The Gift of Experience

Bob Elsholtz (center) with his son Matt and brother Bill after another succesful day.

Handing down heirlooms from generation to generation is part of the life of strong family. So is handing down knowledge.

The Elsholtz family of Minnesota’s Twin Cities is loaded with outdoors experience, and passing it on to the young people is a family tradition.

“Hunting and fishing, being in the outdoors, that’s been something we’ve done as a family since my grandfather,” says Bob Elsholtz, 67. Most of the adults in the family started as little kids, and now they have little kids with them when they head to the family hunting camp in northern Minnesota or on fishing or hunting trips in or out of state.

Elsholtz is president of Overnite Express, based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. His father and uncle started the company, and today two of his sons help him manage it. Back in the late 1920s Elsholtz’s father Willis and his uncle Art started a trucking business out of high school, using a straight truck to haul from Detroit Lakes, Minn., to Fargo, N.D.

“They’d haul it all, soup to nuts. Uncle Art would be driving, and my dad would be sitting there with a typewriter on his knees typing out the freight bills they’d need when they got there. They hauled swinging meat in the back simply covered with cheesecloth, and there’d be flies on the cheesecloth. That’s how meat was shipped in those days. The rules were not as strict in those days, totally different; sometimes there were no rules.”

Art was the older brother, Willis the younger, and their first joint effort was known by the family name until it grew into Midnight Express. It steadily expanded and the brothers’ trucks were crossing the Rockies and running up into Winnipeg in Canada. By 1931 they had opened a terminal in the Twin Cities.

“When refrigeration first arrived, it involved nothing more than running air past some wet rags. Then I can remember going with my dad in the summer and seeing it was almost like raining under the trailer there was so much melting ice. Maybe the ice lasted until we got to Chicago, maybe it didn’t. But with refrigeration they started hauling from the Armour meat plant in Fargo to the Twin Cities and run back LTL.”

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The company trailers were all 28 feet long, the legal maximum then, but the Elsholtz brothers set to work and built some of the first metal-sided trailers to roll across America. The company, says Bob, was a profitable success, “until deregulation when it became worthless overnight.”

But while Willis and Art Elsholtz were building a family business, they were also building an extended family that remains a single unit to this day. And life in the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing, were a key part of that construction.

“There’s a long legacy of family hunting and fishing together,” says Bob. “My father, who turns 94 in June, my grandfather and my uncle would hunt and fish together, and we all have ever since.”

One of Bob’s favorite stories was of the three men going north into Canada to hunt moose in 1931.

“They were guided in by water – there were no roads – and hunted for about three days, and no moose. My uncle had to come home then, and the guide brought him back out. My dad and my grandfather waited and waited for the guide to come back as he was supposed to. But he never showed. So they had to find their own way out. They knew to walk straight south, and eventually they came to the railroad. And they found a station and a station man. They stayed with him and decided since they’d come to hunt moose, they’d hunt moose. They got two and dragged them out of the woods with the station man’s horses. Finally the guide came back and found them with a story about engine trouble.”

The moose heads came back to the Twin Cities, but Bob’s mother would not have them in the house. They were displayed in the company offices instead. And those offices continued to do bigger business. The family company grew into Overnite Express (1947) and Twin City Freight (1949). The latter was sold in 1987, but Overnite was actually the larger company.

When Bob was just 9 or 10 years old, his father went into the household goods trucking business. Young Bob, his father and some of the crew would use one of the company straight trucks to roll north and go fishing at Mille Lacs Lake. “We’d take a launch and go fishing, just drop a line with a spinner and drift,” he says. “The limit in those days was six walleye, and they’d be from 3 to 5 pounds.”

The Elsholtz men and boys would also hunt pheasant.

“There hadn’t been any pheasant hunting to speak of during World War II, so there were birds everywhere,” Bob says. “We could take five a day including a hen; today the limit here is two roosters. I would go along, and I’d basically be an extra dog. All of the brothers and sisters were. We’d just walk down the field trying to flush birds.”

The family hunting and fishing tradition has not only been glue to keep the family together, it has also taught a lot of discipline to the younger generations of hunters.

“Hunting is so much about safety, and safety lessons were part of our education. Safety with guns but also safety in being able to look after yourself in the woods. We were in very dense country a lot of the time,” he says. “You were never allowed to go into the woods without a compass and matches. I taught them how to use a compass the way my father taught me and I’m sure the same way his father taught him. And what if the compass breaks when you’re hunting in the deep woods? Which way is north? We taught them how to find north, to find the damp side out of the southern sun, watch trees lean a little towards the south towards the sun. Information like that is essential. If you can determine one direction, you won’t keep going around in circles, and if you have some idea where a river, or a lake or a railroad is, you can make toward it.”

There are also lessons of the right way and the wrong way to hunt. Once while shooting ducks when they were plentiful, the older Elsholtzes stopped and packed up to leave. “Why,” said the youngsters, “there are lots of ducks.”

“Because,” they were told, “we’ve got our limit, we’d had our time, now it’s theirs.” The older generations also let the younger family know that “if you play, you’ve got to pay” and not only respect nature but give back to it, as the family does by supporting such organizations as Ducks Unlimited, the Grouse Society and Delta Waterfowl.

The family in years past would also head north to enjoy the heavily wooded land around the homestead of an old Norwegian couple they would stay with, Ole and Hilda Finstead, just six miles from the Canadian border. “It was pioneer living, raising their own cows and pigs, scratching a living out of potatoes and carrots. We’d been going up there a while before electricity came.”

Bob, his father, his brother and some relatives would go the Finstead homestead to hunt deer and grouse. As his family grew, they came along with him. Eventually his son-in-law joined the hunting clan, and the family expanded.

Today that family is part of Overnite Express. Robb Elsholtz, 34, is administrative systems manager, and his brother Matthew, 30, is manager of logistics. The all owner-operator company runs 815 trailers with 300 tractors, hauling mostly to the eastern half of the United States with 53-foot general freight dry vans.

Today there is a modern version of the old Finstead homestead. The family hunting camp, 250 miles north of the Twin Cities, is a place to hunt ducks, grouse, bear, deer and varmints. It’s not uncommon for the whole extended family, all 16 of them, to go to the hunting camp at the same time. They spend every other Thanksgiving at the camp.

“We don’t go hunting or fishing for meat, we never did. We went then and we go now to do things together as a family. It helps bond us together as a family,” Bob says. “Riding up to the camp in the car we’ll talk about all sorts of things, everything in life. It’s something we all have in common, a love of the outdoors and a lot of time together as a family being there.

“Teaching our children is a gift we give them. I have a 4-year-old grandson, Henry, and he’ll be joining us out there as he grows up with all the other youngsters.”

How much is hunting part of Bob’s way of thinking? When he was married, he gave his wife Marilee a hammerless Beretta 410 shotgun for a first anniversary present. She is reported to have loved it.

In America’s ghost towns you can still touch the dreams of long-lost people.

They have been left behind all over America. They’re towns that once thrived and were abandoned, or, clinging to life, have been preserved.

We call them ghost towns, and they are fascinating destinations: bawdy frontier boomtowns that sprang up as America went west; mining towns that brought immeasurable wealth out of the ground; railroad towns that stayed behind as work crews moved on; oil towns, cattle towns, logging communities and military bases.

Some of the towns are nothing but dust. Others are not deserted at all; tourism has made them popular destinations again, and their flavor still lingers.

Bodie ( used to be the third biggest city in California. Not anymore. It’s now a state historic park, but it hasn’t been overly modernized or converted to made-for-tourist chic. A rough 100 miles south of Lake Tahoe, Bodie, like many other American ghost towns, boomed with the discovery of gold. In 1859 W.S. Bodey found gold but then froze to death in a blizzard. Others came and found gold, and by 1879 the town was booming. This is one ghost town with the real “feel” of pioneer gold towns. All you have to do is scratch some rust off the old equipment to put your hands on metal touched by the miners. Like many a frontier town, Bodie was famous for its wickedness, one man of the cloth writing it was “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.”

Drivers everywhere will have heard of the legendary Cripple Creek in Colorado ( Once the most profitable town in the world because of the gold found there in 1891, the town became legendary. When the gold ran out, the town died. Or almost died. What was left of it was saved when a new excitement came to town far more recently – casinos.

Bannack, Mont., was another overnight boom town built on the lust for gold. The town sheriff was himself ringleader of a murderous gang, and he did quite well until an about-to-be-hanged outlaw revealed the truth. He was hanged inside the town saloon.

Frisco, Utah, ( another overnight boom town in 1875, may have been one of the wildest. Its main streets were lined with saloons, gambling halls and houses of ill repute, but the town went bust when the mines collapsed. Frisco, what little is left, is rumored to be the most haunted town in the West.

New Echota, in the North Georgia Mountains (, was established in 1825 as the capital of the Cherokee nation. Abandoning traditional tribal arrangements, the Cherokee established a U.S.-style system, with this town as government seat for the small independent Indian nation that once covered parts of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. Today, New Echota is an active State Historic Site. The Cherokee were dispossessed and forced westward on the Trail of Tears in 1838-39.

Nicodemus, Kan., ( ) is the only remaining Western community established by African Americans after the Civil War. It was built by ex-slaves who left the devastated Southern states to find a new life. This ghost town has since gained recognition as a National Historic Site.

Belmont, Wis., ( firstcapitol) the state’s first capital, is today a picturesque little hamlet, part of a state park. But Belmont, Nev., ( ) is the sort of ghost town a lot of people will expect to see, with some original buildings still standing, some converted for tourists, and nothing much else changed since it’s boom days after silver was discovered in 1865.

Sumpter, Ore., was another town built by gold seekers (1862) to grow and thrive when new methods were developed to extract gold from the ground. But then Sumpter slowly faded away. Just west of Baker, Ore., Sumpter is today a tourist attraction with some of the old town’s feel still intact (

Englishman Thomas Hughes, a social reformer, came to eastern Tennessee in 1880 and founded the town of Rugby. It was designed to be a cooperative, a class-free farming community for the sons of English gentry. Today it is a restored Victorian village ( ).

According to, Buckskin Joe is an authentically restored gold mining town from 1860, which opened to the public in 1958. It has been used by Hollywood as the setting for many Westerns. The town is a living history museum that also offers live entertainment. All of the authentic buildings were relocated from the original town of Buckskin Joe as well as other authentic Colorado ghost towns. This website also recommends Cass, W.Va., a turn-of-the-century company logging community whose restored remains have been converted into the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. During its boom period it boasted the world’s largest company store. Cass is unique because many of its houses now accommodate overnight park visitors, and its historic railroad provides a variety of scenic tours. You can find out more about it as

Fayette, Mich., was a prosperous town from 1867 until 1891, its fortune based on iron mines. Today, the town has been restored as the Fayette Historic Townsite.

A word of caution here. I always try to find places that truckers all over the country will have a chance not only to get to, but to enjoy. Some of America’s ghost towns are little more than dust in the wind, some so converted to tourist traps that virtually nothing of the original town remains and the feel of it disappeared with the reconstruction. So before you head out, browse the Internet or the local library and perhaps check out these two books:

Dust in the Wind by Graham Speck, a guidebook to ghost towns from socialistic communes to military outposts, and from pre-Revolutionary War colonial settlements to 20th century mining towns.

Stampede to Timberline: The Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Colorado by Muriel Wolle.

Follow the Links
Ghost Towns
Tip: Search for ghost towns in the United States and Canada by state or province. The site also features a forum for discussion of ghost towns.

Ghost Towns of America
Tip: Visit this site for mini histories of several ghost towns around the country.

Ghost Town Gallery
Tip: Check out the more than 1,300 photographs here to get a feel for the ghost towns lying out there.

Legends of America
Tip: This site lists ghost towns by state and, for a little extra mystery, “treasure tales” of lost and buried treasure.