Uncle Gus

One of the things that my mom and dad enjoyed the most during our last few years of visits home to Wisconsin, were outings to local restaurants. Just getting out of the assisted living facility was a real treat. By far, the most memorable of these trips was a visit to a place on Main Street in Cottage Grove called the 1855 Saloon and Grill.

We picked up Mom and Dad for an early dinner to avoid the crowds. It was a new restaurant that had received rave reviews from their neighbors. Mom had grown up in a house just a few blocks down Main Street in Cottage Grove, and we’d be driving right by her family home. Mom had become a little less communicative over the years due to her hearing loss, but as we approached Cottage Grove, Mom became more animated than usual. She identified places that she remembered and marveled at all the changes.

I dropped Mom, Dad, and Rachel off at the restaurant door and parked the car. At the time, Mom was using a walker and Dad a cane. Once seated in our booth, everyone began reading their menus. After a few minutes, Rachel looked up and noticed a large, framed, black and white photograph on the wall across from her seat. Under the frame was a gold plaque. The caption read, “Gus Duckert in his blacksmith shop on 300 East Main Street in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. Photo taken by Clarence Olson for the Capital Times.”

“Duckert. Wasn’t your maiden name, Duckert?” Rachel asked.

Mom looked up at the photo. “Oh my. That’s my Uncle Gus. What’s he doing here?”

Rachel and I laughed. What were the chances of picking this restaurant and being seated right under the photograph of my mom’s Uncle Gus? It was a fascinating photo, capturing an older man, bent over his bench, hard at work blacksmithing. The tools of the trade surrounded him, including hammers, anvils, and an enormous stove. Later I would learn that he spent many years as the town blacksmith and eventually transitioned to repairing cars, specializing in Ford Model T’s.

Gus Duckert in his blacksmith shop in Cottage Grove, WI
Gus Duckert in his blacksmith shop in Cottage Grove, WI

My dad was beside himself with excitement and quickly decided that everyone in the restaurant needed to hear about our connection to the old picture. First, Dad called the waitress over and identified the man in the picture as my mom’s uncle. The waitress tried to appear suitably impressed. Next, Dad insisted that the waitress go find the manager and bring him over to our table. The manager had seated us a few minutes earlier and was a person of small stature. In Dad’s typical, colorful fashion, he demanded that the waitress go find “Shorty” and bring him right over. Once he arrived, Dad continued to refer to him as Shorty, much to the manager’s chagrin. I tried to apologize and explain that Dad was just excited. Within a few minutes, everyone seated within earshot knew all about Uncle Gus. Most smiled and seemed to enjoy Dad’s enthusiasm. As we moved through the restaurant after dinner, Dad completed his mission, inviting patrons in other rooms to go and look at the photo of Uncle Gus.

I think that was the only visit to the 1855 Saloon and Grill with Mom. We returned a few more times with Dad. Each time he would dash ahead of the host or hostess seating us, daring anyone to get in the way of him and his walker, as he sought out the best booth near Uncle Gus. I don’t think that we ever dined together at another restaurant.

Rachel and I spent a relaxing week in the summer of 2019 visiting our home towns of Muscatine, Iowa and Monona, Wisconsin. One pleasant afternoon we took a drive to Cottage Grove and stopped for lunch at the 1855 Saloon. The restaurant was near empty, and I didn’t need to push people out of the way to find seating near Uncle Gus. I even took his picture. He was my grandfather’s uncle. That would make him my Great, Great Uncle Gus.

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