Guest Commentary: Honoring Polly Jelinek passion for local history

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, November 4, 2020

CRWD’s Tim Ruzek pays tribute to major influence on his historical interest in Austin, Cedar River


By Tim Ruzek

Three goodbyes.

That’s what I was supposed to limit Polly Jelinek to whenever we thought we had finished discussing her newspaper column about local history and started trying to make her way out the door.

Polly knew I had a strong interest in Austin and Mower County history, and, given that, her mind constantly kept retrieving stories and historical tidbits — funny, interesting and sad — to share with me. Sometimes, Polly, who always wore mismatched earrings for fun, would almost be out the Austin Post-Bulletin’s doors when she remembered something and walked back down the hall to tell me.

I never minded. Her enthusiasm and pride for her hometown combined with her wonderful and energetic personality always made for a great visit. That’s why I asked Polly to write down her stories and memories so we could work together on turning them into “Pastimes with Polly” columns in 2008 and 2009 in the weekend edition of the Austin Post-Bulletin.

Those many conversations with Polly, who died earlier this month at age 87, have been coming back into my mind as I remember her.

While I earned a history minor in college, I feel like my biggest history education — and the most interesting to me — came from Polly. She was a lifelong Austinite, local historian and retired educator who began her teaching career in a one-room school house in Dexter for 20 students in grades 1–8.

Polly Jelinek and her brother David Madison stand next to the grave of Daniel Wait in 2013, a great-uncle who fought in the Civil War.

Polly deserves much of the credit for all the presentations, references in media releases and social-media posts on local history that I do personally and in my role as the Cedar River Watershed District’s outreach coordinator.

She told me so much about our area’s history, especially in relation to the Cedar River — my favorite local history topic. Polly was the first to tell me about Austin once being called “Pearl City” for the pearls harvested from local mussels in the Cedar River. She even showed me some of those Cedar pearls.

I heard from her about local bootleggers hiding crates of illegal alcohol during the Prohibition in the Cedar River and the methods they used to locate those crates later.

She gave me the education on everything related to the old Horace Austin State Park — yes, including the legendary monkey cages from the 1930s — that pushed me in recent years to research and give public presentations on the major changes in that area over the decades. Polly also told me about the regular steamboat trips made by the Belle of Austin upriver from downtown when the Cedar looked much different with islands and backwaters.

“Back in the day, you would change clothes in the bathhouse at Mill Pond and then sit around and enjoy the sandy beach area with your friends or go to the nearby stands to buy concessions,” Polly wrote in one of her Post-Bulletin columns in 2008, the same year her family celebrated 150 years of living in the Austin area. “I believe there were some boats you also could rent in the area and, years before my time, you could ride on the old steamboat.”

In 2012, Polly came to mind as a great person to help the Cedar River Watershed District celebrate the start of the Cedar River State Water Trail. After all, she was a big reason that I thought about proposing the Cedar River be included in the state’s water trail program because she educated me on how much of a recreational resource it used to be for many decades here.

“It makes me feel good,” Polly told the Austin Daily Herald in 2012 about the Cedar River’s special designation.

Part of her excitement stemmed from her observation that the Cedar River’s grandeur had faded over the years, with less recreational usage and more trash accumulating. The Herald article referred to Polly as possibly the “Cedar’s unofficial historian” and a “walking encyclopedia.”

Polly — a self-described “river rat” — grew up next to Austin’s stone-arched Roosevelt Bridge (4th St SE), which construction started on the year she was born in 1933. She spent about 32 years living on the property that her family had owned since 1886.

The historic floods of July 1978, however, led to the property being purchased and removed in 1981 by the city’s flood-mitigation program.

Her family’s property — which Polly called Austin’s “first mall” — included a home along with spaces that housed businesses over its time. One of those was her family’s boat-rental business that her great-uncles ran from the late 1800s to the 1920s. I think about that business operating along the shoreline every time I use the city trail through that old property near Roosevelt Bridge.

I remember being so excited to have found an old postcard online of her family’s boat business that she actually did not have already in her extensive archives. It was fun to drop off that original postcard (shown below) for her collection.

In 2007, the city, county and federal governments agreed to do a major rehabilitation of Roosevelt Bridge, which very much pleased Polly.

Aside from growing up next to the bridge, she also recalled it being a popular spot for people to take pictures back in the day. Polly showed me black-and-white photos of herself as a teenager from the late 1940s on the stone bridge with its original light posts at each end and in the middle.

She remembered hearing about how the Cedar River was much wider there until crews narrowed it while building Roosevelt Bridge in 1933 and 1934. The bridge was part of the Civil Works Administration program under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative during the Great Depression.

“To me, (the bridge) represents how we found a way to keep people working and keep the country going,” Jelinek told me in 2007, calling it part of “our country’s history.”

As for Polly, she always will represent Austin/Mower County history to me. She loved her hometown and Mower County and volunteered many hours toward researching and talking about history, assisting at the Mower County Historical Society, reading to children at the Austin library and helping out in other ways.