How long is a hundred years? Over 52 million minutes? The blink of an eye? For June Comstock of Milbank it’s a lifetime. June celebrates her 100th birthday today, June 21.
June was born June 21, 1920. To say things have changed since then is the understatement of the century and that’s without even considering the big items — the internet, airlines, cell phones, and heart transplants. In 1920, there were no sunglasses, recliners, or cheeseburgers. No traffic lights or bulldozers. There was no Mount Rushmore, no Mickey Mouse, and even the 40-hour work week didn’t exist. Along with June’s arrival in the world came the birth of the word ‘robot’, jungle gyms, and coincidentally or not Band-aids.
The first supermarket had opened four years earlier in Tennessee, but June was born in Howard, South Dakota. In Howard, Hanson’s grocery was where everyone shopped. It sold yard goods in front and shoes sandwiched between the groceries for sale in the back. Pickles were retrieved from a big barrel. June worked at Hanson’s while she attended high school. One of her duties was candling eggs — the practice of holding eggs up to a candle to see inside and determine the eggs’ quality. June was also employed selling tickets at the theater in Howard.
After high school, she went to Minneapolis to live with her sister Edna — one of her 11 siblings. Edna taught her to play bridge and June got a job working at Dayton’s Department Store because she says,” I had some experience.” Her daughter Susie says it was more likely because June could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. Her ability to close a sale caught the eye of someone at Montgomery Wards and June was hired to work in their Albert Lea store. She remembers riding the train to Albert Lea and moving into an apartment with two other girls. In Albert Lea, she met Francis Comstock at a club similar to a YMCA. She says, “He had attended dry cleaner school and he had red hair, but I can’t remember how he won my heart.”
Somehow he performed that magic because the couple was married on May 2, 1942.
In October, Fran enlisted in the army and was stationed in Oregon. So, June got on the train and traveled to Oregon. She lived in an apartment with a room and kitchen privileges near other US Army wives. Susie was born in Oregon.
June moved to Raleigh, Missouri while Fran was serving in France. Fran was injured by flying shrapnel and spent three months recovering. He was then sent to the Phillipines. June says, “Fran was gone a long time.” When he came back in 1946, he had earned a purple heart, a World War II Victory medal, and a collection of other honors.
The couple moved back to Albert Lea and Fran worked at Johnson Dry Cleaning. They decided to buy their own dry cleaning business in Staples, Minnesota, in 1948, and made the jump to Milbank in 1951 when they purchased Apex Cleaners.
At that time, Apex was located downtown across from the cheese factory, and the first year they owned it, they lived above the business. The cleaners required gigantic laundry tubs and every Saturday night the kids — Susie (Arizona), Tom (Michigan), Mark (Milbank) — got a bath in the stone tubs right before tumbling into bed. Their youngest brother, Bryan aka Buzz (Minneapolis), missed out on that fun as he didn’t come along until 1959, the year the Comstocks moved the cleaners to the location on West Third Avenue. “Buzz is 10 years younger than Mark – he was an afterthought,” says June. “But he’s been worth it.”
At the cleaners, June used to sit for hours sewing. She mended, shortened coats, put cuffs on men’s pants, and replaced zippers. Even after she got home from Apex, she would often sew at night until 2 a.m. “We needed the money,” she says. She also kept the books.
June and Fran always worked long, hard hours, but particularly during the early days. At last, June says, “We felt we deserved a night out and decided to go to the country club for a dance.” While they were gone, someone came into the building and the babysitter assumed it was the Comstocks. So, she left. When the Comstocks returned, they found a set of men’s clothes at the bottom of the stairs and no babysitter. They called the police. The police found the naked man — a doctor from a nearby town — at another house, drunk and wrapped in a tablecloth.
Most of their customers, however, remained fully clothed when they dropped off their dirty laundry. And after they were cleaned and pressed, the Comstocks delivered them to the customers’ homes. “All the kids took their turn making deliveries and the boys had to clean out the filters every Saturday morning,” June says. “They were high school kids and they worked hard.”
“So hard,” June says that when she and Fran sold the cleaners in 1978, “none of the children wanted the business.” “Too much work,” Susie and Mark agree. The Comstocks instead sold it to Dale Schultz, and Fran and June retired while she was still in her 50s. They resided on Viola Street where she lives today, near the house on Viola Street where the kids grew up.
June became known for another kind of delivery. She was one of the first to deliver Meals on Wheels in Milbank and supported the project for many years. She and Fran were also known for their long walks around town. They were the first two people to lap the track when Unity Square opened.
They also played a lot of bridge. The Comstocks belonged to a card group which met every week. They took turns hosting and played for pennies. June figures since the day her sister taught her the game back in Minneapolis, she has been bidding and taking tricks for about 80 years. She still plays today and never tires of it. “I like to play,” she says. “I’d just as soon play a game right now.”
Fran passed away 10 years ago and June now goes to Arizona every winter. This year, she stayed for about six months because of Covid-19. She finally returned home last week -— just in time for her 100th birthday.
Regarding her induction into the elite club of centenarians, June says, “It’s just here. I don’t feel any different. I appreciate that I’m as healthy as I am and able to live in my own house.” A humble response from a nice lady. But doesn’t a golden girl deserve a bit more?
Milbank Mayor Pat Raffety thought so. He issued an executive proclamation declaring Sunday, June 21 as June Comstock Day in Milbank.