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Christmas crafter: Waubun native spends his days at The Cottages in Detroit Lakes making holiday decorations

From Army serviceman to over-the-road trucker to bulk oil dealer to rural mail carrier, Waubun native Herb Ahles has had a variety of careers.

"I've had a pretty busy life," he says. "I've been a part-time policeman, part-time deputy sheriff, part-time farmer... I drove school buses, and I was a (volunteer) fireman for 24½ years."

At the age of 19, Herb enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he spent the next two years on active duty.

Stationed at Fort Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska, Herb spent 17 months driving truck for the Army before returning to Waubun in 1956.

"I drove truck for Bement's Oil from 1956-71," says Ahles.

"I purchased the business (a Texaco bulk oil dealership) in 1971."

He owned the business for 10 years, until selling it and taking a job with the U.S. Postal Service.

"I spent 15 years with the Postal Service as a rural mail carrier," he says. "I had a 120-mile route, which I drove five days a week...I had Saturdays off."

Before starting as a rural carrier, Herb had served as a substitute carrier for 14 years.

"I took over for my brother (as a part-time carrier) when he had a farm accident," Herb says. "I kept the substitute job until I sold the bulk business and went into mail carrying full time.

"I went through a lot of pickups (as a mail carrier). I would trade them in every two years."

Born and raised in Mahnomen County, about a mile east of Waubun, Herb was married for 52 years. His wife, Mary Ann, passed away at 10 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2010. (He remembers the time because she died at 10 a.m. on 10-10-10.)

During their early years together, the couple raised two children, a son named Michael and a daughter named Barbara.

"My son works for Dynamic Homes in Detroit Lakes, and my daughter lives in Waubun and runs a daycare service," Herb says.

His son-in-law, Paul Brehm, followed in Herb's footsteps as chief of the Waubun Fire Department, and recently retired from his job as a deputy with the Mahnomen County Sheriff's Department.

He also has two grandsons, and three great grandchildren. His oldest grandson, Scott, is in law enforcement, while younger grandson Brent is a maintenance man for the City of Waubun.

Though he retired several years ago due to back problems, and also suffers from vasculitis, making it difficult for him to walk without assistance, Herb still keeps busy at his home in the Cottages at Emmanuel Community.

"During the summertime, I care for the flowers here," he says. "I also help out any way I can with the residents here. There are always little things I can do."

Some of those "little things" include "helping in the kitchen when they're short-handed," and helping his fellow residents with their bingo cards during the weekly bingo games.

During the holiday season, however, Herb spends many hours in his room at The Cottages, making Christmas decorations.

He takes recycled cans of various shapes and sizes, then decorates them to resemble Santa Claus, snowmen, reindeer and other popular holiday figures.

He also makes similar decorations for Halloween and Thanksgiving.

"After I got here, I had so much free time," he says, noting that he had to give up most of his hobbies after he sold his home in Waubun.

He became interested in crafting as a result of being asked to make his own door decoration during a resident craft-making session.

"The first thing I made was this apple," he said, picking up the aforementioned door decoration, which has the words "Herb's Den," written on it.

He decided on using recycled cans as his medium because of the years he spent recycling aluminum cans and other materials, picking them up from roadway ditches.

"I would put on about 120 miles a year just picking things out of ditches," he says. "I'd recycle what I could, and throw out the rest."

These days, he gets the cans he uses "from different sources," including donations from friends and relatives, and from the kitchens at Emmanuel.

"It's wonderful therapy," Herb says of his hobby. "Crafting can get really involved.

"I have quite an assortment of materials. You need a real variety so you're not making exactly the same thing every time."

Herb says that besides making the decorations that have been placed throughout The Cottages, he has also made some for friends and relatives.

Occasionally he'll make them for other people as well; though he doesn't charge for the labor, he might occasionally ask people to donate a small amount for the materials he uses.

"You do get some money invested in this," he says. "It counts up fast."

One of his most popular decorative items is the snowman, which is made from one large can, serving as the base, and two large Styrofoam balls that make up the body.

Sticks are used for the arms, and he makes the stovepipe hats and carrot noses from construction paper and cardboard.

The eyes and mouth come from crafting kits; he also recently learned to make reindeer from candy canes and pipe cleaners.

Though it may seem to be a time-consuming hobby, Herb says he'd rather spend his days doing that than watching television.

"I don't like to sit around and watch TV all day," he says. "I've been a working man all my life."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454
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