This story is a condensed version from Connect Business Magazine.
Robert Walton Wettergren, a.k.a. “Mister St.
Peter,” reminds you of the man that drives his Model T down the road doing 45, and while you’re passing him he’s glancing over and smiling like he’s the one passing you.
Rock-solid. Traditional. Bob Wettergren does things the old-fashioned way. When he recently celebrated fifty years of marriage with wife, Renee, he was asked their secret for staying together (this, during an age when half of marriages end in divorce). Bob said, “We work at [marriage]. And we pray together. When you pray together, you stay together.”
He’s had only two jobs in seventy-six years: one, Wettergren Dairy, which he sold to Cloverleaf Dairy in 1973, and the other, the St. Peter Chamber of Commerce. At Wettergren Dairy he mentored the likes of First National Bank of St. Peter’s John Bresnahan, Bill Pell from Pell Insurance & Real Estate, and Davisco’s Mark Davis. They all began their working careers there.
At the Chamber, Wettergren made the rounds and then some. Through his work there as manager, he helped St. Peter transition from a retail-oriented town to a tourism-oriented town. He’s been there for St. Peter through thick and thin; sickness and in health. Even today, now retired, he still serves St. Peter by hosting weekly radio and TV shows.
You’re interviewing him now. While Bob leans forward to better hear your questioning, Renee glides into the room once again, this time carrying a cup of coffee and chocolate cake that rests on a doily. The coffee tastes gourmet; the chocolate cake looks rich. You begin by asking Bob a simple question, and as you do, he flattens his palm towards you. You stop talking. He touches the table in front of you and whispers: “Governor John A. Johnson once ate off this table.”
There’s a sense of history behind this man that could benefit us all if we’d only listen. He’s the voice of experience. In an age when change is essential to business survival, and when change is nearly always viewed as good like choosing Windows 95 or buying the latest modem it’s really refreshing to hear a man speak who stays the course and smiles as you pass him by on the road.
Connect: People have called you Mister St. Peter. Why?
Wettergren: I guess it’s because of my knowledge. Being fourth-generation St. Peter, I pretty well know what’s going on. Many school children come to me and ask me about certain topics, like the old brewery, the governors, and whether I knew any of them. Well, I did know Governor John A. Johnson’s sister very well. I took her up to the cemetery twice a year the last years she lived.
I’ve also written a hundred and fifty stories on business and industry, both when I was with the Chamber and now, for the St. Peter Herald. I’ve had over a thousand radio broadcasts on the “Focus on Farming and Business” show on KRBI. And we’ve done eight hundred TV shows locally on Channel 7, St. Peter public access. And of course we’ve had Governor Perpich on that, as well as many sports heroes and politicians.
When I was with the Chamber we had 465 members because I’d put Chamber members on the air or TV, and I’d write about them. I wrote all about these businesses and industries. It helped. And just to share my knowledge with the people I still do it. In the years to come Gustavus Adolphus will have a volume [of my writings]. Right now the high school history teacher just finished making a copy of everything too. So the college, the historical society and the library all have copies. I don’t get anything out of this except the satisfaction of passing on knowledge.
Connect: Back in 1990, there was an effort to bring a mall to St. Peter. You were in the thick of it. What’s the whole story behind that?
Wettergren: I was with the Chamber of Commerce and I wasn’t opposed, personally, to a restoration of downtown St. Peter. But what happened was the developer never had the confidence of the business people or the owners of the property. My brother happened to be mayor at the time Bill. We were on opposite ends of the mall because I said you have to have the support of the property owners and also the people in business. You don’t have the support of either one. And that goes back to the city administrator we had at the time, Zachary Z. Zoul. He had [Bill] convinced that the way to go was the mall. ‘They’re going to get a million dollars,’ he’d said, but a million dollars wouldn’t amount to too much when you’re trying to buy property and develop a mall. As a result it never got off the ground.
We did get rid of some old buildings and that was done. But the mall project for the attorneys hired out of the Cities, and for the two sets of appraisers, and for the city staff time it probably cost a half million dollars and we had nothing to show for it. It just didn’t materialize. And finally we had to pay the developer off. The city gave him a ninety-day extension to get his money and when the ninety days was over with the City couldn’t come up with their money either. It may have looked good on paper, but if you’re going to dance you got to pay the fiddler. And the City didn’t have the money to pay the fiddler.
Connect: Can you envision downtown St. Peter being developed some time in the future?
Wettergren: That whole area, the business district it’s tough to do something with it except for antique shops and specialty shops. Some of the old-time businessmen that worked probably fifteen hours a day, they believed that if you gave the customer quality and fair service you wouldn’t have to worry about attracting customers. Those old people are gone. There’s only a few left today. When I took over the Chamber, we had thirty members on the retail council. And now they don’t have a retail council. It’s just part of the Chamber. It’s unfortunate that this mall didn’t go. From day one, though, it seemed doomed to fail.
New Ulm has had their problems with their mall. It’s a beautiful mall but not too many businesses are there. And with River Hills fifteen minutes away, it’s pretty tough to compete with that. So you have to go for the specialty shops and antique shops. We have quite a few of those.
Connect: Do you think most business owners truly understand what a Chamber of Commerce does?
Wettergren: Very few people understand. Of course, the Chamber is there to make the town a better place to live and work and to enjoy your family. If you can’t enjoy your family in St. Peter than you’ll never enjoy them anywhere. Like I say, ‘You find a little bit of heaven in St. Peter.’
Things have changed over the years with how the Chamber responds to visitors from out of town. When I first took over the Chamber in 1973, a visitor to town’s first question would almost always be, ‘What churches or denominations do you have?’ And only after that would they ask about recreation, education, and medical facilities. Now one of the first things they ask about is schools; second thing is the medical facilities, then recreation, and then churches. That’s how things have changed as far as the Chamber is concerned.
We used to have 465 members and it was the “area” Chamber of Commerce, not just St. Peter. It included Nicollet and Kasota and Cleveland. We had forty farmers. We had good rapport with the rural people. One farmer we’d count as eight business Chamber members because he’d have such a big operation with his hundred thousand dollar tractors and such. His investment was so huge; the land, the machinery. Farmers now are big businesspeople. We used to have a Chamber/Farm City Banquet once a year. We had people like Halsey Hall, Carl Pohlad, people like that, who would come down and speak.
Connect: What was your goal with the Chamber?
Wettergren: The first thing that I tried to do was promote the City, by using radio, TV and newspaper. We also had a newsletter that kept people informed. Of course we’d bring in industry to St. Peter too. One time we cut four ribbons in St. Peter on the same day. I think it was 1976. Governor Perpich came down to cut the ribbon.
And of course there’s the Nicollet County Historical Society Interpretive Center where it is now, that new building on the edge of town. Joe Daun he was a former senator/ former city councilman, and a fellow named Hamilton Nelson, and Dean Melva Lind, who just passed away and was from Gustavus, and I, we all went down to the State Historical Society to get support in buying the Daun property out there on 169. Joe Daun was about 85 years-old at the time and he wanted to sell his land before he passed away. As it ended up, the legislature passed a bill to buy that land. So that land is a result of the efforts
Connect: What gives you fulfillment?
Wettergren: I guess the fact that I’ve been married fifty years and have a wonderful family. And also talking to people like yourself; sharing history and some of the knowledge I have about St. Peter.
Of course, also, there’s some knowledge I’ll never reveal. I’ll take some things to my grave about some of the things that have happened in St. Peter. When you have a business and you operate early in the morning, like we did at Wettergren Dairy, you see a lot of things around town that you don’t pass on. Some people just getting in and so forth. (laughter) So you take that to the grave because it doesn’t do anyone any good to reveal it. (laughter) I could write quite a book about St. Peter without using any names, but sure as heck some people would find out who I was writing about. (laughter) I think it would be a good seller.
Connect: What advice would you give someone wanting to start their own business?
Wettergren: To work. Work hard. Put in some hours. Too many of these young businesspeople don’t want to work the hours like the old-timers. And you’ve got to be dedicated to the business. Do what you like. Don’t be afraid to put in the hours. Service the customer as best as you can. And that’s why I tell them to put in the hours. If you want to make money you have to work at it.
We started at five o’clock in the morning at the Wettergren Dairy and we weren’t afraid of working until everything was done for the day.
Another thing: Keep your help at a minimum. Keep the payroll down because you have to pay all these taxes. It comes right off the top. Your help gets to be very expensive. People need jobs, but if you’re starting a business you better be prepared to put in a lot of hours yourself; that’s why the mom and pop grocery store makes good because they’re not afraid of putting in the hours.
Connect: If there was one thing you could change about your career, what would it be?
Wettergren: Nothing. I’ve been married fifty years, have five children, twelve grandchildren. As far as the career is concerned, there is nothing I’d want to change. To be honest with you, not a thing. As old Dizzy Dean once said, and this is before your time, ‘If you’ve done it, then it ain’t braggin’.’
Connect: Anything else?
Wettergren: Governor John A. Johnson, the fifth governor of Minnesota, he once said, ‘I never forgot a friend, nor did I ever remember an enemy.’
And Robert Browning, the great poet, said, ‘Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.’ And to close, some of us are naturally getting close to the sunset. But we hopefully want to leave a mark in St. Peter, which I think our family has done.
©1997 Connect Business Magazine