012 3:02 AM
Last summer when 1948 Spring Valley High School graduate Don Oss was in town, he commented on the Battle Ax plug tobacco sign which was beautifully restored on the old Molstad general store building, now Dave's Appliance Sales & Service.
The Molstad Store, corner of North Broadway and Courtland, after 1900.
Oss also mentioned the Battle Ax Railroad, and I said I never knew the tobacco was named after a railroad. He replied, no, the railroad was named for the tobacco! I learn something new every day, and this was fascinating. Very briefly, here is the story, accessed from the Internet.
The Washburn, Bayfield and Iron River Railway in northern Wisconsin began in 1895 when an area group was persuaded they needed a railroad for their lumber business. A corporation was formed, and they requested bonds for $240,000 for its construction. The railroad was to be built from Washburn to Iron River and to Bayfield. Because the company often could not pay its workers as they completed a section, they sometimes paid off the men with chewing tobacco to keep them happy, their favorite being the Battle Ax brand. This crew became known as the Battle Ax gang; the name stuck, and the railroad also was known as the Battle Ax from its beginning. Through bankruptcies, receiverships, and many legal battles, the railroad eventually became part of the Northern Pacific line. Check the Internet and Amazon.com for histories of the railroad.
A popular ad from 1896 had this to say: "A woman knows what a bargain really is. She knows better than a man. "Battle Ax" is selected every time by wives who buy tobacco for their husbands. They select it as an honest bargain. It is the biggest size, smallest in price, and best in quality. The five cent piece is almost as large as the ten cent piece of other high grade brands." Yah, right - a woman would go to the store to buy a product for her husband that would rot out his teeth, mouth and throat? Not likely! But again, an attractive woman in a tobacco ad - does that seem familiar? Remember those gorgeous women in the cigarette ads of not long ago? A pretty girl can sell almost anything.
So why is the Spring Valley store featured in books on the Battle Ax Railroad? We can thank a staunch Norwegian, M.E. Molstad, who operated his general store here from 1875 to 1917; later his son Kleber, until 1919. The ad on the wall appeared about 1900, then many years later it simply "disappeared." It's possible it was painted over, then gradually the paint flaked off and soon we could see it again. Several years ago when Al and Brenda Grabau had their television and appliance store there, they asked Chad Aschemann to restore the sign. It is a wonderful relic, over 100 years old, and quite an attraction for museum visitors.
The building, on the corner of North Broadway and Courtland, was constructed by C.W. Taylor, a native of New York State, who "engaged in the mercantile business in town about 1867." He stayed for 10 years, and his clerk, M.E. Molstad, who could speak Norwegian to customers, then bought the business. I remember going in the store, tagging along with my grandfather, Harry Steffens. The front interior was devoted to soft goods; at the left were a few stools where ladies could perch while considering purchases of yard goods, gloves or unmentionables. The walls that stretched to the tin ceilings were lined with shelves of boxed men's goods, hardware, and countless things needed by town and country folk. The groceries were located at the far end, and at one time Molstad was one of three or four grocers who joined forces to hire a drayman to make home deliveries.
The accompanying photo would have been taken after 1893 when the city opened its first power plant as we see the streetlight hanging above, and the power pole offering electricity to the downtown area. Apparently there is some construction going on, perhaps the wooden sidewalks are being redone. Next door is B.W. Huntley's drug store, and the next one north is Dan Sullivan's harness shop. Notice the store sign: M. E. Molstad - Gent's Furnishing Goods - Trunks - Valices - Feathers. I can understand the trunks and valices, but I wonder who supplied him with feathers "in bulk" for feather ticks and pillows. Learning opportunity: "ticking" is a cotton fabric used most often for mattress and pillow covers, closely woven of stout yarn so feathers or straw couldn't pass through and cause discomfort.
The outside stairway led to the upstairs business of Ole Avelsgord, Merchant Tailor. The local historical society's Country Store is blessed with many articles that came from the Molstad Store, including the store sign, Molstad's picture that was on the storefront, the table for measuring yard goods, and dozens of smaller items. Next spring, stop by for a look-see at all this fun stuff. By the way, the society's Christmas Teas will be held in the home that Molstad built on Washington Avenue; reservations may already be sold out!