Life behind the mansion doors

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 5, 2002

It has the makings of a movie.

Not a blockbuster, but a small film about human relationships.

A story of the poor farm girl from South Dakota, who got a job cooking for the rich family who lived in the mansion at the edge of Austin.

There would be the undercurrent of tension between the working class and the rich and privileged.

Then, the element of danger arises. The rich and privileged family feels threatened and is forced to hire "tough guys" to guard them

One day, the servant girl makes eye contact with one of the security guards and something happens. They fall in love.

The man whisks the servant girl away to a life of their own and they live happily ever after.

That could be Alice P. Berry's life-story.

All of the elements of a romantic movie are a part of her personal history.

The memories she holds are like a warm blanket.

Listen to Berry, 94, tell her story and believe.

She was there and holds those memories dear.

Is there anyone else who is alive today who knows so many intimate details in the life of Jay Catherwood Hormel and his wife, Germaine Dubois.

Is there anyone who was a nanny to their three sons, George A. II, Thomas Dubois and James Catherwood?

Is there anyone, who knew every room in the Hormel mansion like "the back of my hand?"

Berry did.

"He must have liked me, because he hired me just like that," she said, "and we got along very well through the years."

Guided by faith

Berry is a resident of Sacred Heart care Center in Austin. Her sparsely furnished room is neat and tidy. Enlargements of photographs taken by a nephew decorate one wall. A large window gives her a view of the outdoors, although restricted by tall shrubs.

A radio plays Christian music from its place of prominence on a nightstand between her bed and an easy chair.

"My faith has always been important to me," she said. "I belong to Our Saviors's Lutheran Church in Austin and they are good to me. My religious faith has helped me a lot. I always felt like God was there when I needed Him."

She was born on the South Dakota prairie in 1908 -- the daughter of a farmer plying his trade in the soil 80 miles out of Sioux falls.

"There were six boys and four girls in the family. I was born as close as you can get in the middle of the family," she said.

The deeply religious family sent her to the Lutheran Bible Institute at Minneapolis.

An older sister, Olive, was already living in Minneapolis., doing housework for families and later a younger sister, Amelia, joined the two sisters.

Meanwhile, 90 miles to the south, the son of Geo. A. and Lillian Hormel had returned from World War I in Europe with a bride, the beautiful Germaine Dubois. The couple was settling down on an estate at the east edge of Austin and raising three sons.

Jay's father and his mother chose to move to California and turn the reins of the company Geo founded over to his son.

The youngest sister, Amelia, was hired to do housework for the Hormel family at their Austin mansion.

"Then, there was an accident and one of the Hormel family's maids was killed and Jay Hormel himself asked my sister, Amelia, if she knew of anybody who could replace the woman and she told Mr. Hormel 'My sister is looking for a good job' and when Mr. Hormel talked to me, he was satisfied that I could do the work and hired me I got the job just like that," Berry said.

Amelia worked in the kitchen at the mansion and Berry in the laundry. When an opportunity arose to shift from the laundry to the kitchen, Berry took it.

"I always enjoyed cooking and I was good at it," she said. "My mother taught me well on the farm in South Dakota."

Too many cooks

The Hormel family employed a French chef, who was regarded as a temperamental sort. Frequently he would yell at the kitchen staff and, worse yet, swear at them. One day when Berry wasn't working fast enough to suit the chef, he swore at her.

"He just wouldn't stop and I was working as fast as I could but it wasn't good enough for him. Finally, after listening to as much of it as I could, I just told him 'Will you shut up?'" she said. "I was a very quiet person and never spoke up about anything, but I did that day."

The French chef was fired when the Hormel learned of the incident, but given a job in the Austin plant.

Berry became the head cook.

"I think Jay was tired of French cooking," Berry said. "He hired the French chef because his wife was French, but he really liked the food I cooked for him. I learned from my mother on the farm in South Dakota and it wasn't really anything fancy, but it was good American dishes and we used Hormel meats. I think he liked my cooking better."

The Hormel children, "Geordie,"

Thomas and James were "well-behaved and happy little kids," according to the woman.

Life was as normal as life could be for a family that inherited the legacy of the Austin-based international marketer of meat and other food products.

The Hormel estate included an arboretum planted at the direction of Jay C. Hormel himself. It became the children's enchanted forest.

However, the idyllic lifestyle of Austin's lone entry into the mid-1930s, post-Great Depression lifestyles of the rich and famous derby, the Hormel family, would be shattered by a bitter labor dispute and strike.

Tensions increase for the Hormels

The sight of Jay C. Hormel, son of the company's founder, being carried out of his corporate office, is hard to imagine. Yet, it happened after striking meat packers carrying clubs stormed the offices Nov. 10, 1933.

The plant's refrigeration was turned off by the striking workers, endangering millions of pounds of meat in the plant.

Gov. Floyd B. Olson assembled the Minnesota National Guard and boarded a train to Austin to meet with Jay C. Hormel.

Then, the Governor spoke to the strikers.

Three days later, a settlement was reached and the workers reclaimed their jobs.

Throughout the period, both before and after the work stoppage, tensions ran high in Austin.

Jay C. Hormel ordered that security be hired to guard the plant and his estate. "He wanted his people to hire college graduates who were six feet tall or more. They would guard the offices and the house in the country. We were all told to watch out for ourselves when we left the house," Berry remembers.

One of the security guards assigned to the Hormel estate was a tall man from Iowa, Marion Berry. "Jay met with Marion personally and he hired him to guard the plant, but he must have liked him, because he assigned him to the estate and that's where I met him," Berry said. "I don't remember the day exactly anymore, but we just sort of hit it off and started gong out together and one thing led to another."

A new life

The couple married and had two sons. Marion continued to work at the Austin plant, but Alice was a homemaker and mother.

Years later, she would return to work at the Austin High School cafeteria, where she spent 15 years. When the then-new Austin Junior College opened, she went to work in the cafeteria there.

She finally retired and settled into the couple's northwest Austin home. Her sons moved away (one is now deceased and the other lives in Maine) and no grandchildren live close by.

When her husband died a few years ago, she was left truly alone. After a stint at the Prairie Manor Nursing Home in Blooming Prairie and assisted living in Austin, she moved into a room at Sacred Heart Care Center.

"I enjoyed my work for the Hormel family. They were very good to me. I think Jay liked my pies best of all," she said.

"I thought the Hormel boys were great kids. Later on in life, when Geordie operated a supper club at the old estate, the girls and I went out to dinner there and it was just like I remembered it.

"I even met George and Lillian, when they came back from California to visit their son and his family."

She continues, "It was a very good time. The pay was good enough for those times and it was interesting work. There was always something happening or important people coming to visit. It was exciting. The Hormel family was good to me."

Editor's note: Some historical information for this story comes from Richard Dougherty's book entitled "In Quest of Quality – Hormel's First 86 Years."

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at :mailto:lee.bonorden@austindailyherald.com