Swailes Electric - Started With a Radio

By Tina Turney
Posted 11/4/99

After graduation from public high school in Riverside, Ernie Swailes moved to Philadelphia to learn the welding trade. He was faced with being drafted and his goal was to gain the skills to become a …

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Swailes Electric - Started With a Radio


After graduation from public high school in Riverside, Ernie Swailes moved to Philadelphia to learn the welding trade. He was faced with being drafted and his goal was to gain the skills to become a shipyard welder.

In 1942, Ernie was drafted into the Army and spent two years in the states and one year in Europe, mainly in Belgium and Germany.

Althought trained as a welder, Swailes’ career took an interesting turn. Ernie remembers that he got his start in the electronics business quite by accident. When he was stationed in Europe his mom sent him a small radio. When the radio arrived he couldn’t get it to work, so he sat on his bunk and took it apart to see what the trouble was.

His superior officer noticed his interest in the radio and said that Ernie was just what they needed. From then on, while in the service, Ernie did electrical repairs and drove a Jeep that carried communications equipment.

After being discharged from the Army in 1945, Ernie returned stateside and enrolled in the Coyne Electronics Trade School in Chicago.

Returning back home he started his own business in Riverside in 1947. Most of the work he did in the early years in business involved repairing radios and wiring rural homes on the REA line in the Riverside area.

When television sets began to become available Ernie took on repairs. In 1948 his folks got their first TV. Ernie remember it being a Motorola with a small 10” screen. The image was very “snowy” as the closest television station at that time was in Chicago. He said that reception depended a lot on weather conditions and the time of day. “Most of the time the picture was very fuzzy and there might be sound, but you couldn’t really hear what they were saying.” Norma added that “you just had to kind of imagine what you were seeing and hearing.”

TV repairs and sales proved to be the most lucrative part of the Swailes business. He sold Motorola and Zenith models and serviced all other brands as well. “I probably could have made ten calls a day just keeping up with repairs,” Ernie recalled. “TV sets were simpler then too, often times one could be fixed by replacing a worn-out tube.”

Working right alongside her husband, the former Norma Kasper, has helped out by running the store and keeping the books, in addition to raising the couple’s six children. Norma mentioned how their youngest daughter Lori grew up in their store on Riverside’s Main St. She started out in the playpen as a baby and was right at home in the store. “She would talk to the customers when she got older and always kept track of where her dad went.”

Plumbing and heating was another aspect of the Swailes business that proved to be successful for many years. From the late 1950s until the 1970s Lester Weiland and Cannon Knebel worked with Swailes in new home construction. “We did it all,” said Ernie, “now all that work on new construction is done by sub-contractors.”

The Swailes’ son Dean also worked for the family business for several years after graduating from Highland High School.

An interesting story from Ernie’s past is one that dates back to his school days. The family home was located south of Riverside in rural Ainsworth. While attending Riverside Public High School Ernie would drive his 1930 Chevy and transport other kids to school. He started out with one rider and later on had four regular passengers. He remembers the money collected from the kids for their transportation was a welcome source of income.

Newly constructed Hwy. 218 was the only paved road back in those days and all the side roads were dirt and often mud. “I remember when I first started driving that car and looking through the steering wheel,” Ernie said proudly. “And I never missed a day of school.” Norma added to that replying, “I don’t know about that, but I don’t remember Ernie ever being sick.”

In recent years Ernie’s business has involved appliance sales and service, and wiring and electrical repairs in the Riverside area. He commented that working on the new People’s Bank was a nice job for him to do.

Ernie has done the electrical work for Riverside Grain and Feed over the years dating back to their location at the old mill, which has been torn down, to their location on Main St. and recently the construction of the new bin and dryer.

To connect the wiring on the new bin Ernie had to climb the 90 ft. outside ladder. “I had to take a rest at about 50 feet,” he said. I guess most people a lot younger than 79-year-old Ernie would probably take a rest too. Most of the wiring was done on the ground which required changing the service from 200 amps to 400 amps for the blower and grain dryer. He was also able to wire the two new roof fans before the bin top was raised to its present location.

Paul LaRoche, owner of Riverside Grain and Feed, had nothing but praise for the work done for him by Ernie over the years. “Both Ernie and Norma worked on the new grain drying and storage facility.

“Norma helped Ernie for several evenings pulling old wires,” and according to Paul, “If Ernie ever retires we’ll really be hurting, he just does such neat work.”

The Swailes will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 2000. “Maybe I’ll take her on a trip,” Ernie smiled. “Our kids gave us such a nice party on our 40th, we don’t want to try to top that,” Norma added.

When I asked the Swailes about possibly retiring and taking it easy, Norma was quick to say that she was quitting next year, which raised some objection from the “boss”. And Ernie has no plans to slow down, “I should have a few more years in me yet.” And I’m sure he does. It was fun to talk to a man who has played such an important role in modernizing rural Iowa over the years.