Our Neighbors.... Alva "Bubs" Nelson

In the summer of 1958, Cloquet resident Alva "Bubs" Nelson was 22 years old and sporting a "flat top" haircut. He had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, but his boss, Ray Lindholm, had a job for him.

In the summer of 1958, Cloquet resident Alva "Bubs" Nelson was 22 years old and sporting a "flat top" haircut. He had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, but his boss, Ray Lindholm, had a job for him.

"I'm not even sure how I wound up on the construction site," Nelson said of the only Wright-designed service station on Highway 33 and Cloquet Avenue. "I worked for [Lindholm] in the winter delivering fuel and he probably just kicked me over to that for the summer."

Nelson had some previous construction experience and he and his wife, Nancy Raina, had begun building a home the year before. But, as he remembers, experience wasn't necessary. He and two others were the "grunts" of the station project manager.

"We did what no one else wanted to do," Nelson remembered with a grin, speaking of himself, Gus Gillespie and Jerry Flynn. "Doing wheelbarrow work and digging holes."

He doesn't recall how Flynn came to be employed there but remembered that Gillespie, who was a teacher in Cloquet schools, was a friend of the Lindholms.


"[Gillespie] was the grandpa of our little group," Nelson said. "We harassed him a bit, but he'd get us back. We had a lot of fun."

Nelson also remembers a lot of action with numerous contractors coming and going and fondly recalls Bob Pond, the architect sent by Wright to oversee the project.

"Bob was the guy," Nelson said. "He was a good guy and he'd tell us whatever we had to do."

Ray Lindhom came to check on things quite a bit, too, according to Nelson.

"Lindholm was an easy-going guy, pretty quiet," he said. "I remember him being there a lot - it was his project."

Nelson also recalls how unusual it seemed that the cantilevered roof of the station was built over the existing Dick's Master Service station before they tore it down.

The architectural importance of the station, however, was pretty much lost on Nelson at the time.

"I didn't even know who Frank Lloyd Wright was back then," he laughed. "I do now, but I wasn't thinking about things like that at that age. I just thought it was a gas station and a job."


When the station was complete and a grand opening planned for the end of October, Nelson was tapped to play a clown at the event.

"I still don't know who volunteered me," he said.

Nelson took the job, donning a Phillips 66 clown suit no less. He did his best to clown around - handing out candy to the kids, making balloon animals and he enjoyed himself - more than he thought he might.

"It was fun," he said. "I even thought afterwards that I would fool around in parades but then I chickened out."

Nelson never completely gave up on clowning, however. In later years, he suited up to entertain at his grandchildren's birthdays and on many a Halloween night.

"I mostly did it for my grandkids," he said. "Not for my own kids - I was too busy then trying to make a living."

He hasn't played the clown for at least 10 years now, and the original suit is long gone, but for the Frank Lloyd Wright 50th anniversary event, Nelson will reprise his role.

"That's where the clown thing got started," he said. "We'll do it again and have some more fun."


Anyone who knows Nelson could attest that Nelson was chosen for the job for a good reason.

Growing up in Cloquet, Nelson said he wasn't the class clown, but he was known to play a joke or two.

For example, there was a time when he and a friend stashed a dead skunk on a school bus, but Nelson didn't want to go into detail.

"We don't need to talk all about that again," he said with a smile.

Of school in general, Nelson said he probably should have paid more attention.

"I was too busy thinking about hunting and fishing," he recalled.

As the second of five children, Nelson spent all the time he could outside. He still lives on the land his parents, Grace and Alfred Nelson, originally owned north of Cloquet on Highway 33.

"The St. Louis River was right behind the house," he said. "As kids, we spent all the time we could out on the river, fishing and swimming."


Nelson's nickname, "Bubs" came from his older brother, Calvin, who couldn't pronounce his name.

"I never asked my mother where she came up with the name Alva, but I wish I had," he said. "My brother called me Bubba and then Bubs and it just stuck. Back then it seemed like everyone had a nickname. At this point, no one knows my real name anymore."

Nelson met his wife, Nancy, while both were students at Cloquet High School. After Nelson graduated in 1954, he did vocational training for a mill job, but wound up working for Lindholm a short time later. He and Nancy married in 1957 and poured the foundation for their new home on a chilly Februarymorning that year.

After finishing the job at the Lindholm Service Station, Nelson found work driving for Cloquet Transfer in 1958 and he stayed there until retirement in 1989.

"I drove the big rigs all over the area delivering whatever needed to be delivered," he said. "I met a lot of people that way and enjoyed it."

The Nelsons also had five children, Robin, LuAnn, Tammy, Alan and Sarah.

Shortly after retirement, however, Nelson decided to look for a new venture and found it in building a gas station, of all things.

"I just came up with the idea," he said. He leased some land from Super One in Cloquet and built a tiny station for one attendant to work the pumps. He decided his station would be full-service and while he owned it, he had a ball.


"I was there all the time while I owned it," he remembered. "I liked the social part of it - seeing and talking with so many people I knew."

He owned the station for three years before selling it due to some health problems. Since then, fishing and family make up the bulk of Nelson's time. He has eight grandchildren around the area and surrounding region.

Those family members closest to Cloquet are planning to attend the Frank Lloyd Wright event, in part of course, to see "Bubs the Clown."

"I'll be sure to get the word out about it," said Nelson's wife, Nancy. "They haven't seen him dress up in a long, long time."

Nelson is looking forward to the job.

"It was fun then," he said. "People who live here think the Wright-designed station is just another gas station when they drive by it every day. But it isn't. It's unique. Cloquet is lucky to have [the station] here."

Pine Journal Editor Lisa Baumann can be contacted at .

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