Traveling man always found his way home

World War II veteran Jack Peterson has traveled far and wide


Jack and Dolores Peterson on the Hardwood Creek Trail in Forest Lake where they often walk.

Cliff Buchan
Staff Writer

It’s no stretch to call Jack Peterson a traveling man.

As a World War II veteran, Peterson, 87, is like many vets of the Great War who traveled to the ends of the world in defense of their country. As a Navy sailor who served in the European and Pacific battle fronts, Peterson saw more ports than most people can imagine.

But Peterson never let his exit from the military curtail his desire to see the world, this time exploring the U.S. As a civilian, Peterson has used his legs and countless hours behind the wheel of a vehicle to see the world over and over.

Peterson is like many veterans who returned home from the war to start families and businesses and lead successful lives. He is just one of many who will be honored when veterans gather in Forest Lake on Sunday in salute of Veterans Day.

This year’s joint program of the Forest Lake American Legion and VFW will be hosted at VFW Post 4210, 556 SW 12th St.

Travels Far, Wide

Perhaps it was the wanderlust of serving in the Navy that sparked Peterson’s desire to travel. But travel became part of the retirement years for Jack and Dolores (Valenty) Peterson.

After nearly 30 years of running businesses in Forest Lake and working 15 years with the U.S. Postal Service’s Railway Mail Service, Peterson retired for good in 1980. During 38 years, the Petersons traveled coast-to-coast and border-to-border. And even beyond the borders.

Their travels include three road trips to Alaska and several to Mexico and even further south to Central America. For 38 years the couple wintered in southern climates that included Florida, Texas, Arizona and Mexico.

“We traveled quite a bit,” Peterson said with a smile. “From one end of the country to the other with stops in Mexico and Canada. We’ve been in 49 states.”

Only Hawaii is on the outside looking in and you can’t get there by vehicle, Peterson quipped.

For parts of 35 of the 38 years of motoring, the Petersons pulled a travel trailer. It was a way for them to see the country. If they liked a place, they would simply park and get to know the area better.

How far did they go? Peterson estimates that he probably drove 770,000 miles during those years. “We had a passenger car, too, but I didn’t count that,” he said.

During the 38 years of travel, he went through six vehicles, logging as many as 200,000 miles on one of his vehicles. With the travel trailers, Peterson estimates that he averaged 11,000 miles a year with some 400,000 miles of travel in the 35 years the couple pulled a trailer.

No matter how far Peterson traveled, there was always one must stop. He had to be home in the fall for hunting season.

Not Just Vehicles

Peterson’s travels on the highways are not his only mode of piling up the miles. He remains an avid walker. Walking is an activity the couple enjoyed for many years.

“We started walking in Florida and averaged five miles a day,” Peterson said.

He calculates that he averaged 1750 miles walking each year for 35 years for a total of 61,250 miles. That’s more than 21/2 times the 24,900 miles around the earth.

Peterson continues to walk but has scaled back to two to three miles a day over the past few years. If the weather is bad, he will curtail his outings or find an indoor place to walk. Dolores Peterson recently scaled back her walking regimen, opting for shorter strolls with her husband on a regular basis.

After nearly 40 years of being on the road, the Petersons are no longer snowbirds. They now remain in Forest Lake year round to spend more time with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Withrow Native

By nature of birth, Peterson is not from here, but yet his roots are from the area.

The Forest Home Hotel was a fixture on the south shore of Forest Lake. It was run by Hulda Berggren, grandmother of Jack Peterson. His mother, Thyra, also helped run the hotel in the summer until the family sold it in 1942. (Photo submitted)

John “Jack” Peterson was born on May 1, 1925 as the only child of John and Thyra (Berggren) Peterson. His mother was from Forest Lake and his father was from Columbus. After marrying, they settled in Withrow and owned the Kenyon General Store that sold dry goods, gas, groceries and meat.

Jack Peterson’s ties to Forest Lake were established as a young boy as he would make frequent trips to Forest Lake for church and to visit his grandmother, Hulda Berggren who owned the Forest Home Hotel on the south shore of First Lake. The Berggrens had moved to Forest Lake from St. Paul. After the death of Hulda’s husband, Victor Berggren in 1913, the hotel business opened and hosted travelers who came to Forest Lake by train to enjoy the resort town.

Peterson’s mother would help run the hotel in the summer months. She was one of eight children. Several siblings would spend summers helping run the operation.

Hulda Berggren would often dispatch her sons to catch fish to fill the day’s menu. “It was like a fish market,” Peterson said of the lake.

Peterson was too young to experience many of the hotel duties, but shared time there with his mother following the death of his father in 1931 when he was in his 40s. Thyra Peterson continued to run the store in Withrow and also served as postmaster for a time.

The business was sold in 1942 and she returned to Forest Lake, three years after the death of her mother who spent winters with her daughter in Withrow. It was also in 1942 when Peterson graduated from Stillwater High School.

Military Years

Peterson’s post-high school years were spent working in Forest Lake and for a time as a welder in Seattle. He returned home in 1943 and enlisted in the Navy on Oct. 5, 1943 hoping to earn pilot wings in flight school. A vision problem forced his move from the Air Corps and he was sent to the Naval Armed Guard. He was assigned to the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet.

Jack Peterson as a Navy sailor in late 1943. (Photo submitted)

“We took care of the guns and signal equipment,” Peterson said. “I was on a lot of different ships.” The 25-member Naval force manned the five-inch, three-inch and 20 mm machine guns when under attack and also made sure signal equipment properly worked.

His first tour of duty left New Orleans for the European war zone. The convoy duty soon switched from the Atlantic to the Pacific as the heavy battles of the Pacific were being fought. “That took us into a lot of the islands in the Pacific campaign,” Peterson said.

He was in Australia when the war ended in August of 1945. “We had to march in a parade in Sydney,” he said. “We were all pretty serious.”

His military career ended on June 24, 1946 after two years, eight months and 28 days of service.

Back Home

There was no question where Peterson would go when his military duty was finished. He returned home. “I had to have a place to hang my hat,” he said.

He used the G.I. Bill to log two years at the University of Minnesota, but passed on going after his business degree when he landed a job with the Railway Mail Servoce in 1948. He worked mail trains for 15 years before taking an early out in 1972 for his first retirement.

During his years on the mail trains, he maintained his Forest Lake ties. He inherited the long-closed hotel business following the death of his mother. Some of the Berggren clan continued to live on the grounds during the 1940s and early into the 1950s.

In 1951, Peterson removed the old hotel building and other structures on the grounds and opened the 20-lot Forest Home Trailer Park complete with sewer and water. The park provided year-round hook-ups and kept a couple of spots open for travelers who would return to Forest Lake each summer for vacations.

It was a good business, Peterson said, and it continued until 1971 when the six acres of land with 470 feet of lakeshore was sold. Townhomes now sit on the property that bordered with the Sunshine Lodge, a summer campground for youth that is also part of Forest Lake’s past.

Peterson continued to be part of Forest Lake’s growth. He became a charter member of VFW Post 4210 and was active in the 1960s with American Legion Post 225, serving as commander in 1965-66.

The sale of the hotel grounds did not end his business ties. In 1972 the Petersons purchased Nature’s Treat in Columbus.

The company would buy raw honey shipped to the plant in 55-gallon drums where it was processed and bottled. The bottled honey was shipped to retail accounts all over the world, Peterson said.

“I was looking for something to do that you could make a buck at,” Peterson said, explaining why he got into the honey business. In reality, Nature’s Treat was more than they bargained for.

They ran the business for eight years but found themselves working seven days a week. The Sunday and night shifts convinced them to put the business up for sale. “We had it sold within a week,” he said.

It was 1980 and the Petersons were free to devote all their time for travel and travel they did. After nearly four decades of being on the road, they are comfortable staying put in their small home just off Broadway here.

They now have time to spend with their family. They lost one son, Jeffrey, several years ago. Sons John and James and daughters Claudia Lowe and Joan Erickson have produced eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren to help keep Dolores and Jack busy.

There is still time for the morning walks and taking in community functions.

Jack Peterson thinks back fondly to his start in Withrow but is glad he returned to the home of his parents. His early life had its social links to Stillwater, but it was here in 1946 when he met Dolores Valenty, another Forest Lake native. They married on Jan. 4, 1947.

“That was the best move I ever made,” the traveling man said.