Sportsman’s Cafe ~ 50 cent coffee for 40 years!

12.11.2022 [archived ~ originally published 11.19.2018]

To tell the history of the Sportsman’s Cafe means starting a little further back in history, but first, an explanation as to the spelling of the name. The original spelling, decided in 1949 was Sportsmen’s, but over time and apparently with nothing deliberate on any one individuals’ part, it there has been changes. Newspaper articles through the 1960s spelled it Sportsmen’s and so did the local phone book. During the 1960s the phone book spelling was Sportsman or Sportsmans.  It appears that by the mid-1970s the phone book and newspaper advertising was Sportsman’s Cafe, as it is today.

Three other Deer River restaurants of the past are intertwined, to create what we all know as the only place in town to get a homemade caramel roll and a bottomless cup of coffee for under a $1.50!  They are Harmond’s, Campbells, and Arrowhead cafes.

Deer River Restaurants Through the 1930s

There have been many restaurants in the village of Deer River through the years.  Some of the oldest listed in order of advertisements beginning in 1897 are: Little Harry’s, Willis Block Cafe, Globe Cafe, Itasca Hotel Cafe, Ideal Restaurant, Lou’s Place, Liberty Hotel Cafe, Pete’s Corner, Miller Hotel Restaurant, Finley’s Hot Lunch, Itasca Cafe, Brownie’s Snak Shack and St. Peter Delicatessen Lunch Room.

It doesn’t appear that there were ever more than three or four operating at once and I suspect new owners changed the name at least some of the time.  For instance, I do know that the Itasca Hotel Cafe was bought by Thomas Finley and became Finley’s Hot Lunch.  In 1931 Finley sold to Howard and Ellen Harmond, who renamed the business Harmond Cafe. 

Changes in 1935

Prohibition had ended, and the village of Deer River decided to establish a municipal liquor store.  The location they had in mind required a few businesses to shuffle around.  Campbell Lunch, which was started by Malcolm and Phoebe Campbell in the early 1930s was pivotal to these changes.

In mid-January, a jewelry store moved – “As soon as Mr. Scharfenberg had vacated his former store, M. Campbell began the work of remodeling it for occupancy by his restaurant and beer parlor.  As soon as the building can be made ready, Mr. Campbell will move out of his present quarters which have been leased by the village for the municipal liquor store.” [Itasca News 1-24]

A couple of days later the second move was made “The new Harmond Cafe opens in the former Henry Herreid Clothing store building.” [Itasca News 1-24]

And finally, the following week – “What is probably the last of the shifts to accommodate changes in the business section of the village was made Tuesday night, when the Campbell lunch was moved into the building formerly occupied by the Harmond Cafe but purchase by Mr. Campbell last month. This shift paves the way for opening the municipal liquor here, which will be conducted in the building just vacated by the Campbell Lunch.  The work of preparation was started yesterday, and it is expected the store will be open for business next Monday…” [Itasca News 2-7]

In 1940, Howard Harmond died unexpectedly, and I am not sure how much longer the Harmond Cafe was open, but I assume it became the Arrowhead Cafe because they also occupied the Henry Herreid Clothing building.  The Campbell Cafe changed hands at some point and by the late 1940s was owned by Bill Brewster.

Sportsmen’s Cafe 1949-1998

Albert “Al” Wohlenhaus bought the Campbell Cafe from Brewster in November 1949. The cafe was the 1st or 2nd building to the east of the Neville corner (what is now Cinderella’s Closet). Wohlenhaus wanted to do a complete remodel and name change for the restaurant.  The remodeling began in December and was completed in April, with very little time lost serving meals.

In December, he also advertised a contest for a new name for the cafe and the winner was Mrs. Gerald Swanson. Her suggestion was Sportsmen’s Cafe.  And as the winner, she was presented with a $5 meal ticket equal to over $50 today.  Chances are a cup of coffee was not much over a nickel.

Wohlenhaus had acquired quite a collection of animal mounts and proudly displayed them on the east and west walls of the cafe above the high wooden booths. He had the front of the building redone in log siding in 1953 to enhance the theme, and an advertisement in the 1956 Deer River phone book proclaimed the cafe had “Northwest’s Largest Collection of Wildlife.”

Beryl (Rasley) Lee, 99 years of age, was a waitress at this time. “Those animals,” she said, “we girls had to dust them.  One time this other waitress was with me, and it was a slow time of the day.  She was polishing the eye on the moose.  I was standing behind her and said moo and boy did she ever jump.” Beryl chuckled and with a twinkle in her eye added, “You had to have fun once in a while!”

Sadly, this collection of wildlife mounts was destroyed in a late night fire in January1960 which burned the cafe and the adjacent bakery to the ground. No one was hurt in the fire, and the affected businesses had insurance. Wohlenhaus was undeterred and immediately started over in the vacant building in the same block, which had housed both the Harmond and Arrowhead Cafes. 

He and his wife Jeanette were well known for their friendly and courteous service and excellent food.  They were civic-minded, and he was the mayor of Deer River for a number of years.  The restaurant prospered even without all the animal mounts.  Wohlenhaus died in 1969, and the Sportsmen’s continued under the watchful management of Jeanette, though the price of coffee steadily increased, as it did everywhere.

Charlene (Stangland) Benson began working at the Sportsmen’s after in 1985, and she recalls that a cup of coffee was fifty cents.  In late 1992 when Jeanette was ready to retire (at age 76), Charlene bought the restaurant from her.  She changed a few things, got a new sign for out front, but she didn’t increase the price of the coffee! 

Sportsman’s Cafe 1998-2018

Heather Howsen had been working in local restaurants since she was fourteen years old, so when she heard there was an opportunity to own one, she made it happen. In May 1998, Heather became the owner of the Sportsman’s Cafe.  Her son was only two years old, and there were many long days and short nights, but over the last 30 years, the hours have become not manageable, Heather says “But I can take a vacation.” 

She built up the business and put what she could back into it. Little by little most everything mechanical has been upgraded, and the dining area reconfigured for better seating (remember the old orange booths?) Basically, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the location of the bathroom.  Or so Heather thought.

Part of my research for this article led me to Peg Huotari. She was a waitress at the Arrowhead Cafe in 1956 when it was in the same place that Sportsman’s now occupies.  Peg explained that the counter and stools are the same as they were when she worked there.  Heather has no reason to disagree, “They were here, she said. “But I have painted and recovered them.”

Since it has been determined that a restaurant has occupied the location since Harmond’s moved into the building in 1935, there is a possibility that the stools could be over eighty years old! 

Heather proudly admits that one of the most notable successes of the Sportsman’s is the dedicated staff.  There is about half a dozen that that been working with her for 10-15 years.  That kind of longevity is a goal in any business, but in restaurants, it means not just repeat customers, but those that come in a couple times a week.  Customers who know the names of the staff and who are greeted by name. Customers who know that the item they order from the menu with taste pretty much the same as the last time they had it, no matter who is cooking.

The Sportsman’s has become a community center.  It is where the meals for seniors are served, where you can get a cup of coffee before the lights are turned on or where you can learn the latest news of an ill neighbor.  Heather and the staff help give back the people of Deer River with communitywide and single person fund-raisers. It seems there is always something on the end of the counter encouraging a lending hand. 

Heather is pleased with all she has done with Sportsman’s.  She and her dedicated staff look forward to many more years of being a gathering place in Deer River.  Heather assured me her mother’s caramel roll recipe will not change, and neither will the price of coffee! 

Waitressing In the 1950s During the 1950s and early 1960s, Beryl (Rasley) Lee worked at several of the Deer River restaurants. “We wore uniforms, green at Campbells and white at Sportsmen’s.  I can’t remember what color at Arrowhead, but always an apron or a smock over it.”   Beryl remembers a schoolteacher who came into Sportsman’s for breakfast every day and requested a sandwich that wasn’t on the menu.  “She always had toasted peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich.”  This sounded familiar to me, so I asked Beryl if the was the sandwich Elvis Presley was famous for. She thought it might have been.   Peg (Cronkhite) Huotari began waitressing at Arrowhead Cafe in May 1956 at the age of fifteen. “I started at 11:00 p.m.,” she said. “The night before the opening of fishing. I wasn’t familiar with Deer River as we lived in Cohasset.  My mom just dropped me off out front, and right behind us was a carload of guys that were stopping at the restaurant.  Katie, the owner, told me to put my apron on and start with the booth where the young men had sat down.  They’ll just order coffee.” It was a busy night, but Peg made it through and was later trained in by Beryl.   Though Peg’s waitressing was only for the summer between her junior and senior year, she really enjoyed it. “The tips were good,” she said, and that’s where I met my husband!”  Peg told me about a prune pie that is a favorite in the family.  “You take the pits out of the prunes and put a walnut in its place. Then cover the crust with the prunes, and then cover with a thickened sauce made from the juice.” Her mother was a neighbor, and good friends with the Arrowhead cook, the recipe was passed on and became favorite at the cafe as well.

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