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Book takes readers through rise and fall of a small town

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 05/13/2013 2:36 PM

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OWATONNA, Minn. — Hiram Drache's book, "Where's Meriden," takes readers on a trip through time.

The book starts in 1855 when A.M. Fitzsimmons staked his claim in Meriden Township, Steele County. There was a stage stop on the land, the stage being a vital link to other pioneer towns.

It ends in 2009, with Peterson Grain and Brokerage, the lone business in the town of Meriden located along the Canadian Pacific rail line.

In between, it tells the tale of a small town that grew, blossomed and then withered. The town's changes reflect those of agriculture, which started with many farmers and their families on a few acres and grew to farms with few farmers and their families spread out on many acres.

Drache, who was in Steele County last month for a book signing, said his goal was to tell a micro story of a macro issue — the rise and fall of small towns.

"Small towns filled a niche when they were needed, and today, they live on in nostalgia, in poetry, in stories about the 'good old days' and in paintings about the rustic past," Drache said.

He said he's sentimental about the fate of his hometown of Meriden, but its fate is by no means unique. His wife, Ada, grew up in southwest Minnesota and said the same story played out there, with villages growing and then shrinking.

Yet, Drache, the author of 14 books, lost the most sleep over "Where's Meriden?" wondering how it would be accepted in his hometown, where his mother, Anna, was the postmistress from 1929 to 1968. His father, Paul, was a businessman from 1917 to 1968.

The crowd at a book signing and presentation at the Steele County History Center was welcoming and filled with questions, Drache said. He hasn't lived in Meriden since 1947 and last visited in 2003 or 2006.

There's not much left to go back for. The Meriden of his youth exists only in his memory. He doesn't know anyone who lives in the village now.

He doesn't want to disturb the present owners of his boyhood home, which also served as the post office, by stopping in. His home, which he described as the nicest building in town, became the oldest structure in the village when a fire destroyed the Kath store in 2003. The house was built in 1868 and additions were added in 1930 and 1939. The Kath store was the village's final business landmark of his youth. He's most disappointed that the school was razed. It was demolished because it would have been too costly to make it handicap-accessible.

"Where's Meriden" took 2,800 hours to write. Drache started assembling materials for the book in the 1960s and starting working on it in 2009. He always works on more than one book at a time, finding it more efficient than focusing solely on one.

In 1983, his mother gave him notes about early Meriden events, hinting that he should write a book. It was in 1992, four years after his mother had died, that he realized his tale of Meriden should be a micro-macro history.

"When I started my research, I had no idea at what point the story would close, but changing agriculture, which I have written about in several books, dictated a new era for rural society," Drache writes in the preface. "Instead of having a farm service center every eight miles to accommodate horse and wagon, by the 1960s, 35 minutes . . . was suggested to be the ideal distance to justify an adequate trade center."

Small farms were inefficient, he said, surviving on the unpaid labor of wives and children. He writes of his aunt and uncle, who he spent two summers working for. They milked 12 to 15 cows, had four sows that farrowed twice a year and raised 300 chickens.

"They were content with life, but like the merchants in the small town, they worked long hours and I never recall that they ever took a vacation," Drache writes in the book.

". . . Even though the nation has lost several million farmers, production has continued to rise," he concludes. ". . . Therefore, the need for little farm service centers, like Meriden, will diminish."

A member of the Owatonna High School class of 1942, Drache served three years in World War II. He was a navigator on a B-17 bomber that flew out of England with targets mostly in Germany. He turns 89 in August, when he plans to return to Steele County for senior day at the Steele County Free Fair.

He and Ada now make their home in Fargo, where he writes and is historian in residence at Concordia College.

His 14th book, "R.D. Offutt: Success and Significance," was released April 26. It tells the story of a former student who is now the nation's largest potato grower and the largest John Deere dealer in the world. He started his business career by signing for half his father's liabilities, Drache said.