This project is inspired by our friends at the Douglas County Historical Society.


Everyone’s experience matters.

Your history matters. Help us record your history.

With events being as momentous as they are in Minnesota, we’d like to offer a tool in the form of a Self-History Interview to help us begin recording the daily lived experiences during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Right now we have no way of knowing how significant of an event this may be, but we want to ensure we leave behind plenty of written records of the actual Beltrami County experience for future scholars and historians.

Please consider donating a copy of your responses (if local to Beltrami County, MN) to the Beltrami County Historical Society, MN.  If not local to Beltrami County, MN, please feel free to use this form and send it on to your local historical archive should they want it.

You can mail a copy of your interview to:

The Beltrami County Historical Society

130 Minnesota AVE SW

Bemidji, MN 56601


Or email a copy of your self-history interview to

Beltrami County Historical Society, MN

Self-History Interview Worksheet in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic 2020

(Please feel encouraged to repeat the self-history interview throughout the event. Be as specific and thorough about documenting your thoughts as possible. There are no right or wrong answers. Tangents are okay. Attaching more paper is okay.)

 Whose experience is being recorded?  What is your age?

Who is doing the recording?

When/Where is this experience being recorded?


How have I adapted my life so far? Have I had to change my daily routine? How so?



What does my daily life usually look like? What does it look like right now?



What do I think about the current situation? Broadly? Specifically?



What am I afraid of? Broadly? Specifically?


How am I handling the situation? Am I working on certain projects? How am I passing my time? Am I helping others?



Am I staying isolated for my safety or the safety of those close to me?



How do I feel about official responses?


Does this pandemic remind me of anything else?



What is my plan moving forward?



What are my hopes for the future?



Everyone’s experience matters.

Your history matters. Help us record your history.


Please consider donating a copy of your responses (if local to Beltrami County, MN) to the Beltrami County Historical Society, MN. If not local to Beltrami County, MN, please feel free to use this form and send it on to your local historical archive should they want it.

You can mail a copy of your interview to:

The Beltrami County Historical Society

130 Minnesota AVE SW

Bemidji, MN 56601


Or email a copy of your self-history interview to


The legal release below is incredibly important should this self-history interview ever be used in a future study, archive, book, exhibit, documentary, etc. whether 50 years from now or 150 years.

I, ________________________, do hereby irrevocably release, assign, give and convey to The Beltrami County Historical Society, any and all right, title, and interest, including any copyright or intellectual property interest, in the self-history interviews attached. I understand that the Interviews will be deposited in the Beltrami County Historical Society for the use of future scholars and may be used for any lawful purpose in all forms and media including but not limited to public presentations, audio or video documentaries, CD-ROMs, internet publications, slide-tape presentations, exhibits, and advertising and related promotion through the world in perpetuity. I expressly authorize disclosure of the Interviews to meet these purposes to the extent that the Interviews would be considered an education record under federal law.

Date: _____________________


‘Centennial’ Teacher with a passion for Teaching and Learning

Interview with Lillian Mathews, BSU graduate and Shevlin School teacher

by Janet Kelly Moen


Lillian Mathews



The life-story of a woman that encompasses an entire century is by necessity one that reaches back not only into another time, but into another continent as well. The changes over this period of time were staggering, and involved new lands, new technologies, in the context of different cultures and languages.  All of these changes were mediated through family life, in a time when families were both extended and large, and deeply imbedded in the special environment of their particular place.

Lillian Mathew’s father, Lars Larsen, immigrated to the United States in 1891, at age twenty-one, from Aarhus on the east coast of the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark.  Moving westward, as land and opportunities opened, across America from New York City, he took a job working on a farm in Avoca, Iowa.  There he met, fell in love with, and was married to Anna Dorothea Olsen.  At the turn of the century, they moved north into Minnesota to settled on a piece of land about two and a half miles south of Leonard, a small railway village in Dudley Township, in the north central part of the state.  They obtained 80 acres, ‘grubbed’ the land so it could be farmed with oxen, and erected various building and sheds.  Starting with a small shack while building a larger one to inhabit, they passed the smaller place on to livestock.  It was a life requiring dawn to dusk labor and, as well as work off the farm as necessary to make ends meet.1  Here Lars and Anna raised their family of ten children; six older siblings were followed after a time by four younger children.  Lillian was the youngest child, born April 3, 1918.

True to their Danish roots, the family valued education, and Lars was a long time member of the school board, continuing to serve long after his own children were out of school and gone.  He also served as township chairman, taking care of both the infrastructure and the welfare of the community.  Their homestead was a site of regular visiting by neighbors and served as the site of 4th of July celebrations involving potluck dishes and ice cream made in the shade.2

Lillian, as the youngest, received the usual attention older siblings pay to the youngest child.  As she was left alone while they were at school, when she was about five years old, she would walk over to the nearby school every afternoon.  She would enter the classroom on tiptoe and sit in one of the double seated desks with one of her sisters, or one of the others girls who vied for her company.  She was very quiet and observed intently.  The teacher welcomed her to the classroom, and would find something to give to her before she left for home with her sisters.  In this manner, Lillian created her own special ‘kindergarten,’ and was encouraged to do so due to the relative flexibility of the country school. She also began a life-long love of school, of teachers, and of learning.

When she was ready for first grade, she went to the local country Hendrickson School, built on land given by her uncle (this location was later called the Pond school). Lillian went to ninth grade at Leonard for one year, and completed high school over the next three years at Clearbrook, graduating in 1939.

At that time she knew that women had essentially two choices of a ‘profession,’ either teacher or nurse.   As a student who had very much enjoyed school herself and liked her teachers, she decided on teaching; and also, she says, due to her slight aversion to blood.  She went to Bemidji State College (now BSU) and took the two-year program to qualify her to teach lower elementary, which prepared her to teach grades one through eight, although she taught mostly first grade.  She taught in rural schools near Clearbrook.

This was a fascinating and innovative time in the development of the country school, the proverbial one-room schoolhouse, or some variant thereon.  The history of the social organization of these small country schools attests to both a desire for education for the children of the settlers, as well as a primer in a localized form of grassroots democracy.3   In the decade during which Lillian was born, families would gather in one of the larger homes in formally recorded meetings to advance the necessary decisions for the formation and maintenance of these schools.  One of those gathered might donate a parcel of land, one was assigned recording functions, people volunteered to gather to clear the land on a specific day, votes were taken on details such as the size of the school, funding was secured and official school boards were elected.  This dynamic grassroots history has been well documented in a number of well-researched local sources.4

In this formal, yet simultaneously informal process, schools were authorized by the Beltrami County board of commissioners (and subsequently those in Clearwater County after the split in December 0f 1902), and the schools often changed names.  For example, in School District #31, organized in 1914, the building was called the Mogster School, based on the ownership of the donated land, and  was then called the O. M. Johnson School.  It was later known as the Gorze School, after a school board member who had all of his children enrolled there.  The building in District #39 was called the Grammar School, followed by the place name, Riverview, and finally the Renner School, after a local family.

In addition to being called different names, buildings could be bought, sold and moved around in an area.  The building of District #23 was sold for sixty dollars in 1915 to District #39, and hauled on a sled pulled by horses to its new location.  In the same year, the ‘Pond School’ building was pulled from section 20 on long skids by horsepower supervised by local men, to the southwest corner of section 21.

The school boards were responsible for everything from the size of the building (one noted to be 24 x 25 feet), the securing of a contractor, or the actual group building of the school, the length of the term, and the hiring of the teacher.  Teachers had to insure that wood was obtained to heat the building, as well as starting and maintaining the fire in cold weather, hauling of water into the building, and all of the general chores.  Scrubbing and outside maintenance may have been allocated to a janitor.  The salaries of those early teachers ranged from about $25 to $50 per month.5

It was in this general atmosphere that Lillian was teaching in the area around her family homestead.  While she found teaching rewarding, she also wanted a family of her own, and that would put a temporary end to her teaching.  When she was twenty-two, Lillian married Russel Simenson, who was a neighbor and classmate.  His father and mother, Theordore and Marie Simenson, were noted in a local history as ‘progressive farmers.’  Their family had arrived in section 22 of Dudley Township in 1926 from Hawley, Minnesota.6

Lillian and Russel purchased a farm not far northwest of Shevlin. Over the next two decades, then had six children, and while much effort went into the every-day life of maintaining a farm, Lillian made time for reading and informal education.  Her love of learning was such that half of their children also went into the field of education.  The oldest son Gary became a teacher, the next daughter Constance became a teacher and then worked for the Cooperative Extension Service, and daughter Bev is now retired from teaching.  Of the younger children, daughter Winnifred became an LPN, and there were twin sons, Bruce, who works for the telephone company, and Brad, who went into business.

She was quite busy raising children and with the demands of farm life, especially as they were living in a smaller house with limited amenities, Nonetheless, she also found time to keep taking classes during the summer and at nights, until she obtained a four-year degree from BSU.  The College encouraged the continuing education of teachers, and BSU faculty even came out to Bagley to offer courses in education.

When her children were grown, Lillian went back to teaching, for a year at Pony Lake in the early nineteen sixties.  She then took a position at the yellow brick, two-story Shevlin School, where she remained for the next 21 years. Shevlin was a district which had an impressive history of education.

As we have seen, in the earliest years of settlement, families with larger homes had set up ‘schools’ in their houses or on their property, or donated land to create the type of school that Lillian herself had first attended.  As more families moved into the area, attracted by the timber companies and the incipient retail services, a felt need to have a proper school arose.  A piece of land in the village of Shevlin had been donated in the summer of 1899, fifteen hundred dollars was allocated to build the school, and it opened in mid November of that same year.  One teacher was hired to teach approximately forty-five children; the next year two teachers were hired, dividing the lower and upper grades between them.7

Community members met at the village hall in 1902 and set in motion a process which resulted in the creation of an Independent School District #1, and a Board of Directors (School Board) was elected.  Within two years, at the end of 1904, they applied to the state for a loan to build a larger building to accommodate the growing population.  This two-story building was built around 1905.  With one large room on each floor, it was photographed in 1907 with two teachers and nearly fifty students.  Unfortunately, this frame building burned down in 1911.8

A new yellow brick structure was started in 1911, built in a piecemeal fashion, with the classrooms on the second floor completed by 1917.  Necessities like electricity, plumbing, and ultimately, steam heat, were added as funds became available.  Children in the upper grades went to the class in the fire hall, until everything was in place on the second floor.  This abbreviated history shows community commitment and provides a concrete example of the fact that members of this particular community were determined to create a school which would last, and were willing to take some risks to create the best structure they could for the education of their children. They had their eyes on a bright future.

Today, this solidly constructed school, worked on over a period of six years until completion in 1917 (a year before Lillian was born) is home to the Museum of the Clearwater County Historical Society.  The School is the cornerstone a charming set of buildings which have been moved to this location as an ‘open air’ collection of historic buildings. Included on the site is an old log school from the 1880’s, another school built in 1936 by the WPA, an 1890’s two story log cabin, a Great Northern Railroad Depot in the ‘box car’ style from the early 1900’s, an agricultural exhibit building, a replica church with religious artifacts and a military exhibit.9

 Returning to the history of the school, and Lillian’s role in it, she noted that once completed, the Shevlin School had four rooms, two downstairs and two upstairs, and four teachers.  The janitor (as they were known at the time), Edwin Kildal held his position for 25 years, and added to the mix of the staff.  The Superintendant of Schools, Mae Barness, who held her position almost continuously from 1918 until she retired in 1974, would come out at least two times a year.10   She would bring record-keeping work, make observations around the school, and speak to and with the teachers.  She was known for her dedication, and Lillian noted that she was ‘flowery,’ and that she and the other teachers loved her visits.

Teaching in the early schools required a great deal of flexibility. The elementary curriculum was the proverbial 3 R’s (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) core.  Generally, Lillian’s basic class schedule, modified at times, was reading first period, followed by math.  The first graders had reading again after lunch, perhaps with a story.  The other periods of the day involved language, which included grammar and also literature, penmanship, and science, music and art were components of the curriculum.

The teachers would sometimes double up classes as a means of balancing class sizes.  So while Lillian was teaching first grade, she might select about five students or so who were second-graders, and bring them into her classroom to teach them reading and math.  She selected students who would fit more easily in with the younger students.  She then taught reading and math for each ‘grade level’ separately in the morning, and put the entire group together in the afternoons. The teacher who had the third grade would likewise take in some of the fourth graders. In this way they were able to informally address the particular needs of student learning, and even out the work loads.

All of this was possible as the class sizes were generally manageable, at about 18 to 20 students.  All of the students had workbooks, and that allowed them to practice writing about the material they had been studying.  The workbooks coincided with the readings.  Lillian would put instructions on the board, and the students would quietly do the work at their seats, while she worked with another group of students at a different level.

The teachers used what was at hand.  For science, they might take trips around the school yard to observe and discuss.  They would go into nearby woods, where they could see even more diversity in the environment. They had measurement devices such as thermometers, magnifiers, and the like, and could record and discuss ‘data.’ There was a built-in emphasis on immersion and raising awareness of the surroundings, and building observational skills, followed as well by discussion and analysis.

Lillian’s enthusiasm for her work was expressed sincerely as well as enthusiastically. “I loved every day.  I like to teach. It was a farming community and I don’t believe I ever had an obnoxious child, just talkative,” she noted.

She reflected on several stories about students.  The Red Lake Indian Reservation is in the northern part of Clearwater County, and after she had been teaching for a few years, a native child named ‘Beaver’ was brought to her classroom.  She was told that they wanted him to be with other children, and his father brought him to school every day. Someone from Bemidji State came to work with him every day.  In the absence of his mother, he stayed close to Lillian’s side whenever possible.  One day he put all his books on her desk and pronounced “I quit!” She said she would be sorry, and quietly and rather easily convinced him to stay.  Ultimately he did leave the school, and she has often thought about him, where he might be, and how he is doing.

Another little boy, she remembers with a laugh, would usually arrive about ten minutes late to school. When he appeared at the door, he would roll head-over-heels to his desk. As Lillian felt this was to gain attention, she felt it was best to simply ignore his behavior.  It was not very long before he realized that he was not getting the desired attention for his rather extreme efforts, and began walking to his desk and taking his seat.

Another student, missing her, would call her up after she retired. The problem was that he called collect.  Eventually, she lost contact with him as well, but said she ‘got a kick out of that.’ Her stories show a keen sense of psychological insight about children.  Moreover they demonstrate the goodwill that she brought into her classrooms over the years.

One of the highlights of the school year was the annual Christmas Program.  This was an elaborate affair, for which much preparation was made; one of Lillian’s contributions was a painted wall mural for the back of the stage.  She could draw fairly well, and created a background, including figures like a camel, the city of Bethlehem, and other relevant motifs.  It became expected that classes on the lower floor did the fun things like Santa Claus, and the upper level did the music and the singing.  One year, she said she would do the music, and they put on “The Drummer Boy.”  It was memorable, but they went back to the old system in the following years.  Whole families attended these events. For many farm families it was the one time a year that they went out to ‘see a good play.’

The school had an active Parent Teachers Association (PTA), which met in the evenings.  One of the parents presided, and the teachers attended the meetings.  There were also parent-teacher conferences twice a year, which involved keeping close track of the progress of each student, and the use of good interpersonal skills in communicating with the parents about the academic and social growth of their children.

While being at school with the children, and having a varied, if demanding, schedule, the portion of ‘teaching’ needing to be done after the school day was another story. Grading and planning lessons usually required working well into the evening. There was planning and gathering supplies for special events and projects, as well as other tasks. This was especially demanding when she had a class of 27 students. After teaching at Shevlin for some years, Lillian moved into Bemidji after she and her husband build a new house on some wooded acreage in Bemidji at 1918 Lakeview Drive. She and a fellow teacher made arrangements to ride with various teachers from Bagley, who dropped them off in Shevlin and picked them up on the way back to Bemidji.

When she retired at age 65, she felt it was time to do so, as she was tired. Lillian took stock and collected herself, and her adventurous spirit and love of learning returned. She subsequently remarried, and she and Charles Mathews shared many adventures together.

She and her husband travelled all over the world. They went to every country in Europe except Scotland, across the Mediterranean to Morocco, and as far to the ‘East’ as Constantinople, where they saw the city where ‘East meets West’.  They also went to South America, including Brazil, and took a memorable trip through the Panama Canal.  In addition to those travels, they went to Alaska five times, where she found that she loved the quiet and peacefulness of sailing along the glaciers, sometimes catching the glaciers ‘calving.’  She went on her last trip to Alaska with her daughter, Bev Hiatt, to share her love of that particular environment.

Remaining very active into her nineties, she decided to sell her home and moved to an Independent Living apartment at BirchHaven Village, sometime around 2012. Her spacious apartment is filled with her crafts and projects, including duck decoy and bird carvings, rosemaling, and other types of painting and art projects as well as music.  She has maintained a busy and involved life, taking classes, keeping up with her continuing love of books and reading, and maintaining vital ties with her family.  She regularly attends First Lutheran Church, and takes in various community activities, especially concerts.


Lillian at her 100th Birthday celebration at First Lutheran Church, April 2018 (Photo: Lois Jenkins)

This lovely woman, started out by inventing her own creative educational opportunity as a little girl.  Blessed with positive experiences from teachers, she followed her mentors to become a teacher herself.  As someone who loved teaching, her lived experience demonstrates a kind of ‘case history’ of what education was like embodied in a meaningful life that spanned a historic period of dramatic changes.

Alert and lively, in her own centennial year, Lillian Mathews is also a woman who is a true inspiration and a model of grace and style indicative of a curious and active mind, a love of learning, and a life of familial and public service.




  1. George & Winifred Boorman (compiled materials), The History of the City of Leonard, Dudley Township (Gonvick, MN: Richards Publishing Company, Inc.), 80.
  2. Boorman & Boorman, 81.
  3. Counties may have published histories of their rural schools. See, for example:  Louis Marchand, A History of the Rural Schools of Beltrami County (Bemidji MN; Loonfeather Press, 2006).
  4. Some examples include the following: Shevlin: Recalling Our Heritage 1899-1999 by Debra Harmon (Shevlin Centennial Committee: Shevlin, MN, 1999); works by Ralph A. Larson, including History of Education in Clearwater County (1951) and The Story of Clearwater County, 1902-1952 (Farmers Publishing Company, 1952); and The Clearwater County History News, published regularly by the Clearwater County Historical Society (now in its 28th volume), P.O. Box 241, Bagley, MN 56621.
  5. Boorman & Boorman, 36-37.
  6. Boorman & Boorman, 112.
  7. Viola Gagen Arneson, ‘The Story of Shevlin Independent School District #1’ in Daisy Luggar and Linda Wallin (eds.) “Shevlin Memory Book, 1899-1991” (Clearwater County: local committee, 1991).
  8. Arneson, 3.
  9. photo courtesy, Minnesota Historical Society, and text from “Welcome to Clearwater County Minnesota: Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi”  (Explore Minnesota –eight-page foldout pamphlet).
  10. Debra Harmon, ‘Mae Barness: Superintendent of School legendary figure,’ in Bagley: A Celebration of a Century, 1898-1998 (locally published book to commemorate Bagley’s Centennial, July 3-5, 1998), 86.



Keeping the Northern Pacific Railroad Rolling: An interview with Lowell O’Brien, Bridge and Building Crewman

On February 16, 2016 I interviewed Lowell O’Brien in Bemidji. Lowell and his crew repaired or rebuilt
most of the wooden piling-type train trestles along the Northern Pacific rail line between Bemidji and
International Falls, as well as further south towards Brainerd.

Lowell was raised by his parents, Guy R. and Blanche O’Brien, near Hines, MN. His Grandparents were
living in in Gemmell, MN. at the time—as his Grandfather worked for a cedar pole company. In fact,
Lowell was born in Gemmell—his mother went to there to stay with her parents as the time
approached for his birth (July 7, 1922). His maternal Grandparents were named Frank and Gertrude
Cook. They had moved from the Detroit lakes area to find work in the woods.

Lowell grew up and started work with the Northern Pacific Railroad—January 1, 1949—and was hired
out of Bemidji onto the Bridge and Building crew. That crew had responsibility for projects from
Bemidji to International Falls, as well as other assignments.

An interesting side note is that Lowell and his brother-in- law, Albert Pater Jr., bought the original two-
story train depot in Northome (built in 1903). Between 1950 and 1952 they tore the large depot down
and salvaged a large amount of lumber and maple flooring. They used some of the lumber themselves.
For example, Lowell and his father built a house on the east shore of Gull Lake along the old Main
Street, south of the old Tenstrike logging rail spur (from the main line down to Gull Lake), but north of
the gravel street which runs out to the tar road (Co. Rd. #29). Lowell stated that he moved into the
house in 1953.

As part of his job, Lowell also helped to construct the “new” (replacement) Northern Pacific depot,
(circa 1952), at Northome. It was one story in height and was located on the west side of the main
track— a few hundred feet north of the old, or original depot. That “new” depot was eventually sold.
Steve Dahl and Dr. Don Prosser, a former Northome Dentist, moved it out to the shore of Island Lake
south of Northome and used it as a cabin (Frenzel property in 2016).

Northern Minnesota is a land of lakes and waters and in a number of locations swampland must be
crossed with the rails to carry the train to its destination. One feature of Northern Minnesota is the
lowlands which have extensive deposits of organic or peat soils. The peat is formed from woody and
non woody plants which have lived and then died and formed layers of wet, rotted material.
Sometimes the layers are shallow, but many times they can be 30 to 50 feet in depth or more. Under
the right conditions, they turn into “sinkholes” which, even with today’s equipment, can be a real
challenge to cross with highways or rail grades. Many times in the history of Northern Minnesota,
equipment has settled into the peat and been retrieved with great difficulty or in a number of cases,
the machinery has been lost forever down in the wet, structure less bog, never to be seen again.

When the M and I (Minnesota and International which later became the Northern Pacific) Railway was
being constructed northward from Bemidji, in the fall of 1901 (December 9,1901), the construction
progress was halted because a wide, difficult sinkhole area was encountered by Coburn Creek, in
Blackduck. The crossing required the construction of a trestle of at least 500 feet in length. The trestle
and sinkhole are located just northeast of where the present (2016) Coop elevator is located in

As part of Lowell’s work duties, he helped to replace the diagonal piling bracing of the Blackduck trestle
in the 1950’s.

The Northern Pacific Railroad Co. (NP) had two different “pile drivers” which Lowell and his crew
utilized in their work of pile driving. Piling is an interesting term describing usually long wooden poles,
sometimes steel in other construction, which are driven into soft ground, deep enough to become
stable and to support heavy loads. Railroads often utilized wooden piling, because wooden piling were
readily available, strong, durable, and would bend a little—but not break easily.

The rotting process of wooden pilings takes place over time through the activity of microorganisms,
usually fungi. The microbes need moisture and oxygen, in favorable amounts, in order to break down
the wood fiber (we call it rotting). As with fence posts around the farm, the most extensive rotting
usually takes place at ground level, or with pilings, where the wood emerges above the surface of the

The preservative treatment to the wooden pilings has to be a product that blocks the growth of the
fungi and penetrates into the sapwood of the piling. Higher up on the piling it is often too dry for rot to
proceed, and down below the ground or water surface, it is too wet or there is not enough oxygen for
rotting to occur. Certain tree species also contain naturally produced chemicals which help to inhibit
rotting (in addition to the treating compounds). Creosote type products seemed to give the best results
for wooden tie and piling preservation). Nowadays the piling is treated with a preservative to inhibit
rot and to help the piling last a long time.

Lowell started out as a fireman on the pile drivers and in a short time moved up to the job as operator.
As I understand it, both the little pile driver and the larger unit were steam powered. The “little” driver
was self-propelled and generated steam by means of a coal fired boiler. To properly operate the
machine, it was necessary to build a fire each morning before work began. The water in the boiler
heated up to a temperature where lots of steam was produced in order to operate the steam powered
pile driver piston and other related functions on the pile driver unit.

Lowell was taught how to fire the machine to get the most steam production by a fireman on that
smaller driver. The fireman was a good fellow and had figured out how to best distribute the coal in

the firebox so as to get the most steam production and most “mileage” or BTUs out of the coal. The
“Working pressure” of steam in the little driver was 145psi.

The smaller pile driver was kept in Minnesota and was utilized when possible. Although one-time
Lowell had to go out to Missoula, Montana to help bring the larger or Western pile driver unit back to
Minnesota. Lowell related that they used the little pile driver at Leech Lake on the trestle repairs, but
in one location especially, the large driver was needed for driving the extra-long (130 feet) Douglas fir

There was a deep spot in Leech Lake part way along the trestle that required 130-foot poles instead of
the usual 100-foot ones. This was in the area of the old Ah-Gwa- Ching facility and Shingobee Island.
There are usually 5 pilings in each row on the trestle. The middle one is straight up and down, and the
two pilings on either side are driven at an angle pointing inward slightly. Lowell stated that there
wasn’t a gauge on the machine to determine the angle of the poles. The experienced crewman or
foreman stood out ahead of the pile driver and motioned the operator of what angle was correct for
each pole being driven. The operator would then move the right levers to get the desired piling aimed

The pilings usually arrived by railcar and before being driven into the ground the men would taper both
ends of the piling so as to minimize the chances of splintering or breakage of the pole while it was
being driven. The tapering was done manually with an adze, which is an axe-like tool—lots of physical
exercise for the men. Often times the dead of winter was when much of the trestle construction or
repairs were done because a thick layer of ice was needed to help support the equipment. Manually
operated ice saws were often utilized to cut access holes through the ice—meaning that you often got
wet and cold on a regular basis.

The larger or Western pile driver was better to operate according to Lowell. It was needed for driving
the longer pilings, and was an oil fired firebox/boiler situation. Lowell said that he would arrive early
and would put waste rags or paper into the firebox, along with a little oil #2 diesel fuel he thought) to
get the fire going. He would then would open the supply valve more and more as the fire grew more
intense and needed more heat. The larger oil-fired pile driver worked out better and often times, with
the bigger machine, they could drive 2 or 3 pilings before they had to add more water (to the boiler)
and oil to the firebox to get the working pressure back up to 145psi.

The driving hammer assembly weighed 12,000 lbs., and its pounding action was controlled by the
machine operator as to how many strokes per minute were desired for the work. Lowell related that
on the big machine, if desired, you could get 90 blows/minute, but if you did, the wooden piling could

easily be shattered and ruined. Lowell stated that 45-50 blows per minute got a lot of work done, and
the pilings stayed in good shape as they were being hammered down into the lake bottom, swamp or
other situation. I asked him how they knew when the piling was down deep enough, and he said that
their rule of thumb was that if the piling was only going down ¾ of an inch per blow, that that was a
solid enough placement. If, for example, the piling was moving downward at 3 inches per blow, then it
was best to keep driving for a more solid placement.

Lowell said that they ran into an unusual repair situation on the old (original NP) trestle by Shingobee
Island on Leech Lake. The original pilings, installed sometime around the year 1900, were round and
were probably from native wood such as Red Pine. The pilings would not have been treated with a
preservative in the early days. Square timbers had been fastened on top of the round ones and then
held by bracing in order to make the repairs. To complete the repairs, the crew had to cut through the
ice with hand (man powered) ice saws and deal with the situation.
At times, old pilings have to be removed. Lowell explained that they would hook onto the piling with
the crane, back up the crane, and pull at an angle in an attempt to break off the piling as low as
possible—down at the soil surface so that the stub remaining would not cause problems for future
Some of the accompanying pictures (courtesy of Lowell O’Brien) show the construction of a
replacement trestle across Leech Lake, in the early 1950’s. One of the disadvantages of the smaller pile
driving machine was that it was coal fired and had to be “fired” in a certain way to get the most steam
production. You had to distribute the coal around the bottom of the firebox to get the most surface
area and, when the steam pressure got up to 120psi, you would turn on the draft blower to blow air
onto or through the fire to get lots more heat and thus a greater volume of steam.

After driving only one piling, however, the steam pressure or output would drop, and would need to be
fired again—of course adding more water to the boiler for safety reasons and also for replacement of
the water/steam that had been expended while driving the piling. Later on, perhaps at the end of the
day, it was necessary to cool the firebox down, remove the clinkers, etc. That smaller pile driver
machine had a coal tender car coupled or attached for carrying a supply of coal for the boiler/firebox.
Prior to the year 1970, pulpwood in 100-inch lengths was commonly loaded onto train cars—after
being manually loaded onto rubber-tired trucks out in the woods—and then hauled to a railroad siding.
Loading docks or platforms were commonly constructed alongside the railroad side tracks so that the
trucks could drive up by the rail cars and unload the pulpwood into or onto the train cars. Lowell
helped to construct or maintain some of these loading docks. Having the loading docks made the work
somewhat easier for the loggers, although, until the advent of mechanical pulp loaders, it remained
brutally hard work for the woodsmen.

Lowell reported that when he started working for the NP, based out of Bemidji, his starting pay was 95
cents per hour, based on an 8-hour work day. His day was often a lot longer than 8 hours because he
had to tend to the boiler and firebox duties, as well as driving to work quite a distance, depending
upon the location of the project.

Back in the 1950’s, and for a number of years later, while a project was going on it was common for the
NP to have what was called a “work train” which would accompany the pile driver and would have a
bunk car and also a cooking rail car, where the work crew would eat and sleep. The work train would
be parked on a side track somewhere off from the main line, to allow the regular freight and passenger
trains to go by.

Lowell and the crew repaired or rebuilt most of the wooden trestles along the NP rail line between
Bemidji and International Falls, as well as further south towards Brainerd, MN. However, in winter,
when the Iron mines would shut down because of cold weather, Lowell and his crew would get more
work repairing the iron ore loading docks in the Duluth/Superior area. I have worked outside for a lot
of my life and can well imagine how cold the working conditions were for Lowell and his crew. When
you are working in the woods, you usually have the forest for partial protection from the often-present
cold winds—whereas the Bridge crew was nearly always out in the unprotected locations, dealing with
cold and often wet circumstances.

I enjoyed visiting with Lowell about “the old days” and hope that we can continue to learn more about
the life of the railroad workers.

by Bernie Uran  

Sidetracked (Just the bear facts…Oh deer…)

By Darla Sathre (from The Depot Express newsletter, Fall 2015)

While browsing through some Bemidji history publications, I (more than once) came across the famous 1897 photo that looks east on 3rd Street toward Lake Bemidji. Immediately one notices a bear cub and a fawn among the people.

The Carson family owned two bears, one of which is seen in the photo along with Evan Carson. The first year they let the bear cubs hibernate over winter in the root cellar behind their family hotel, but come spring Evan got too close and one of the bear cubs stripped off his trousers!

The young lady in the photo petting the fawn is Maude Near, a relative of the Carson family. (Sidetrack: She later became a teacher at Campbell Lake School, and then married F.O. Sibley. They lived on a farm near Solway, and he later became one of the early county commissioners.)

The Alexander Cameron family, early area settlers, had a pet fawn, which they bottle-fed. As it grew, it became quite a pest, loving to find a house door left open so it could come in and eat food off the table. To protect it during hunting season the family tied a bell on a red ribbon around the deer’s neck, but it got shot anyway.

The Rhodes family lived on the south shore of Lake Bemidji. They also found a fawn and took it in as a pet. They fed it soft bread and milk from a beer bottle. To keep dogs away from it they built a wire fence. When complaints were made, the deer was picked up and taken to the train platform and put in a crate to be taken away.

(Sidetrack: Waskish, north of Kelliher, is named for the Ojibwe word for deer – waawaaskeshi.)
In researching these stories of deer and bears as pets, I was sidetracked by my own childhood bear memory. In the late 1950s, the Jim Warfield family (who owned the Log Cabin Court tourist cabins) acquired a bear cub to use as a tourist attraction. Smokey, as they named him, had been rescued after his mother had been shot. The Warfields built a cage for him and put a collar on him so he could be leashed. He was on display mainly for people to look at, but sometimes friends could feed and pet him. Smokey loved to drink pop, and doing so made him more docile. Feeding him a bottle of pop and petting him is what I remember doing. Jim’s son, Marshall, remembers entering Smokey in a pet show sponsored by Jake’s Drive-In. Smokey entertained the crowd by drinking a bottle of pop while crossing the street and won first prize. Smokey was with the Warfield family for two years before they released him back into the wild.

On the Street Where You Live (Grand Forks Bay)

By Cecelia Wattles McKeig (from The Depot Express newsletter, Fall 2015)

We seldom see a specific reference to Grand Forks Bay anymore, but from 1902 until 1940, there were frequent references to the popular vacation spot on Lake Bemidji, and Grand Forks Bay even had its own column in the Bemidji Pioneer and in the Grand Forks Herald! Do you know where it was?
Grand Forks Bay was the oldest summer resort on the lake and was platted on the northwest shore of Lake Bemidji. After the Great Northern Railroad completed the connection from Fosston to Duluth in 1898, Bemidji became a center of tourism. 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. 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 walleyed pike in an hour. In four days of fishing, a party of four Grand Forks fishermen caught “about 300 pounds” of walleye. They kept every pound.

This area was platted and built in 1902 by residents from Grand Forks who regarded the area as a kind of health resort during the summer months. Soon the area had 25 summer cottages. The residents never tired of boasting of “Beautiful Bemidji” and the wonderful effects of a summer spent among the pines. Grand Forks Bay was so popular that in 1906 Mayor A. A. Carter convinced a second group of Grand Forks citizens, including his relatives, to purchase and establish a second resort colony on the east shore of Lake Bemidji.

The area was served by several launches from the docks at Third Street in Bemidji. The boats made regularly scheduled trips all summer to the resort areas, making it more convenient to travel by boat than by car. In 1907, the newspaper reported that a merry party started out in the “Swallow,” with their lunch baskets, from Grand Forks Bay and traveled to the Mississippi outlet to picnic and explore the woods for blueberries. There are frequent references to Captain MacLachlan and the “City of Bemidji,” as well as other boats on the lake.

There were many splendid cottages at Grand Forks Bay, and the property was considered very valuable. In 1908, Professor Merrifield, president of the University of North Dakota, was reputed to own the very best summer home on Lake Bemidji. The building was of modern design, had a massive stone chimney and wide porticos, and was regarded as being is in every way an ideal summer home.

Grand Forks Bay was named in the land description regarding the location of the new normal school in Bemidji in 1915. The site for the college comprised forty acres, ran from Doud Avenue to the lakeshore, and extended from Fourteenth Street to Grand Forks Bay on Lake Bemidji. So now we know that Grand Forks Bay extended from the north side of the college northward to Bemidji Beach, where the Jacobi’s also had a summer cabin. If that rings a bell, it will be because G. R. Jacobi was an insurance agent from Grand Forks. His granddaughter, actress Jane Russell, was born at the Bemidji Hospital in 1921, because her parents were staying in their cottage at Bemidji Beach (just south of Birchmont). An early map shows the location of the Bay area along Lake Bemidji.

The area suffered a wave of vandalism in April 1905. Over a period of ten days considerable damage was done. Almost every cottage had been entered and articles removed. Two of the cottages were stripped of their contents, even heavy articles like beds and extension tables were removed. In one or two cases, doors were chopped down in order to gain admittance. Bemidji promised a quick crackdown. It did not want to lose its valuable summer visitors.

Cottages at Grand Forks Bay were again broken into in March 1915. The cottages had been entered and a great deal of the furniture stolen. Owners reported the same to the police and an arrest followed. “The arrested woman was given a lecture and put on probation. It is hoped that this will serve as an example to people of this character who make a practice of breaking into the cottages at Bemidji during the winter months. Many Grand Forks people have considerable money invested in Bemidji, and it is unfortunate that their property should be the subject of raids of this character.”

Grand Forks Bay had its own social column in the Grand Forks Herald called “G. F. Bay Breezes.” In July 1916, the newspaper reported that Mr. and Mrs. Michel of Willowbend, South Dakota, had purchased the McVey bungalow at the Bay and had then returned to their home in South Dakota after spending ten days in their new summer home. The Michel family then advertised their property for rent: Beautiful ten-room summer cottage, completely furnished at Grand Forks Bay, Lake Bemidji. Large screened porches, fireplace, boat, etc., everything but bedding and silverware. Price for the season: $150. References required.

Tenting was also popular at Grand Forks Bay in 1916, and the newspaper noted, “The rapidity with which the tents are being set up proves the popularity of Grand Forks Bay as just the right place for campers.”

Eventually, many Bemidji people also owned property at Grand Forks Bay. Although they had homes in downtown Bemidji, the attraction of the lake and the summer breezes drew many to acquire a second piece of property at the lake. For example, Mr. and Mrs. C. A. Knapp moved to their cottage at Grand Forks Bay on May 1, 1916.

Lloyd Knott wrote about his home in 1976. “This home that I have [1928 Birchmont Road] is one of the original houses known as Grand Forks Bay. Looking through the abstract, it is land originally owned by Freeman Doud. I bought it from Ray Ward. He built the fireplace and the fireplace room. He told me he built the fireplace all by himself.”

Bemidji underwent a wave of construction and improvements in 1922. There was a general belief that times were going to get better in the immediate future. They had no inkling that the Roaring 1920s would end with the Crash in 1929. The Minnesota Electric Light & Power Co. began its l922 construction program by wiring Grand Forks Bay, Lamoure, and Diamond Point. The wiring was connected up at Irvine Avenue and Twenty-Fourth Street, then strung into Lamoure on Birchmont Road, and then to Grand Forks Bay and onto Diamond Point. Summer residents had requested this action for a number of years. Light wires to the Teachers College had been installed for some time, but this line could not be extended to accommodate the cottages at the Bay, because of its limited carrying capacity. The Irvine Avenue line could carry any kind of load and therefore the line was built from this connection.

Cottage residents could now cook, heat, and light by electricity!
Eventually there were many summer resort areas platted around Lake Bemidji – Bemidji Beach, Birchmont Beach, Lakeside, Lavinia, Riverside, to name a few — but Grand Forks Bay was the first.

In 1937-1938, residents of Grand Forks Bay included Joseph Boninger; J. Raymond Olson, manager of the Gambles Store; Harry Gray, Chief of Police; and Mrs. Theodora Bradford. About 1939, the street addresses were changed and the same residents lived at 1912, 1920, 2112, and 2302 Birchmont Drive respectively!

Sidetracked (Visitors)

By Darla Sathre (from The Depot Express newsletter, Summer 2015)

Although Bemidji gets visitors from far and near throughout the whole year, we really expect them in droves in the summertime. Bemidji has had numerous well-known visitors through the years, but this article is going to focus on two widowed First Ladies — Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, and Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson.

Eleanor Roosevelt visited Bemidji in October of 1955, staying at the Markham Hotel. While the reason for her visit was to speak at a teachers’ convention of the Minnesota Education Association, she also attended several informal gatherings which she described as “delightful.” College president Charles Sattgast and his wife Mabel saw to her comfort during her short visit.

As a sidetrack, in the previous decade, Mabel Sattgast had mailed a package of wild rice to Eleanor Roosevelt. Here is another tidbit of a sidetrack: in a 1984 interview, Bemidji’s own famous person, Jane Russell, declared Eleanor Roosevelt to be her personal heroine.

According to Bemidji’s centennial book, Edith Wilson visited the city on August 22, 1934, staying at the Birchmont Hotel. In fact, she visited Bemidji many summers during the 1920s and 1930s staying at the Birchmont Beach Hotel, now Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge.

This next sidetrack takes us to Itasca State Park where Edith Wilson, among thousands of others, attended the Fourth Annual Schoolcraft Centennial Pageant on August 12, 1935. She commented, “The pageants were marvelous – the most interesting I’ve ever seen. Every state in the Union should have pageants similar to this each summer.” As a financial sidetrack, in case you are wondering about the cost to see such a marvelous show, the charge was 15 cents per person.

On the Street Where You Live (Lake Boulevard Indian Trail)

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].

Sidetracked (Candy)

By Darla Sathre (from The Depot Express newsletter, Spring 2015)

Valentine’s Day, with its surfeit of chocolate and other candy, is over. Soon will be Easter, along with more chocolate, as well as a variety of other indulgent sweets. I got to wondering about the availability of candy in the early days of Beltrami County. The first mention of candy that I found was maple sugar cakes distributed to visiting children by Chief Bemidji!

It did not take long before bakeries and candy stores, or confectionaries as they were called, were scattered throughout the area. Mr. and Mrs. Frank Thompson built one of the first in Bemidji on Third Street during the summer of 1896. By July they even had new sidewalks in front of their business. Also, on Third Street in the late 1890s Arthur Wheelock established a combination employment office/confectionary/news stand. These were not the only people to have sweet treat shops on Third Street! Stahl’s Bakery was also there. So was Oppegaard’s Honeyland Candy Kitchen, which later was known as Suman’s Third Street Candy Kitchen.

There were many more bakeries and confectionaries in Bemidji over the years, as well as in surrounding communities. In Puposky, the McKnight family had a building that included the local switchboard, a barber shop and taxi service, as well as a confectionary. Turtle River had both the Cook’s Candy Store and the Guyette Bakery. Both stayed in business until 1909.

Here is a little sidetrack story for you. Harry Sinker had a toothache, and went to Shevlin to have it treated. He went through Solway and decided to open a confectionary there. He also became the town marshal.

Let’s not forget Kelliher. The operator of the Kelliher Hotel, N. J. Nielsen, was an apprentice to a baker in Norway. Nielsen became known for the rich melt-in-your-mouth pastries he made for the hotel. Baker Ben Richardson of Eggen’s Café and Bakery in Kelliher was also known as a good Norwegian baker. Especially loved were his cream puffs, the Wednesday special. A cream puff and a cup of egg coffee could be had for 15 cents!

Certainly most treats were made at home. But it is good to know that even in the early days of Beltrami County, there were bakeries and confectionaries enough to satisfy the sweet tooth!