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Zemple Minnesota

Zemple Deer River's Industrial Suburb
From The Deer River Centennial History, Published in 1998

The big sawmill in Zemple
The big sawmill in Zemple

During the early 1900s, Zemple was a busy lumber town. There was a sawmill and planing mill operated by Itasca Lumber Co., a box mill operated by Rathburn, Hair & Ridgeway Co., and a veneer mill operated by Bahr Bros. There was a roundhouse, a boarding house, and a population of more than 300 people.

To get to Zemple requires a drive through the south end of Deer River, past the athletic field. There are several streets (each about two blocks long) and a road going down to the public landing on White Oak Lake. Today it is a quiet residential community with a population of about 62 people. "You can call us anything, even late for supper, but don't call us a suburb of Deer River,- said Bazil Mayo, who at 80 is the oldest lifelong resident of Zemple. His wife, Dorothy Simons Mayo, is another lifelong resident of this small city and currently serves as the city clerk.

Officially organized in 1911, the first council meeting was held in June of that year. A May 6, 1911. item in The Itasca News reported county board news as follows: "A Village Wanted at the Deer River Mill. Supt. Wallace presented a petition asking for an election to make a village of that part of Otenagon Township lying south of the village of Deer River. The petition was granted. This does not constitute separation from the township. but it is considered a preliminary move toward that end." The Itasca News of March 16, 1912, reports an election in which 24 votes were cast in this "milling suburb to the south of Deer River." Elected were President. R.T. Zempel; trustees, J.P. Martindale, Ole Berg, Jonathan Martindale; clerk, D. Zetterstrom; treasurer, Emil Krantz; assessor, Morris Larson; justice, A.W. Rice; constable, John Larson.

The old road to Zemple
The old road to Zemple

Early Zemple was a place where the Minneapolis & Rainy River Railway had a roundhouse with 12 engines. "Those trains would bring logs from all the logging camps back to the mills in Zemple," said Bazil Mayo. He remembers that Zemple had a store, a school (which closed in 1928), and a church. There were no saloons in Zemple. Those could be found a short distance away in the Village of Deer River.

Residents of Zemple had small pieces of land, and many had cows, chickens, and other livestock and raised gardens to help feed their families. There were plenty of chores for young people. Bazil Mayo remembers carrying water, cleaning barn, and chopping wood.

Hay was made on the meadows. Others cut and sold tamarack wood from state and federal land. There were no water and sewer systems. Even today residents have their own wells but are now connected to the Deer River sewer system.

By the late 1920s the lumber industry no longer flourished on the shores of White Oak Lake. There was a public access on the shore where millions of logs had been floated down river in earlier days. It was a popular fishing spot. Mayo remembers small boathouses along the White Oak lakeshore. where people would tie up and leave their boats until the next fishing trip.

The town was named for R.T. Zempel, who owned most of the land and was elected the first village president. The Zempels had a farm on the south edge of the village that in a 1912 article in the Deer River newspaper was referred to as the Sullivan farm. Later a Martindale, Gordon Laumann (who raised mink) owned it, and then the Reed family lived there for many years. Other early residents of Zemple included Martindales, Mayos, Simons, Nordahls, Dahls, Spragues, Johtonens, Nellis, Robertson, Blum. Reed, Folsom. Ellis, Newkirks. Wrights, and Berghs.

The earliest council meeting minutes date from April 1926 and at that time the spelling was Zempel, but on June 8, 1926. the spelling was changed to Zemple. There is no indication of official action of any kind regarding this. Susie Bergh was clerk at that time. Most council meetings were held in homes. In 1929 Custer Thydean became clerk and he used the "Zempel" spelling while recording one meeting, but changed it the following month. It would seem that the early minutes and records of Zemple were lost, as an entry in the minutes of September, 1931. asks if these could be located. In a May, 1939, Quit Claim Deed, the Itasca Lumber Co. leased land to the village of "Zempel" but the lease was signed by village officials as "Zemple."

R.T. Zempel's daughter. Harriet Zempel Crabtree, writes: "As usual. the name Zempel, is misspelled, even on a map of Minnesota. My dad, R.T. Zempel was bookkeeper for the mills. We sometimes called the town "Mill Town" since it was surrounded by mills. There was a big sawmill on White Oak Point. a part of the Mississippi River. where logs were floated down to the sawmill. Then there was a planing mill. a veneer mill and a box mill. All burned down in later years. Sometimes we called the town 'Dog Town' because there were so many dogs there!"


A group of- workers are pictured at the Rathborne. Hair & Ridgeway box mill in Zemple.
A group of-
workers are pictured at the Rathborne, Hair & Ridgeway box mill in Zemple.
This mill was located in the
area of the current Deer River football field.

[Continuation of the picture above of Rathborne, Hair & Ridgeway box mill]

Bruno (Skip) Nordahl, who still lives in "Dog Town" (the western portion of Zemple), served as mayor of Zemple for many years and has operated a beauty shop in Deer River for almost 30 years. He recalls hearing a song that the kids thought was "Dog Town Strutters Ball" and remembers how proud they were that a popular song had been named after their town.

"I remember the boarding house with its long tables, tin plates. cups. etc. where many of the mill workers, logging and lumber crews ate their meals," Crabtree writes. "Jim Martindale was the cook, a kindly white-haired old gentleman who often gave me a nice lunch when I happened in there with my Dad. The boarding house was in a beautiful wooded area.

Many wild flowers grew there violets, cowslips. honeysuckles, lady slippers, wild raspberries and strawberries. One of my favorite trails took me across a "corduroy" road (logs laid side by side, crosswise, to prevent sinking into swampy areas) There was a sawdust road leading from a street in Deer River to Zempel Village. It was made of sawdust from the various mills very soft and "squashy" to walk on. Needless to say, we "kids" enjoyed that even if our shoes at times did till up with sawdust. For some years the mills had a store for the employees where they could buy commodities such as food, work gloves, socks, tobacco and snuff."

Rathborne. Hair & Ridgeway box mill.
Rathborne. Hair & Ridgeway box mill.

Helen Hannula Weekley recalls playing on the railroad sidecars as a child. Her father owned a small store in south Deer River as well as one up town. She attended the one-room Zemple School for the first three years. Her first grade teacher was Miss Braddock. By fourth grade the students walked to Deer River. walked home for lunch and then back up to school in Deer River.

Although Norma Newkirk Grife was only three days old when the veneer plant burned, she remembers hearing many stories of the fire. Bazil and Dorothy Mayo also described this fire. "When the mill burned, it was such terrific heat the lumber would go up into the sky," said Dorothy. "The whole village was so lit up the birds came out and started flying around."

Norma's father, Bill Newkirk, was a night watchman at the roundhouse. "We would ride with dad on the engines when he went to put coal in them for the next day," said Norma. "We would then ride back while he put the engine on the turntable so he could back it into the roundhouse".

M & R Railroad round House in Zemple
M & R Railroad round House in Zemple

A 1947 Deer River News article describes a "hot" election in Zemple. Seems the village clerk, William Newkirk, was tired of the job so he fixed it up with eight voters to vote for Dorothy Simons Mayo. Newkirk felt since there had never been more than eight votes cast in the village before, he would not be re-elected. However, when the votes were counted, there were 22 votes all but one for Newkirk!

A new city hall was built in 1980, replacing an 11' x 17' building that had served that purpose for many years. The old building had been a hearse garage owned by Herreid Funeral Home of Deer River and was originally located on the corner where Deer River City Hall now stands. Nordahl said that the "Herreid Brothers" sign could still be seen each time the building needed paint. This building was moved several times. In the late 1980s, Keith and Carol Skaja bought the small building for $50, moved it to Ball Club and converted it into a sauna. Unfortunately, one night the sauna got too hot and it burned. However, the heavy floor still is being used as the floor of a new sauna.

There is no commercial business in quiet Zemple at the present time. Zemple officials in 1997 are Gene Hart, mayor: Dorothy Mayo, clerk; LaRae Barros, treasurer; Karen Long, Lenny Stevens, and Jim Oelkers, council members. Hunters and fishermen drive past the fields where the roundhouse, boarding house, and large mill were located and are oblivious to its rich history. Some of the cement foundation and wood pilings can still be seen at White Oak Lake remnants of a busy lumbering era.

Today the shore of White Oak Lake is a boat landing. There are no buildings and only a few concrete foundations
remain of the large mill operation. In 1976 the Deer River Sportsmans Club built a concrete landing.    Home Page    Contact Us    Privacy



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