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home : news : news July 24, 2014

10/11/2012 9:16:00 PM
Willis auction was legendary

by Betsy Frazier

That "whoosh" heard by many in Cannon Falls last Saturday afternoon was the door to an era softly swinging shut.

Clair and Marlene Willis ended their occupation of the corner lot at 8th St. North and Hoffman, with an event that was part family reunion, part auction, part neighborhood picnic, and totally entertaining.

Auctioneers generally summarize the necessity for the sale by saying something along these lines: "Mr. and Mrs. John Doe are downsizing/slowing down/moving (pick the reason that fits) and decided to offer their possessions/real estate at public auction. This is your opportunity to purchase quality items, so don't miss this sale!"

Downsizing would be the adjective fitting the Willis's decision to move to a beautiful, smaller home in Riverside Terrace, overlooking the Cannon River. The structure is smaller in some ways than the house they had occupied for 44 years, but it is large enough to accommodate visits from numerous friends and family dropping by on a regular basis.

Clair and Marlene Willis are legendary icons in Cannon Falls.

Clair Willis operated Willis Motor Shop from a double garage attached to their Eighth Street home.

His career in the repair business began when, as a high school student, he started working for Peters Electric. Having an aptitude for mechanical and electrical repairs, Clair took over the business when his first boss retired. One reason the family moved to the house on the west side was because it had a great garage for his at-home repair business. That business grew over the years, just as Clair's reputation for being able to fix virtually anything that was mechanical or electrical.

He repaired equipment ranging from walk-in freezers to weed whackers. A 27-year veteran of the Cannon Falls Fire Department, his reputation for fixing broken things, or "Willitize-ing" them became legendary. The shop area provided a museum of sorts for chain saws, ice augers, ice cream freezers and a collection of pretty much every tool - power and otherwise - known to man. Clair's commute to the shop took about 20 seconds. He simply went down to the basement and headed north through a series of rooms and hallways, and there he was, at the office. Clair also worked for several years at Malt-O-Meal in Northfield, prior to retiring.

His reputation for fixing and improving machines followed him to the cereal making giant. He devised fixes for machines in the plant that both cut down on labor and made the assembly line more efficient. He generally signed his name with a marker to the underside of machines he re-worked, bringing Willitizing to the Malt-O-Meal factory floor.

The at-home shop had a few drawbacks. Marlene recalls many times when she would glance down the basement stairs to see a stranger standing at the bottom, looking for Clair. The "shop is open rule" was that if the garage door was closed, the shop was closed. Everyone didn't know, or obey that rule. The Willis children would be watching television in the basement, get that creepy feeling that someone was in the room with them, look around and discover a repair shop customer wandering through the house, looking for assistance.

Marlene Willis has worn many hats - literally - through the years.

Her work experiences include: waitressing at a long list of restaurants in the area; sales clerk at several stores, manager-then-owner of the Cannon Mall Hallmark store, and receptionist at the Cannon Falls Beacon for 14 years. Add in mother of four, bookkeeper for the Willis Motor Shop, volunteer for many causes, legendary lefse maker, and you have a glimpse into Marlene's busy life.

Her first job was waiting tables at the Edgewood Restaurant, soon after it opened in the 1950s. She also worked at Windy Acres and the Cannonball, and following a serious car accident, she returned to waitressing at Little Oscar's in Hampton.

However, she never let her working life interfere with her show business life. A founding member of the Cannon Falls Community Theater, Marlene collected costumes, hats and theater props like some women collect favorite recipes. She found time to appear in several Cannon Falls productions, as well as several editions of the Foggie Follies, a variety show that featured senior citizen entertainers. She participated in shows at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing, and performed in a long list of local fundraising shows in Cannon Falls. Marlene sang in a trio with friends Florene Majerus and Marilyn Husmann that echoed music made famous by girl-groups of the forties and fifties.

The attic at the house on 8th Street was a well-known costume source. It's where you went when you needed to be transformed into a bumble bee, a flapper, Laurel or Hardy . . . any other character you dreamed up. A trip to the Willis attic could re-make you into pretty much anything. That room was legendary

All of it, minus the items Clair and Marlene saved to use in their new place, along with the house on Eighth Street North, were auctioned to the highest bidder on Saturday, Sept. 29.

"It was hard," Clair said. "I didn't go down to the second ring, where the tools and contents of the shop were being sold."

Clair's organizational system in the shop was another local legend. Much of his business in later years was repairing chain saws.

"Instead of taking parts out of broken saws, I found it easier to keep the saw in one piece, label it, shelve it, and when the need came to that part into a fixable saw, it was easy to remove. That way I didn't have to sort through miscellaneous parts to find the one I needed. I also kept a collection of drills loaded with different sized bits on a rack. Instead of looking for the right sized bit, I just grabbed the drill. It was ready to go." It was his own unique organization, although it appeared to the uninitiated, to be just heaps of stuff on the bench.

Marlene described the auction day as "lots of fun." There were many people there - friends, family and strangers. Some were there to buy, others were there for the visiting.

"Our kids, their spouses, and grandkids were great, working so hard before and after sale day," she noted. "We are extremely grateful to them for all they did to help us."

Clair and Marlene told their children and grandchildren to take what they wanted from the household goods and tools prior to the sale. They took some things, but ended up bidding on several boxes the day of the sale. Sometimes they were successful, other times, someone else got the box.

As the remains of the sale were removed, the Willises stayed away. They are happy that the home was purchased and will be lived in by a young couple with a family.

"It's a great house for a family. The kids had lots of wonderful memories from their years there," said Marlene.

"We made a lot of good friends on the west side. The house was great for entertaining and was often the scene of card parties, family gatherings, birthday parties, play rehearsals . . . any and all occasions were celebrated at the Willis home."

Those stories are sure to be told and re-told as the years go by. From a pet turkey named Stupid, to riding sleds down the hill all the way to the ball field, to skateboarding around the shop, the Willis children, Jamie, Terry, Peggy and David, will always remember the good times they had at 217 8th St. North.

As the dust settles from the sale, many homes in the area now have a piece of the Willis collection, purchased at the auction.

New memories are already being made in the home where the backyard ends at the Cannon River bank; where eagles sail by, looking for the unwary duckling or a fish to scoop up for lunch. The workbench in the garage has just enough tools to keep Clair fixing things, and the mixing table is set up, soon to be holding ingredients for that legendary lefse.

Life goes on, full-speed ahead for Clair and Marlene Willis.

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