Norman Pettingill: His Life

Posted by on March 9th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Norman Pettingill was an American original, and, for once, there isn’t a shred of hype in that clichéd description.

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He was born in 1896 in Iron River, Wis. He lived most of his life in Iron River and neighboring Superior, comparatively a bustling metropolis of 26,000 — with infrequent forays to Minnesota (for work) and Mississippi (for soldiering during World War I). Otherwise, he spent his life in Wisconsin with his wife Louise, where he loved hunting, trapping, playing practical jokes, card games (like gin rummy) and catch baseball with his kids — and drawing cartoon tableaux vivants depicting, satirizing, and memorializing the life he knew.

Norman’s grandfather, John A. Pettingill founded Iron River in 1892. According to Buz Holland, “In the early 1980s, John D. Pettingill, a farmer and cattle dealer from the Mindoro/West Salem area in west central Wisconsin, came up to the Marshfield region for some deer hunting. There were few or no deer to be seen, so the disappointed hunters inquired of the railroad workers as to whether there was some place else where they might find some decent chance of success. ‘Go to Ashland,’ they were told. So they boarded the next train. On arrival, they were further advised to travel about 25 miles west of Ashland — to such and such a mile post, get off there, and they’d be certain to have some good hunting. And so it was.

“The land was well watered and timbered, was beautiful and available for purchase. John did just that: filed a claim, purchased the land of his choice, platted, developed, and promoted it as the new town of Iron River, Wisconsin.”

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Rodney Schroeter wrote, in an article titled “A Visit with Norman Pettingill,” that John built a trading post that was a combination store, post office and hotel. In 1929, P.J. Savage, the editor of the Iron River Pioneer, wrote: “[John Pettingill] had roomers sleeping all around on the floor and waiting turns at the table. They did a veritable land office business and were busier than the proverbial cranberry merchant.” After John Pettingill sold his mercantile store, he became a banker in Iron River.

John Pettingill’s son, George and daughter-in-law, Nellie — who also owned a trading post in Iron River — began their family the same year as the town was founded: Georgia was born in 1892; John in 1894; Norman in 1896; Lyman in 1898; and Russell in 1900.

Pettingill has been quoted as saying that he had been drawing “since I was six years old. I didn’t have any training in it. As soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil, I began drawing.” His first published drawing appeared in The Evening Telegram when he was about 10 years old. The drawing was called The Nite B/4, “which showed a deer hunter lying in bed dreaming about the big day; I was just a kid in school then,” Norman once reminisced.

Pettingill completed “about the third year of high school,” and then dropped out: “I couldn’t stay [inside the school] in the spring of the year with the warm weather, when I could be in the woods, oh my God.” He began a lifelong love affair with the outdoors when he only a kid, explaining “I guess I was born with hunting in my blood.”

Pettingill was drafted during World War I, but, according to his son Bud, only served for a short time in Mississippi toward the end of the war, and was discharged when the war ended.

Norman did not have a profession or a career in the middle-class sense; in part he lived off the land, used his marketable drawing and calligraphic skills to find occasional employment, and eventually he was able to combine his talent with a half-assed entrepreneurial gift and make a living with his art. “I worked at everything in the world,” he mused. In 1925, Pettingill “worked on an Indian reservation down at Lac du Flambeau helping a surveyor. Indians would come and ask me to write calling cards for them.” In 1926, he worked for a printing and engraving company. He was apparently also simultaneously courting a childhood sweetheart, Louise, 10 years his junior, and moved back to Iron River in 1927 to marry her as soon as she graduated high school. According to lifelong friend Jim Pink, “He always talked about being head-over-heels [in love] with her.” After Norman and Louise got married, the two moved back to Minneapolis where he resumed his job; “and 10 days later,” Norman said, “the banks closed” and he lost his life’s savings of $1,400. He was so discouraged by this — and “never liked the city anyway” —  that he and Louise moved back to Iron River. (His son Bud questions whether he lost $1,400; “that sounds like too dang much for Dad at that time,” Bud commented. It would be equivalent to over $17,000 today — which is indeed a dang lot of money.)

Norman and Louise resided in a cabin in Iron River, and they once again lived in part off the land — he could hunt and fish, they raised chickens and pigs, and even owned a cow —and in part from a succession of jobs Norman held. By his own account, Norman worked on the railroad (in the baggage department, according to his son Bud) for “30 cents per hour, ten hours a day, six days a week,” Norman said; he worked for the Works Progress Administration (founded in 1935) “cutting wood or some darn thing” (Bud clarified); he took on freelance jobs, such as designing letterheads, and painting signs for stores and trucks.

Pettingill moved to Superior in 1937, from an area of perhaps 800 to a town of 36,000 or so. When asked to describe the difference between the two, Norman’s son Bud, replied, “What’s the difference between a $100 bill and a penny?”

Norman moved to Superior in order to work in a movie theater that his brother Russell opened — despite the fact that he evidently had no particular interest in, much less a love for, movies. The previous year, the Pettingills’ father died in 1936 and left a substantial inheritance solely to Russell; the other children received nothing. (Norman’s son Jack suggests that Russell may have manipulated his mother into leaving him the entire inheritance.) The inheritance went into the purchase of the theater, and while none of the other siblings owned a share, at least Norman and Lyman worked there, “putting up the marquee, taking tickets, helping him sweep in the mornings, cleaning up the aisles and putting up the chairs,” Jack recalled. The theater closed in 1941. Bud, who ushered at the theater (when he was 9 years old) referred to it as a “Pettingill ordeal”; Norman never spoke about it. After this calamitous family affair — the two brothers had such an acrimonious relationship that Norman did not attend Russell’s funeral — Norman went to work at DuPont, the chemical corporation in Washburn, and later, during World War II, in the shipyards.

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