Dale Schmeling is tending tomato plants as I sit down to visit and write. Barbara walks in the door while we talk and Dale putters. Somewhat renowned in the area for his great tomatoes, Schmeling says, “I just enjoy doing it. I’ve been raising my own tomatoes since 1962 - and other people’s before that. I went over to the Flower Shop early in the year and asked Einar Grinvoll for some plants. He told me, ‘They’ll freeze,’ and wouldn’t sell me any. I decided, ‘From now on, I’ll raise my own.’ I read a great book called All About Tomatoes by Ortho and have been raising tomatoes from seed ever since.”
“Now, Beefsteak and Beefmaster are not worth the trouble to raise. They’re meant for a long growing season. But, I cheat because I have a greenhouse. For this climate and latitude, Early Girl, Celebrity, Fantastic, or Northern Exposure work best. I get my first tomatoes by the end of July. But there again, they are started in the greenhouse.”
And, Schmeling tomatoes appear in town for a long time after the last frost. Joan Selfridge was serving Schmeling’s fruit at Kiwanis many Wednesdays late into the fall.
So, tomatoes are your passion? “Well, I got a new passion, now. Giant kohlrabi.” Barbara brings out photos of last year’s kohlrabi that grew to over six pounds.
“Our son brought out some giant kohlrabi, last year. Then, he got us seed. Most kohlrabi that size are woody inside. But these were sweet and crisp. A new hybrid strain.”
Barbara is just back from Bible Study. She has been a member of the Federated Church since 1950, Dale since 1940. They have both been in the choir since 1952 and taught Sunday School from 1954 into the early 70s. Church is a staple and major part of the Schmelings life. Barbara spent the morning over the church selling raffle tickets at the Spring Luncheon.
Dale Schmeling graduated from HHS in 1946 with Perry Smith and Stillman Jones. Barbara Kaighn graduated from West High (just Junior and Senior classes had 1200 students) in Salt Lake City in 1946.
Dale headed straight for the Marines with Perry Smith and Robbie Cavan and Oscar Biegel. Oscar had weak vision, so Perry and Dale memorized the chart for him and he passed his first exam in Harlow. But, he had to go through another exam in Butte without his buddies. Oscar got sent to the Army.
Now, it’s HARD to believe he would do that! “Oh, I was a different breed of cat in those days.”
Dale and Perry went off to Marine training in San Diego, then Miramar and El Toro (clerical school). Perry got shipped to Hawaii. Dale stayed at Santa Ana and got an early out in 1947 when the military was reducing forces after WWII. He was invited to add two years to his enlistment or go home.
Mr. Schmeling went to Montana State College in Bozeman on the GI Bill taking art courses in 47 and 48. Returning to Harlowton, he worked at Montana Flour Mills in 48 and 49. Then, off to Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Salt Lake City for a year in 1950.
Barbara spent 46 to 50 going to junior college, then waiting tables at a sandwich shop and working for Mountain Bell Telephone. The two met at First Baptist Church where Barbara was a member and had been singing in the choir for years. The church was located about a mile from the boarding house where Dale stayed. Barbara says, “We were putting on a campaign to welcome young men new to the area.” It was six months before Dale asked for a date and another nine months before they wed.”
How did Dale lure you to Montana? “Well, I’de do anything to get out of Salt Lake City. Dale was always telling me that things were better up here.”
The Schmelings were married in Salt Lake in June 1950. “We packed all of Barbara’s goods in our 1940 4-door Oldsmobile and headed to Harlowton. Not long after arrival, Barbara found a spot here working for Mountain Bell working as night operator.
The phone exchange was across from E57B and the Schmelings remember a friend calling 162J, their number. The operator came on the phone. “You looking for Dale? Well, he just drove by. He’s not at home.”
Dale had worked since the early 40s for his father at Schmeling Cold Storage and Locker. He was employed fulltime from 1950 to 1958 becoming a “good meat cutter” while slowly building his Photo Studio.
Sausage is another of Schmeling’s passions. “I worked alongside Alfred Leibe, a German sausage maker, for three years in the 50s. He knew how to make sausage. We had THE recipe.” Dale made up hundreds of pounds of elk sausage last year. Makes a great combo with a Schmeling tomato.
“There was no photographer in town when I came back from school. I used Sorboe’s old studio (located at present USPO site). Then, Dad built the present building where we had our studio on the north half, a restaurant (Corner Cafe), and our living quarters. We moved here in 1958 when I began fulltime photography.”
Schmeling’s clientele grew over the years. “In 58, I started going to schools to do packages, seniors and annuals. Drove all over. Drove the wheels off to get business. We did Harlowton Schools from 1960 to 2003.” Barbara stayed on at Mountain Bell until they changed from operators to dialup in 62-63.
Barbara had an especially important job in the photography work in the early years when she did hand oil-painted portraits. Dale took the photos and larger prints were turned over to Barbara to oil color. “I had to learn how to blend color, to use the right media. It took at least three hours to each portrait.”
Color photography began to take hold in the mid 60s. And calls for oil portraiture has been small since mid 70s. Barbara still does them from time to time. “I still do oils once in a while. It’s like riding a bike. You don’t forget.”
Business has changed in recent years especially since 04 when Dale was slowed up by health problems. That was his last summer to do one wedding a week during the summer. “But, we’re still in business.”
Schmeling was at a tourism meeting in Helena recently when he was introduced to a woman legislator from Billings. Penny Morgan proudly announced, “You took my senior pictures in Big Timber.” A friend in Lewistown told me not long ago, “Schmeling did my wedding photos.” Similar refrains are common.
How about electronic photography? “It’s fine. Gets you out of the darkroom. It obsoleted a lot of darkroom and processing equipment. Film and paper don’t go out of date, now. But, you can’t make quality enlargements at very large sizes. Maybe with a $5000 camera. ” Well, Schmeling is about move in that direction by buying an 8 to 10 megapixel camera. Not quite that expensive, though.
What about a favorite photograph? “I like them all,” says Dale. Barbara has a favorite, though. A precious little picture of two of the Schmelings’ eleven grandchildren. The photograph was taken when Danita, aged 16 months, gave her infant sister, Crystal, a big hug.
How about Barbara’s passion? “Letting him do all those things he loves. I don’t protest.” After a pause, “Oh, my children and grandchildren.” Another pause. “Singing. Yes, singing and reading. I sang from when I was a little kid and in choirs. I sang for funerals until recent times.”
Parties, weddings, and graduations are regular places for Dale Schmeling to appear. Even funerals! Funerals? Yeah, funerals. “People sometimes want a RECENT photo. I have done funerals to prove that a person is dead or the rite was carried out as planned.”
Dale then recalls doing a wedding in White Sulphur Springs. The minister was adamant, however, “No pictures during the service.”
The bride fainted. “So, I took pictures. Click, click.”
An EMT was standing by but apparently didn’t do much. Dale cracked to him, “I was waiting for you to give her mouth to mouth. I would have taken a lot more photos.”
Telling a good story or joke is another Schmeling passion, it seems. The Schmelings were recently honored at this year’s Kiwanis Show for their many years of service through the local club. One way left to serve might be for Dale to tell one of his great stories at a future show. Maybe he could tell my favorite, “Dog, Man, Dog.”