Return to Ortonville

On September 12, after nearly fifteen years, my daughter Erin and I returned to Ortonville, the small western Minnesota town where my dad grew up. I had scheduled a reading for my new book at the Ortonville Library but that was only a small part of our agenda.

As kids, my sister and I were so excited when Grammo and Grampo's house came into view

As kids, my sister and I were so excited when Grammo and Grampo’s house came into view

I had always loved going to Ortonville as a kid. My family made the three-hour trip from the Twin Cities at least a few times every year, including pretty much every Thanksgiving and Christmas. My dad’s parents—Grammo and Grampo to my sister Cyn and me—lived in a wonderful big stone house. That was appropriate since Ortonville is located in Big Stone County.

We'd often drive in the back way so the car would be facing the street in front of the house

We’d often drive in the back way so the car would be facing the street in front of the house

My sister and I have wonderful childhood memories of Ortonville, and I am grateful that Erin was able to experience many of the same people and special places in Ortonville when she was growing up. Erin hadn’t been back since Grammo died in 1994 at the age of 92. I had been back once, on an overnight trip with my mom and sister.

After the book reading, Erin and I drove up the hill from the library to visit the big stone house that was so much a part of both our childhoods. As the house came into view, the same excitement we had both felt as kids was tempered by nostalgic flashbacks and the stark realization that it was now another family’s home.

I liken the mixture of sadness and joy we felt to running into an old flame whom you had never gotten over but who is now arm in arm with somebody else. The longing to embrace that house, to make it ours once more, washed over us both.

Erin and I took a wonderful trip through time to visit the house we both loved as kids

Erin and I took a wonderful trip through time to visit the house we both loved as kids

Before making the trip, I had arranged with Ron Thomas, who had bought the house from my dad in the early nineties, to take a quick tour inside. Erin wanted no part of that, preferring to sit on the big stone porch to preserve her memories of bursting in to find Grammo doing a crossword puzzle in her favorite chair. My sister feels the same way. What they saw when they used to step inside the front door will never be tainted by what that view looks like now.

I, on the other hand, relished the chance to walk through the house once again. Much had been remodeled, yet much remained the same. No matter. I saw everything the way it used to be. The ghosts of familiar chairs and couches and bookshelves were waiting patiently for me, welcoming me warmly.

The kitchen cupboards were intact, just as I remembered them. I opened one, and I was nine years old again, reaching for a glass before sitting down at the kitchen table with my family to enjoy a lunch of my dad’s hamburger patties and peanut butter bread.

My sister Cyn and I loved playing on the front steps

My sister Cyn and I loved playing on the front steps

As Ron and I walked upstairs, I silently repeated to myself, “Up-a-tep, down-a-tep,” the happy mantra that my dad always said as he carried my giggling sister or me up or down those same stairs, often like a sack of potatoes. It was my great joy to carry on that tradition with Erin. In fact, I remember the day nearly thirty years ago when I first carried her up those steps, lovingly whispering, “Up-a-tep, down-a-tep” to my baby girl. The torch had been passed, and I couldn’t have been more proud.

I used to love climbing the wooden drop-down ladder that led up to the attic in the impossibly huge garage

I used to love climbing the wooden drop-down ladder that led up to the attic in the impossibly huge garage

Upstairs, Ron and I walked into the bedroom where my parents stayed, and there it was—the large cubbyhole door perfectly situated under the sloping ceiling. As I ducked my head and reached to open the door, I was once again seven years old, happily sifting through the toys and games and puzzles from the 1930s and 40s that my sister and I loved so much. In my mind, they are there still, as they always will be.

Ron graciously walked me through every room, including the large garage, and I will always be grateful to him for that. The tour ended, Erin and I wistfully watched the big stone house disappear as we drove away to begin our mission—scattering my dad’s ashes throughout his beloved hometown. He had died three years ago, and Erin and I were honored to carry out his request.

Our first stop was the golf course, where Erin and I sprinkled some of Poppa Kent on a fairway. Next stop was the Secret Hiding Place, a magical wonderland in Neilson Park where my sister and I, and later Erin too, spent many happy hours exploring and playing while we were kids. Down the wooden steps we went to the wooded grotto below, making our way carefully down the steep slope toward the little stone bridge that led to a dirt path dotted with granite benches that led back up to the park.

Grampo was so proud of his little man

Grampo was so proud of his little man

Emerging into the light of day, we sprinkled my dad’s ashes as we walked through the park, which his father, my Grampo, had dedicated at an opening ceremony some sixty years ago. Directly across from the Secret Hiding Place, Erin and I descended down more steep granite steps, passing more beckoning granite benches, before finding daylight again on the street below.

Returning to our car, we drove through downtown on our way back home. Before the book reading, we had stopped at the Pizza Ranch for lunch. While Erin was perusing the buffet, I walked over to the area near the front door. You see, the Pizza Ranch had been a Ben Franklin dimestore in my youth, and it seems almost sacrilegious to think of it as a pizza restaurant. My sister and I had always run to the Ben Franklin as soon as we got into town. Lost in my memories, I reached out my hand and could almost touch the penny candy and baseball cards that I loved so much as a child.

Before heading back home, Erin and I stopped to sprinkle her Poppa Kent’s ashes on the steps of the now-abandoned office building where Grampo had worked as a small-town lawyer. Our final scattering stop was the Welcome to Ortonville sign on the edge of town. Mission accomplished. My dad was back home where he belonged.

Snuggling with Grampo is one of my happiest memories

Snuggling with Grampo is one of my happiest memories

As Ortonville faded away in the rearview mirror, I squeezed Erin’s hand and thanked her for coming with me. Of course, the trip was as meaningful for her as it was for me. I feel blessed that I have a daughter who cherishes the same things I do. We are both sentimental fools and I love that.

It was hard to leave, but it would have been harder to stay. It was the same Ortonville it had always been, yet it wasn’t the Ortonville we remembered. All the people we knew were gone, and it’s the people who make a town, not stores or houses or even familiar and beloved landmarks. The Ortonville of today is but a pale reminder of the Ortonville of 1966, of carefree youth, endless summer days and lost loved ones.

The Ortonville of my childhood—Grammo and Grampo’s house, the Secret Hiding Place, penny candy and baseball cards at Ben Franklin, comic books at Rexall Drug, fishing for bullheads with my dad, and running happily into my Grampo’s arms—that’s the Ortonville I remember. That’s the Ortonville I visit when I close my eyes and dream of simpler times.

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
Nelson Mandela

Click here to see all my posts featuring my parents and grandparents.


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14 Responses to “Return to Ortonville”

  1. Ron Ross Says:

    I can’t get over how much the picture of your dad reminded me of mine.
    They seemed very similar also in stature.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thanks, Ron. Sometimes it seems like all dads came from the same Dad Factory!

  3. George Fischer Says:

    Phil and Erin …… what a beautiful experience, and your telling of it made it even more so.

    Another Sentimental Fool, and proud of it!

    Warm regards,

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Welcome to the Sentimental Fools Club, George! Glad to have you aboard!

  5. Renee Says:

    My husbands family grew up in Ortonville and have all since moved away or died. The memories of visiting “back home” do, as you so wrote, take you back to the very moment in time of your youth. Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thank you, Renee! I’m glad you could relate especially well to it. To most people, Ortonville isn’t anything special. It’s nice to connect with others who feel like I do.

  7. Ray Says:


    Awesome blog today. It’s one of those articles that makes everyone who reads it think about their own “Ortonville” and childhood. I found my own memories flooding to mind.

    Thank you for the roadtrip to simpler times!


  8. Phil Bolsta Says:

    You’re quite welcome, Ray! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  9. Jeff Gerbino Says:

    Nice home you had growing up in Ortonville there Phil and some great family pictures too. I know all about going back home I’ve been writing about it for 4 months now in my book about my childhood home called the Big Yellow House. That home looks like the one in Leave It To Beaver! I know the feeling of being a time traveler when you return to that place. Ortonville may have indirectly been the inspiration for the comedy satire film “Waiting for Guffman”. I put a TV pilot together for KSTP and Mr. Hubbard and one sketch was about a troop of community theater actors and their response to the central character. It was played by Louie Anderson written by me with a short punch line cameo at the end. I met Eugene Levy in LA and showed him the pilot and he laughed loudest at that sketch. He asked if he could use it. He was then doing SCTV I thought he meant that but he co-wrote and produced Guffman which is identical the sketch we did. Anyway we had to sad sack actors chanting at the end “Ortonville..Ortonville..Ort..Ort..Ort!

    Jeff Gerbino

  10. Phil Bolsta Says:

    THanks, Jeff. Yes, the older we get, the more we can relate to time traveling back to our youth. And the sweeter it is. Good luck with your book!

  11. Cherrie Bolsta Wozniak Says:

    This is like walking down memory lane with all five of us, messing around, having fun!! I loved that house!! Hey I still do!! One of the sweetest houses in Ortonville!!

  12. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Agreed, Cherrie! It’s a great, great house! I’m glad we reconnected after all these years!

  13. Kate Says:

    Thanks for that walk down Memory Lane. I could feel what you felt as a child visiting your grandparents and as an adult returning to your childhood sacred place. My trips there with you and Erin hold some of my fondest memories. Every time I see the front door of that house, I remember the first time we visited Ortonville as a young family. Erin was crying, which she rarely did, and Grammo opened the door, seeing her great granddaughter for the first time. As I placed our baby into Grammo’s arms, I too, felt the passing of a torch, and of being part of the creation of the larger Circle of Life. I’m so glad you brought your dad home. He loved that place and made it possible for many people to be touched by all that place held. Blessings to you, to Ortonville and to the wonderful memory of Poppa Kent.

  14. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thank you, Kate. Yes, Ortonville was a special town filled with special people and special places. It’s our experiences that made it special, of course, and I will always cherish that part of my life and our life together.

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