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DL man once gave record-setting taxi ride

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When Swen Johanson picked up one of his regular customers, Mrs. E.A. Westman, on Aug. 22, 1946, it might have seemed like any of the other dozens of rides to and from home that Johanson had given her that summer -- until one looked at the amount of luggage being piled in the trunk.

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Unlike Mrs. Westman's previous calls for her favorite cab driver, this trip was to be a bit longer than a quick jaunt into town from her home on Lake Sallie's Dakota Beach.

"I used to drive her back and forth (into Detroit Lakes and home again) every day to do her shopping," Johanson recalls.

This time, however, Johanson would be delivering his client and her two children to the place they called home for the rest of the year -- in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Though he doesn't remember exactly how long the trip took, Johanson, now 86, estimated that it was about a week and a half, round trip.

It wasn't a straight shot. There were no interstate highways in those days. The trip involved fording rivers in some places and lots of rural roads.

"When I got there, they (the Westmans) put me up for a couple of days, gave me room and board," Johanson says. During those two days, Mr. Westman gave him a tour of the area that included visits to see the island prison at Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and the wooden plane built by reclusive multimillionaire Howard Hughes.

Evidently, the Westmans considered that to be enough of a tip, because he didn't get anything extra.

"I was paid for 12-hour days, though I was driving 24 hours (a day)," Johanson says, referring to the wage paid to him by City Cab. "So I considered it as half work, half vacation."

Driving most of the day and night, Johanson took few breaks; his passengers slept in the cab. In those days, there were few wide, paved roads to make the ride smoother. He drove a long stretch of the "Lincoln Highway," Highway 30, which now parallels the route of Interstate Hwy. 80 into Wyoming.

After arriving in Huntington Beach, Johanson put an advertisement in the local newspaper, asking for passengers on the long trek back home.

He got five takers. On Aug. 28, he piled as much of the luggage from his five passengers in the trunk as he could, and tied the rest of it to the hood of the 1941 Pontiac Six.

As he drove the cab through the desert and mountains on his way back to Minnesota, Johanson began to worry about whether the tires on the vehicle would hold out -- it being so soon after the end of World War II, rubber tires and other supplies were still being rationed.

"You had to be in your home county to get new tires," Johanson said. If he got a flat somewhere in between California and Minnesota, it may have been difficult to find a replacement.

As it happened, his worry was for naught: the tires held, and he delivered each of his five passengers home safely.

Not without a slightly alarming delay, however. Shortly after the heavily loaded cab arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, Johanson was pulled over by police, who said they'd had a report of a taxi theft in Los Angeles.

Johanson spent the night in a jail cell before the local authorities were able to get in touch with City Cab in Detroit Lakes and verify his identity. His remaining passengers slept on a bench in the office at the police station. It was only a temporary setback, however, and Johanson was actually grateful for the extra night's sleep.

For many years, the 2,000-mile (one way) trip to Huntington Beach stood as the longest cab ride ever given, anywhere in the United States.

When asked what the cost of the fare had been for the Eastmans, Johanson admits, "I still don't know. I never asked."

At the time he set that record, Johanson was relatively new to the taxicab business, having gotten the job less than a day after arriving in Detroit Lakes on a train from the East Coast, having just been discharged from the U.S. Army in November 1945.

"I was met at the train by my friend Max Wickstrom, who drove a cab," Johanson says. "He wanted me to stay and ride with him, keep him company that night.

"The next morning, I got a cab of my own."

Johanson was no stranger to the Detroit Lakes area, having moved to Waubun as a 14-year-old immigrant just off the boat from Sweden, along with his mother and younger, twin brothers (his father died when he was 2). Though he had already received an education in Sweden, Johanson went to country school in the Waubun area, "so I could learn English."

When he was old enough, Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army, and was on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge. His strongest memory of that battle, which lasted many months, was how cold it was. "We each had two sets of clothes, and had to wear them both to keep warm."

When he came back to the U.S. and was discharged from duty, Johanson took the train from the East Coast back to Detroit Lakes, where he met Wickstrom.

Though the government would have paid him a stipend of $20 a week for 52 weeks after his discharge, Johanson opted instead to take the job driving cab -- which paid $30 a week.

"That $10 a week was a lot of money back then," he says. "I didn't want to lay around doing nothing all day anyway."

After spending about a year driving cabs by day and trucks by night, Johanson went into road construction, where he would spend the next 11 years, building some of the area's highways.

"There weren't many roads here then," he says.

Johanson later would spend 27 years driving a ready-mix concrete truck for Lakes Ready Mix in Detroit Lakes, eventually working his way up to "running the company."

Today, Johanson is retired and makes his home at Pleasant View Apartments in Detroit Lakes.

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 14 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 844-1454
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