It has been almost 30 years since the grand opening of the Lettie W. Jensen Community Center and it has become a vital part of our Amherst community. The grand opening in August of 1988 was publicized at the time, but in light of the passage of a quarter-century, it’s good to remind ourselves of just who Lettie Jensen was and of the remarkable generosity of her family. For starters, she was a hometown girl, born and raised in Amherst, and though she spent most of her adult years in Iowa, she fondly remembered her childhood home throughout her life. Her children came to know and love Amherst. After her death, it was one of them who wanted to do something for the Wisconsin town which had meant so much to his mother.
Lettie Jensen grew up in late 1800s Amherst. Her family lived in a frame house built by her father on North Main Street at the current site of the Amherst library which bears her name. Her parents, Nels and Anna Marie, were Danish immigrants who had married and lived briefly in Waupaca before settling in Amherst. Lettie (Wylette) was born on September 8, 1887, as was her twin sister Nettie (Wynette). They were the sixth and seventh of thirteen children born into the Jensen family, nine of whom lived to adulthood.
Nels Jensen worked at several jobs, and in the early 1900s served as the Amherst village constable. As a young woman, Lettie met Samuel Blanc, a native of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, while he was working in Amherst for a utility or telephone company. They were married in 1906 at the Jensen family home, where according to newspaper reporting, “a sumptuous supper” was served for the well-wishers in attendance. The couple lived in several Wisconsin locations before eventually settling in Iowa to raise their four children.
It was while the Blancs were living in Des Moines that a clogged drain led to the development of the future family business. According to Lettie’s grandson, Paul Blanc, of Tempe, Arizona, his mother had flushed potato peelings down the toilet, stopping up the drainage and creating a cleaning challenge. After hours of toil, Samuel and his son Milton, Paul’s father, realized there had to be a better way and began work on a more efficient solution. A few years later, in 1933, the father and son completed a prototype from spare parts, including a washing machine motor, roller skate wheels and a cable that turned a combination of special blades to clear build-up and tree roots out of sewer lines. Of particular note, no digging was required, thus no destruction of lawns and gardens. Lettie herself christened the device “Roto-Rooter.” The name stuck and the invention began to flourish. The nation was suffering from the Great Depression and salesmen eager for jobs began to purchase the machine and establish their own Roto-Rooter franchises across the country.
Roto-Rooter came to be the most well-known and the largest provider of plumbing and drain cleaning services in North America. Samuel and Lettie Jensen Blanc lived out their lives in Des Moines, managing their family business as it continued to prosper. Samuel died in 1964 and Lettie died thirteen years later in 1977 at the age of 90. “My grandmother was always very involved in the lives of her grandchildren,” says Milton Blanc’s daughter, Marge Blanc, of Mazomanie, Wisconsin. “She was a pianist who played by ear and it was always a treat to visit her and hear her play. She was quiet by nature, but her wisdom always shone in her eyes, and her pride in her family was warmly felt.”
The Blanc family sold the Roto-Rooter business in 1980. A few years later, in 1985, Milton contacted village of Amherst personnel to discuss some type of memorial to his mother in her beloved hometown. Along with his wife, Florence, and his sister, Lorraine Blanc DeVol, he worked with the Tomorrow River Tomorrow development group to review various options, including a village park, a youth center and a medical clinic. After much discussion, a community center which could lend itself to a variety of activities was decided upon as most beneficial for the greatest number of people. Milton pledged up to one million dollars to fund the project, divided between support of initial construction and creation of a trust fund for ongoing repairs and maintenance. Four acres of land adjacent to the high school were purchased from the School District of the Tomorrow River for location of the building and the Lettie W. Jensen Memorial Community Center celebrated its grand opening in August of 1988.
Interestingly enough, Milton and his sister had purchased and hoped to refurbish what had been the Jensen home on 268 N. Main Street in Amherst. However, the house was deemed structurally unsound and was razed. The Lettie W. Jensen Library now occupies the site. The library received financial support from Milton Blanc and his family and was dedicated in September of 1988 soon after the community center grand opening.
Marge Blanc remembers that Amherst was always home to her grandmother Lettie, long after she and Samuel had moved to Iowa. And though her father lived most of his young life in Iowa, his fondest childhood memories were of visits to his mother’s family home in Amherst, especially ice skating on the Tomorrow River mill pond behind the house. “It seemed only natural to him,” Marge says, “that Amherst would be the place for creating a memorial in honor of his mother.” Milton Blanc passed away in 1993. His wife, Florence, moved to Madison, Wisconsin, soon afterward. She died in 2012. “Amherst was a favorite place of hers,” according to Marge, “and she enjoyed visiting, watching plays at the community center, and attending Lettie’s Run while her younger family members participated."
After nearly 30 years, Milton Blanc’s generous gift continues to bless our community. The Lettie W. Jensen Community Center and the Lettie W. Jensen Library are now vibrant establishments at the heart of Amherst and our town would surely not be the same without them.