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Bemidji Minnesota History


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Original Inhabitants Meet White Settlers
Rosemary Given Amble

Prior to the 1880's a band of about fifty Leech Lake Indians lived along the south shore of a lake with their elder, Shaynowishkung. They called that lake Bemidjigumaug, meaning 'river or route flowing crosswise'. Annually after the wild rice was harvested, they would go west to hunt buffalo. They watched thousands of homesteaders turn the old buffalo lands of Dakota and Montana Territories into farms.

Chief Bemidji and others
Chief Bemidji and others

Many of the North Dakota homesteaders were Scandinavians who came from forested lands. Then they learned of new lands within Minnesota's lakes and forests, they sold their claims on the Dakota prairies and headed east.

In 1888, brothers George Earl and Merian Ellsworth Carson left their father's trading post at Moose, a village on the Mississippi River. They cut a wagon trail seventeen miles due east to the lake where Shaynowishkung lived. Chief Bemidji and others. There, they built Carson's Trading Post, becoming Bemidji's first white businessmen. In 1894 Merian Carson applied for a permit for Post Office. As Bemidji's first postmaster, it took him four years to correct the postal service's misspelling from `Bermidji to 'Bemidji'.
Shaynowishkung's daughter, Bahgahmaushequay, married Merian Carson, thereby cementing the relationship between the original inhabitants and the white newcomers.

Most white inhabitants were either lumber company cruisers or homesteaders, like Freeman and Betsy Doud, who staked their claim to 160 acres west of, and including, what is now Diamond Point. They were Bemidji's first homesteaders and were followed shortly thereafter by the Porter Nye family, who settled on the east end of Lake Irving (in what later became the village of Nymore).

These, and other white pioneers, honored Shaynowishkung for his staunch friendship. Although he was not a tribal chief, Shaynowishkung was respectfully called 'Chief Bemidji' by those he provided food and shelter while they were building their homestead cabins.


Tams Bixby and His Company Town
Rosemary Given Amble

Tams Bixby
Tams Bixby

In 1895, Tams Bixby, A.C. Clausen, Harris A. Richardson and Dr. Harry Hutchinson of St. Paul and W.J. Hilligoss, Albert Kaiser, and Lewis Lohn, of Fosston, bought ninety-three acres of land on Lake Bemidji with the original idea of establishing a townsite. In January, 1896, the seven organized the Bemidji Townsite and Improvement Company and in March, Bixby and Clausen filed the plat of Village of Bemidji at the Ramsey County Courthouse.

The townsite was surveyed, platted and drawn by Charles A. Forbes of St. Paul. The gridwork of streets were named First through Eighth. Bixby and Clausen named the avenues: Lake Boulevard for the lake; Bemidji, for the village; Beltrami, for the county; Minnesota, for the state; and America, for the country.

May 20, 1896, the Village of Bemidji was incorporated. Board Chairman Bixby was Governor David Clough's secretary. Clausen was a St. Paul attorney, Hutchinson, a physician, Kaiser a newspaperman and Lohn, a Fosston bank president.

Bemidji's three newspapers had ads to sell Townsite lots for $75 - $100 each. Pioneer publisher, Albert Kaiser reported that the Company had appointed four local Bemidji businessmen to be Village Trustees. The appointees were George Carson, Bemidji's first businessman, Guy Remore, son of Bemidji's first hotel owner and his new partner, George McTaggert. The fourth was Fred Malzahn, owner of the newly completed Hardware, Dry Good and Grocery Store. At their first meeting on August 24, 1896, Fred Malzahn was elected president and Pioneer publisher, Kaiser, was their recorder.

Original charter and plat survey of Bemidji Minnesota - 1896
Original charter and plat survey of Bemidji - 1896.   Click to enlarge.

With Kaiser to be their major advisor, the St. Paul stockholders used all of their powers of persuasion to sell the village lots. Each time Bixby returned to Bemidji, he visited Freeman and Betsy Doud and collected small quartz rocks from the sandy point of land on the Doud's homestead. St. Paul newspapers printed articles about precious gems being found in Minnesota's northernmost village. Doud's point of land was called `Diamond Point'.
Businessmen came from St. Paul and others from the Dakotas to buy Townsite lots. Most commercial lots were for hotels, restaurants, saloons, gambling and gaming houses, and other establishments common to a growing logging town.

At the first annual stockholders' meeting, Bixby reported that Beltrami County would soon split from Becker County and the county seat would be moved from Detroit (Lakes). The legislature was yet debating which village would be selected: Bemidji, at the southeast corner of the county; Buena Vista, about mid-point in the state's largest county; or Popple or Moose, both to the southwest section. Each had strong lobbyists at St. Paul vying for the appointment. At Bixby's suggestion, the Townsite Company voted to donate a lot at 401 Beltrami Avenue from the Original Townsite to be used for a courthouse. They also
donated a full block between Eighth and Ninth for a future elementary and high school and they reserved another full block between Sixth and Seventh for a new larger courthouse, a jail and a sheriffs house.

Malzahn General Store built in 1896, Bemidji Minnesota
Malzahn General Store built in 1896

On August 8, 1897 Bemidji's lobby. Beltrami County Commissioner Frank Dudley and Attorney W.F. Street announced Bemidji was Beltrami's new county seat. The courthouse construction began and the town exploded in growth.

Great Northern Railroad's 1897 survey routed the railbed from Fosston to Duluth due north of Lake Plantagenet, but in St. Paul. Bixby was trying to get a new route. Great Northern's board chairman, James J. Hill, was his personal friend and before the year was over, Kaiser's newspaper announced that Hill had assured Bixby he would reroute thorough the south end of Bixby's village.

In 1898, with both a new county seat and the Great Northern Railroad, there was yet another major addition. Lumber baron John Pillsbury owned major stands of white pine north of Lake Bemidji and before he could harvest those forests, he needed rail connections to his mills in Brainerd and Minneapolis. By the end of 1898, the Brainerd and Minnesota Railways, a subsidiary of Northern Pacific, extended into the Village of Bemidji from the south.

In 1899 Lake Park Addition, between Tenth and Twelfth Street and Lake Boulevard to Bemidji Avenue, was added and lots sold for finer lakefront homes. A full block at 800 and the lakefront was set aside for the construction of the St. Anthony's Hospital.

The rail connections between Bemidji and both St. Paul and Grand Forks brought loggers, lumberjacks and speculators, as well as modern building supplies. Bixby chose a summer home site on the north side of the lake and referred to it as Oakwood Beach. Like other lakeshore residents, he used a steam-powered paddlewheeler for transportation.

Remore Hotel, Bemidji Minnesota, built 1895
Remore Hotel built 1895

When his home was completed, Bixby invited Joseph M. Markham, a Minnesota legislator from St. Hilaire, and convinced him that the Village of Bemidji needed a fine new hotel like Markham had just built in Crookston. During the 1899-1900 winter, Markham shipped materials from St. Paul and built a large, elegant hotel on Second Street and Beltrami Avenue. When the Markham Hotel was opened, the Town-site Company moved its offices from the Remore into the Markham Hotel.nt>

Tams Bixby was a main speaker at the Markham's grand opening. Newspapers reported that he stressed how Bemidji was the favored stopping place for Minnesota's salesmen. He urged the businessmen who were in attendance to organize a Bemidji Commercial Club, saying they could hold their meetings at the Townsite Company's business offices and they would donate the costs of all correspondence.

With his captive audience, Bixby spoke eloquently on his favorite subject. He was quoted saying 'Bemidji will become Minnesota's favorite summer and health resort, and the summer sojourner will find ready, at hand, an infinite variety of ways and means with which to while away the long hours of a summer's day. The devotee of rod and reel and the chase could scarcely choose a more inviting point than that offered by Bemidji.'

Following thunderous applause and before leaving the podium, Bixby announced the Company was proposing to construct a $6,000 village town hall at Minnesota Avenue and Fourth Street. It would house village offices, a fire hall and a jail and on the third floor, there would be an Opera House for traveling chautauguas, fine musicals and literary group programs. Bixby inspired the businessmen to move forward.

That September, shortly after the village hall dedication, a 45-man fire brigade was organized and a Bemidji Boys' Band started practicing in the Opera House.
By 1901, Walker had sold his Red River sawmill located in Crookston. Thomas Shevlin and Frank Hixon were the buyers of the mill and Walker's Timber claims near Lake Bemidji. The Bemidji Commercial Club approached this new Crookston Lumber Company, asking them to open a branch on Lake Bemidji.

By January 1903 Shevlin and his new partner Elbert Carpenter bought Weyerhaeuser's timber north of Bemidji. A large sawmill was built at the south end of Lake Bemidji in July. It was called Crookston Lumber Mill #1.

Bixby recommended that Bemidji businessmen move to charter as a city. On November 19, 1903, businessmen E.A. Trask, William McCuaig, G.E. Carson, F.W. Rhoda, Porter Nye, George McTaggert, A. Gilmore, Wes Wright, and Matt Thome were appointed by the District Judge H.W. Bailey to draft such a charter.

It was completed in 1904 and when put to a vote of the community, it was rejected. Again, in July of 1905 it was rejected by the voters. Then, at the September 26th election, the charter was finally approved by a vote of 321 favoring and 202 in opposition.
On November 14, with A. A. Carter appointed Mayor, the Village of Bemidji held their first meeting as a governmental entity.


Early Bemidji Businesses
Rosemary Given Amble

In 1895, John Steidl's sawmill was on the Mississippi River's east bank, not far from the Indian village and Carson's Trading Post. On the west side of the river were the Remore Hotel and Carl Carlson's blacksmith shop. By the time Bemidji was incorporated on May 20, 1896, there were three publishing companies. Albert Kaiser, a Townsite shareholder, came February 22, and in March published Bemidji's first newspaper, The Bemidji Pioneer. Its weekly articles centered around the Townsite's activities. Within the month the Beltrami County News was printed by C.W. Martin. Its news was primarily about the county development. In late April Clarence Speelman came from Buena Vista and built his Beltrami Eagle west of George Carson's New Carson House on the south side of Third Street. Publisher Speelman felt the federal post office would never correct spelling error and he advertised Bermidji's Sawmill'.

Volume I, No. 17 of his paper, printed July 31, 1896, advertised William Bartletson's Stage and Express Service that carried mail between Bemidji and Park Rapids every other day. An article described the ox-drawn wagon that stopped at Lake George for a noon meal. When it arrived in Bemidji long after dark, Earl Geil, clerk at Remore's Grand Central Hotel took tired passengers to Ted Smith's Gem Restaurant for a meal and his welcome to the new village. Speelman reported Smith's menus usually had freshly caught fish, wild rice and berries supplied by a nearby `friendly' band of Indians.

Bank of Bemidji built in 1897 located on 4th and Minnesota.
Bank of Bemidji built in 1897 located on 4th and Minnesota.

Others advertised in Speelman's July 31, 1896, Eagle were George Carson, New Carson House at Third and Beltrami next to Smith and Bate's Gem Restaurant and Jewett and Son's Sectional Maps, located in the Eagle publishing office across Third Street from Frank Dudley's and George Graham's Meat market. Further west, Dennis and Miller's Meat Market was between Fred Malzahn's general store and H.C. Geil's Livery and Freighters. All these were on Third Street and C.F. Schroeder's general store was aroud the corner on Minnesota Avenue. Also, an item on the Eagles's front page read "The Indians brought a large quantity of blueberries this morning."


The Beltrami Eagle from July 31, 1896. Notice the spelling "Bermidji".

Speelman's Eagle ceased operation in 1897 when Beltrami's county seat was established in Bemidji and Speelman was appointed Beltrami County Clerk of Court. He took office the day the Bank of Bemidji was opened on the corner of Third Street & Minnesota Avenue.

By 1898, the two railroads had arrived in Bemidji, bringing more businesses to Third Street. From the lake, J.J. Trask opened his Bemidji Steam Laundry at 106 Third Street and next to the City Drug was William McCuaig's and then Luddington's General Hardware Store. Beyond the Gem Restaurant, the Fred Brinkmans opened his hotel and her restaurant. Across the street E.L. Naylor built his furniture and mortuary.

City Drug Store opened in 1897 on Third Street in Bemidji Minnesota
City Drug Store opened in 1897 on Third Street

Architect Thomas Johnson designed Charles Nangle's general mercantile at 300 Minnesota. On the second floor Dr. Blakeslee oversaw his hospital rooms.

By 1900, the population of the Village of Bemidji had grown to 2,000. Seven additions doubled the size of the original ninety-three acre Townsite. George Carson's Addition was from Irvine to Park, Woodland to Eighth. The Townsite's First Addition was south of First along the Original, and Lake Park Addition was Tenth to Twelfth, Lake Boulevard to Bemidji. E.J. Swedback's Addition was west of Carson's Addition, which was Lake Irving to Railroad Street. The Townsite Company added the South Bemidji Addition, including Carpenter and Clausen Avenue, Rosby and Wheeler Streets, Finally, lumberman Charles Ruggles added Bailey's Addition from Carson's Addition to Twelfth Street west of Irvine. The lots now sold for $1,000 in the Original Townsite.

The 1900 Sanborn maps also showed locations of Blocker and Carlson's bottling works, the Duluth, Fitger's Gluek, and Minneapolis Brewing depots, two cigar factories and a dozen barber shops. Besides the Brinkman and Markham Hotels, the City, Dewey, French, Svea, Lake Shore, Merchants, Palace, Scandia House and Schultz House made a total of eleven hotels. There were four female boarding houses south of Second Street and enough saloons to meet the demands.

By 1903, the Townsite Company had built a Village Hall, Fire Hall, Opera House. Water Works and donated land for a County Court House, St Anthony's Hospital, Warfield Electric Company, two schools and four churches.


Transportation
Dick Rose

The earliest non-indigenous people in the Headwaters area were traders. The Carson Brothers canoed seventeen miles down the Mississippi from the Village of Moose. The first settlers came by horseback, following Indian Trails from railroad terminals in adjacent counties to both the west and south. Loggers opened those trails by widening them into wagon roads. The southern trail, from Park Rapids, was so rough that one settler said once he got to Bemidji, "he didn't want to go back... so he stayed.." It took two days to travel from Park Rapids by ox cart in 1894, and Park Rapids and Bemidji merchants sponsored the cutting of a road between the two villages to bring settlers and supplies to Bemidji.

Remore Hotel in Bemidji Minnesota, built 1895. Ox-drawn cart is stage from Park Rapids.
Remore Hotel built 1895. Ox-drawn cart is stage from Park Rapids.

In 1896 when the village incorporated, a stage ran between Park Rapids and Bemidji. It was an ox-drawn wagon that left at 6:00 a.m. and arrived at 10:00 p.m. Two years later the Bemidji Pioneer reported "20 to 25 loaded freight wagons came into Bemidji containing freight for railroad contractors...storekeepers and...immigrants." There was still no rail service.

Watercraft was a primary means of transportation. When freight arrived by ox-cart, if destined for places around the lake or for lumbercamps or villages north of Bemidji, it was loaded onto a steam-powered paddlewheeler. Local blacksmith, Carl Carlson, built `The Ida,' and launched it in Lake Bemidji in the spring of 1898. For 20 years when the 200 passenger boat was not serving to boom logs to the mills, it was a favorite recreational craft for the villagers. Other boats included: W. B. MacLaughlin's 'The Shadow,' that carried passengers to Diamond Point, Birchmont, Lavinia and Oakwood Beach; 'Thor' built by Andy Lee and the 'Eagle' built by L.C. Curtis. A boat owned by Herb Warfield was moored at Diamond Point and Cameron Park in the 1940's. Don Holmes' 28 passenger 'Dixie Belle' was launched July 4, 1953 and his larger `Bemidji Belle' traveled Lake Bemidji until 1973. In 1987 a new factory-made 'Bemidji Belle' graced the lake for two summers.

The Ida on Lake Bemidji, Minnesota - 1898
The Ida - 1898

Back in the 1890's, James J. Hill was chairman of Great Northern Railway Company's board and had shown an unerring judge of the resources and the latent wealth in Dakota's wheat production. Just as his railway shipped wheat eastward in the early 1890's, he was looking to ship northern Minnesota lumber to the west in the early 1900's. He contracted with a Pacific Ocean steamship company to ship lumber to the Asiatic coast, Australia and the East Indian and many European ports, saying "I shall not rest until I have taken from Chicago all of that northwestern lumber which has previously gone to the head of the lakes."

Hill's profound words were followed by rapid fulfillment. Bemidji residents watched anxiously, knowing the original railroad survey had the eastbound lines platted four miles south of their village along the north side of Lake Plantagenet. In 1898, word came to the business leaders from the Governor's office that the Eastern Minnesota Railway, an extension of Great Northern Railway, would bring rails from Fosston into Bemidji. A small frame freight depot was built.

Great Northern's Eastern Railroad extended to Cass Lake and from there to both Duluth and St. Paul. With that extension Great Northern was shipping large volumes of lumber to their western United States markets.

Union Station built 1910 at First and Beltrami in Bemidji Minnesota
Union Station built 1910 at First and Beltrami.

The next year the Brainerd and Minnesota Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Northern Pacific, extended its rails from Walker into Bemidji and transported John Pillsbury's logs to his mill in Minneapolis. By 1900 the company was reorganized and renamed the Minnesota and International Railroad Company. After building a depot at Second Street and Bemidji Avenue, rails were extended to the new village of Blackduck.

In 1905 John Moberg's crew completed the tracks that eventually carried the Minneapolis, Red Lake and Manitoba Railway from the north shore of Lake Irving to Nebish and from there to Redby on Lower Red Lake. It was a logging train but provided passenger and freight service to the Red Lake Indians, farmers and homesteaders along the line. It was referred to as the Molander Line, named for the district manager and ticket agent.

In 1910 the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault St. Marie, known as the Soo Line, was extended from Duluth paralleling the Eastern Railway tracks into Bemidji, Leonard, Gonvick and Clearbrook. They shared tracks with the Minnesota and International and built a $20,000 brick depot. The Union Station opened July 24, 1911.

Bemidji now had five different railway companies shipping logs, lumber, freight and passengers into and out of Bemidji.

James J. Hill was now past board chairman of the Great Northern Railroad Company, but he was still influential in the board's decision-making. He directly instigated the design of a new Bemidji depot, one that was comparable to the Union Station. By summer of 1912, a brick freight and passenger depot was completed at the south end of Minnesota Avenue. It was the last of Hill's major northern Minnesota depots to be constructed and, as such, is on the National Historic Trust list.

By 1905 automobiles started coming to Bemidji. John Moberg drove his from Grand Forks. About the same time, Chad Jewett took two days to drive from Minneapolis via Sauk Center. Walter Brooks, local banker, ordered his automobile to be sent by freight from the Michigan factory. There is a dispute as to whose automobile was first in town, but before the end of 1909 several gasoline carriages were being stuck on Bemidji sandy streets. State and County roads and highways were yet so bad that travel was not easy and railways continued as major passenger services keeping Bemidji residents in touch with the world beyond. The Red Lake Railroad disappeared with the sawmills and the original right-of-way became a gravel road.

Automobile race between Moberg and Jewett in 1899.
Automobile race between Moberg and Jewett in 1899.

As national rail service declined in '50's and '60's, so did Bemidji's rail service. Great Northern and Northern Pacific merged with the Chicago, Burlington Northern system. This union brought the demise of northern Minnesota's north/south rail service. Bemidji's last passenger train coincided with the establishment of Amtrak, the National Passenger Railway system, which determined the end of the Duluth to Grand Forks Burlington Northern line through Bemidji. Tracks from International Falls to Brainerd via Bemidji were removed in the late 1980's when the land was placed in Minnesota's land bank. The right-of-way is being converted to a recreational trail for snowmobiles, bicycles and hikers.

Today, the primary freight traffic is unit coal trains from the western states to power companies on the Iron Range and return. The Soo Line, now a subsidiary of the huge Canadian Pacific Transportation Network, will shortly abandon Bemidji's rails and share use of the Burlington Northern Line. This leaves Bemidji with two railroads operating on single main line trackage.

As it was in the early 1900's, the primary rail commodity shipped from Bemidji is wood products. Some are for pulp & paper industries, others are hardwoods for veneer & specialty wood products.

As the railroads disappeared, the federal and state governments developed highway systems. U.S. Highway #2, which originally bisected Bemidji, was one of the nation's oldest major east/west federal transportation routes. U.S. Highway #71 was the major north/south federal thoroughfare.

Greyhound Bus Lines, an over-the-road bus service that started in Hibbing, Minnesota, served Bemidji in the late 1920's. That service to Minneapolis and Grand Forks, plus Triangle Lines to International Falls, still continues. Local bus service and charters originally were privately owned and operated by the Aylesworth family. The city owns the buses and recently, using Minnesota Transit funds, the City Bus was started. Through a contract with Mark Daniels Enterprises, the city provides local Dial-A-Ride bus service that allows patrons to call, be picked up and taken to their destination from any place in town.

In the 1980's the Minnesota Department of Transportation completed a highway encircling three sides of Bemidji to allow the ever-growing grain truck traffic to by-pass Bemidji. This by-pass intersects Highway #2 two miles east of the city and at the Bemidji-Beltrami Airport to the west.

Bemidji's most recent mode of transportation is by air. The first airplane in Bemidji was a bi-plane. Local carpenter Harry Slough helped Katherine Stinson assemble the plane that arrived by freight in 1915. When Katherine Stinson and her brother left Bemidji, they went to California where they built the Stinson Aeronautical School. There she taught flying and built airplanes like the one that had been displayed at the Beltrami County Fairgrounds in 1916.

The first airplane in Bemidji Minnesota, 1915
The first airplane in Bemidji 1915.

One of the first Bemidji passengers to fly with Katherine Stinson was young Ralph Moberg, who later owned Moberg Anchorage and Flight Service. He is credited with teaching most of Bemidji's pilots how to fly.

In 1920 Bemidji Civic and Commerce bought land north and west of Bemidji and gave it to the city for an airport. Using Work Relief Project monies in 1934, the city built a $41,000 90' X 90' hangar on their airport. On May 4, 1940, a local physician, Dr. W.M. Haller brought a three-passenger 120 horsepower Rearwim Cloudster airplane to Bemidji Municipal airport from Fargo. His comment was that "Bemidji's field was rather rough. Too rough to handle any machine that flies as fast as 50 miles per hour." But faster planes were soon to be seen in Bemidji.

On January 26, 1946, nearing the end of World War II, Dick Goodrich and John Kenfield purchased a Noorduyn-Norseman plane plane to start a seven passenger airline. They incorporated Bemidji Airlines on April 1, referring to it as the Paul Bunyan Playground Route. Daily two hour flights, costing $10.00 per passenger brought businessmen and tourists back and forth from Minneapolis and Bemidji, with one stop at St. Cloud. Bemidji was one of the first Minnesota regional cities with airline services. Bemidji Airlines also provided Forest Rising's chartered airline service, for his Paul Bunyan Airline. Another local air service was Moberg's Sea-plane Flights under the supervision of one of Bemidji's aldermen, Ralph Moberg.

On June 1 & 2, 1946, Bemidji dedicated a million dollar airport financed by the federal government as part of their defense project. The ceremony included views of 29 Navy planes, 16 Army planes and 140 civilian planes and the Army's P80 Shooting Star that flew 550-600 miles per hour.

Mayor Harry Pihl and former mayor Earl Bucklin accepted the new airport from the state commissioner of aeronautics. It had 5,700 feet of surfaced runways and a thousand feet sod safety zones at each runway end. One of the officials said, "Why, it's bigger than Wold Chamberland." Airport News, a national publication of the Nation's Airports issued at Washington, D.C., wrote: "Bemidji is one of the smallest cities in the country to possess an airport of its size . . . 8,000 foot runways. Because Bemidji lies about 75 miles from the Canadian border and is in a great vacation region, and because of the extremes of winter temperatures, Army and Navy may use the field as a scene of tests for cold weather air operations."

For the past fifty years, besides Bemidji Airlines, passenger service was provided by North Central Airlines, locally referred to as the Blue Goose. In the mid-1980's the City of Bemidji and Beltrami County formed a joint powers agreement for the management of the Bemidji-Beltrami Airport, from which Mesaba Airlines fly their Northwest Airlink and United Airlines who provide United Express services. These two operations give Bemidji approximately ten daily passenger flights to and from Bemidji and Minneapolis. Bemidji Aviation Services, the spin-off of the Bemidji Airlines incorporated in 1946, is owned by Larry Diffley and Mark Shough and presently provides charter and freight services.

The Bemidji Minnesota Airport built in 1992.
The Bemidji Airport built in 1992.


Continue to Bemidji History Page 2

 


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