By Cecelia Wattles McKeig (from The Depot Express newsletter, Summer 2015)
The historic Indian trail along Lake Bemidji’s west shore still exists, although perhaps it is not used to the extent it was in earlier years. The old trail has always been of great interest to local residents. It stretches along the lakeshore from Library Park to Bemidji State University. It has gone through periods of disinterest and lack of care to intense beautification projects spearheaded by the Bemidji Women’s Garden Club in the 1960s.
The trail is a remnant of an Indian trail that linked Leech Lake with Red Lake. The trail was cleaned up and the area improved in 1941 by Works Progress Administration workers. Stonework, steps, and benches were put in. For many youngsters, it was a great playground, and I remember “hiking” the trail with my brother and thinking we were on a grand adventure. Because it was part way down the slope to the lake, it felt distant from the city and as if you were in a wooded place of adventure. It was relatively quiet, as Lake Boulevard itself was not heavily traveled by cars, and you could hear the waves lapping against the shore further down the slope.
The beautification of the lakeshore and the preservation of the Indian Trail was a project initiated by the Bemidji Women’s Garden Club in August of 1966 in anticipation of their 25th anniversary. Dr. Ruth Brune Mangelsdorf wrote letters to Bemidji organizations for help with funds, labor, or both. In 1967, Dr. C. Gustav Hard, Extension Horticulturist of the University of Minnesota, came to Bemidji to discuss the project for the lakeshore. He met with Dr. Mangelsdorf at her home at 1121 Lake Boulevard, and then strolled from 12th Street to Sixth Street and noted the problems to be faced. They then went to the city hall for coffee and doughnuts served by the Women’s Garden Club.
Dr. Hard complimented the foresight of the early settlers in preserving a public park area along the shore. “This piece of property has deep significance,” said the horticulturist, “not only for the residents of Bemidji, but also for the tourists.”
In August, 1968, the Garden Club hired Gillam Wick to prune shrubbery and clean up the lake bank. Club members called in three consultants for their project. All agreed that the Indian Trail should be the center of interest because Bemidji is the only city in Minnesota with almost a mile of Indian trail within its limits.
Members of the women’s garden club who served on the beautification of the lakeshore committee included Mrs. Dale Bishop, Mrs. Carlton Clark, Mrs. Robert Deuser, Mrs. Dennis Benson, Mrs. Harold Grotte, Mrs. Les Hoganson, Mrs. Oscar Johnson, Mrs. Myrtle Kalbrener, Mrs. Ida Moody and daughter Leah, Mrs. Ed Ohman, Mrs. Anna Razee, and Dr. Ruth Brune Mangelsdorf, chairman. Dale Aultman, director of Bi-Cap Program, correlated activities of the Minne-CEP program in conjunction other participants. The city furnished the materials, and Minne-CEP provided the manpower for the project.
The city council appropriated up to $500 in 1968 and the same amount in 1969. This fund along with donations by organizations ranging from $5 to $51, and from individuals, afforded the financial basis for the project. The Lydick Lake Job Corp donated their labor on two of their three free days to clean up the shore, the women of the Garden Club served them dinners, with most of the groceries being donated by merchants, and the Senior Citizens gave their Center as a serving place.
During the project, members of the VFW planted 130 spreading jumpers, blue spruce, and Amur maples. Leonard Dickinson donated the logs for the construction of 13 benches. The Lions Club donated materials for the construction of four small bridges over the spillways which intercept the trail. The Beltrami County Historical Society donated funds for Indian signs to mark points of interest along the Indian trail.
Unfortunately, vandalism damaged or destroyed much of what was accomplished. In 1976, Jim Cameron, Bemidji Park Superintendent, and Erwin Mittelholtz, Historic Sites Chairman for the Beltrami County Historical Society, reported that vandals had caused considerable damage to bridges and markers on the Indian Trail along the lake front. Of the original eight signs only three were left standing. The others were destroyed, broken or carried away. One of the crossover bridges had the guard rails ripped away and the railing on the stairway leading down from 12th Street was damaged. In one section of the trail two fires had been started that burned many cedars and shrubs. The city chose not to put any more money into the restoration of the facilities and, to my knowledge, no further work has been done.
In talking to a few people along the trail this spring, I learned that part of the trail has eroded away. Although a few teens said they still like to use the trail with their bikes, they admitted that there are places where it is in bad shape. A few of the college students along Lake Boulevard said they were unaware the trail existed.
[Information for this article collected from the Garden Club and from the files of the Bemidji Daily Pioneer who covered the beautification project in great detail].