Clayton Township, ‘one heckuva good place to live’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 25, 2000

The first thing to notice is the music.

Friday, June 23, 2000

The first thing to notice is the music.

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It’s an accordion, playing a slow waltz, that seems to match the rhythm created by the tall trees swaying in the breeze.

Then, the nose picks up the smell of charcoal as plumes of blue smoke rise in the sky.

Cars, pickup trucks and vans are all parked neatly in rows on an immaculately groomed lawn.

The flag is flying above the front door.

People come and go, carrying picnic baskets, covered dishes and coolers.

All of a sudden, laughter erupts from inside the new-looking building.

Welcome to the annual Clayton Township reunion picnic.

Part good food, part fellowship, part semi-official business, the Clayton Township reunion picnic is all that and more.

Dave Gilderhus, the township clerk, is a little worried about the "legality" of the event held Monday night, June 19. "We vote on it at the annual meeting each year, but I’ve not sure the money we spend on it is entirely legal, but we spend so little, because people bring so much. I think they really enjoy our picnic," Gilderhus said.

Since 1986, the picnic has been held. In the first year, 90 invitations were sent. This year, 150 were mailed. The only requirement is to have been born in Clayton Township, to have lived there some time ago or presently or, apparently, simply to know somebody from the township.

It is a wide-open, come-as-you-are, bring a dish to pass potluck picnic. Nobody is turned away.

"It’s for residents of the township and others," said Gilderhus. "It’s the clerk’s job to keep a list on computer and each year we add to it or delete from it to keep it up to date. Then, in June, we mail our invitation cards."

Townships survive

There are 1,793 townships throughout Minnesota with more than 900,000 residents.

Mower County has 20 townships and, despite the best efforts of an occasional Minnesota legislator or two who think America’s oldest form of government is antiquated and, therefore, useless, townships survive.

Each township in the county is comprised of 36 sections. They are located in four tiers of five each across Mower County west to east. Clayton Township is located in the southern half of the 20 townships.

It is bordered on the east by Mower County No. 8, the west by a line one mile east of Mower County No. 7, on the north by a line stretching eastward from St. John’s Lutheran Church north of Elkton and south by a township road one mile south of Mower County No. 4.

Like Udolpho, Windom, Bennington and Pleasant Valley, there is no village in the township.

Originally named "Providence," Clayton Township was organized in 1873 and named after William Z. Clayton, who owned the land.

According to the Mower County Historical Society, the earliest settler was John Johnson, and shortly after he settled there, Hiram Thompson.

The only other "public" building in the township, in addition to the township hall, is Marshall Lutheran Church, which opened in 1890.

The Marshal Lutheran Cemetery contains the graves of many of the pioneers who settled in the township.

Roger and Milo Julson are the township’s maintenance workers. Each brother has about 20 miles of township roads to maintain.

The first country schoolhouse built in the township was Clayton Prairie School District No. 74’s in Section 28. The schoolhouse was destroyed by fire in 1926, but rebuilt, and it served the district’s children until 1957, when the district joined the Adams Public Schools district.

The old country schoolhouse was turned into a township hall and community building until 1976, when it was torn down and a new one built.

Three other country school districts were established in the township and school houses built to accommodate the rural children’s education needs. They, too, later closed and the students went to Adams Public Schools.

The highest elevations in Mower County are found in Clayton Township, whose last census was 192 people in 1990. While winds blow from all directions on the Clayton Township flatlands, the farmers are fortunate to have heavy, wet soil for their crops and escape more serious erosion losses.

Service spans a century

For decades, the township has enjoyed little turn-over in its township government. In fact, no other township in Mower County enjoys the track record of longevity that Clayton Township has.

The Mower County Township Association conducted a survey and discovered the Clayton Township Board members and their clerk have over 138 years of service.

The amazing total increases to 160 years, when township treasurer Wayne Johnson’s 22 years of service are included.

Gilderhus, township clerk, was appointed in 1956 and has 44 years of service. He is the senior member of all townships’ boards in the entire county.

Jesse Rohne, township supervisor, has served 40 years.

Keith Vorhees, township board chair, came on the board in 1966 and has 34 years of public service.

Mort Kellogg, township supervisor, was elected in 1980 and has 20 years service, according to the MCTA survey.

The township treasurer, Johnson, began his duties in 1978.

It is a place where generation-upon-generation has planted roots and stayed.

Long-time resident and former long-time Mower County Commissioner Robert "Butch" Finbraaten, now retired, moved from Illinois to the township with his family when he was only 10 years old.

Vorhees, the township board chairman was born and raised in the township, one of three children to grow up on a dairy and beef cattle farm.

Rohne moved here from Blue Earth County in 1941.

Kellogg, a township supervisor, first lived with his parents in Bennington Township before moving "out west" to Clayton Township – one township away – in 1943.

None has any discouraging words for life in the township.

"It’s always been a good place to live and work," said Finbraaten.

"The people are what make it a special place," said Vorhees. "Just like the picnic they liked so much, they want to promote the township as much as they can."

"The people are what I like most about the township. We have some very good people here," said Rohne.

Kellogg, who with his wife Marlene, who raised four children on a farm next to another farmstead of his brother, Jim, said, "It’s just one heckuva good place to live, work and raise a family and just a good place to be."

Conrad and Inez Schissel of Adams attended the latest township picnic. Mrs. Schissel grew up in the township and remembers the "friendliness of the people" and the "beautiful, open countryside."

She became an elementary school teacher in the Austin Public Schools System and is the daughter of Annie and Iver Uglum, a former Mower County commissioner. The Uglum family was among the township’s earliest and most prominent settlers.

Six of her aunts and two sisters were teachers like her and her brother, Lloyd, was the last sibling to attend classes in what was for the Uglum family a "family school."

At last Monday night’s picnic, an outhouse drew the attention of one of the picnickers.

"That’s a really old one," said Harlan Boe, who went to school in the Clayton Prairie District No. 74’s building on the site of the township hall. "I remember tipping the outhouse over a time or two in my youth," said the octogenarian.

Boe’s family roots are nearby, but closer to Taopi. He wrote an original poem about the old country schoolhouse which was displayed at the picnic.

Also at the picnic was Gladys Boe, who married, Ervin, an older brother of Harlan’s.

She taught in the school house in 1930-31.

"We raised all five of our kids on the farm in the township and I taught school for one year and had 17 pupils. Harlan was one of them. I would say he was an ordinary student, if you know what I mean," said Mrs. Boe.

Even Harlan laughs when he hears the remark.

Earl Lewison was one of 12 children born in his family in Clayton Township.

A half-mile away, his wife, Alvina King, grew up one of 12 in her family.

They brought dishes to pass at the picnic and when a group picture was taken of everyone, Lewison, 92 years old, snapped one for himself.

"The picnic is a nice event for everybody to get together and share the news about the old times," he said.

The 2000 census probably will show a dip in the population of the township. The exodus from the countryside continues in America’s heartland.

The farm financial crisis of the mid-1980s also uprooted farming families in the township.

When a group of picnickers are asked who is the oldest resident, they have ready answers.

When they are asked who is the youngest resident, they pause and search for the name of the latest baby born. In the end, the consensus is Mr. and Mrs. Mike Bustad are the township’s newest parents. Their’s is the only name mentioned.

Life is not entirely frozen in time in Clayton Township, but there is an orderliness that suggests no drastic changes in lifestyles.

Every Clayton Township reunion picnic could be, as Yogi Berra once said, "Deja vu all over again."

It’s family fun

One can imagine, Keith Vorhees will be flipping pork burgers on the grill again next year with Fred Harvey, one of the former township residents, who returned for the picnic, watching Vorhees’ handiwork.

Roger and Milo Julson will be helping, too.

Jesse Rohne will be playing his accordion to the delight of everyone. Daughter Becky and her husband, Jim Bissen, will be shuttling the burgers, brats and hot dogs into the hall for a buffet-style meal. Vernon and Laverne Hoffman, twin brothers, and their wives will be visiting with friends.

Mort Kellogg and Wayne Johnson will be swapping stories and Dave Gilderhus kibitzing with picnic guests.

The first thing to notice will be the music.

It’s an accordion, playing a slow waltz, that seems to match the rhythm created by the tall trees swaying in the breeze.

Then, the smell of charcoal smoke as plumes of blue rise in the sky.

Cars, pickup trucks and vans parked neatly in rows on an immaculately groomed lawn.

The flag flying above the front door.

People coming and going, carrying picnic baskets, covered dishes and coolers.

Laughter erupting from inside the new-looking building.

Dave Gilderhus saying, "This is the grassroots government. This is how American got started. The township has lasted longer than any other form of government. This picnic, this reunion of the township’s residents proves that the township is alive and well."

So be it in Clayton Township.