Mischief at the Carlton water tower

It's the end of yet another era here in Carlton. Like others throughout Minnesota and the nation, the old "Red Top Tower" is coming down shortly. She's been on main street longer than anyone - even Charlotte.

It's the end of yet another era here in Carlton. Like others throughout Minnesota and the nation, the old "Red Top Tower" is coming down shortly. She's been on main street longer than anyone - even Charlotte.

My feelings about this change can be summed up in one word: regret.

You see, despite coming from a long-line of "Carlton water tower climbers," I have yet to accomplish that task myself. I'm sure that opportunity could have presented itself many times in the past 40-plus years. Why didn't I do it? Dang! Not even once. Not even half way - not even the first rung on the ladder.

So now I am left to live vicariously through others, such as my brother and the younger Balow boys, who managed to get caught (big surprise) on a late night water tower run almost 20 years ago. Kel got a trespassing citation, something that followed him around his young adulthood, along with his law enforcement degree. Nice combination, huh? I remember Mom being perturbed at him for his lack of judgment - but she couldn't say much since she had set an example as a water tower climber in her youth. You go, girl!

Imagine the excitement of climbing the water tower in broad daylight and being a hero because of it! Well, that's exactly what Snowball (aka Howard Oswell) and Gene Bro did when they worked for the electric company back in the 1950s. You see, the Muni (aka Carlton Liquor Store) wanted to get in on the latest technology at the time - television. All signals came from the Cities and a large antenna had to be installed on top of the water tower. Snowball and Gene did the antenna in the early '50s (while working "on the side" for Deb aka Delbert Oien who was, according to his daughter, Vicki, "deathly afraid of heights." Quite a crowd gathered to watch, with several community volunteers standing in line to help. I wonder if any of them had beers in their hands.


I am almost certain that most of the climbing happened on the midnight shift. In 1968 Jim Northrup was a sheriff's deputy and working on a contract with the city of Carlton when he came across two guys in their 20s who were throwing beer cans and relieving themselves from the top of the water tower. This arrest was going to be one of his easiest. All officer Northrup had to do was to "wait them out." He pulled his squad car up to the water tower's ladder, opened the back door and after 10 minutes the hooligans got in and took the short ride over to the jail. Piece of cake.

For the kids growing up in Carlton, it was a right of passage to climb the tower. Take Gary Davis and Phillip Johnson, for example. These two fine young citizens dared each other to not only climb the water tower, but they had to touch the red ball at the very top! Somewhere in there they also found time to egg the town constable Mr. Adams' truck. How cool is that!?

Gary told me that his parents would have killed him if they'd have known of his water tower antics. "My dad would have hung me from the water tower by my ears." (Note to today's kids: "Can we camp in the back yard tonight?" used to work on parents.)

Sometimes "big kids" climb the water tower. In 1999 when the Carlton boys basketball team went to the state championship, a certain unnamed city councilor and school district employee (and brother to Phillip Johnson - it must be in their genes, too) made the trek to the top of the tower and hung a huge banner congratulating the team. Now that's hometown spirit! When the team repeated their trip to the state the following year the banner showed up again on top of the water tower. Nice work!

Bruce Snyder actually got to climb the tower more than once in broad daylight and the lucky bum got paid to do it. He says that it's pretty freaky when you start the climb just where the tank starts out - you actually have to go up and backwards at the same time. Now add to that the fact that the tower can sway a couple of inches each way in the wind. YIKES! No thanks. I think Bruce enjoyed his "work" on the tower though, as he raved to me about the view from the top. (Sure, rub it in.)

Here's something interesting. In 1974 the water tower caught on fire. Yes, a water tower on fire! Ouch. How does that happen? I'm told that the main pipe leading up to the tank used to be covered with insulation and a wood shell. Some welding was being done "up top" and a spark fell on the wood. So what I want to know is did the emergency siren go off on the water tower that day to summon the fire department? I bet it did, hee hee.

Gordy Davis (yes, Gary's dad), Carlton's assistant fire chief at the time of the fire, told me that the incident made the front cover of "Smoke Eater Magazine," a state publication that every firefighter received in the mail. I wonder how much heck the guys took at the next firefighting convention.

Time is running out for me to climb the water tower. Now that I'm a 42-year-old mother of three, I probably shouldn't even think about it - but I do wonder if I could get away with it. Those of you who know me know I'm not always good at following rules. Hey, Mayor Randelin - do you grant pardons? How about special requests?


Do you have a water tower story you'd like to share with me? Find me at Carlton Daze this weekend, give me a call at 218-384-3008 or shoot me an e-mail at . I'd love to hear your water tower story.

Kim Matteen Orlowski is a fourth-generation Carlton-area resident, raising the fifth. Her favorite color is Carlton Bulldog blue.

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