Saint Paul, MN

The Amazing Life Story of Margaret "Babe" Rohland (1914 - 2011)

Matt Reicher
Margaret "Babe" RohlandPhoto byJim Gehrz/Star Tribune

"The memories are the 'wish-I-could-do-it-over kind.'" -- Margaret 'Babe' Rohland

ST. PAUL, MN - Whether right or wrong, we tend to discount the significance of our personal experiences with the past. After all, we aren't famous—most of us, anyway—and those moments, regardless of how interesting and exciting they seem, probably shouldn't be considered part of "history," at least not at a large scale.

Typically, history books are filled with stories of men and women of means – social, financial, or otherwise. However, on rare occasions, someone will buck that trend. One person to successfully do that was “Babe” Rohland, a St. Paul resident who found herself at (or at the very least) near the center of many of the city’s high-profile events in the twentieth century.

Margaret Winifred "Babe" Rohland (née Miner) was born in St. Paul on October 16, 1914. Over her lifetime, she had a front-row seat to some of local history's most famous (and infamous) events.

A barely four-year-old Rohland had her first look at the highs and lows of history in 1918. That year she saw neighbors, friends, and family - including her Uncle Louie - return home safely after World War I ended. Babe felt their excitement as her uncle repeatedly tossed her into the air. In the following weeks, she became a victim of the worldwide influenza epidemic. It was far from certain that she would survive the virus, but she did.

In 1923, St. Paul officials wanted Henry Ford to move the Minneapolis portion of his car company to Highland Park. Eight-year-old Babe was chosen from her dance troupe to present flowers to Mr. Ford during a grand ceremony at the proposed site.

Prohibition was the law of the land during this period. Intoxicating liquor was illegal to produce, transport, and sell in the country. Many people, including those living in Babe's Summit-University neighborhood, attempted to make and sell homemade liquor, although it was illegal.

In one instance of enforcement, federal agents raided a home near Milton Ave. and discovered an illegal still. Babe recalled the awful smell that permeated the neighborhood when agents poured barrels of bathtub gin from a third-floor window onto the alley below.

One summer weekend in the late 1920s, Babe and friends took the streetcar to Wildwood Amusement Park alongside the southeast portion of White Bear Lake. There she saw a five-piece music combo headlined by "Larry" Welk. Years later, the band's leader became known as famous bandleader Lawrence Welk, an icon of Saturday night television.

She saw him perform at a local park — years before he became famous.

On November 23, 1930, while having dinner with friends at the Alverdes in downtown St. Paul, Babe saw famed explorer Admiral Richard Byrd seated nearby. Byrd had recently returned from his first Antarctic expedition. She got his autograph.

For much of her life, Babe had lived among gangsters in St. Paul. Police Chief O’Connor’s Layover Agreement had made the city a haven for criminals. Despite their reputation, she hadn’t heard of many significant issues with the city’s gangster element. However, that changed on a cold January night in 1934.

Northwest Airways radio operator Roy McCord approached a car he thought contained neighborhood prowlers. Babe's mom watched in horror as Barker-Karpis Gang members Alvin Karpis and "Doc" Barker jumped out of the vehicle with sub-machine guns and began firing — striking McCord multiple times. The injured man fell onto Babe's family's yard.

Four days later, only a few blocks away, the same gang kidnapped banker Edward Bremer.

Babe met her husband, Tom Rohland, in 1936. The couple were married in August 1941., two years before Tom was drafted to fight in World War II. In 1945 the couple was among the thousands who walked through knee-deep streamers in downtown St. Paul to celebrate the war's end.

By this point in her life, Babe had witnessed a lifetime of incredible experiences. She'd seen a lot. Marriage and children allowed her to look away from the outside world and concentrate on her family.

However, that didn't mean the outside world was done with Babe Rohland.

In the summer of 1960, the Rohland family drove to Holman Field to be part of the crowd to welcome presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Babe shook the future president's hand.

There were few other brushes with fame for her after 1960. In later interviews, Babe joked that she'd seen so much that it was difficult to impress her. Her life became less monumental — but no less memorable. She and Tom remained happily married until his death in 1995. The loving couple were blessed with four children, eight grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren.

Margaret "Babe" Rohland passed away on February 17, 2011, at age 96. She was a first-hand witness to many of local history's most unforgettable moments. Despite not being traditionally famous, Babe's life story is one worthy of the history books.


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