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The footbridge

The footbridge made famous in 'The Music Man,' also was the informal geographical divider between north- and south-side gangs.

Editor's note: This is the first in an intermittent series of reader-contributed memories of #mymasoncityia. Have a memory you'd like to share? Email it to jaci.smith@globegazette.com.

While Meredith Willson was writing the Music Man in the early 50’s, a bunch of south side youths were exploring the very same territory glamorized by him in his hit Broadway show which opened in 1957 and film which premiered in Mason City in 1962. We called ourselves the “South Side Sallies” (adventurers) and had our own sandlot baseball team managed by Paul Kloberdanz and a mascot called “Chico,” owned by the Burke boys that could shag flies with the best of us.

As the opening number from both state: “You gotta know the Territory” which the salesmen agreed was key, and believe me, we knew the territory around our part of the south side.

Looking back at that time, there were no distractions to us creating our own fun and adventure, our own appreciation of the beauty and charm UNDER the footbridge where Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian met and kissed.

We were a tight group of grade-schoolers from St. Josephs and Garfield School and we made our own fun. If your name was Kloberdanz, Blake, Murray, Donnelly, Katz, Lynch, Moreland, McDermott, Gallagher, Deeny or Fandel, or were any boy living within a eight-block area of "The Bridge," you were a part of our gang.

As the seasons changed, so did our activities but we always gravitated back to what we knew best -- the Footbridge and Willow Creek below.

Now that “The Music Man” is being reprised on Broadway starting next year with Hugh Jackman as Harold Hill, (after the movie had been redone a few years ago with Mathew Broderick as the lead), I thought that it might be of interest to also explore the world of the Sallies and blend some Music Man themes into the story.

SPRINGTIME

The Footbridge neatly divided the area with W. Earl Hall’s home on the southwest end, and Nate Lapiner’s on the southeast end. As the weather warmed we would negotiate the steep bank below the Hall home and fish for bass in the shallow waters of the creek. We would gather and talk about baseball or basketball, or girls we knew or hoped to meet. (Willson’s “Goodnight my Someone”).

The bridge was part of the path that our Sisters of Presentation (who taught at St. Joe) would take to get to their residence next to the library at the north end of the bridge. From time to time one or two might join us although the terrain was not friendly to a nun in full habit. 

The backdrop for this scene were the Cedar Valley limestone cliffs that lined the sides of the creek, and which gave the illusion that you were in a canyon that no one could appreciate unless they were there.

Slightly to the west of the bridge was an opening in the face of the cliffs on the south side which disclosed a tunnel leading southward to the St. Joseph Church. The church foundation also had an opening which allowed access to the basement with its dirt floor, musty smell and accumulation of all kinds of things discarded from the school and church.

Some claim to have explored the tunnel, but when we heard that it was bat-infested we were not interested in further investigation.

The 'caves' of Willow Creek

The 'South Side Sallies' often played and climbed the cliffs of Willow Creek.

SUMMER

After school was out for the summer and we got bored with the games at Garfield School sponsored by the Parks Department, we moved back down under the bridge and to the east where Parker's Mill had been operating at the turn of the century. Just the dam itself and the lower part of the mill-house remained. We were told not to venture there due to a drowning that had occurred in the 1930s and definitely not to swim there. Of course, that was just the reason we needed to try it.

When the water was high, a swimming hole was created above the dam, and bathing suits were optional unless girls came by through Rock Glen, in which case skivvies were required. There was a swimming pool out on Highway 18 east, but they charged to get in, it was a long ride on a bike, and our pool was free.

From the dam (which you could walk across if careful not to slip on the moss covering the outlet) it was an easy climb to the top of the mill. Carp gathered in and around the mill house in the still water. With a drop line or cane pole baited with doughballs from home or chicken guts from the Swift plant we again became fishermen.

Parker's Mill

The 'South Side Sallies' spent many a lazy summer day exploring the area near Parker's Mill.

To 12-year-old boys, this was summer at its finest.

AUTUMN

With school back in session we turned our attention to the north bank of the creek where the end of the bridge was flanked by an austere yellow mansion on the west and a stately white colonial on the east. One block west was the Mason City Public Library. This was the fiefdom of one Lydia Margaret Barrett who was the everywoman of the facility. Each patron was both fascinated and intimidated by her omnipresence, and I am sure she was the inspiration for the character Marian Paroo (Willson’s song “Marian the Librarian”).

Marian the Librarian?

Lydia Barrette in 1939, the inspiration for Meredith Willson's Marian the Librarian in 'The Music Man.'

We focused on two parts of the facility: The stacks where we could meet girls, make dates and even sneak in a kiss or two. (Willson knew about this as shown by the scene where Tommy and Zaneeta met and had a quick tete-a-tete as forbidden by her father.)

We had just as much fun in the gardens below the library, where a winding path of stone steps led to a wide green expanse aside the creek. Touch football, baseball, bounce-out, punting and place-kicking occupied our time. We never worried that a parent would question a trip to the library where they knew we were studying.

WINTER

Once the snow started to cover the ground we moved our operation to the space between the Lappiner house and the Melson Mansion to the east. Sledding was the main winter sport and we each had our favorite Flexible Flyer of one size or another. During the week and on Saturdays we went to the “Nutcracker” which was steep, short and gave a real rush for about 10 seconds before your reached the retaining wall which lined the creek at that point.

On school days at noon we slid on pieces of cardboard which put a slick coating on the snow and created a REALLY quick trip down the slope. If you didn’t brake by dragging your boots, you ran the risk of going too far, dropping 4 or 5 feet, and enduring the chant “over the wall” from the gang.

On Sundays we were driven east of town to a gentle hill dubbed Taylor Hill after the Taylor Farm and the Bridge over the Winnebago with the same name. Again it didn’t compare with our nutcracker sledding, but it sure was a longer ride.

WILLSON’S WORLD

Since Willson left Mason City in 1919 (the year of the setting of the Music Man) little did he know of the world that we were exploring. By the time he wrote his hit play there were actually four pool halls in our town: The Stag, the Golden Oak, the Pleezol and Pete’s place. (Willson’s "Trouble") We also had two family-owned ice cream parlors: Birdsalls (still operating) and Pattees, although we were more interested in checking out the pool halls than the ice cream stores.

The North Iowa Band Festival was also in full swing by this time ("76 Trombones") and Willson was the grand marshall at least once before his smash took Broadway. His references to Balzac, Khhayam, Hester Prynne (an older but wiser lady) Libertines and others went over our heads, but we DID know who Strangler Lewis was because he was a headline "wrassler' at the Armory from time to time.

There was no danger our parents would let us forget the fact that weeds had to be pulled, the screen door fixed, the beef steak pounded and the cistern filled. We headed for the footbridge and Willow Creek every chance we got, and continued our adventurous life and waited for the day we could sing “Til There Was You.”

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John Moreland grew up as a "South Side Sally" in Mason City.

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