Remembering Phelan: Family and friends recall family's legacy in Grafton

GRAFTON, N.D. -- When friends and family pay their respects Wednesday to Margaret Cashel Phelan, they'll also be bidding farewell to the family of one of the community's founders.

Cyndi Phelan
Cyndi Phelan recalls her mom and dad (Margaret and Francis Phelan of Grafton) while her fiance Ralph Payette prepares a 1956 Packard Clipper that was part of her family's antique car collection for transport to her Florida home. Margaret Phelan, widow of Francis Phelan, died last week. A memorial service will be held today (Wednesday) in Grafton. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

GRAFTON, N.D. -- When friends and family pay their respects Wednesday to Margaret Cashel Phelan, they'll also be bidding farewell to the family of one of the community's founders.

Margaret Phelan, 93, was the granddaughter of John L. Cashel Sr., a local farmer and banker who was a member of the Walsh County Commission in 1881, when the town of Grafton was incorporated as a city. He was one of the first city commissioners, served for 16 years on the Grafton School Board and for 12 years in the North Dakota Senate.

Margaret Phelan was born Aug. 17, 1918 to John L. Cashel Jr. and Kathleen (O'Connor) Cashel. Her father was a prominent attorney in Grafton.

Her grandfather also owned land northeast of Grafton, where the community of Cashel, N.D., was founded in 1887. But it was a ghost town by the 1940s.

Margaret Phelan will be remembered, friends say, for her warm smile and generous heart, and as the congenial, complimentary companion of Francis "Spud" Phelan, a local potato grower, businessman, radio talk show host, master of ceremonies and folksy weatherman who died in 1997.


For some 35 years, Francis Phelan delivered the farm market report and weather forecast on a 15-minute daily segment on Grafton's KXPO Radio. Rather than relying on National Weather Service forecasts, he had his own measuring tool -- a rope he suspended outside.

"He had five or six of them. They were all different shapes and sizes," their daughter, Cyndi Phelan said Tuesday. "If it stuck straight out, it was a hurricane. If it went straight down, it was calm."

He used to have telephone conversations with Andy Rooney, the recently retired 60 Minutes television program commentator, who sometimes mentioned the Grafton potato farmer and his weather rope science on television and in newspaper articles, she said.

"He had so much fun and she just went along with it," said Cyndi, who now lives in North Port, Fla. "My mom was very gracious, but she was a very private person."

"To my knowledge, she never really commented on it," longtime friend Rae Desautel said of her husband's meteorological celebrity. "I think she just went along with it and knew he enjoyed doing it. I don't remember her ever rolling her eyes, or shaking her head over it. That went on for years."

Margaret Cashel earned an English degree from UND and taught school in Breckenridge, Minn., Crystal, N.D., and in Grafton. She also worked in the Grafton school library for several years.

Before they married in 1952, Margaret worked for United Airlines in Los Angeles and for the Dayton Corp., the retail giant, in Minneapolis.

After adopting Cyndi, their only child, she left the workforce to raise the family.


When Cyndi entered UND, Margaret went to work at The Squire Shop, a retail clothing store in Grafton, where she stayed from about 1980 until her eyesight began failing in the late 1990s.

"She was just a delight," Squire Shop owner Rita Amiot said. "She loved retail. She came in with a smile on her face every morning. ... She read all the time and always had some interesting tidbits to share. She was probably was one of the most open-minded people I ever worked with. She was a true lady.

"We just had more fun and more laughs. She just enjoyed life and being with customers. She was a sport to try just about anything."

Thommie Rutter met the Phelans when she moved to Grafton from Texas in 1974 and started worked for the family. After Margaret lost her eyesight, she became her primary caregiver.

"She was a very generous lady and very thoughtful, good to others," Rutter said. "When she heard that someone was having a hard time, she would ask me to send a card or candy. She was always doing little things for people."

Cyndi Phelan said that while her mother was working at The Squire Shop, she often referred to herself as "the rag lady." She would bring home several new outfits from the store, try them on and ask her husband which one she liked the best.

"Which ones did she keep? Probably all of them," she said.

The Phelans also were known for their collection of antique cars, which were regular features in summertime parades in Grafton and the surrounding area.


Cyndi Phelan recalls one of the new cars her dad bought for her mother. It was a bronze 1960 Cadillac DeVille. Shortly after he bought it, he won a raffle at Grafton's Heritage Days. His grand prize was a bronze 1960 Cadillac DeVille.

"His and hers," Cyndi said. But it didn't last long. He sold the second bronze DeVille, probably spending the proceeds to buy another antique, she said.

Cyndi returned to Grafton in August, when most of the family's antique car collection was sold at auction. They once had 13 antiques. One of them, a rare 1908 Cadillac, now is housed at the Walsh County Historical Society Museum in Minto, N.D.

Cyndi kept three off the auction block. One is a 1949 Plymouth she will take back to Florida.

"It's going to be hard," she said. "Maybe when I come back, I'll be able to see some of those cars in a parade."

"My mother was very proud of her Cashel family background" said Cyndi, who was born in Canada but was adopted by the Phelans when she was four. She recently was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. "I look back at all the things I've been truly blessed with, and I have so much to be grateful for."

Cyndi's 27-year-old son, John Edward Wylie. Ossipee, N.H., will get the other two cars -- a 1956 Packard Clipper and a 1979 Ford Thunderbird, which Francis Phelan had converted into a convertible.

"He's tickled pink," she said. "It'll be nice for him to be able to pass on the legacy."


Memorial services for Margaret Phelan will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Tollefson Funeral Home, Grafton. Visitation will be one hour prior to the service. An online guestbook is available at:

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send email to .

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