After devastating fire, Detroit Lakes man reflects on years spent spreading his love for horses
DETROIT LAKES — "It's a pretty sad sight, isn't it?" says Wally Rodewald as he walks out the front door of the small home just north of Detroit Lakes that he shares with his wife, Charlotte.
He's referring to the pile of burnt wood, melted metal and rubber lying just a short walk away from his home. The burnt-out husk represents all that remains of his woodworking shop and adjacent welding shop, both destroyed by an early November fire.
Though a different welding shop of Rodewald's was destroyed in 2018, also by fire, this blaze caused something much more precious to go up in smoke than his welding and woodworking tools: Rodewald's collection of antique vehicles, including a horse-drawn school bus that he used to drive in area parades as well as to delight local schoolchildren with a visit; the wagon he used to use to give free horse-drawn "sleigh rides" at Washington Square Mall during the holiday season, for more than 25 years; and several other one-of-a-kind pieces of local history.
"It's all gone, everything," he said somberly. "I've cried so much already, I can't cry no more."
Rodewald's horses, including a large black Percheron and two Shetland ponies, fortunately were housed elsewhere. But most of the vehicles that they used to pull behind them for local events — such as the Northwest Water Carnival Parade, the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, and the Becker County Museum's annual Museum Day festivities, among others — have been reduced to a smoldering pile of debris.
Detroit Lakes Fire Chief Scott Flynn said Monday, Nov. 25, that the exact cause of the fire remains undetermined, though he pointed out that Rodewald did use a wood stove to heat the building. "We don't know for sure what caused it," Flynn said. "It (the building) was a total loss."
The stacks of photos, letters of thanks from local schoolchildren and families, and other memorabilia — such as a cowboy figurine that Rodewald made from some old horseshoes, a metal washer (which he used for the cowboy's hat) and a "lasso" that his wife Charlotte made by taking some wire and wrapping a thin piece of twine around it — are pretty much all that remain of Rodewald's collection, some pieces of which truly were one-of-a-kind.
"I have so many letters and photos," Rodewald said, adding that now he no longer has a shop to work in, he might get some time to organize them all.
Besides the horse-drawn vehicles, Rodewald noted, he also lost six tractors, a '55 Chevrolet motor vehicle, his son's four-wheeler, his daughter's skid steer loader, and his hay baler.
"I lost all my tools too," he said. He had to borrow a wrench from his son the other day for making repairs to the water pump outside his home.
The "sheep herder" wagon that Wally and Charlotte have sometimes used for taking their team of horses on trips cross-country was spared, because it was parked outside at the time, Rodewald said, and he also still has three old tractors (of the gas-powered variety) that were housed elsewhere on the property.
"We're about back to where we started in 1960," he said, adding with a little smile that he and Charlotte will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next July. "We've got the house, the pickup truck, and a few little things that didn't burn in the fire."
Though he probably will, at some point, build himself another shop to work in, Rodewald said it will be much smaller than the one he had.
"At 84 years old, there's no point in building anything too big," he said, "I'll get myself a welder and some hand tools, and maybe a small building to work in.
"Sometimes I stayed up all night in the shop working," Rodewald added. "I really enjoyed it. I don't quite know what I should do now."
One project he'll start work on pretty soon, however, is restoring his old horse-drawn trolley, as some people at Dan's Service Center in Detroit Lakes took up a collection to help pay for it.
"It's repairable," Rodewald said. "We most likely won't need it until next summer, so I'll have a little time to work on it."
He also plans to keep bringing his ponies out to Rollag every summer for the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, where he offers rides to the people who want them. Though he no longer has much of the equipment he used for taking his horses and ponies for a drive around the neighborhood, he has no plans on giving them up.
"I have a picture of myself driving a team of horses when I was three years old," he said. "I grew up around horses. I love them."
He added that it was his desire to spread his love of his horses that prompted him to start volunteering to bring them to interact with the kids and families at Mahube Head Start, the Becker County Museum, and various local parades and events.
A 1957 graduate of Detroit Lakes High School, Rodewald got a two-year degree in auto and diesel mechanics from North Dakota State College of Science. His first job was working for the Allis Chalmers dealership in Ulen, Minn., which is where he would meet his future wife, Charlotte.
"It's my hometown," she said.
He went on to be a driver for Olander Bus Service in Detroit Lakes, a position he held for 19 years. He acquired the horse-drawn school bus for LIndy Olander, and would drive it in local parades for him until he purchased it from the family after Lindy's death. "I still have the sleigh runners for it," Rodewald said, noting that they were stored elsewhere on his property.