Steam-powered whistle a familiar sound in town

Other familiar sounds

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 8/23/00.

The whistles
Do you know what these are?

AMPI whistles
They are the AMPI whistles!

Wayne Kahle blowing whistle Five times a day, the local milk processing plant lets out some steam.

The sound this makes is so well-known by area residents that they hardly hear it. At most, it reminds them of the time. After all, they might hear it 1,825 times per year.

"Oh, it must be noon," you might think to yourself as you hear the 15-second blast from the steam whistle that emanates from the Associated Milk Producers, Inc. (AMPI), plant in downtown Paynesville. The whistle is blown five times a day, at 7 a.m., 12 noon, 1 p.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m.

Wayne Kahle (shown at right pulling the whistle cord) operates the boilers and refrigeration units at the plant, and its his responsibility to sound the whistle three of those times: at 7 a.m., noon, and 1 p.m. After all, it's steam from the boiler that powers the whistle.

Someone on the afternoon shift sounds the evening whistles.

Kahle has worked at AMPI for 35 years and said he has never forgotten to blow the whistle, though he has had to run to pull the cord in time on occasion. There have been days when the whistle has not blown. If the boilers have a problem, the whistle can not be sounded due to lack of steam pressure.

From a basement room, surrounded by refrigeration equipment, Kahle frequently can't even hear the whistle above the din of the machinery around him. If the wind is right, though, he can.

The whistle sounds for 15 seconds. "I count one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand," explained Kahle. "The old-fashioned way. I don't even wear a watch."

He has a small plastic clock on the wall by the cord. To syunchronize the time with the school schedule, he calls the Paynesville Motor and Transfer Company every month. Blowing too early makes school children restless, Kahle explained.

At least one of the whistles was donated to the plant by Gustave Miller, according to his grandson, Rick Miller, who now resides in St. Cloud. Kahle heard the same story from Orion Miller, Gustave's son and Rick's dad. Kahle thought the whistle was donated around 1930, but it might have been later.

In the 1930s, steam engines for threshers were being phased out in favor of combines. "They must have taken it off a steam engine and donated it to the plant here," Kahle said. "That's the only thing I can figure."

Indeed, Gustave used to do custom threshing for farmers in the Salem community north of Paynesville. A whistle on the steam engine was used to warn neighbors to get ready because the threshing machine would soon be at their farm, said Rick Miller.

He thought his grandfather first bought a combine in the late 1940s. The whistle at AMPI might have been donated earlier, if it was from an older steam engine that had been replaced, Rick said.

Kahle estimated the whistles are worth $1,500 now. He thinks they will last a lifetime.

On most days, 145 pounds of steam pressure from AMPI's boilers power the whistles, but they will sound with as little as 50 pounds of pressure. That's why the AMPI whistles serve as a back-up siren for civil defense purposes. Even if the electricity is out, the AMPI whistles can still blow because the plant still has steam.

Kahle isn't sure how the times got established for the whistles, but suspects that it might have started when the plant was still the North American Creamery. In those days, over 500 people were needed to make butter, cheese, and other dairy products in the plant. The interval between noon and 1 p.m., for instance, might have been the break for lunch hour.

One can imagine that the time updates may have been relied on more heavily in years past when watches and clocks were less prevalent.

A number of years back, a few neighbors complained that the whistle blasts disturbed their sleeping children, but the whistles survived the storm and continue to sound five times a day. "It's an old tradition," Kahle said, "and Paynesville has stuck to it."

Other familiar sounds. . .
Arnie pulling bell
Arnie Knebel, 82, has been ringing the Grace United Methodist Church bell on Sunday mornings for about 27 years. He does it the old fashioned way - by pulling the bell cord!
St. Louis bells
The church bells atop the St. Louis Catholic Church operate electronically. They chime every hour and bong on the hour. At noon and 6 p.m. daily, the bells play a tune.
Cross walk
Even the pedestrian cross walk signals at the intersection of Washburn Ave. and Hwy. 23 makes different sounds depending on which way it is safe for pedestrians to cross.
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