Wells’ 150th anniversary: Small but mighty
City continuously shows hope in face of adversity, changing times
In speaking with a few Wells residents about the most memorable moments in their town’s 150-year history, many brought forth memories that were quite tragic. But then, there were frequently shifts in their train of thought. While these moments reflected hardship, there was often a silver lining or some sort of saving grace.
Hope, optimism and perseverance are just a few of the common threads interwoven in the stories that collectively make up the history of Wells.
The following is a snapshot of that history — a moment’s glance — as told by a couple members of the community:
When Barb Fuchs, 79, calls herself a lifelong resident of Wells she does so proudly.
“I was born three miles of south of town, and I moved into town when I got married,” she said as her smile grew. “And that’s as far as I got.”
Her early days on the farm were spent in a multi-generational home. She lived with her parents, Armund and Bernadine Eastman, and her grandparents, Frank and Grace Eastman.
Her younger brother, Brian, wouldn’t make his dramatic entry until she was almost 10.
On April 26, 1950, her father had asked her mother if it would be OK to check on the Frank Bros. Elevator that he heard was on fire. She told him to go ahead, and a short time later wanted to retract the statement when her water broke. Fuchs’ mother ended up calling a neighbor, who drove into town to find her husband and send him back home. Her brother arrived the next morning.
While the story may seem slightly humorous, it’s not the most memorable of her youth — although, this story started with a chuckle, too.
“I remember my dad said, ‘Oh, that sky looks terrible. It looks green,’” Fuchs said. “I thought he was being silly. I thought, ‘A green sky? That can’t happen!’”
The 6-year-old girl and her parents continued on their way to town to go shopping, which was a common activity on a Saturday night. After giving them the chance to pick up a few things, Barb Fuchs’ grandparents were then planning to come to town and get her so her parents could go to a dance at the Knights of Columbus.
“My parents were great dancers,” she said with a smirk.
“That night it was hot, hot, hot out, just so hot,” Fuchs said. “I can remember Mom and Dad just fussing about that, because my mom dressed up so she could go to the dance. But she brought her flat shoes, because she didn’t want her good high heels to get dirty, and it did look like it might rain.”
The family never made their way into the Red Owl Grocery store that night.
“We parked in front of what was then Coast to Coast and my mom was going to get out and go across the street, and she looked up and there was a tree in the air — a big pine tree,” Fuchs said growing wide-eyed. “My dad by that time had seen what was coming.”
Fuchs’ dad yelled at his wife to get inside.
“And all I remember is he dragged me into the store, and my mother — instead of just coming — she had to put her good shoes back in the car because she didn’t want them to get spoiled,” she lightly laughed. “Once she got them in the car and shut the door, then she came in.”
Fuchs also remembers the owner of the store, Loren Mylie, was leading everyone down into the basement with a flashlight since the electricity was out.
Once they had descended the stairs, her father quickly pushed her up against the wall.
“And I thought, ‘Yuck!’ The wall was dirty, and it was not a nice basement at all,” Fuchs said.
Unlike everyone else, her father didn’t put his back to the wall. He faced his only child, folded his arms above her head and used his body as a protective shield against any debris that rained down on her as a tornado tore down Broadway.
It was a pivotal moment in Fuchs’ young life. It was the first and only time she recalls hearing her father raise his voice to her mother — and it was the first time she had ever seen him show fear.
“For him to holler at my mother about those shoes,” she shook her head as her eyes slightly glossed over. “He never hollered at my mother. He never would have done that if he wasn’t terrified.”
She said it seemed like it took forever for the tornado to pass, but in reality it was only a couple minutes.
“Then it was so still — quiet — not a thing that you could hear,” she said. “Pretty soon you started hearing people wailing and crying and looking for others, so we went upstairs then and (the sky) had lightened up. It wasn’t late.”
According to news reports, she was right. It was only about 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 17, 1946.
One of her family’s first concerns were for her grandparents, who were due to arrive at about the same time the storm hit.
“As it turns out, they never did make it to town,” Fuchs said noting police wouldn’t let them into town.
“My mom was just hanging onto me for dear life, but you know you could barely get around once we got out of the store. It was just rubble,” she said.
Their car was pinned by debris so the family was on foot when Fuchs remembers someone approaching her dad.
“‘Your folks are out by the city limits, but they couldn’t get in,’ they said. So we walked,” Fuchs said, pausing to correct herself. “We climbed over the rubble, but once we got past Main Street it wasn’t that bad.”
“He sent me home with Grandma and Grandpa, and a couple of our neighbors were there, too,” Fuchs said. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, if he can’t get his car out, we’ll bring him home.’”
She remembers her mother staying behind with her father and returning with the neighbor who offered them a ride earlier in the evening. She doesn’t remember her father coming home at all that night.
“We had a couple tornadoes that came through near our farm after that, but they weren’t nearly as destructive as the one that came through town,” she said.
While Fuchs has seen many more highs and lows since that day, none have rivaled Oct. 26, 1995.
As an employee of the city, Fuchs’ husband, Aryln “Bud” Fuchs, was used to keeping a scanner on all day. Most of the chatter faded into the background, like a television that was left on in another room, but not this.
While Fuchs doesn’t remember the exact words spoken, she remembers the terror the scanner transmission sparked in both herself and her husband when it noted someone had been hit by a train.
“We looked at each other, and all we could think of was our little ones,” she said referring to the couple’s grandchildren who went to a nearby day care.
Panic was replaced by elation for only a fleeting second as they spotted the toddlers’ daycare provider come out to her porch after noticing a commotion. Their granddaughters Kelsey and Rachel were safely nestled in her arms.
So if they’re granddaughters were safe, who was it?
A glance towards the tracks gave them both the answer. Even from a distance, they could recognize the child by her puffy coat.
Bud Fuchs broke out into an immediate sprint, and Barb Fuchs followed his lead. In her heart, she knew there was nothing they could do. But the truth was probably harder for Bud to accept.
He had known the little girl’s father for years. They worked together for the city of Wells. He saw the little girl every time he went to Gene Kauffmann’s to play cards, and half the time the little girl would make her way onto his lap.
In many ways she was more than just a friend’s daughter. After working together for so long, Gene Kauffmann was more like a brother to him than a friend. And 5-year-old Jamie wasn’t just any little girl, either. She was a daddy’s girl, a tomboy, her father’s shadow — much like Bud Fuch’s youngest daughter, Jill, was to him. Bud Fuchs has since passed, but his wife has little doubts that the similarities between the two heightened his affection for the girl.
She watched her husband’s knees begin to buckle, and then she heard a heartbreaking wail followed by a cry for help.
Jamie’s mother, Heather Kauffmann, was awoken from a nap to a nightmare. The pain in her cries made it evident that she already knew what had happened.
“Help me grab her, Barb!” an ambulance worker called as Jamie’s mother raced toward the tracks.
At first Barb Fuchs was helping to save a mother from an image she never would have been able to forget. As Heather Kauffmann’s sobs turned to wheezes, the focus of the duo shifted from trying to prevent one tragedy to leading to another by pulling Jamie’s mother into the ambulance to be treated for an asthma attack.
A city of Wells truck soon pulled up to the scene with three men sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front. In the middle sat Gene Kauffmann, who was unaware of his daughter’s fate.
“When they came and got me, they wouldn’t tell me what was going on. They just told me there was an accident and Jamie had been involved,” Gene Kauffmann said.
“Gene aged 10 years in a minute as he slid out of that truck,” Barb Fuchs said, believing she witnessed the very moment he realized she was gone.
Over time, a general understanding of what happened came to light. Hoping to avoid being punished for crossing the railroad tracks on her own, Jamie decided to pull her bike underneath the train with her when her path home was blocked. Barb Fuchs said she was later told a neighbor yelled at her not to, but it was too late. Unaware the young girl was in harm’s way, the train engineer pulled forward, and Jamie’s short life came to an end.
Years of sobriety could have come to an end for Jamie’s father as well, but when Gene Kauffmann couldn’t bring himself to leave his house, his AA group came to him.
“One of the greatest supports I had was from my AA Club,” Gene Kauffman said. “The guys came down here. We had meetings right here at the house because I didn’t even really leave for a month or better.”
The support from the members of the community as a whole was a priceless gift in his eyes.
“I blamed God at the time. I did,” he said. “You can’t understand it because it just drains you. It’s like someone just pulls everything out of you, but I found out through my program that God works through people. And I’m saying this at my age to people who need support. God does work through people, and the love and the support you get that way is one of the best ways to get through anything.”
Wilfred “Willy” Bias
Willy Bias was only a boy during World War II, so he never saw a battlefield, but he was visited by men who did — German prisoners of war who would help on his Grandpa John Bias’ farm, as well as those of his father, Frank, and his uncle, Clem.
According to Wells Depot Museum records, Wells was home to over 300 POWs who were brought in from a larger camp in Algona, Iowa, to help alleviate work shortages in the agricultural industry caused by men being drafted into the war. The first to arrive were German POWs, who left in late September 1945. Italian POWs followed, but they were only there a few weeks before the camp was closed.
The Bias family was just one of several families in the area that took advantage of the opportunity to utilize their services — but there were rules. POWs were supposed to be looked at indifferently — their only meals were to be the rations provided to them, which was sometimes just a sandwich, they were not supposed to be allowed in private homes and they were not to be photographed. Punishment for breaking the rules included fines and even time in jail.
Willy Bias’ family didn’t break one of the rules — they broke all of them.
At 85, Willy Bias remembers one particular POW quite well.
Siegfried Tihphine, 34, was a German sargent who surrendered to the Americans.
He still remembers the details of the story Tihphine shared with him.
The POW showed the then 12-year-old a big scar on his side that he said was caused by a Russian bayonet. While he was healing in the hospital, the POW said he had little to no supervision, because he wasn’t considered a threat in his weakened state.
“He told me he kept pretending he was weak, but at night he would get out of his bed and do push-ups and different kinds of exercises with the intention of escaping from the Russian hospital.
“He distinctly told me he would not surrender to the French and he never did say why,” Willy Bias said.
Bias acknowledged that Tihphine was forced to swear his allegiance to the German Army but he didn’t subscribe to Nazi philosophies, and he believed that was part of the reason he wanted to surrender.
Willy Bias and his older brother, Leonard, would lead the horse-drawn wagons so the POWs, who were helping during threshing season, could load bundles onto wagons. Unfortunately, although the men were quite strong and helpful, they weren’t familiar with American farming methods, and he and his brother would have to redistribute the load.
Tihphine would roll the American cigarettes Willy Bias’ father would give him with one hand and share his wisdom with the boy when they had a break between loads.
“Three things have stuck in his mind over the years,” Willy Bias said before listing them.
“America has way too much waste.”
Willy Bias said Tihphine was not referring to trash during moments like these, but space. Germany made it a higher priority to get the most out of the land they had, so instead of empty lots between railroad tracks and highways, you’d see gardens.
His second piece of advice,“Wilfred, you should have let us to go to clean out Russia because Russia will be your vital enemy one day, and that came to pass with the Cold War, which costs us millions and millions of dollars.”
Lastly, Willy Bias remembers the POW stressing the importance of shoes.
“He said you can walk without a shirt, but you can’t go very far without your shoes.”
When meal times came, the POWs were supposed to eat outside with their sack lunches, but the Bias family couldn’t do it.
His grandfather, who was of German ancestry, brought them into the house the next day and said, “You work with us, you eat with us.”
Willy’s mother, Regina, approved of the decision. Her brother, Norbert, was serving in the South Pacific at the time, and he remembers her saying that if her brother was ever captured, she’d want him to be treated the same way.
The children at school asked if he was afraid.
“It never entered my mind that I had something to be afraid of,” Willy Bias said. “They were just like a hired man.”
When the war ended, Tihphane wanted to stay in America but was forced to return home.
Willy Bias believes his sister still has some of the correspondence between his mother and the POW who kept in touch after the war.
Willy Bias remembers the criticism the U.S. received for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagazaki, which quickly lead the Japanese to surrender. He also remembers tears streaming down his mother’s face.
“Now my brother will come home alive,” he quoted her as saying.
“To see my mother like that was quite moving,” he said with a faltering voice.
The polio epidemic is something both he and his wife, Mary Ann Bias, remember, and it occurred at about the same time in Wells’ history.
Mary Ann’s Bias said her father wouldn’t even bring her and her siblings to town fearing they would contract polio. Willy Bias’ sister, Kathy, did and spent months at the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis as a result. His family wasn’t allowed to visit, but she did come home without any significant effects from the disease.
Mary Ann Bias helped to care for one resident who wasn’t so fortunate when she was in nurse’s training in Rochester. His name was Mike Schultz — a tremendous baseball player who was supposed to be signed to play for the Yankees.
“I went to country school with Michael Schultz,” Willy Bias said. “And he was a big guy with a deep voice, and I really looked up to him. I was just this scrawny first grader and I wanted to be just like him.”
Then one day Willy Bias came to Rochester to visit.
“I want you to come see someone,” Mary Ann Bias told him.
She took him to see Schultz, who was being treated in an iron lung.
Willy Bias felt a cold sting of a harsh lesson smack him across the face when he realized who Schultz was.
“Don’t ever want to be someone else. Be yourself,” he said, still thinking of the lesson he learned that day.