Velkommen til Westby

Velkommen til Westby

Monday, January 11, 2021

A Few Minutes With Coach Hoven

 by Kathy Anderson

Neil Hoven has been in Westby so long, is so well-known, and has left such an indelible mark that everyone I talked with would claim that he should be considered a home towner.  Elmo (Gulsvig, for you youngsters) was Westby School District Superintendent in 1967. He was visiting his brother, Joe, in Wanamingo, MN around Christmas time. Coach and physical education teacher Bill Terry had resigned at Westby High School and would be leaving in January to go to UW-LX. Elmo could not find a replacement for him. Maybe Westby was too small or maybe it going to be difficult to hire someone in the middle of the school year. Elmo had interviewed many candidates but no one would accept the position. Whatever the reason, he was lamenting when Joe told him there was a young man right there in Wanamingo who might just be the perfect person for the job. 


Neil was a 16-letter student in high school, a 3-year defensive line starter in college, and had just graduated from Luther with a degree in education, physical education no less, with a minor in mathematics.  His parents spoke Norwegian, Wanamingo was even smaller than Westby, and he needed a job. Do we call this fate or bringing home someone who should be given an honorary “native son” title?

Neil Hoven in the 1969 Westby High School Ski Annual.

Neil started teaching exactly fifty years ago at Westby High School, in January 1968, after the school year’s football season was over. His first eighteen years he taught physical education; the next sixteen he taught geometry. He started coaching football in the fall of 1968. I asked Neil what he enjoyed about coaching, why he did it. He answered that it was “the most fun in the world, being with the kids,” and that teaching, in the later years of his career, kept him “feeling and thinking young.”


Neil had started dating JoAnn, his wife, when he was a senior in high school. She lived on one end of town and he lived all the way on the other, but love knows no bounds so the four blocks between their houses would not be an obstacle. JoAnn graduated from Winona State and was hired as an elementary school teacher in Westby. They married in Wanamingo the  summer of 1968 before moving to Westby that fall as newlyweds.


Neil motivated students to learn geometry by using practical examples of how the subject would be a useful life skill. He would explain his hobby of woodworking and how lines and angles were necessary for his projects. Join me next week when I share a few memories from some of Coach Hoven’s players about how he would motivate them on the football field to become a three-time Coulee Region Coach of the Year.


“He was a hell of a motivator,” were the first words from Monte Anderson when I asked him to tell me about his high school football coach, Neil Hoven. Monte said he worked harder for that man than he knew he could, yet loved every minute of it. But how did Neil get you to do it was my question.


Neil isn’t an easy interview. He is a great guy to talk with, warm, friendly, funny, but he won’t take credit for his five conference championships, he won’t talk much about his coaching statistics of 124-37, and he won’t come close to bragging about the 1978 State Championship, one state runner-up appearance and one semi-finalist appearance. He gives credit to the players, and to John Blihovde and Mark Jacobson, who were part of that fabulous WHS football coaching team. How did they motivate the boys to play so hard? 


When Neil handed out jerseys, he would say “Number such-and-such; worn by so-and-so; wear it with pride.” Monte felt like that gave him ownership, not as a comparison to another player, but more like ‘this was a great football player and I know you can be one, too.’ Neil said it to every player as he assigned them their jersey. 


Josh Fencl played as a junior in one of Neil’s all-time favorite games. The team was ranked to lose by as much as 28 points. Winning the game in the last minutes was a thrill that both Neil and Josh reveled in. We just did what Neil told us to do, Josh explained. “By the time I got there, he didn’t have to say a lot.  We knew he would put us in the right spot.” The players knew Coach Hoven’s reputation and knew he was smart about the game. “He was a great coach and it was an honor to play for him,” Josh told me.


I am sure there are many good football stories about Coach Hoven but I think the best way to sneak a peek into the heart of this man is to tell you about an August night in 1981 when Karl and Bonnie Gilbertson lived next door to Neil and his wife, JoAnn. Bonnie was in the hospital, recovering from a c-section; Karl had to come home alone. Excited, joyful, and overwhelmed, Karl walked over to the Hoven’s to tell them about his new daughter. By then, the Hoven’s had three children and Neil could relate to the thoughts and emotions that weigh on a new father. Sitting on the porch, they shared a conversation about fatherhood, life, and the problems of the world, but Karl felt, most importantly, they spent half of two hours quietly, neither talking as they sipped a beer, sharing the stillness under the stars. “Neil didn’t have to do that, spend that time with me. But it’s something I will never forget.” Like much of what Neil did, it was a seemingly simple gesture but meant more than Karl could explain – Neil cared. How lucky that that is what Neil has shared with all of Westby. 


Friday, December 11, 2020


 by Kathy Anderson

Thor, the Norwegian mythology god of thunder, strength and protection rode through the sky in a chariot pulled by goats. Yes, goats! The symbol of the goat became a holdover as the Norwegians moved from Paganism to Christianity from about 980 AD through 1150 AD and later. During this transition, goatskins would masquerade people as they “traveled” from home to home during Yule, the Christmas season, when they tried to fool their neighbors about their identity. Hence, the tradition of julebukking, or Christmas goat fooling, was born.


As years passed, this “fooling” took on the form of a game as the neighbors had to guess who their visitors were. Masks and costumes of many kinds, not just goats, became part of the fun. The hosts were expected to serve the guests holiday goodies, and sometimes even a spirited beverage or two, until they could identify the intruders. As more time passed, Christmas caroling added to the fun and the hosts would even sometimes join their friends and travel as part of the fun to the next house. For many years, Norwegians would carry on this tradition during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

Norwegians who immigrated to this area from the 1850s through the 1920s brought this tradition with them. Today, another way to explain julebukking would be to compare it to a form of Christmas “trick-or-treating” but for grownups only. The alcoholic element to this event would define the parameters for age groups.


To this day in Scandinavian countries, goats are still a strong Christmas symbol, appearing as straw Christmas ornaments to hang on the tree or perhaps as patterns in the Christmas table linens even though few people still go julebukking. There are some folks in the Westby area who can still tell you tales of their own fun as julebukkers. My parents went julebukking when they moved back to Westby in 1991 after Dad retired. They went for several years to visit their friends and relatives, hunching over to appear shorter, disguising their voices or perhaps remaining silent when they thought they would be too easily recognized. The costumes were very primitive but the fun lasted well past the experience. My dad would always laugh when he retold the story of surprising someone. It was easier for them than most to go unrecognized because they weren’t expected, having been gone from Westby for 40 years.


Christmas is a time of traditions for friends and families, some carried on since before anyone can remember and others started anew as additions come to families and circles of friends. The Westby Area Historical Society hopes that you look back to your happiest Christmas occasions and bring those traditions to your celebration this year. 

Twins, Catherine Johnson Schlicht (l) and Christine Johnson Anderson (r) with Catherine's
husband, Walter, went to see Aunt Olga Blihovde Dreves when they were julebukking..

Monday, December 7, 2020

Bound by Love

by Kathy Anderson 

 Mother’s Day is in the past, Syttende Mai is this weekend, Memorial Day is right around the bend and spring is finally here! There is something comforting in knowing that even though we expect the seasons to change, each season brings with it events we wait for year after year. We watch flowers bloom and annually receive invitations to weddings. I recently talked with Karen Rudie who despite the loss of her husband years ago still fondly celebrates their wedding anniversary, every year on May 23. 

Karen, pronounced ‘karn’ in Norwegian, was born Aug. 11, 1923. She was baptized the same year on her mother’s birthday, Aug. 30 at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and is proud to have been named after her great-grandmother, Karen Elizabeth Hagen, who donated a stained glass window to the church. Karen was also confirmed at Our Savior’s, on June 5, 1938. Karen and her husband, Grant Rudie, Jr., met in kindergarten. They dated on and off in high school, broke up when they got mad at each other once in awhile, but always quickly got back together. She “kind of always knew” they would get married one day. She graduated from Westby High School in 1941, “the big year,” she said, when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
When Grant graduated from college, he was ready to go to pharmacy school but enlisted in the Navy to avoid the draft. He made a phone call to Karen from Florida, where he was stationed, and told her to come right away. He was getting shipped out soon and he wanted to get married. It “wasn’t exactly” the plan she had but that’s just what happened. She bought a summer-wool, cream-colored suit in Madison and off she went. She had two hundred dollars, half came from each set of parents as a wedding gift. She bought a train ticket and traveled farther than she had ever ventured. 

When asked what her parents thought about all of this, her traveling alone, getting married so quickly, and without her family in attendance…. Karen’s simply said, ”They didn’t have much to say about it,” because it wasn’t their wedding.” It took her a day and a half to get to Ft. Lauderdale where she and Grant married in a church, surrounded by seven of Grant’s sailor friends. After a few months in Florida, she returned to Wisconsin and Grant went to California. Years later, Karen reworked that wedding suit into a pretty little spring coat that was even worn this past Easter by one of her eight great-grandchildren, Lanie Kathleen Tainter. Karen also has seven grandchildren. 

Grant went to pharmacy school after the Navy and took over the pharmacy that his father started. Karen would often help by cashiering, cleaning, doing the billing or whatever else needed to be done. In addition, she raised three daughters, belonged to the PTA and bowled in a league with special friends Hazel Anderson, Charlene Pederson and Gerda Aarness. Karen had fun but says she “wasn’t that good.” It was “a streak of luck” the night she actually won a bowling trophy. She was also very active at church, was part of the ladies’ circle, taught Sunday school, belonged to the church quilting group, and attended the bible study class. 

Karen shared that cooking wasn’t at the top of my list, but “I kept my family alive,” she said. She had a large vegetable garden of radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, rhubarb, raspberries “and weeds,” but what her own family couldn’t use in any given year, she shared with friends. 

Karen and Grant were married just shy of 60 years when he died on Aug. 6, 2004. They enjoyed many years of retirement, particularly their many bus trips with Kinky and Gerda Aarness, plus lots of trips back to Ft. Lauderdale during the winter. She showed me a favorite photo of a pelican she saw on the beach the year she and Grant went to celebrate their 20th Anniversary. 

Winter may change to spring, but robins returning and lilacs blooming stays the same. Westby, too, will always be changing but we hope people like Karen, who work hard, have strong marriages, are good parents, and even raise gardens, will also be with us year after year. When I asked her what she did for excitement in Westby, she said “well, not much.” She had a pretty ordinary life, she told me. For at almost 95 years young, it is comforting to know that her sense of humor hasn’t changed a bit.

Karen Elizabeth Hagen Rudie
August 11, 1923 – December 5, 2020

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Coon Prairie Church

 by Sheri Neprud Ballard, 2016

The Vernon County Censor, Oct. 19, 1910, reported that on Oct. 16, 1910, more than 2,000 people gathered at the new Coon Prairie Lutheran Church on Coon Prairie for the Sunday morning service! The occasion: to dedicate their beautiful new house of worship. Officiating at this event was acting bishop, Rev. A. H. Eikjarud of Cashton, who conducted the dedicatory service. Other clergy in attendance were Rev. John Hendricks of West Prairie; Rev. E. Berrum of Holmen; Rev. Holden Olson of Madison; Rev. A.O. Stub of Stoughton; Rev. N.E. Halverson of Big Rapids, Mich.; Rev. Lars Kalvestrand of Denver, Colo., as well as Coon Prairie’s own Rev. Halvor Halvorsen.


There were two services that day, one in the morning and the next one at 3 p.m. As with the first service, not even half the guests were able to be admitted to the services. The ladies of the church were busy all day preparing and serving food to the many guests. What a wonderful day it must have been!

Undated postcard of the Coon Prairie Church shortly after construction finished.

This congregation is believed to have been originally formed in 1851, when it only had an annual visit from a mission pastor. Several of the Norwegian settlers had been worshipping together for some time without the benefit of an ordained minister. Five little children were baptized by Pastor Nels Brandt on Nov. 2, 1851, during a visit to Even Gullord’s home. On July 1, 1852, Pastor Brandt conducted the first confirmation and 91 people celebrated the forming of a new congregation by taking communion the next day.


The people of Coon Prairie felt so strongly that they wanted their own church for worship services. Even Gullord’s sister, Marthe Olsdatter Gullord and her husband Nils Hansen Neperud, owned 80 acres of land and a small house and were persuaded to sell it to the congregation for $500. It remained in Nils Neperud’s name until the articles of incorporation were written and registered. So, when Pastor H. A. Stub answered the call to serve he moved to the little house and became Coon Prairie’s first pastor. There was no church at that time, so Even Gullord’s barn was used for church services that first year.

The first Lutheran church was erected on this site in 1858 at a cost of $4,200. The majority of the funds needed for building this church were raised from the church members by an assessment whereby they were asked to pay 3 1/6 percent of the worth of their property. That first church measured 56 feet by 34 feet by 20 feet high. In spite of the church members’ self-sacrifice, not enough funds came in to build the church and pay the current bills, so in June of 1856, it was decided to borrow $1000 for nine months at 20 percent interest to complete the church without delay.

The church soon was unable to hold the growing numbers of the congregation and it was decided in 1875 to build a larger church. A stone church, for which the stone was hauled to the site by the men of the church in horse and buggy. Work on this new church began in 1875. It was finished at a cost of $25,600 plus many volunteer hours, and was dedicated in 1884. At the time, this was the grandest church building in Vernon County and one of the finest Norwegian churches in the country. The church was built in the gothic style of architecture. Sadly, that church was destroyed by lightening on Easter Sunday in April 1909, and burned to the ground.

Much discussion occurred as to where a new church should be built. Since the congregation could not come to an agreement as to location, construction began almost immediately on these two churches, one on the old site and one in the growing little town of Westby. The architectural firm of Parkinson and Dockendorff of La Crosse was chosen. Albert Parkinson drew up the plans for both churches.

The cost for the town church was $21,000 and the cost of the Country Coon Prairie church was approximately $15,000. The outside appearance and shape of the country church was quite similar to the sister church in Westby, aside from the beautiful and imposing twin towers. The length of the Coon Prairie church was 90 feet, the width was 42 feet, and the towers were 12 feet square and 80 feet high. Sharing the honors of planning and building were the committee of J.A. Moen, Gustav Theige, Rudolph Nustad, Henry Johnson and Henry Swenson, as well as the pastor and contractor.

This beautiful church, the third one on this site, still stands proudly on Coon Prairie and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Christmas in the 1950s

by Sheri Neprud Ballard, 2016

The little girl got ready for school, slipped into her warm winter coat and her winter boots. She gathered up her books and her lunch pail and waited for her brother. Shortly they were out the door and braving the December winds and the snow flurries.

Never mind that the temperature hovered around zero degrees and the roads were already full of ice and snow. The little girl and her brother lived 1.75 miles from their school, so there was no transportation for them to their school. Most of their classmates walked to school as well, except for the neighbor’s boy who was driven in by his father with a horse and sleigh.

The little girl was anxious to get to her school, since it was getting close to Christmas, and there would be rehearsing for their annual Christmas program.

Sheri Neprud Ballard in 1952; 8 years old

The teacher greeted the children as they arrived one by one or by families. She had already been up quite a while because it was up to her to get to school early to start the furnace, so that it would be warm by the time the children arrived. She boarded at the little girl’s Aunt Alice and Uncle Elmer’s farm which was a short distance from the school. That is, she had a room in their farmhouse where she went every night after school until Friday when she would return to her own home. She was fed breakfast and supper and brought her lunch to school as did the children.

The children’s mothers had prepared homemade soup in Mason jars for the children. The teacher took the jars of soup from the children as they arrived and put them on a shelf where they would remain until lunchtime. At lunchtime, they would be heated on a hot plate.

After the children’s lessons were done, it was time to rehearse for the annual Christmas program. Everyone took part as a group, singing wonderful old Christmas carols, being in a skit or for the little ones, speaking a “piece.” Sheets had been hung at the front of the school room to set the stage and the back-stage area. The teacher could play piano and accompany the children. Sometimes, the singing was a cappella if the teacher could not play piano. That was alright too, as there is nothing sweeter than the sound of children singing.

The little girl and her classmates helped to trim a tree in the schoolroom. They also worked, with the teacher’s guidance, to make gifts for the mothers. Soon, all would be ready for the big day, the long-awaited day of the Christmas program!

The little girl and her friends felt so special that night, as they all had new dresses purchased or sewn by their mother, just for this special occasion!

The children’s parents, the school board, even the neighbors who had no children, attended the Christmas program. The community, at that time, revolved around the one room school, and so the Christmas program was looked forward to with much anticipation.

The Christmas program went on as planned, and was thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended. The highlight of the evening for the children, of course, was a visit from Santa. He gave all the boys and girls a brown paper bag of treats. Inside were peanuts in the shell, hard candy, an apple and an orange. The children were all very happy and made to feel special by the visit from Santa.

What a simple life it was back then! And so, that was Christmas a long time ago. The year was 1952 and I as that little girl.