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VILAS KRAFT REMINISCES ABOUT WWII AND THE SHOE STORE

Recently this writer had a delightful visit with Vilas and Vernice Kraft. Much of the article is about the Kraft Shoe Store that operated for 37 years (1940-1977) on Main Street in Seymour. Also of interest is his military service (1942-45) in the navy during World War II.

"My father was in the shoe and harness business. He came from Czechoslovakia and got a job at a meat packing plant in Hoboken New Jersey. He heard there was a better paying job in St. Paul so he and his cousin hitchhiked to the Twin Cities and got a job in a meat packing plant. My mother was born and raised in Dorchester just north of Abbotsford.

Vernice and I have been married for 71 years. I guess I found the right one! We met at my father's funeral, she was there with my sister, Gladys. I will be 95 and Vernice is 97, she robbed the cradle! Gladys is originally from Isaar. Her maiden name was Snell. When we met I was going to school at Superior State and she was teaching school in Seymour.

My dad tried farming which was a tough life and then he started a butcher shop in Milan, Wisconsin which is near Abbotsford. He was doing all right then it burned down. He heard there was a shoe repair shop for sale in Neillsville and the owner said he would train my dad in shoe repair and fixing harnesses, so my dad brought him out.

Move to Seymour

There got to be three or four shoe stores in Abbotsford and dad wanted to go where he would be the only shoe business in town. He heard about a shop for sale in Milltown, Wisconsin (North of New Richmond) and purchased the store there. It was a big mistake, the town was too small and couldn't support our family. Then he heard about a store available in Seymour. I remember him saying more that once that he couldn't believe how much money there was in Seymour. There were some prosperous farms and many city residents were working in the paper mills in Green Bay and Appleton and bringing home good money. We moved in 1940, the year I graduated from Milltown High School.

College Days

My brother Lloyd was four years younger and Ken was in between. I wanted to go to college but didn't have any money. I got a job working for a farmer during threshing time. I worked 10 days and made $20.00. One day a letter came in the mail from Ted Warett, he was the football coach at Superior State and he said that if I was interested in coming up there and playing football he would arrange that if I worked for two hours a day at the Androy Hotel he would guarantee me two meals a day. He also knew a family where I could stay. I could sleep in a bedroom in the basement. The next day I was on my way hitchhiking to Superior. The coach I had at Milltown had taken a job at Spooner. I got as far as Spooner that day and I looked up my old coach, John Nevers. He had a cousin who played for the Chicago Bears. It was late in the day and he came down to the restaurant where I was and asked me if I had eaten. I said no and he bought me a meal. He asked if I was going to stay overnight. I said no that I was planning to head to Superior yet tonight. So he bought me a ticket on the bus. What a nice thing to do.

Football at Superior

I stayed that night in the bus station and the next day I went to the college. The coach gave me some equipment and said I could try out for the team. Things went pretty good and I ended up being the quarterback and I lettered and got a nice jacket with a big "S" on it. When I came home at Christmas I wore that jacket and walked around as proud as a peacock. If fact, my brother Ken liked it so much, when I went off to service he wanted to know if he could wear it.

That summer I came home and worked at the canning factory for 20 cents an hour. Mr. Selmer told me that if I stayed on he would raise my pay to 25 cents an hour. That sounded like big money for the time and I told my folks that I wasn't going to go back to college. My dad had other plans and insisted that I return to Superior. I went back and started football practice before the beginning of school. Within a short time I received a telegram from my mother informing me that my dad died of a heart attack and I should come home. He was only 49 years old. It was a terrible shock and I broke down and cried like a baby. I told the coach that I had to go home because of my dad's death. He encouraged me to return back to school and that he wanted me on the team. I had plans to become a lawyer.
Tragedy at Home
One morning my dad wasn't feeling very well so my mother encouraged him to stay in bed and she would open the store. She came home at noon and he still wasn't feeling very well, but wanted to go to the store. Mother said it wasn't a busy day and she could handle it, he should stay in bed. My brother Lloyd came home from school and looked in and dad was sleeping but he didn't check closely on him. My brother Ken came home later and found him dead in the bed.
Learned the Craft from His Father
I remember my father was such a hard worker and he was always interested learning. The first thing he would do in the morning was read the paper. Often he would ask me the meaning of a word or how to pronounce a difficult word. He taught me everything I knew about making shoes and shoe repair. When he had the store in Neillsville there were a couple Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the area and he sold and repaired shoes for them. He even taught me how to make orthotics and custom built shoes. Even in grade school, when other kids would go out to play I would often be helping my father repairing shoes.

I got home and my mother couldn't manage the store alone. Our finances weren't very good, so I stayed home and helped run the store. After about a year in the store our county got into WWII and I said to my mother I should enlist and then my two younger brothers wouldn't have to go in service. She thought it over for awhile and agreed that I should join the Navy. But what I thought wouldn't be true because both of them were drafted.

In the Navy

In the navy I was training to be a torpedo man on a destroyer in the Aleutians where we were hunting Japanese submarines. After several months the torpedo officer came to me and said I think you would qualify for the V-12 program that the navy is promoting. They were just starting the program where they take men from the fleet and train them to be officers.

It was similar to taking ROTC men from college and making them officers. He asked me if I would like to take the test to see if I qualify. I said why not? I passed the test and he told me that I would be leaving on a plane in the morning. I was stationed on Adek Island."

Editor's comment: As the United States entered World War II in the early 1940s, American colleges and universities were facing declining enrollment as men who would have normally gone to college were either drafted or volunteered for service. At the same time the U.S. Navy was in need of commissioned officers to meet the demands of the Second World War. The Navy V-12 program was created to generate a large number of officers as well as to offset the dropping enrollment at colleges. Backed by the federal government, the program paid tuition to participating colleges and universities for college courses that were taught to qualified candidates. Eligible candidates included naval enlisted personnel who were recommended by their commanding officers and high school seniors who passed a qualifying exam. The Navy V-12 Program officially began on July 1, 1943. Vilas considered himself fortunate to be chosen to participate in the program.

Off to Notre Dame

"I flew back to Asbury Park, New Jersey where I passed more tests and they sent me on a train to the University of Notre Dame for more training. I was there for three semesters and then the navy decided to cancel the V-12 program. They decided to only take ROTC officers. Those in the V- 12 program could take a physical test to move into the ROTC program. I couldn't pass my vision test, so they sent me to the Great Lakes Camp just outside of Chicago.

I liked it very much at Notre Dame. We took regular classes that were difficult, but I was always a good student and didn't have too much trouble doing the work. While I was there Vernice moved to South Bend and got a job at the Bendix plant doing defense work. The priests were very kind to me even though I wasn't Catholic. When my brother Ken was killed in action two priests came to my door and said let's take a walk and they told me the bad news. We must have walked for at least an hour and they said the right things.

After a couple days a Great Lakes I was on a train headed for San Francisco where I reported to the barracks on Market Street. My job was to stand watch at military complex where secret information from the Pacific was being processed and sent to Washington.

Married in San Francisco

I told my commanding officer that I would like to know how long I would be stationed there on guard duty. He said that all my records weren't in and I would probably be in San Francisco for some time. When I got back to the barracks I called Vernice and told her to come out and we could get married. She was 24 years old and had already purchased a wedding ring. I was thrilled to see her and we got a minister and his secretary, they were the only two at our wedding, and we were married.

Shipped to the Philippines

The next day I asked her to stay at the hotel while I returned to the barracks and changed clothes. When I got there one of the men said where are you going? I replied my wife is at the hotel. He said you better check the bulletin board. I was quarantined and was directed to prepare to be shipped out to the Philippines. I called my wife at the hotel and advised her to go back to Seymour. I was in the Philippines when the war ended.

Brother Killed at Iwo Jima

My brother Ken was killed on Iwo Jima. We always wrote back and forth and hoped that we would meet each other in the Pacific, but we never did. He was first wounded when on patrol at Bougainville in New Guinea. There were some Marines missing and they previously agreed that they would respond to a code name. When the fellows missing didn't answer, Ken went looking for him. He got shot but wasn't captured. He rehabilitated and the Marines sent him home for 20 days. They then sent him to Hawaii where they trained for the invasion at Iwo Jima. Two fellows who were with him on Iwo Jima said the three of them were engaged in a terrible day of fighting and were thankful they survived. Ken then stood up in the foxhole and a Japanese sniper shot him. I was in the Philippines at the time and Lloyd was also in service, but he didn't get sent overseas.

End of the War

When the war ended we were preparing for a land invasion of Japan. That would have taken hundreds of thousands of American lives. Everyone was thrilled that our country dropped the bombs and the war ended."

Vernice commented that while Vilas was overseas she was teaching school in the Seymour area. She taught all grades and worked at a number of schools including Chicago Corners, Cicero and Black Creek. They were all one room schools. Overall she taught 42 years with 28 of the years at Black Creek. Vilas never came home from overseas until the end of the war. She wrote often, but his letters were heavily censored and she never knew exactly where he was.

"I came home from service and there wasn't much housing available so we temporally moved in with my mother in an upstairs apartment. Mother ran the shoe business during the war and now I intended to help her. Dr. Sieb purchased the building where the shoe store was and I went to him and asked if we could continue to rent from him. He mentioned that he purchased the building for a friend of his who was going to open a sporting goods store. He said we could run our shoe business out of the back of the store. I spoke with mother and we decided that wouldn't work so we built the building on Main Street where the cell phone business is now located. Kroner's Tavern was right next door and they owned the lot. We purchased it in 1946 for $2,500.00 and constructed the building that is there today. It cost around $25,000.00.

My brother Lloyd and I ran the store. Money was tight and he worked in the paper mill for extra income and worked in the store during his free time. We developed a good business and had a reputation for a quality product. We owed a lot of money on the store and of course the bank wanted their money before we could give it all back to them. But we did find someone who took our mortgage and it all worked out. In about 1949 we purchased an X-ray machine for fitting shoes. It was considered revolutionary at the time. We thought it was a good business decision. We were the only store in the area with that technology. It cost us $500.00 which was a lot of money back then. It was quite easy to fit shoes with it. Then one day we got a notice that it was outlawed. We had to discontinue using it and it had to be moved completely out of the building. We moved to my garage and eventually dismantled it. The government said it caused cancer, but I don't think it was ever proven. Today I meet some of the older people and they remember being fitted for shoes with the X-ray machine.

We opened the store at 7:00 in the morning and on Friday night we were at the store until 10:00 at night. We had our regular customers and some parents even sent their kids in alone. They knew we would help them pick out the right shoes. In those days we had charge accounts and most people paid their bills regularly. If they didn't it was Vernice's job to follow up and contact them. Things were tough at first, I remember my father's first cash register was a cupcake tray and we put the paper money underneath.

Enjoyed Meeting People

While most of our customers were from the
Seymour area, we also attracted people from Green Bay. In fact Fort Howard required safety shoes with the steel toe and would pay half the cost. I gave the workers a discount to keep that business. We handled Red Wing shoes and they were very popular with the farmers. Huettl Trucking delivered the shoes. I believe they picked them up in Green Bay. We enjoyed meeting many different people, most everyone was easy to deal with. It was difficult to keep up with women's fashions because they were always changing and the heel height varied so much. Some shoes we never sold.

There were two other stores that sold shoes in Seymour. Billy Miller had a clothing store and Dick Khant a department store and they both sold shoes. We managed to survive. During the 1940s, 50s and into the 60s most area people shopped locally. On Friday nights the city was so crowded you couldn't find a parking spot on Main Street. Counting my dad's year and a half, we were in business for 37 years. I believe we sold the business in 1977. It seemed to be the best thing to do at the time. We purchased some property on the lake in Cecil and I spent a lot of time making improvements. Vernice taught for about 7 more years. The people in Seymour were very good to us.

During the 1960's I was a boy scout leader and enjoyed working with young people. When I was a youth I enjoyed scouting and felt it was something I could do to contribute to the community. One of my specialties was woodworking and I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my knowledge." Editor's comment: Vilas has donated a number of custom made unique kerchief slides that are on display at the museum. He made them as samples for the scouts.

Former customers have fond memories of Kraft's Shoe store. Vernon Blohm comments, "They not only sold excellent shoes, if you needed something special Vilas would make it for you. He knew his business and was an excellent repairman. The store was a gathering place for older fellows in town. They had a number of extra chairs set out and people would stop in to chat and discuss world events." Karen Kuske remembers that some families would send their kids in to get shoes without a parent because they knew Boots and Gabby would take good care of them and sell them what they needed. "They were good for our community and ran a great business." Judy Schuette recalls "Our whole family purchased shoes at Kraft's. They had a great selection and sold a quality product. They also had a shoe repair business, something that is hard to find today."

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