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Jones' descendants recall mill, Fishermen's Rest

EL PASO--Down by the Rush River, a now-secluded spot used to be quite a lively place.

Grain was milled there, fish were caught there and weekends were spent there in a variety of recreational pursuits. Things especially came alive at this locale near El Paso each Fourth of July.

All of these counterpoints to the modern-day peacefulness of Fishermen's Rest constitute memories for Herman Jones' descendants. Five of them--Ray and Isabelle Jones, Arnold and Evelyn (Kiefer) Roen, and Betty (Kiefer) Winger--will serve as Honorary Citizens when the El Paso Days celebration returns to the community Friday-Sunday, Aug. 18-20.

Herman was behind much of those past proceedings and this year's event is dedicated to Jones Mill. Last week, the descendants and celebration organizer Merlin Blaisdell, who presently lives at the site, reminisced about the local landmark.

"Herman was two-years-old when he came here," Blaisdell said Thursday.

Jones' dad, Charles, had operated a mill in Big River, he said. The people of El Paso needed someone to do milling locally, so they went to see his operation. Pleased with what they saw, they moved him to their town and set him up with a mill there.

Son Herman's niece, Evelyn Roen, remembered a later tragedy affecting the family and the mill. Another of her uncles, Willie, was out on the river in a rowboat when a bad flood arrived. The high water pushed into the boat and he drowned. Her aunt, Matilda, was with him, but was spared.

"She heard a yell, 'Tillie don't go'," Mrs. Roen said, explaining it caused her to turn around and escape the brunt of the flood. The family attributed the verbal warning to divine intervention.

Afterward, searchers had difficulty finding Willie's body, she said. They ultimately consulted a psychic from town, who not only told them where the body was, but described its position in detail, including a raised arm. Sure enough, they found it exactly like that.

Willie's death left the mill without an operator, as he had been running it at the time, Blaisdell said. Because Herman was then in the military (World War I was underway), his mother wrote to his commander asking he be allowed to come home to take over the family business. The request was granted.

Herman handled the mill operation during the 1920s and '30s, he said. The mill originally was three stories tall (nephew Ray Jones recalled walking in and going upstairs to where the feed was stored). A water wheel long served the mill's purpose, though after the dam went out in '32, a gasoline engine was employed. In 1963, Blaisdell and a crew of locals removed the top story-and-a-half, adding a tin roof.

"It might not be here much longer," he said about its present dilapidated, unstable condition.

At the end of a busy work week, Herman looked forward to fun. Ray Jones, now retired from a 42-year career at Montgomery Wards in the Twin Cities, called him an active man, always wanting to have people around. At an ice cream stand then stationed at Fishermen's Rest, the nephew helped dip ice cream from buckets for the crowds who typically showed up on summer Sundays.

"I had small hands and, by the end of the day, my arms were really tired," he said.

Mrs. Roen, who presently lives on a farm east of River Falls with husband Arnold, said she helped at the same stand as a youngster by carrying supplies to it. The reward for that work was a five-cent treat.

"I always chose a Tootsie Roll," she said, opting for the chewy chocolate confection because it was long-lasting in her mouth.

Area ball teams regularly played on then-dry land that's now covered by the river, which was close by nonetheless, Ray Jones said. Kitten ball was the game of choice (Blaisdell indicated such a ball is larger than today's baseball, soft and fuzzy). Frequently, the left fielder would have to make plays in the water, sometimes falling in, he said, noting horseshoes was a favorite, too.

Swimming was a popular pastime at the river, with a diving board even set up nearby, Mrs. Roen said. Her Aunt Lucy rented swimsuits for 10 cents apiece on the weekends, washing them out during the week to be used again. Her Uncle Ernie saved her from drowning when she was four-years-old.

A footbridge led to a pavilion, home of weekend dances, she said. Politicians were regulars on the grounds, giving speeches. A swing inside a large tree was kept busy.

"Everybody brought their kids," she said, estimating between 85 and 100 people came on a typical Sunday.

Herman was highly supportive of young people, making sure they had plenty of activities. She said he pushed snow off the river for a skating rink to be used by the youths on winter Sunday mornings.

"We had clamp-ons," she said about skates which were clamped directly to shoes. The family only had one pair, so each child was allowed to skate for an hour, then had to give them up to another.

Blaisdell was one of 10 foster kids Herman and his wife, Alice, adopted, having no children of their own, said Mrs. Roen. He said he and his older brother, Duane, were expected to clear the cow manure away from the riverbank every Sunday morning.

"We have guests coming" is what Herman used to tell them, he said.

The Fourth of July drew the largest crowds of the year, he said. Beer was carried to Fishermen's Rest in gallon jugs from the Old Log Cabin Bar, just up the road. The festivities gave the place its reputation for hosting good-time gatherings.

Ray and Isabelle Jones cared for Herman and Alice in their later years, bringing them goods from their home in the Cities, Blaisdell said.