An old cassette tape opens the door to century-old yarns.
Shirley Berdie cradles the cassette tape gently in slender fingers, as if it were a rare gemstone.
She's kept it close for nearly 35 years -- since her kids sat their grandfather down in 1977, turned on the tape recorder and captured Joseph Sher's stories of growing up as a poor kid shining shoes and hawking fish in Duluth's Bowery.
"It's invaluable and has a pretty good chunk of Minnesota history on it -- from Duluth to the Iron Range and up the North Shore," she says, as the sun filters through her fifth-floor apartment window in St. Paul.
A retired fourth-grade teacher, Berdie spent her first 60 years in Duluth. Then she moved to Asheville, N.C., for 25 years until her husband, John, died in 2009 and her kids encouraged to move back to Minnesota six months ago.
On the 45-minute tape, Joe Sher talks about his days as plumber, pioneer movie theater projectionist and roller rink instructor. Born in 1893, Joe was 83 when the tape was recorded. He died four years later.
"Oh, boy, did I have experiences," he says.
Joe talks about how his father, who emigrated from Vilna before the Russian army could snatch him up, would take a team of horses 20 miles up to Knife River every day and bring back a ton of herring, ciscoes and trout that "peddlers from the old country, with these two little baskets on their arms, would sell on the streetcars and house to house.
"He'd wake me up at 2 o'clock in the morning and I'd go down to the lake shore 100 feet from our house and chop a hole in the ice to get water for the horses," he says. "Money was so scarce that if I needed new shoes, my father would let me pick a dozen of the biggest herrings" to sell.
When lumberjacks came down from the lumber camps, Joe and other 6-year-old shoe-shine boys "were waiting like a bunch of vultures."
"Their pockets were full of money and what the girls didn't take away from them and the bartenders didn't rob them of, would be a harvest for us," he says. "They had these great big muddy boots and we'd shine one and ask for money before we'd shine the other one."
Joe also gives a rare eyewitness account of the November 1905 Mataafa disaster, when an ore boat failed to make it between Duluth's piers and 10,000 people lighted bonfires and watched crew members try to run from the back to the captain's quarters up front between 50- foot waves. Fifteen survived, three were washed over and six in the rear froze to death. "The next morning, we were watching as they chopped the bodies away from the ice and brought them in," he says.
He sold newspapers for 2 cents on Superior Street.
When a man reached out the window and gave him two pennies for the paper, Joe realized he'd slipped him a $5 gold piece by mistake. He ran home with 10 unsold papers to tell his mother. She asked why he didn't sell all the papers.
"I thought I'd better disappear before the guy came looking for me," he explains. "She slapped me and made me go back and sell the rest."
Shirley Berdie can't help but smile.
"If I didn't have this tape, it wouldn't make a great difference in my life," she says. "But I do have it, so it's something I want to pass along and keep alive."