I think writing is one of the harder ‘talents’ to document as it is hit and miss as to what gets published in the newspaper. So, consider this just a smattering of our local writers.
Essays Written in School
In 1904, the Deer River School consisted of about three dozen students. In February, the sixth graders were assigned to write an essay about President Lincoln. Two were selected to be printed in the newspaper.
Roy Belcher’s essay was about a half a column and here is the first paragraph. “Not long after the Boones crossed the mountains to Kentucky, a man by the name of Abraham Lincoln followed their example and brought his wife and children with him. The Lincolns and Boones were of the same class of people. They were hardy pioneers always seeking a new country. This Abraham Lincoln was grandfather of President Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log-cabin in Kentucky, February 12, 1809.”
Martha McDonald, daughter of John and Maria wrote a lengthy and detailed essay which was three and a half full columns! Martha started her essay as follows: “Not far from Hodgenville in Kentucky there lived a man named Thomas Lincoln. This man had built for himself a little log house by a brook. There was one room in the cabin. The chimney was broad at the bottom and narrow at the top. In the wall at one side of the fireplace was a square hole for a window. In the summer it was left open all the time. In the winter a deerskin or piece of coarse cloth was hung over it to keep out the cold. There was no door nor hinges to the house. There was no ceiling to the room. There was no floor but the bare ground. And the people could look up and see the bare rafters and the rough roofboards, which Mr. Lincoln had himself split and hewn. For chairs there were only blocks of wood and a crude bench on one side of the fireplace. The bed was a platform of poles on which were spread the furry skins of animals and a patchwork quilt of homespun goods. In this poor cabin, on the 12th of February 1809, a baby boy was born.” [Itasca News 2-10-1904]
In March 1925, Mary Mitchell, an eighth-grade student from Bigfork, and daughter of Bessie and William Kanz (Rufus Mitchell is her stepfather), wrote an essay entitled Three Characteristics of a Good Citizen. The three points she made and supported were  be patriotic to his country and to his country’s flag,  be kind to everyone, and  obey the laws of the United States.
Prizes for Student Essays
Miss Betty Brandes took first place in the state of Minnesota in the Grand Third National Meat Story Contest instituted by the National Livestock and Meat Board. Betty, a junior in the Grand Rapids High School, “has won national recognition, as well as a substantial cash prize. One winner was determined for each state, and a national winner selected as best from the nation. The national winner was from El Paso, Texas.
According to the report sent here, there was a very large response to the contest, which was instigated some months ago. Over 10,000 essays or stories were submitted, and to win a state championship in such keen competition as obtained, is an honor of which Miss Brandes and instructors here may be proud.” [6-2-1926 Grand Rapids Herald-Review]
Several months later, another article, including the essay was printed on the front page of the October 6, 1926 Grand Rapids Herald-Review. Ann Foreseen, 14 years of age (immigrated from Sweden with her parents Johan and Anna just eleven years ago) and an eighth-grade student in the Dunbar School, won a valuable prize at the Minnesota State Fair. Miss Foreseen wrote an essay entitled, “The Training of a Forester and Preserving our National Forests.” This essay was collected with other good essays and exhibited in the rural school display of the Itasca County Fair, where she was given first place. At the state fair, the essay again received a first-place ribbon and a valuable cash prize, as well as the satisfaction of taking the highest place in that class of exhibits.
Her introductory paragraph begins, “A forest is not a mere collection of trees. A forest like a city is a complex community, with a life of its own.”
Local Student Winner in State-Wide Contest ~Deer River News 3-21-1929
“Miss Mable Backlund, a member of the senior class of the local high school has been declared winner of first place in a state-wide essay contest sponsored by the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs, and will represent Minnesota in the national contest which will be judged later at Washington D.C.
“Some months ago, high school students throughout the nation were asked to compete in an essay contest on the subject, ‘Why I Should Vote.’ The local Women’s Club offered $5 in prizes and five students entered. Local judges awarded Miss Backlund first place and Miss Helen Foresman second. First place winners in local contests entered the state contest, in which Miss Backlund has again been awarded first place. Second honors went to a Luverne entry and third to one from St. Paul.
“Miss Backlund deserves great credit for the distinctive honor she has won, in representing the state in the national contest, and is being showered with congratulations by her many friends. At the regular meeting of the Women’s Club Tuesday evening, Miss Backlund read her prize essay, much to the enjoyment of the members present.”
I was unable to find a follow-up article regarding the outcome of the national contest, so I assume Mabel Backlund’s essay was not a front-runner in that competition.
The final story about winning a cash prize is from 1935. “Eleven-year-old Dorothy and ten-year-old Donald Stangeland were named two of the winners in a nationwide school essay contest staged by Butler Bros., St Paul. Thousands of pupils from 3600 communities competed. Donald and Dorothy, children of George and Esther of Sand Lake, are among those awarded a crisp, new one-dollar bill.” [Deer River News 11-14-1935]
Poetry and a Novel
Godfrey Knight was a lumberjack and a poet. He was born in January 1891, in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota to Victor and Amelia. The Knights moved to the Big Fork Valley in about 1900. By the time Godfrey was nineteen years of age, he was employed as a lumberjack at the Caldwell camp north of Effie.
In 1912, he won a contest sponsored by the Hand Made Boot and Shoe Company for a poem he wrote about one of their products, Hunkidori boots. The Bigfork Mercantile sold many things needed by the lumberjacks, including Hunkidori boots. In the fall of 1911, as new and old “jacks” were getting outfitted, the store posted a flyer sent out by the company which announced a free pair of boots for the winning entry in their poetry contest.
Godfrey found inspiration in the late evenings and most likely entrusted his poetic entry to be mailed by the camp cook who made monthly trips to town for supplies. Like any of us waiting for a response from a contest he eagerly awaited the dispersal of letters from the weekly mail bag. As weeks turned to months, he quit looking for a legal sized envelope. Finally, one day in April 1912, Godfrey received word that his piece was selected.
Imagine the satisfaction he got of seeing his poem on the front page of the April 25th issue of the Bigfork Times. And of course, for the rest of the year, distributers of the boots could include the poem in their advertisement for the Hunkidori brand if they wanted to.
Local Girl Wins First Place in Poetry Contest ~ Bigfork Times 11-13-1932
“It may be news to many of our readers, as it was to us, to know that we have a young poetess of exceptional ability in the person of Agnes Peloquin, aged 14.
“The following poem which was awarded first prize in the weekly contest of the Fair Play Club conducted by the Duluth Herald reveals a great deal more than just ordinary ability and we hope that this is the forerunner of many other products of her pen.” The poem is printed in the inset.
Books written by local authors prior to 1960, are a bit harder to find. Therefore, I was thrilled to discover information about a novel written by local author Mary (Gray) Mooers, in the Itasca County Historical Society archives. The book, “Westward Wagon Wheels,” was published in 1955 by Meador Publishing Company of Boston. The description on the back of the book jacket details the problems of traveling west in 1864, but weaves in a story of love and success.
“In this novel, the author portrays with invincible reality the life of our forefathers, their pioneering spirit, their hardships, trials and sorrows endured as they settled our western frontiers. Susan Carter a lovely young girl from Wisconsin traveling west with her parents by wagon train, falls in love with Alan Wilson, a handsome young man, also traveling west in the same caravan.”
Mary Verona Gray was born in Iowa in about 1898. On March 5, 1922 she married George Mooers. George was born in 1896, and by 1910, his parents George and Nellie had moved the family to Deer River. After serving in WWI, George was a civil engineer for Itasca County and then one of the iron mines. Mary and George lived in Coleraine, and later on Pokegama Lake. Notes from the author’s great nephew, Wayne Mooers state, “Uncle George died in 1955…Mary’s book was copyrighted the same year–George watched her write and listened to drafts for many hours.”
The Grand Rapids Library has one copy of “Westward Wagon Wheels,” and I found another on ebay for $50!
In 2019, I wrote about a book, “Little Woodsman of the North,” written by prestigious author, Bernadine Freeman Bailey, while she was staying at the Hide-Away Inn resort in Itasca County in the late 1930s. Since then, I have learned of another book, “The Cloth Wagon,” set in Itasca County in about 1915. It is said to be based in part on Orin Patrow of the Big Fork Valley. The author, Antoinette (Van Hoesen) Wakeman, was probably visiting her brother F.B. Van Housen, a Minnesota State Senator, when she came to northern Itasca County. I have found mention of her visit and her book in the “Last Frontier” by Bergit Anderson, (published in 1941).
We’ve Got Talent will appear again in the fall with Song writing, Spelling, Farming Endeavors and Professional Success. To share your stories, call 218-244-2127, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a message here.
I really liked Anna Foreseen’s sentence: “A forest is not a mere collection of trees. A forest like a city is a complex community, with a life of its own.”
Wow! Imagine winning a crisp one-dollar bill as a prize!
It would be fun to be able to read the poem about the boots. I hope Mr. Knight at least got a pair of free boots.
“Westward Wagon Wheels” sound like like a fun read. I like that Susan is from Wisconsin. Are you going to read the book?
I enjoyed reading about these writers from times gone by!
Chris, thanks for another interesting post. I hadn’t heard the term “hunkdori” in a long time… As an retired USFS forester, I am interested in reading Ann Foreseen 1926 essay entitled, “The Training of a Forester and Preserving our National Forests.” The Chippewa NF was created in 1908, so this essay is very early in its history. Is this essay available somewhere? Doug Berglund
Thanks Doug ~ I will send the newspaper article to your email as they printed the entire essay. I did not transcribe it, but you should still be able to read it. Chris