Native Son: The good old days in Ely

by Charles D Novak

Simply put, Ely is a great place to live especially if you are retired.
I was sitting in my living room window watching them turn blocks of ice into fantastic sculptures for the Winter Carnival at Whiteside Park. The ECHO had a full page of pictures showing these beautiful creations. My favorites were Guardian of the North, Summer Sift and From Ear to Ear.
We also have a Blueberry Festival, Harvest Moon Festival along with some toe tapping parades.
I broke my record and read 122 books last year! Ely is a great place for reading and we have a great library to supply us with all the recent best sellers along with the classics. We also have theater like the annual musicals at the Washington Auditorium and Vermilion College Theater. The Mesabi Symphony Orchestra comes to town on a regular basis and we get a few opera performances. Our own high school band gives concerts on a yearly basis. The only thing we lack is a movie theater but with all the movies available on television like Netflix we can swiftly choose a good film to watch in our own time frame. I would like to see the State Theater come back to life and hopefully it will but I doubt it would be on a regular movie showing basis. There is nothing like watching a good movie with a good audience.
I enjoy doing errands and shopping in Ely. You can get a lot done in a little time. I never get tired of going to our old post office. It doesn’t have the glow it did when I went there to buy stamps for my parents in the ’40s and ’50s. The current staff still makes everyone feel welcome. The Forest Service office used to be on the top floor.
Remember the First National Bank of Ely? Whenever I went there people always talked in almost a whisper like they were in church. I thought maybe they didn’t want to wake up all that money or let the person in line behind them know how much their financial transaction was going to be.
Behind the bank was the Community Center which in its heyday always had something going on. A lot of wedding banquets took place in this memorable old building. Good food was served in the cafeteria in the basement which also had a shower room for the public. When you think about it there was no reason to be dirty when you could take a bath at home or shower at the Community Center. There were also showers at the mines and Ely High School.
I believe at one time there were six grocery stores in town but the population was seven thousand people and now we have a little over three thousand and two grocery stores. Since I moved back to Ely almost two years ago, I enjoy walking around with my head full of old memories. I play the game of trying to guess who lived in each house. Growing up here I knew them all but now I have to stop and really think who they were.
A real heartbreaker for me is the number of empty homes falling apart. During my early years in Ely people were so proud of their house and the property around it. Grass was always cut, gardens thrived during the summer months, flowers bloomed everywhere and there was an abundance of Crab Apple trees. Remember them? I don’t see them anymore.
The big summer event was the Roaring Stoney Days which featured an all you can eat picnic in the park and the grandest and biggest parade featuring bands from many towns on the Iron Range. There were beautiful floats with many beautiful girls wearing prom-like gowns.
I never wanted that parade to end and speaking of parades, I eventually became a member of the Ely Drum & Bugle Corps which was also known as the Dillionaires named after our founder and leader Harold Dillion. He was very strict with us when we practiced for a contest coming up. We were still on the Ely Football Field practicing after it got dark. This all paid off when we started to take first place in every contest we entered. The biggest event for us was our invitation to go to Miami to march and perform at the American Legion Convention. We placed 13th out of 27 units from all over the country. Not bad for a bunch of kids from a small town!
But then disaster hit! It started to rain in the last parade down Biscayne Blvd. Our uniforms consisted of white pants and shirts with a red feather on top of our hats. The rain hit the feather and the red water soaked into our white uniforms. When we got back to Ely we had to start money making events to get new uniforms. The Ely people and local businesses were so proud of us we had the new uniforms before the end of summer.
When I went on a job interview as an adult, one of the questions I was asked was “what organizations do you belong to?” My answer was “None. I ran any organization I belonged to!” The interviewer looked at me and said “can you start on Monday? That was the best answer I’ve ever received for that question.” I did start up an organization for the kids who belonged to St Anthony’s Catholic Church. I just didn’t feel we were represented as equals in the Parish. It took me awhile to get approval from Father Mike.
Finally the assistant pastor, Father Jerry LaPatka joined our cause and promised to be responsible for our activities. It took a while to get members but when we started our money making events, the kids who didn’t belong to our group felt left out and begged to join us. We had bake sales, bingo (naturally) used goods sales and a big indoor fair with booths filling the space in the church basement.
At night I got a bunch of acts together and put on a big musical which gave Radio City Music Hall a run for its money. At least in my imagination it did. We also started publishing a Catholic newspaper for the young people. We took a couple trips to visit some the parishes on the Iron Range who wanted our input about starting a children’s group.
Ours was a great success but fell apart when I left Ely to go into the seminary. People’s feelings about religion started to change around that time. Currently I’m not religious but I am a spiritual person. So now at 76 I still have many thoughts and memories as I walk around Ely. I think other people in town feel the same way because since I’ve moved back, many people have approached me and said “remember when……….?