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Bemidji, Minnesota Community Guide

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War Effort
Rosemary Given Amble

War took many Bemidji boys from their homes. From an April 7, 1917, Pioneer: "BEMIDJI BIDS MILITIA GOODBYE. Never before has there been such an outpouring of patriotism such as that at the armory . . . bunting was strung throughout ... class, creed, station in life and business were cast into the melting pot and all stood shoulder to shoulder in the spirit of members of the militia, clad in their spotless white dress uniforms, stood under the command of Lieutenant E.A. Barker. Around the sturdy young sea dogs passed the veterans of the Civil War in bidding their goodbyes. The scene presented the true democracy of America." Bemidji's Naval Militia was sent to serve aboard the USS Kansas and later that summer, five passenger
carloads of army draftees were given a rousing send off by Mayor C.W. Vandersluis, the community band and their families.

1917 Bemidji's Company K
1917 Bemidji's Company K

Bemidji's men were not alone. Major Margaret Shook served gallantly in the Women's Army Corps, and May O. MacGregor left June 4, 1918, to serve as an Army Nurse in France. Nurse MacGregor returned home carrying a hand written citation from King George V of England, the French Croix-de-Guerre and service medals designating frontline action in the battles of Marne, Aisne Marne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne and the Defensive Sector and in 1919 she became Beltrami County's first County Nurse.
Many men returned from war to become Bemidji's first unit of Company "K" of the 206 Infantry. The National Guard was formed on February 7, 1920.

Twenty years later, on July 1, 1940, America was again at war and Company "K" was converted to Battery "H", 217 Coast Artillery, Anti-aircraft in command of Executive Officer Major H.M. Robbins. Other 2nd Battalion officers included Capt. Harold S. Hurlocker and Second Lt. J.T. Schuiling. Battery "H" officers included First Lt. B.C. Olson and Second Lt. John W. Carter, Jr. First Lt. Fred Gould, with his Bemidji and Park Rapids men was assigned as Commanding Officer of Battery "G".

Toward the end of World War II, Marine Second Lt. Julia Deutsch became officer in charge of records section of transportation at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina.

Bemidji Armory built 1920.
Bemidji Armory built 1920.

Ten years of peace and in June, 1950, the President was again empowered to call reserves as the draft was extended for the Korean Conflict, and Company "K" members again left Bemidji. This time the men went quietly to war and came home quietly. Gone the fanfare of World War I and II.

Between 1969-71 the war in Vietnam raged on. Male students enrolled at the University to avoid the draft ... others fled to Canada, but still 42,000 new draftees were sent to action including Bemidji's Company "K". They went to war quietly and came home deprived of the honor they had earned serving their country.

Twenty years later, when the Saudi Arabian War, 'Desert Storm,' started, again Company "K" left Bemidji. From February to October, 1991 they were gone. Upon return these men were greeted and honored for their service to country.

July 1, 1940 Bemidji's Company K under Major Buck Robbins.
July 1, 1940 Bemidji's Company K under Major Buck Robbins.

Rosemary Given Amble

Bemidjians are competitive. Recorded history shows the earliest races were held in 1899, when the volunteer firemen pulled their fire rigs faster than the Wilton firemen.

Baseball was another early Bemidji sport Quotes from a 1900 Pioneer: "There must be something in the Mississippi water that aids Carr Lake boys in winning baseball games." Then in 1904, when the baseball squad beat big Duluth in the finals by a score of two to one: "The game was one of the prettiest seen on the home field ... The work of the infield was snappy and errorless with the three Indians, Emerson, Carl and Bongo in the field and Hines at first." Yet it was not until 1973, with Chuck Grillo as coach, that Bemidji High School brought home a Minnesota State Baseball Championship. That year young Bryan Hickerson was still playing `kiddy ball.' He went on to pitch his way through high school and finished the University of Minnesota with an outstanding record. He was drafted and has pitched professionally for the San Francisco Giants.

Another sport in which a Bemidji graduate went on to play professionally was football. Bemidji won the Minnesota State Championship in 1921, with J.W. `Prof Smith and Dr. J.A. Dietrich as coaches. It was in 1926, however, that 'Prof recruited Bronko Nagurski from International Falls. He graduated from Bemidji High School and attended the University of Minnesota, earning All-American recognition. Bronko went on to play several years of professional football.

Bemidji had many good football teams under Red Wilson, but basketball is the sport synonymous with Bemidji. As early as 1902, when Bemidji Schools were offering only minimal high school classes, they had a basketball team. The Bemidji Chiefs won most of their games. Each year thereafter, Bemidji had a basketball team. In 1936, with Buck Robbins coaching, they captured their first State Basketball Championship. Again in 1948 a team with Charles Grover, Wesley Sabourin, Charles Aakhus, Dick Knutson, Jim Musberger and Dick Calhoun was coached by Mike Logather to become state champs. Although Bun Fortier was known as Bemidji's `winningest coach, getting most of his teams into the state tournament, it was not until 1974 that Coach Jack Luoma's squad brought home the `Double A' State Basketball Championship.

Bemidji's mid-winter sports started in 1907, when a skating rink and curling club were built at 4th Street and America Avenue. The Bemidji Elks Hockey team became known throughout the state in the early 1930s as the team to beat. Today Bemidji has three indoor skating rinks, including the John Glas arena at the University. Bemidji State, with Bob Peters coaching, has won 11 national hockey championships between 1969 and 1994.

Most winter evenings and weekends find residents from 5 to 85 at the rinks. Those not playing hockey or figure skating are at the curling club. Over the years, the senior men represented Bemidji several times in World Silver Broom Curling Competitions. In 1990 Bemidji teenagers Kari and Stacey Liapis, Bobby Breyen and Heidi Rollheiser represented their city, state and nation in the World Women's Junior matches at Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada. The next year in the World Men's Juniors in Scotland, Bemidji's Eric Fenson and Kevin Bergstrom each won a bronze medal. They also placed fifth in 1992 at Obersdorf, Germany, where Kari and Stacey won second, bringing home silver medals. The next year at Grindewald, Switzerland, the sisters won bronze medals.

There is a full range of sports offered in Bemidji, but a sports history would not be complete without a mention of long standing Pioneer reporters Cliff Morlan and Jim Carrington.

1921 State Football Champs, Bemidji Minnesota
1921 State Football Champs.

Fishing in the Bemidji Area, 1898-1909
Steven R Hoffbeck

Minnesota anglers dream of walleye heaven, a lake that has never before been fished. Back in 1899 the area surrounding Bemidji had hundreds of these untouched lakes. The fishing was phenomenal for several years.

Bemidji became a center of tourism after the Great Northern Railroad completed the connection from Fosston to Duluth in 1898. The newspapers in Grand Forks, North Dakota, told of the wonderful fishing near Bemidji, and North Dakotans came over to the lake region to get plenty of pike. By 1910, there were three summer colonies for Grand Forks citizens. Two of these, Lavinia and Grand Forks Bay, were on Lake Bemidji. A third colony, founded by the editor of the Grand Forks Herald, was on nearby Bass Lake. Many other tourists came from Minneapolis, Fargo and other places in pursuit of wondrous sport-fishing.

Lake Bemidji was filled with fish. In 1901, the Bemidji Pioneer stated that "during the spring it is nothing to go out on Lake Bemidji in a rowboat and catch one hundred wall-eyed pike in an hour." The fishing was so good that a writer from Sports Afield, N.N. Spear, came to town to write of the lake's wonders. Such fishing would be comparable to present-day fishing in far-north Canadian lakes.

The pastor of the Bemidji Presbyterian Church, the colorful Frank Higgins, used the tremendous local fishing as a new form of fund-raising for worthy church projects. Higgins challenged parishioners from other local churches to out-fish his Presbyterian team. Each fisherman entered would pay fifty cents as an entry fee. The teams would fish from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m., fishing only on Lake Bemidji and Lake Irvine. Each fish caught would count toward the team's points. A walleye was worth 5 points; a perch four points; a northern would count for three points each; a bullhead only two points; and a rock bass just one point. The losing team members would all have to pay an additional fifty cents for the fund-raiser. The catch was cleaned and prepared for a feast at the end of the competition. This early type of fishing tournament played well in Bemidji in 1902.

Fish from Lake Bemidji in 1902.
Fish from Lake Bemidji in 1902.

Nearby Cass Lake claimed to be "an angler's paradise- and boasted about "the best fishing in the world." Black bass, "Coppers" (walleyes), and pike swam in swarms in the crystal-clear waters of Cass Lake.

Percy Baker, a conductor of the Great Northern Railway, fished in Cass Lake and bragged of its catches. Baker reported that five men caught 400 fish on a June evening. Baker and his son caught "260 fine fish" in a night.

In four days of fishing, a party of four Grand Forks fishermen caught "about 300 pounds" of walleyes. They kept every pound.

Four Chicago sportsmen had tremendous fishing on Lake Thirteen, eight miles from Cass Lake. They boasted "198 fish in three hours."

Sportswoman Vinnie Villiman revealed the spectacular nature of turn-of-the-century fishing when she "caught two large pickerel on a spoonhook and drew both in at once" on Lake Julia (twelve miles north of Bemidji).

Anglers often had to avoid logs in the lakes. The area was known foremost as a center of logging and sawmilling, and fishing was secondary in importance. Boats on Lake Bemidji had to be careful to avoid the "countless floating logs" in the lake after the ice went out (typically in late April). Lake Plantagenet, south of Bemidji, was reported to be so full of logs in 1901, that it was "next to impossible to get a fishhook down" between the logs.

1920 summer vacationers catch a large northern.
1920 summer vacationers catch a large northern.

The railroads heavily advertised the lakes in booklets and newspapers, attracting hordes of fishing enthusiasts from Minneapolis and Chicago. In 1905 a writer from Outing magazine asked a fisherman near Bemidji if heavy fishing pressure would reduce the catch on the stringers. The local said, "Oh, no!...this country can't be fished out."

However, conditions quickly changed. The enormous fishing pressure soon depleted the fish populations in any easily-accessible lake. Some Bemidji people complained about the excessive number of fish taken from Lake Bemidji during the December 1903 ice-fishing season. Local people would also net or spear fish in streams and creeks during the spring spawning runs, thus devastating the fish populations. Some even used drugs, poisons, "medicated bait, fish berries" or dynamite to get large catches. A writer in the Bemidji Pioneer believed that the destruction of the region's fish had "been wanton and cruel."

The quality of fishing near Bemidji deteriorated very quickly. In 1904, two expert fishermen managed to get only twenty-one walleyes in an hour of fishing on Lake Bemidji. The largest walleye caught in Lake Bemidji in 1907 weighed seven and one-half pounds (many larger than that are caught yearly in the present day). Newregulations in 1906 forbade keeping walleyes less than fourteen inches in length, in hopes that this would improve the fishing. The Minnesota State Game and Fish Commission began stocking programs in Lake Bemidji in 1907, when twenty jars of young bass were planted in the lake. By 1909, the lake was also being stocked with young walleyes.

The state government began to heed the call for conservation of vital game and fish resources. State regulations limited each person to twenty-five walleyes per day after 1907. By 1927 Minnesotans were required to purchase a fishing license.

Modern anglers can only dream of the pike paradise of 1899. For a time, the fishing in the Bemidji area was the stuff of legends. But, with modern fish-stocking programs and adequate enforcement of sporting regulations, Bemidji still is considered an "angler's paradise."

Economic Development
Larry Young

Bemidji is a town built by lumber. Even though the city's site along the shores of Lake Bemidji has seen human activity for the last eight thousand years, it was not until the first Europeans came to harvest the virgin red and white pine forest that a permanent settlement began to take shape. Fur traders passed through the area and established temporary camps, but none left a visible imprint upon the land. That would all change as the demand for sawed timber increased in the growing cities of the Midwest towards the end of the 19th Century.

By the 1870s timber cruisers were already making forays into the great pine forests that surrounded Bemidji. They were seeking new timberlands for T.B. Walker, the Pillsburys, Henry Akeley, Charles Ruggles and Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the barons of the wood industry. Following the cruisers lumberjack crews came to cut the wood and transport it to the mills. Rivers and lakes became important arteries, for the industry and timber tracts along them became much sought after. If the waterways were too shallow for floating logs, dams and sluice ways were constructed so the drives could continue. Old timers tell of being able to walk across the south end of Lake Bemidji from one log to another without ever getting their feet wet.

In 1888 the Carson brothers opened a small general store to provide supplies for the small groups of settlers hoping to homestead a tract of land and start up farming operations. This was the beginning of Bemidji as a wholesale and retail trade center for the area.

The first sawmill was built in 1894 by John and Joseph Steidl on the north shore of Lake Irving, east of the Mississippi River. It supplied sawed boards for a local market including the first City Hall that was built in 1896 at 4th Street and Minnesota Avenue.
The real timber boom did not reach Bemidji until 1898, when the Great Northern Railroad arrived, connecting Bemidji with Grand Forks markets. But it was after the arrival in 1903 of the Crookston Lumber Company sawmills that Bemidji's businesses flourished.

The hotels, haberdasheries, cafes, taverns, and hardware stores sprang up to support the timber trade. Both the companies in the woods and those running the mills needed goods and services. A brick yard on the southeast side of Lake Irving was started to provide building materials that would provide fire-resistant construction for the new stores that were going up. Warehouse grocery operations were started to provide food for the lumbercamps and new towns that were sprouting up in outlying areas.

For 20 years lumber was the driving force in Bemidji, but when Crookston's sawmills burned in the mid-1920s, that began to change. The prime timberlands were all harvested. One by one Bemidji's mills began to disappear. For Bemidji the Great Depression had an early start. Only one sawmill was able to survive from the lumbering era to the present.

The Dickinson mill began operating in the 1920s, after the Crookston mills were gone. It sawed its last logs in 1992. As proud reminders of the boom days when lumber was king, Cyril Dickinson, with financing from the local Rotary Club and encouragement of his brother, Leonard, had his crew build the statue of the legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan on the west shore of the Lake Bemidji. It was unveiled for a spectacular 1937 Winter Carnival.

By the time the lumber bust hit Bemidji there were a large number of businesses that had developed to serve the growing town and surrounding area. Elmer E. Kenfield and partner, J. Lamoreaux, moved their milling operation from the southeast side of Lake Bemidji to the west side of town. There, a hundred men made boxes and pallets, as did Dunham's Lumber on the south shore. The Batchelder family opened the Bemidji Woolen Mills in 1920 and began processing wool brought in by local farmers. The David Park and Russell Creameries started manufacturing a line of dairy products, including butter and ice cream. A bottling plant was opened that, at one time, produced Chief Bemidji beverage products. The Bemidji Boat Company began turning out boats for use by resorters on Lake Bemidji and surrounding lakes. Nash Finch and Gamble Robinson Companies both established large food wholesale warehouses in town. Goodman and Loitvedt Cement Company provided the building materials for the streets and sidewalks that were needed as the city grew. And Bemidji State Normal School opened its doors to the first students in 1919, a truly important event for the long term economic health of Bemidji.

Today Bemidji stands as an important educational, governmental, trade and medical center for north central Minnesota. The wood industry is still a significant part of the local economy with Georgia-Pacific, Potlatch and Northwood Panelboard all having waferboard plants in the local area, utilizing wood species that were once thought to be waste trees.

Bemidji continues to grow as a retail center with the Paul Bunyan Mall being built in 1977 and the downtown undergoing a $3 million renovation in 1985. The following year, using a tax increment financing program, the Union Square development was completed at the cost of $7 million in the downtown area. By 1992 annual retail sales in Bemidji had reached the $250 million mark.

A group of local businessmen got together in 1962 and started Bemidji's first industrial park with Charles Naylor as board chairman. Today the park is the home of over 30 businesses and occupies 332 acres of the southeast side of Bemidji. Control Data Corporation operated the MPI manufacturing plant in Bemidji from 1979 until 1985. Today their building is owned by Nortech Systems, Inc., a company that employs close to 260 people in the manufacture of wire harness assemblies. Community leaders started the Joint Economic Development Commission in 1985 to work with area financial institutions and organizations in expanding the job opportunities in Beltrami County.
Bemidji State University, Northwest Technical College: Bemidji, and Independent School District #31 provide a strong employment base in the community as well as offer top ranked educational programs. In Bemidji one can go from kindergarten to graduate school without ever leaving town.

North Country Hospital had its beginning in 1898 when sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict, out of Duluth, opened a hospital in downtown Bemidji to serve sick and injured lumberjacks. Today that hospital supports over 50 full time physicians and close to 700 employees.

Aviation started in Bemidji with barnstormers performing in the 1920s at the old county fairgrounds close to where the high school now stands. From this humble
start Bemidji has developed into one of the most important air hubs in northern Minnesota...the fourth busiest passenger terminal in the state. Mesaba-Northwest Airlink and United Express Airlines schedule ten flights daily in and out of the city's new $2 million airport terminal.

Bemidji today is a far cry from the rough and tumble lumber town that at one time boasted 52 taverns to serve the hoards of thirsty lumberjacks. It has matured into a highly diversified regional center that continues to grown and prosper in a fast-changing world. Bemidji is well equipped to prosper as it begins its second century of growth.
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