By Thom Gerretsen
Marshfield became my home 40 years ago on May 1, when News Director Don Meyers needed a full-time reporter and anchor at what was then WDLB-AM/WDLB-FM. Jack Hackman, who managed both stations at the time, invited me for a Sunday afternoon job interview. It lasted three hours, and I don’t believe he asked five questions. I did the vast majority of the talking, and I took off on various tangents after answering his initial inquiries.
One of the things he did on that day in 1978 was to sell me on Marshfield, an amazing community for its size. I moved here from Portage, which had 8,000 residents and a very “small town feel” at the time. Hackman promoted Marshfield as a larger place with more opportunities. He described it as a “small city,” a place later deemed by several survey firms as one of the nation’s best.
Marshfield Clinic has hundreds of doctors which makes our community more diverse and cultural than others with similar populations. I met my wife, Jean almost as soon as I started to work here, and it’s been a great place to raise our family.
Like others, we’ve had urban sprawl. I now pay my Cellcom smartphone bill at the site of the brick structure that WDLB first occupied in 1947. When I moved here, it was still solely a radio station close to half its current size – not the multi-business structure of today. WDLB and the Marwood Motor Inn were the only places at or near the corner of Central Avenue and McMillan Street near the city’s north border in 1978. Now, there are buildings on every part of that intersection – two auto parts stores, plus the WDLB facility and Sears, with several other businesses right next to them – and many to the north on what was farmland in the 70s.
Just a little bit south on Central Avenue, the largest building by far was Rollohome, a maker of mobile homes started in 1947 by the product’s pioneer, the late Elmer Frey. He was a nice man, part of my former “koffee klatsch,” and a staunch conservative. Frey was also a bulldog in pushing for the current Wisconsin laws on the lengths and widths of manufactured homes that can be transported on streets and highways. He opposed the state’s mandatory seat belt law in the 80s/90s, a strong political battle that he didn’t win.
But Elmer was always an ambassador for his industry — which I learned on one of the first days I started delivering newscasts on WDLB. I called a mobile home a “trailer,” and Elmer immediately called me to kindly request that I use the term “mobile home,” to show dignity to the people living in them. I honored his request for the final 39 years of my journalism career, although I now see other Wisconsin media, including some in our own area (not ours,) calling them “trailers.”
According to “The Marshfield Story,” Rollohome also made Artcraft and Marshfield Homes. Its main site is now a business complex anchored by Festival Foods.
Gerretsen is a retired 40-year Marshfield journalist who has worked in various areas of Marshfield media. Thom will appear in future editions as a guest columnist, sharing his long history with the city and its residents.