Resorts with a History ~ Big Balsam Camp

6.4.2023 [archived ~ originally published 6.9.2019]

In 2017 I started a series about resorts that have stood the test of time. For two summers I visited and wrote about resorts that I found listed on a 1925 advertisement and that were still in operation. This article is number eleven in the series.

Throughout the rest of the summer, I will be featuring four other resorts that got their start before 1930: High Banks Resort, Pine Grove Lodge, Sugar Lake Lodge (formerly Otis Lodge), and Wildwood Resort.

The first resort to be featured is Big Balsam Camp on Big Balsam Lake. Established in about 1927, it is the oldest resort on the eastern side of Itasca County that is still operating. The Davis family has owned the resort for sixty-eight years. Bought by Floyd and Ruth in 1951, it was passed over to Gordy and Jackie Davis in 1993. From the resort docks you can reach seven other fine fishing lakes containing northern, bass, crappie, bluegill, perch, and some walleye.

McCall ~ 1927-1928

According to land documents, John William McCall and his wife Laura purchased the property in 1923. By 1925 the McCalls decided to build a resort and made arrangements with the King Lumber Company to finance over $500 of “materials for the erection of summer cottages.” It is not clear as to whether any cottages were rented out in 1926, but the following year Big Balsam Camp was fully operational.

The first known advertisement for the resort was in a 32-page brochure put together by the Minnesota Arrowhead Association. Resorts and hotels were listed from the north shore and Canadian border to Cass Lake and Aitkin. The only resort listed for Bovey was Big Balsam. The description is short and to the point. The rates are similar to other resorts in the region.

Big Balsam Camp ~ “J. William McCall, proprietor. Located nineteen miles north of Bovey on Big Balsam Lake. Near King, Hunter, Spring and Brandon Lakes. Roads marked to resorts from Bovey. Telephone. Bass and great northern pike fishing. Free camping accommodations for motorists. Accommodations for twenty guests. Furnished cottage and main dining room system. $15.00 per week per person. Room in lodge, meals included, $3.00 per day, $18.00 per week per person. Boats $1.50 per day. Guides $5.00 per day. Motor boats, $3.00 per day. Season May 15 to Dec 1. Good fishing and hunting.”

Pettit ~ 1928-1944

At about the same time the McCalls were building the resort, they also homesteaded on a couple acres nearby and were granted the land patent in March 1927. It may be that John and Laura never intended to be long term proprietors but saw the development of the resort as a good investment. In April of 1928, they sold the Big Balsam Camp to Harry and Maude Pettit.

The Pettit family came from the Twin Cities. According to the 1900 United States Federal census, Harry was a grocery salesman. By 1910 he had his own grocery store in Minneapolis, and in 1920 owned a home and grocery store in Minnetonka. At the time Harry bought the resort both he and his wife were in their early fifties. It is possible the family had previously vacationed at Big Balsam with their young daughter, or that Pettit responded to an advertisement in a Twin Cities newspaper. Maybe Harry thought running a small resort would be more satisfying than a busy retail business.

The resort business seemed to agree with the Pettits and it is believed that the lodge was built under their ownership. On the 1940 census, when they are almost seventy, Harry is still listed as a proprietor. Their daughter Carol is married to John Plank whose occupation is an entertainer in show business. The Planks are residing at the resort along with a young couple who are helping run the resort.

Short-Term Ownership 1944-1951

In November 1943, John, Harry’s son-in-law enlisted in the army, as did many other young men from the area. Without help to keep the resort going, and not knowing when the war would end, Harry and Maude decided it was time to sell. John and Beulah Benston bought Big Balsam in May 1944. John was employed as a postal clerk in Rochester and it’s possible the family of six had previously spent a vacation at or near the resort. It was not a good fit for them, and within a year they sold it to Norman and Gertrude Anderson from Chicago. Apparently, it was more work than the Andersons thought it would be as well. In 1948, Max Unger bought it. Max was a local man who worked in the mines near Bovey. Max and his wife Pearl ran the resort for a couple years and it was during this time that the Davis family became familiar with Big Balsam Camp.

Davis Family ~ 68 Years and Counting!

“My dad first came up to the resort in the late 1940s to go deer hunting,” Gordy Davis explained. “He owned a small over the road trucking company in St. Paul, and one of his drivers was a cousin of Max Unger. Dad and some of the other guys came a couple more times to hunt and fish. Dad decided he’d like to move his family out of the city and that he’d like to own a small resort. He even looked at one on nearby Hanson Lake. Learning of my dad’s interest, Max said to him, ‘well why don’t you just buy this one.’”

Gordy was nine years old when a deal was struck in early March 1951. His parents Floyd, whom everyone called “Davy” and Ruth moved the family of six to Big Balsam Camp as soon as school was out. There was quite a bit of work that had to be done in the first couple years to bring the resort into compliance, more than Davy was aware of, but they worked hard to put in the necessary updates.

As noted in the 1927 description, the cabins were still the “American Plan” and the meals were prepared by Ruth and served in the lodge. “We raised 600 chickens every summer,” Gordy said. “And had a banquet on each Sunday night. On Saturday we would butcher seventy-five chickens, everyone got a half chicken on their plate.” Within a couple years, as the cabins were updated to include a kitchen, meals were no longer made by Ruth and Davy.

Gordy enjoyed growing up at the lake, but in 1960 when he graduated from high school, he moved to Minneapolis to attend Dunwoody. In Minneapolis he met Jackie, and they started a family of their own, always coming north for working vacations of course. In the early 1990s Davy and Ruth were in their 80’s and asked Gordy and Jackie if they wanted to buy the resort. In 1993 they did and built a new home for Davy and Ruth to live in, but it was not until the year 2000 when they both retired from their jobs in the Cities before they could move up north. For the 7 years from 1993 to 2000 they both worked full-time jobs in the Cities and drove up to the resort for a 3-day weekend to catch up on as much work as they could. Davy and Ruth stayed in their home at the resort until they died, within three short months of each other in 2007.

Like many northern Minnesota resorts, Big Balsam boasts families that have been coming up for generations. “We have one family that has been coming since the second year my folks had the resort, that’s sixty-seven years!” Gordy said. Jackie added, “We have another guest who has been coming with her family since she was a young girl, they now have every cabin when they come in August. In fact, she painted the picture hanging there on the wall.”

The painting of a lake, loons and a cabin was a perfect north woods tranquil scene. It was signed by Mary Pettis and was marked as print number 12. Jackie explained that the cabin in the picture was cabin twelve at their resort. It is the oldest building and one of the originals built by John McCall. “Mary has painted eight north woods outdoor pictures and every one of them has cabin twelve in it. And we own the number 12 print of each one!”

Ms. Pettis is indeed an established and well-known painter and shared with me that even though she painted the series in the mid-1990s, she first painted her “favorite cabin” about 20 years earlier. She looks forward to the annual trip north and said, “I will be bringing my paints again this August and will paint some nieces and nephews and maybe a few favorite scenes…maybe the cabin!”

The Davises have always managed the resort, with the help of family, just as Davy and Ruth did. “You have to be a jack of all trades,” says Gordy, “You have to be able to fix everything. We have ten cabins and twelve camping spots.” As the years are catching up with them, Jackie and Gordy do employ help. “Especially on Saturdays.” Jackie says. “That is our change-over day and very, very busy.”

As far as the future of Big Balsam Camp is concerned, the Davises hope is to keep it in the family. In fact, there will be plenty of family at the resort in September for the wedding of a granddaughter. Perhaps the event in such a peaceful location will inspire another generation. No doubt it is what their guests are hoping for.

“Our guests are the most important part of our resort,” Jackie said. “So many of them come to stay with us the same time every summer and are more than guest, they have become our friends.”

Wetting a Line and Catching the Big One


The Reminisce column has featured a handful of trophy fish stories over the past nine years, but once again, this column is based on articles I found intriguing from the six-part Diamond Jubilee issues of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review (June 16-July 18, 1966).

Actually, the two, both included in the July 11, 1966, special edition are photos and captions from 1951. The first trophy is a northern. Tall Tales Teller Floyd Colburn speared this two-tailed northern pike. The big fish had almost swallowed a sucker when it moved beneath the hole in Colburn’s fish house one winter day in 1951.”  The second is a muskie. “Stanley Kroll of Chicago caught this 50-pound muskie in Little Winnie in August 1951.”

Most of the articles below spotlight the favorite fish stories by summer residents fishing our lakes and rivers. One of the people mentioned is a woman, and the youngest was eight years old.


Big Ones at Eagle Nest ~ Itasca News 7-15-1926

“L.W. Smith, chef at the Androy Hotel in Superior, was one of the fortunate fishermen at Eagle Nest Lodge Sunday.  Mr. Smooth landed a wall-eyed pike that tipped the scales at 7½ pounds.  The following day Paul Bloom of Center City, Minn., landed a six pounder. Someone should prevail upon Herb Bowen to leave these big ones in the water.  They help keep the lake level up.”

The Androy Hotel was built in 1925 and has been called Superior’s million-dollar hotel.  The restaurant was very fancy, even the plates were monogramed. I imagine instead of a shore lunch; he saved the walleye for a special recipe such as walleye almondine with sherry cream sauce.

Leonards Catch Third Tagged Fish ~ Deer River News 8-1-1946

“This only goes to prove that if folks who try to do something, work hard at it, do it well, their efforts will be crowned with success. Mrs. M.B. Leonard and her son, Dick, of Tulsa, Okla., who spend their summers at their summer home on Oklahoma Hill, Deer Lake, are ardent fishermen. They really work at it. No detail of correct fishing practice is too tedious for them to do right.

This past spring Mrs. Leonard and Dick caught stream trout in this area, which has some remote trout waters, but which is not noted for being a trout fishing area.


When the KSTP fish contest was announced, with the information that the preponderance of tagged fish were walleyes, they went after walleyes. Their reward: within six weeks, Dick had landed two of the $564.40 tagged fish. Monday morning Mrs. Leonard reported having caught another tagged fish—the third in the Leonard family.

Mrs. Leonard says that with all the merchandise they are winning she hasn’t made up her mind if she will go into the black-market business now that OPA is back and opens the way to engage in that, or if she will start just an ordinary store.”

I was not able to learn anything more about the tagged fish contest, but it appears that a number of tagged fish are planted in various lakes and those who catch them are awarded money and other prizes. I also do not know what OPA stood for in 1946. (There are many acronyms if you google it now!)


Record Fish is Brought to Town ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 6-2-1926

“Ralph Comstock of Cohasset is the champion fisherman of the year.  He captured, in the Mississippi River near Cohasset, a monster of the pike family that weighed 31 pounds and was 50 inches long.  The fish was on exhibition in the window of the Powers Hardware store on Tuesday and was inspected by a large number of people.  The fish was purchased by Fred Bentz, who is having it mounted to adorn the walls of his new filling station at the corner of Fourth Street and Winnipeg Avenue as a sample of what the tourist may expect in Itasca County Waters.”

Land Big Muskie ~ Deer River News 9-30-1926

“George W. Cassady, 2707 W Congress St. Chicago, and Vernon Japh of Dexter, Minnesota, landed what is perhaps the prize muskie of the season in this region last Sunday, from the waters of Moose Lake.

The fish measured 50 inches in length and has a girth of 24¼ inches.  The weight given was 40 pounds.  It was certainly a beautiful specimen, and one of the largest caught here in years. Scores of local people viewed it in the village Monday morning before it was taken to Grand Rapids to be mounted.  The lucky fishermen had a royal battle before they landed their prize.  Here’s our congratulations.”

Lands a Big Fish ~ Itasca News 5-17-1928

“James Dibble, 18-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Dibble of Willow Beach Hotel, opened the fishing season in grand style Tuesday morning by landing a 52-inch muskie from Ball Club Lake after about 20 minutes of trolling.  The fish tipped the scales at 37 pounds when weighed at Herreid Bros. and is a splendid specimen.  It was taken to Grand Rapids to be mounted.”

Ed Shave Sends Picture of Big Fish Caught at Winnie ~ Deer River News 8-10-1944

“Through the courtesy of Ed Shave, outdoor editor of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, the accompanying picture of Otto Bothmann of Chicago displaying a huge fish that, as stated in the Minneapolis paper, is a 22-pound muskie which Mr. Bothmann caught in Lake Winnibigoshish, is presented. Mr. Bothmann caught the fish near Northland Lodge. The mention in the Minneapolis Journal of the catching of this fish included the mention of Winnibigoshish, one of the largest lakes in the state, as also producing large catches of wall-eyes and northerns.”

Dick Leonard and Muskies Bring Wide Publicity to Area ~ Deer River News 8-18-1949

“Dick Leonard and his muskies brought additional fame and publicity to this area as a center for muskellunge fishing. The cut printed herewith was published as the front-page cover piece of the August issue of the sports magazine “Sports and Recreation” published at Wayzata by the Minnetonka Herald Printing Co., which has a wide circulation among sportsmen throughout Minnesota and other states.

The picture shows Mr. Leonard with the two largest of seven muskies he caught last season. He has already caught several muskies this season. Mr. Leonard, whose home is in Tulsa, Okla., but who is an early-spring, all-summer, and late-fall resident at his summer home at Oklahoma Hills on Deer Lake, is an ardent fisherman.  His success in getting muskellunge is not merely luck, as he works long and hard when he goes after muskies, which require such hard work and patience to get.” [see photo in collage]


Morris Doctor Catches Big Fish ~ Bigfork Times 10-16-1931

“In a recent bulletin received from the Fuller Tackle Shop at Grand Rapids, the prize for the week for the largest Great Northern Pike was awarded to Dr. John Caine of Morris, Minn. The fish weighed 18 pounds, 12 ounces and was caught in Horseshoe Lake.

Dr. Caine is a regular visitor, spending a month at the Frank Turek place every year. The head of the fish is now mounted and decorates the office of Dr. Caine at Morris. The Fuller Tackle Shop gave a Pike Lure to Dr. Cain as the weekly prize, and he also has a chance of winning second in this division for the season.”

Boy Caught Fish That Was Longer Than Himself ~ Deer River News 7-12-1945

“Eight-year-old Ron Hanson was the only one of over a dozen fishing from the bridge at Cut Foot to catch a fish the previous Friday.

Reverend and Mrs. Hanson and their son, Ronald, of Nashwauk, came over for the afternoon to visit Mrs. Hanson’s parents Reverend and Mrs. Thomas B. Shorts, and the men went out to Cut Foot to wet a line.  The fishing was not so good at the bridge that afternoon, except for Ronald.  Of 15 fishing there, he was the only one to catch a fish—a 34-inch northern that weighed 9½ pounds.  The fish was caught on a hook attached to a rough line tied to a small fishing pole cut from the woods.  If the boy had been able to hold the fish up, so its snout was even with the top of his head, the fish’s tail would have dragged on the ground.  Ronald was duly proud of his catch and was envied by 15 disappointed companions.”

The June through September columns are about RESORTS in Itasca County that have stood the test of time.

Moose Tails in Itasca County

5.28.2023 [archived ~ 11.03.2016]

The rumors you have heard are true, there are moose thriving in Northern Itasca County.  Over the past several years, periodic sightings have been reported, and in late September 2016, a photograph posted online shows three gangly moose dancing their way across Hwy 6 north of Deer River.

It has been said by the people that settled here in the last quarter of the 19th century that there were more moose than deer at that time.  The MN DNR website explains the decline “…mature forests could support only a limited number of moose. During the early 1900s most of the moose range was logged and much of it was burned from fires that often started in the leftover slash from logging.  The change in habitat – removing the overhead canopy of large trees allowed shorter and smaller shrubs and trees to grow – helped the white-tail deer population to increase dramatically but created poor habitat for moose and their numbers declined.”

There were no designated regions for hunting, but the new game laws in 1901 included the following for large game: “Deer, Nov. 10 to Nov. 30; male moose or male caribou, Nov.15 to Nov. 20. Each hunter is allowed to kill three deer, one moose and one caribou. The sale or shipment by common or private carrier is made unlawful.” Itasca News 4-20-1901

Following the first season of the limit regulations, a lumber company in the county was believed to be well over the legal limit

Moose Meat Seized ~ Itasca News 1-22-1902

“Executive Agent Fullerton of the state game and fish commission believes that the killing of game out of season by actual settlers and for food is not a violation of the spirit of the Minnesota laws.  He is determined, however, that the large lumber companies operating in the northern part of the state shall not try to furnish fresh meat for their camps by the wholesale slaughter of game.  A telegram was received recently from Deputy Warden J.F. McCormack of Grand Rapids telling of the seizure of nineteen quarters of moose at the camp of the Al Powers Lumber company and the arrest of the foreman. 

Another telegram was received later telling of the seizure of five moose carcasses at the same camp and the arrest of four men. The case will be prosecuted vigorously.  The law provides a penalty of from $100 to $300 for each animal killed or held untagged out of season.”

The homesteaders in the mature forests of the Big Fork Valley were always pleased when they got a moose, especially so if they didn’t have to spend a long day in the woods.  “John Larson shot a moose from his doorstep last Thursday afternoon and as John is doing some logging this winter fresh meat comes in rather handy.” Bigfork Settler 11-23-1905 [Note: I checked the 1905 calendar and verified that this moose was shot on November 16th, which was during the identified season!]

It seems that most everyone is amazed by the large animals. “Monday morning a big moose visited our town and after taking a few observations he leisurely walked down to the river right in the busiest part of town and swam across while a number of our citizens stood on the bank and watched him, but the monarch of the forest, though not in any hurry to leave, seemed to think his place was to the woods, so he finally walked off.  The animal appeared so contented that not a soul in town expressed any desire to harm him.” Bigfork Settler 8-15-1907

Although moose were seldom seen in Minnesota after logging and forest fires, the hunting season continued until 1922 when hunters harvested 219 moose. The moose season was suspended in 1923, when the population was estimated at 3,000 animals.  I have seen moose up in Isle Royale and they are magnificent creatures.  It is easy to understand why after the decline seeing a moose was newsworthy, like these stories.

Saw Bull Moose ~ Itasca News 6-20-1929

“While driving across the bog on Highway No. 61 last Friday morning about 7:45, at a point 13 miles north of Deer River, H.F. Betsinger, Rev. J.W. Schenck and the News editor saw a big bull moose grazing near the highway.  At the approach of the car Mr. Moose lumbered into and across the ditch and disappeared, but not until the travelers had had a fine view of him.”

New Moose Stories, Now You Tell One! ~ Itasca News 6-27-1929

“Last week we gave our readers a story of personally seeing a large bull moose on Highway No. 61 about 13 miles north of here.  Our story was vouched for by a Methodist clergyman and another.

It was almost a fatal step.  Our reputation for veracity suffered a serious blow.  We may have to begin going to Sunday School again to restore it.  We are very certain it was a moose, but our friends appear to think it was mostly the other.

Now we have been eclipsed entirely.  TWO moose stories developed yesterday that makes ours go way back and sit down.  Here they are:

About 1:30 yesterday afternoon Lowell Ruby was driving across the bog and a short distance beyond the Divide sign came upon a cow moose on the highway.  Lowell states he had a hard time avoiding striking the animal and brought his car to a stop within seven feet and four inches of her.  So loath was the animal to leave the highway that they had to get out and throw rocks at her.  Four other cars had pulled up before she disappeared.

But as Al Jolson would say, “You aint heard nothin’ yet!”

Last night Ted Matheson and Verl Kinder drove out to Bowstring Lodge to go swimming.  And just north of the same Divide sign, right on the highway, about 7:30 o’clock, were a cow moose AND TWO CALVES!

Really, it’s time to call a halt!  If this thing keeps up folks will cease to believe us!  That bull moose story has started something, but if it gathers any more momentum, we’ll have to join the wets at International Falls and yell “For God’s sake, help us!”

We believe these stories, have no occasion to doubt them.  But anything in the future will have to be supported by an actual photograph or go into our editorial waste basket.  And we hereby offer a fancy price for that picture.

All these facts go to show how much more valuable the moose or deer is alive than dead.  Put up your gun and permit them to increase.   They are the sight of a lifetime to the tourists who come up from the south of us.”

Isn’t that the truth!  I hope to see a moose again in my travels.

Resorts with a History ~ High Banks Resort

5.21.2023 [archived ~ originally published 8.11.2019]

“Where the Big Pike Lie and the Wild Ducks Fly!” was the motto Ingwald Nelson used in advertising the High Banks Resort. It is believed that in 1929 he leased land from the U.S. Forest Service and built a lodge which would accommodate a handful of sportsmen.  In the ninety years since then, the High Banks Resort has catered to fishing and hunting enthusiasts and vacationing families year around.  The catch phrase of the current owners, Rick and Kim Leonhardt is “Spectacular Sunsets Guaranteed.” This is absolutely true because the resort is located on the east side of Winnibigoshish, with an expansive view of the western horizon. 

The lodge is still the focal point of the resort. The grand staircase to the upstairs accommodations hasn’t changed, and the banister shines from the thousands of hands who have touched it through the years.  Guests taking a break from preparing their own meals can eat in the dining room.  The original split rock fireplace built by a local man details his artistic touch as well as his craftsmanship with the head of a deer worked into the design above the mantle.

Ingwald and Emma Nelson ~ 1929-1947

Ingwald Nelson was born in Norway and at about the age of seventeen he came to the Iron Range of northern Minnesota.  He worked in the mines for a while but, for some years prior to the resort, Ingwald owned a pool hall in Greenway.  About the same time Ingwald decided to build the lodge on Winnibigoshish, Melvin Olson, who knew Ingwald from the mines, started Little Winnie Resort.  In an interview with Mel conducted by Stanley Johnson, Mel explained why Ingwald was called Nancy.  “He was a great guy to shake dice and when he’d shake dice, he’d always say, ‘come to Nancy,’ and so they nicknamed him Nancy.” [12/30/1975]

It is believed that when Ingwald started High Banks he was single.  Before long, he returned to Greenway and married Emma Besser.  Together they ran the resort which soon consisted of four log cabins in addition to the rooms in the lodge.  Twelve rowboats built at the Cass Lake Boat Works were ready in time for the fishing opener of 1933.

Ingwald was a good businessman and used advertising to his advantage.  He had business cards with resort information on the front, and a map of how to get there on the back.  He purchased colorful custom-made souvenir notepaper for guests, and the first known brochure, circa 1933, is in full color.

One of the most interesting points brought up in the brochure was: “Invest in Health! The invigorating air of this far back north woods and the healing fragrance of the great pine forests bring comfort and relief to a great extent to asthma and hay fever sufferers.”

Lydia Krinke, a sister of Emma Nelson spent time helping her sister cook and clean cabins.  Lydia and her son Roger were at the resort in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In a letter to the current owners, the Leonhardts, Roger recalls working at the resort as a young boy.  “I remember the huge icehouse and shoveling sawdust around to keep the ice covered so it would last through the summer. We had a big flock of chickens that needed daily feeding which was an easy job for a six- year- old.  The tourists could eat fish only so many days and then they were fed the chickens.”

Roger is well aware of his uncle Nancy’s fondness of gambling and has one of the slot machines from the resort in his home.  It is rumored that some of the machines, possibly containing $20,000, are still buried somewhere on the property.  Slot machines and other games of chance were illegal in Minnesota in the late 1920s.  The headlines of the July 11, 1929 Deer River News stated Slot Machines Are Banned in County. But according to a report to the Minnesota legislature in the early 1940s, many slot machines were operated in resort areas with little interference from local law enforcement. Carson and Caden Leonhardt have searched but have not found them yet!

Postcards of resorts have been around almost as long as resorts have, and High Banks has some that have come back into their hands after they were sent by guests.  These are the messages on two during the time the Nelsons owned the resort:

~ “We’ve been up here now a little over a week.  We are having a lot of fun!” [7-24-1939]

~ “We arrived here at 5 am.  Had a nice trip. Jenny and Richard behaved so good.  It is too windy to fish here today and cold, but we keep warm in the cottage.” [7-2-1945]

In March 1947, Ingwald and Emma sold the resort and moved to town by the time their son was ready to start school.

In Between Years 1947-2004

For the next fifty-seven years there were at least eight different sets of owners of the High Banks Resort.  This includes but is not limited to James C “Lucky” and Howard Helfrich, Bill and Ann Molzen, John Whitesell, Wally and Della Barnett, Lloyd and Nona Paulson, John and Robin Tully, Charles and Gail Evans, and John and Pam Humphreys.

Eight wood framed cabins were added in the early 1950s.  However, cabin six was destroyed by a fallen tree and never rebuilt.  All the cabins were moved when a major shoreline restoration and stabilization project was done in the late 1990s.  When the buildings were moved, they did not stay in the same chronological order but, the Humphreys, owners at the time, did not re-number the cabins.  Most guests want to stay in the same cabin as they had for previous years as it is an important part of the tradition for their family!

One of the most interesting stories that happened during this time was that the state record muskie was caught off the resort.  Art Lyons, a fishing guide for High Banks, caught the 54-pound fish on August 28, 1957, but it wasn’t considered a record-breaking catch until nineteen years later. This entire story will be in the Reminisce column on Sunday August 18, 2019.

Leonhardt Family 2004

Rick and Kim Leonhardt always knew that they wanted to live in northern Minnesota, and eventually decided that home would be a resort.  “We had been looking for resorts for two years,” Kim said.  “All over Minnesota, Canada, even some out of state, but none had all the things we wanted.” Rick had been ice fishing with his friends at High Banks and knew a little bit about the area.   When the resort came for sale in November 2003, the Leonhardts drove north.  “Coming down the driveway, there was snow on the pines, it was like a winter wonderland.” Everything fell into place and it was theirs less than six months later.

In addition to the spectacular sunsets, Kim explains that the night sky is also incredible.  “The stars, northern lights, winter blood moon, everything is magnified because there is no light pollution.”

One of the goals Rick and Kim had when they bought the resort was to incorporate more family activities.  “When we bought it there was such an emphasis on fishing and fishing only.  Now we have a nice balance of fishing and family.”   There are lots of activities for children (who get to stay free!) and sometimes there are guests that don’t fish at all.  High Banks also offers short term stays to accommodate the changing needs of families.

Their sons Carson age 13 and Caden age 11 have been at the resort since they were born, and the lifestyle seems to be in their blood.  Both boys enjoy conversing with the guests, gathering fishing reports, helping with the docks and in the lodge.

In addition to the work at the resort, the boys enjoy spending time with new and returning friends.  Activities geared towards families and children of all ages include scavenger hunts, naturalist program (bats, owl pellets, fish prints, water cycle, animal tracks), bingo, and crafts.

The oldest building on the property is the lodge.  The upstairs has been renovated and instead of individual rooms, the entire floor can be used to accommodate a group of twelve.  “When we were remodeling the upstairs of the lodge,” Kim said. “we found a whiskey bottle.  We had removed the bathtub surround and there was an old, old empty whiskey bottle, still in the box!” They decided to carry on the tradition.  They replaced the bottle with a newly emptied one which will be discovered during the next bathroom update.

All of the cabins are the originals.  There are four log ones built in the early 1930s and six frame cabins constructed in the 1950s.  The Leonhardts added a 20-site seasonal campground in 2007.  High Banks was the first to offer sleeper ice fish houses on Winnie in 2005, which has become very popular for ice fishing.

High Banks has a wonderful collection of vacation photographs.  The Molzen family, owners during the 1950s and early1960s, carefully documented the photos before turning them over to Kim.  She has contacted others with a connection to the resort and has received letters (i.e. Roger Krinke) and even a visit from Bernie Nelson, son of Ingwald and Emma.  An unexpected addition was a recent grouping of photos from the 1930s.  Kim said, “In March I received a phone call from a woman who told me her dad had stayed at High Banks in the 1930s when he was a boy. She said he talked so much about it, that she decided it was time her family, and her children come up.”  In June they stayed in cabin eight, the same one her father’s family did.

The Leonhardts are invested in the community in more ways than the resort.  They buy locally and believe in paying it forward. Rick volunteers as head coach with the Deer River pony league football team. In addition they host fundraising events such as pancake breakfasts, pig races, crayon drives, and support the Deer River Athletic department.  They also promote and sponsor events for those who have served.  They have offered a 50% discount for veterans in August and most recently put together care packages for soldiers in the United Arab Emirates.

Rick, Kim, Carson and Caden take pride in providing memorable vacations for all their guests. The Leonhardts are truly honored to carry on the High Banks Resort tradition and legacy that began 90 years ago.

Pick a Peck

5.7.2023 [archived ~ originally published 5.24.2018]

The surname of Peck is familiar to the Deer River community and has been for nearly 130 years!  In fact, the 1900 United States census verifies that there were almost 5, 000 head of household Pecks in the nation, and less than 200 Marcottes.  And unlike many families that settled in the Deer River area at the turn of the century, the Peck surname goes back to at least 1693, where I found a gravestone in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Incidentally, that is less than 50 miles from Plymouth Rock where the Mayflower landed in 1620.

In the Deer River area, I discovered six different Peck families.  Two are brothers, but if they or any others are related, it is many generations back.  The brothers settled in Cass, later moving to Itasca.  Two others that homesteaded, in northern Itasca County did not stay in the area. Many Pecks were born in Itasca. According to the 1905-1995 Minnesota Birth Index, there were fifty babies registered, some of which still reside in the area.

I am introducing them in the order in which they came to the area.

Warren Welcome Peck 1889

In late fall 1889, Warren Peck filed on an eighty-acre homestead in northern Itasca County.  Born in Illinois in 1858, his parents, Hiram and Alminta were initially from Vermont.  Warren was working in Stillwater, Minnesota in 1880, and after filing on the homestead, he married Sophia Olstad.  Their first two children were born in the state, possibly on the property.

After living on the homestead for the minimal requirement of fourteen months, Warren took the cash option and paid $100 for the land. By 1895 he had moved his family to the North Dakota.  Warren’s great-grandfather Welcome Peck (for whom he was named), fought in the Revolutionary War.

Eugene R. Peck 1891

According to the 1905 Minnesota State census, Eugene “Gene” Peck came to northern Minnesota from Wisconsin in about 1891 at the age of 23.  His father Arthur H. had been born in Wisconsin, and his mother, Mary was from Scotland.  In 1900 Gene was living in Cass County, employed as a day laborer. Probably in the fall of 1903, Gene filed on a 40-acre homestead in Cass County, not far from Mud Lak, and married. His wife Alice had a daughter, Mary, the following year. 

In 1918 Gene and family moved from Mud Lake and leased property from Joe Krasky in Ball Club. Shortly after that, they moved to Grand Rapids where Gene was employed by Blandin paper mill, according to the 1920 and 1930 US census.  Eugene’s father, Arthur served in the Civil War in the 1st Regiment, WI Infantry Co D, and was mustered out when he was wounded.  The 1940 census finds Gene living at the home of the sheriff.  He is a widower and identified as a prisoner.  I verified with the Itasca County Historical Society that the address he was residing at was the home designated as the sheriff’s residence, and it was used as a jail. 

Arthur H. Peck 1902

Arthur H. Peck is the younger (by nine years) brother of Eugene. In 1896 he moved to Minnesota and was living in Duluth by 1900.  In April of that year, at the age of 24, he married Gertrude Day, and they filed on a 20-acre homestead in Cass County not far from his brother.  After proving up on that homestead in 1909, Art filed on 120 acres in Township 146-26, sec 34, west of Oteneagen, and relocated his growing family. They had three sons and six daughters who lived to adulthood: Gertrude, Arthur, Mary, Ethel, Hazel, Robert, Richard, Fern, and Eva.

The grandparents of Gene and Art were from out east.  Rufus was born in New Hampshire and Alameda, New York. Rufus and Alameda married in NY and had two children, before moving west to Wisconsin at the end of the 1830s.

Anna M. Peck 1907

Anna M. Gorenflo had filed on a homestead in the Big Fork Valley on July 5, 1907.  It appears that she and her brother, Frank came to Itasca from the Brainerd area.  When Anna was ready to prove up on her property the following year, she is listed in the ‘Notice for Publication’ as “Anna M. Peck, formerly Anna M Gorenflo of Bigfork. She named as witnesses: Orwin Van Dolah, Frank Gorenflo, James Pratt and William Kennedy, all of Bigfork.”

I could not locate any additional information on Anna Peck.  I have no idea who she married and where she was by the 1910 US census.  The property in her name was still listed on the 1916 plat map.

Harold Jay Peck 1911

Harold Jay Peck was born in Scott County in 1879.  His father, Horace was from Vermont.  Horace attended school in the east, became a lawyer and after his marriage moved to Shakopee.  In later years he was county attorney. Harold was the middle child and only son.

Harold came to Itasca County in the early 1910s and filed a homestead on 77-acres near Ball Club.  According to family, he also purchased land and started the first herd of registered Guernsey cows in the area.  An advertisement in the Itasca News in March 1918 states, “Whose grandam has a record of 720 lbs. of butter in 1 years and whose dam with first calf has made 50 lbs. butter first month in milk.  Will sell for a bargain price in order to keep him in the county.  Pure white Leghorn Hatching Eggs for sale.  H.J. Peck, Deer River, Minn.”

In about 1915, Harold married Grace Johnston, and they had two daughters, Patricia and Virginia.  On the 1920 US census the Harold Pecks are enumerated as family number 42 in Township 145, and the Arthur Pecks, who had moved again, are family number 43!  The two are also neighbors on the 1940 census, as well as Arthur Jr. and Richard, the grown sons of Art and Gertrude. 

Harold was elected State Senator in 1930 and was instrumental in getting many projects critical to Deer River underway.  The first was a paved road from Grand Rapids to Deer River instead of from Rapids to the east. He was the postmaster from Deer River from 1935 through WWII.

Neil Ira Peck 1936

The following article sums up how Neil Peck, born in 1910 near Fergus Falls, settled in Deer River.

Poultry Hatchery to be Opened Here

Deer River News 9-24-1936

“Neil I. Peck of Herman, Minnesota, a graduate of the North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo, is planning to open a hatchery in Deer River next spring, with a new 35,000 egg capacity to start.  He has leased the old creamery building for his plant.

Mr. Peck has spent some time here looking over the field and finally decided to locate.  Express and post office reports show that many thousand chicks are shipped into Deer River every season.  This can be avoided, and the money kept in the community, through the installation of a hatchery.

He is an experienced poultry grower and breeder as well as a hatchery operator.  Peck’s birds have taken many first place prizes at county fairs and winter shows, as well as at the ND and Minnesota state fairs last year and this year.  He is also a licensed poultry culler and asks owners who wish their flocks culled, to list names and numbers with The News.

In addition to operating his hatchery, Mr. Peck will handle some standard brands of poultry feed and will have the agency for Dr. Saulsbury’s celebrated poultry remedies.  He has taken the prescribed courses in poultry disease at Dr. Saulsbury’s school.

Mr. Peck’s business venture will be a valuable asset to this community and has great possibilities of development.  Further information will be published from time to time in this paper.  Meanwhile, information for Mr. Peck can be left at this office.”

Neil did open the hatchery in the following spring, and it was a very successful family business.  He returned to Herman briefly to marry Florence and the pair easily settled into the Deer River community.  They had three children: James, Joan, and Jane. 

As with all of the other Pecks, except the mysterious husband of Anna, Neil’s ancestors, great grandparents Charles and Lovica were from the east – New York.  So, according to the information I compiled, the five families with the paternal surname of Peck, were from Vermont, New Hampshire, New York.  I will let the Peck family historians determine at what point they are related!

The Girl on the Train 1915

4.30.2023 [archived ~ originally published 4.6.2017]

One hundred years before the best-selling novel The Girl on the Train was published, there was a different girl on the train that made a debut the Lyceum Theatre in Deer River.  The theater had opened early in the year, setting up chairs and concessions in the original Brooks store. 

Silent films were a favorite diversion and acceptable form of entertainment for men, women, and most of the time children.  In late November, patrons were excited to see the first serialized film or at least twelve minutes of it!

The Girl and the Game ~ Itasca News 12-2-1916

“For the first time in Deer River, a ‘serial’ story film is being shown in the movies, and judging by the first section, the step is a success.  With a desire to please their patrons, Managers Evenson and Sandgren of the Lyceum have been giving them the largest and biggest creations made in the film industry, the same, in fact, that the big cities are using as their best, and the enormous response by the people is evidence that the best is what Deer River wants, regardless of price.  And the best is what the house will continue to serve.

Beginning with last Monday night the Lyceum began its run of the serial, ‘The Girl and The Game,’ and the first installment was witnessed by a full house.  The picture portrays a thrilling railroad story with which is linked a love affair, and as well as exciting, it is very interesting.  One chapter of the story is to be run every Monday night and there are fifteen chapters.  Besides a serial, two other reels are run on each of these nights and the price is fifteen cents. 

As a matter of interest to readers of The News, we have arranged in conjunction with the Lyceum management to run the story in the paper, and the first two chapters are on another page of this issue.  One chapter will be in the paper every Saturday right along with the movie until the happy ending of the drama.”

‘The Girl and the Game’ starred Helen Holmes as Helen, and the man who would later be her first husband, J.P. McGowan as Spike. The first two chapters, mentioned above, were titled Helen’s Race with Death and The Winning Jump.  Helen was quite athletic and performed almost all her stunts.  She was in more than100 short films, often playing an independent, quick-thinking and inventive heroine.

“…as part of her dangerous exploits Helen did such things as leap onto runaway trains or treacherously chase after bad guy train robbers. While occasionally the plot called for Helen to be rescued by a handsome male hero, in most episodes it was the dauntless Helen herself who found an ingenious way out of her dire predicament and single-handedly collared the bad guys, bringing them to justice.” [wikipedia]

‘The Hazards of Helen’ was not Miss Holmes’ first film shot on a train or even her most famous role.  That distinction goes to ‘The Hazards of Helen,’ which was released several years earlier. 


In March 1914 the adventure film serial titled ‘The Perils of Pauline’ starring Pearl White as a bold and daring heroine, became an enormous box-office success. As a result, the Kalem Company, where Helen was working, decided to make a similar serial. In November 1914, they released an adventure series called ‘The Hazards of Helen.’

The original version of ‘The Perils of Pauline’ had 20 episodes, totally 490 minutes. The first 3 were 30 minutes and the rest 20 minutes.   In their attempt to outdo the Pathe Freres film company, Kalem’s serial of 119 twelve-minute episodes released over a span of slightly more than two years, the last in February 1917.  At 23.8 hours, it is one of the longest non-feature-length motion picture series ever filmed and is believed to be the longest of the film serial format.

Building on Success

The Kalem Company, like the Pathe Freres Company, broke away from the cliffhanger style that serials were up until that time.  Cliffhanger meaning something terrible was happening to a pivotal character and no help was in sight.  Of course, the beginning of the next segment was another key character saving them.  Instead, each film was actually a melodrama.  The reviews were that the public favored the melodrama over the cliffhanger, even if the film was short.

Because of the rave reviews of the ‘The Hazards of Helen’ serials, in which railroads played a great part. Helen was either jumping onto, off, running across the tops of, or escaping from railroad cars, locomotives, train stations, etc., the producers created ‘The Girl and the Game.’  It was not based on a book as ‘The Hazards of Helen’ was.  Instead, Kalem hired famed western author Frank Spearman to write the serial articles after the films’ production.  This was an interesting technique as it was free advertising, like many papers, the Itasca News being one, printed it. 

Spearman’s other chapter titles provide a fairly comprehensive outline of the film’s plot:

3. A Life in Peril

4. Helen’s Perilous Escape

5. The Fight at Signal Station

6 Helen’s Wild Ride

7. Spike’s Awakening

8. A Race for the Right-of-Way

9. A Close Call

10. A Dash Through Flames

11. The Salting of the Superstition Mine

12. Buried Alive

13. A Fight for a Fortune

14. Helen’s Race Against Time

15. Driving the Last Spike.

In my search for more information, I found a postcard, with a lovely photograph of Helen Holmes and the title of this film.  On the back was a handwritten note (or it was made to look handwritten) saying “Dear Friend, I saw Helen Holmes the fearless film star in ‘The Girl and the Game,’ the great railroad film novel, she’s Great! You simply must see her.” A promotional gimmick to be sure, but one I had not seen before.

After her marriage to co-star and director J.P McGowan, the two soon formed their own production company, Signal Film Productions. Between late 1915 and early 1917, they made a dozen films together that met with reasonable success but financial, and distribution problems ended the production partnership.

Helen later married film stuntman Lloyd A. Saunders, and as a result of the popularity of the Rin Tin Tin dog films, the two began training animals for use in the movies.

A final note on the Lyceum Theatre – in 1920 the fire marshal condemned the Brooks building.  At that time, it was reported to have been the oldest building still in use in Deer River.  It had been built in 1898 and had moved twice.  The building was razed, and films were shown in the coliseum until a new brick building was constructed.

Law & Order ~ For the Love of Ella

4.23.2023 [archived ~ originally published 1.4.2018]

In the spring of 1911, the actions of one man, for the love of a woman, affected the lives of many.  The murder, by gunshot, occurred on April 19th in the village of Stanley, better known today as Wirt, in northern Itasca County.

The Characters

James Wood – 47; Husband of Ella; The Wood family moved to Wirt to run a boarding house in fall 1910.  He left relationship (and area) approximately three months prior.

Ella Wood – 40; Wife of James and mother of their four children; Helping to manage a boarding house; living with her husband’s brother, Vincent for several months.  “Ella was a sister of Allen Whitt who was shot and killed by David Cochran, a Deer River attorney, about five years ago and was acquitted of the deed.  Her sister-in-law, Whitt’s wife, was a somewhat notorious character and was known under the name of Mary Whitt and Mary Rosin.” [GRHR 4-26-1911]

Vincent Wood – 25; Half-brother of James Wood; Accompanied his brother and sister-in-law to Wirt; single but living with Ella “as husband and wife.” [GRHR 4-26-1911]

Vincent Murphy – 37; Camp foreman for the Namakan Lumber Company; permanent address Minneapolis where his bride of ten months, Lillian resides.

Zade Cochran – Clerk for the Namakan Lumber Company who was residing at the Wood’s Boarding House, waiting for supplies, etc. for the spring run.

The Crime

Murder at Wirt ~ Itasca News 4-22-1911

“Another murder affair at Wirt has brought attention to that spot on the map forty miles north of Deer River, at the terminus of the northwest branch of the Minneapolis & Rainy River railroad.

The victim is Vincent Murphy an old woods and river foreman who of late years has been employed by the Namakon Lumber company and was in charge of that company’s log drive at Wirt when he met his death.

The report is that while Murphy had his crew and wangon [wannigan] in the town he was about the hamlet considerably.  On Wednesday evening he had been missing for several hours, and a search for him was instituted.  At about 9 o’clock of that evening, his body was found by Ole Nelson and another river driver, lying on a brush pile and partly concealed by brush on the edge of the right of way of the branch road running to Dora Lake, at a point about a hundred rods from the station.

The news of the tragedy was phoned by D.M. Price, superintendent for the Namakon company, to the M&R office, here, and a special train with Undertaker Herreid aboard was dispatched to the scene and brought the remains down yesterday.  The body is at the morgue, and the marks are plain that the bullet that caused his death entered his chest just below the throat from over the left shoulder and passed out right about two inches to the right of the right breast, lodging against the suspender buckle.  The bullet still clung to the shirt in a clot of blood where it stopped.

This morning by special train Sheriff Riley, Coroner Russell, Marshal Fraelick and others went to Wirt and made an investigation.  It was found that Murphy had his mackinaw on even though the day was warm; that he had no business to take him up that road; he was sober, and had been associating with one Vincent Woods and a woman living with him, Ellen Woods, people of unsavory reputation living at Wirt; two shots were heard in the direction of the spot where the body was found, Wednesday afternoon.

The sheriff and party returned by the special train this afternoon bringing under arrest as suspects Vincent Woods and Ellen Woods, and as witnesses, Jack Ebe, Charles Goreing and Zade Cochran.”

The Court Verdict                                                         

The trial of Vincent Wood started on November 9, 1911, in district court before Judge McClenahan at Grand Rapids.  Nearly two dozen witnesses were subpoenaed in this case, and two special venires needed to select the jury.  Opening statements began on Tuesday the 14th.  According to several local papers, even though there is only circumstantial evidence, there is definitive sentiment against Wood. 

The testimony of “Cochran was the strongest against Wood.  Others testified to hearing the shots and comparison of Woods’ guns made a strong chain of evidence against the accused.

He said he heard a murmur of voices in the bedroom below; that he could distinguish the voices of the defendant, Mrs. Woods and the chatter of her little children; that he could catch a word now and then when Mrs. Woods and the defendant talked. The floor of the room he occupied was also the ceiling of the barroom, the witness stated and that he became interested in when these words were mentioned and placed his ear to one of the cracks.

After that, the first thing he heard was Mrs. Wood saying ‘Vince, you never shot at him at all.  You shot up in the air.’

Woods then replied: ‘I didn’t.  I shot at him, and I shot to kill the—’

Mrs. Wood then asked, ‘Which side of the track was he on?’

Wood: ‘I know which side of the track he was on.’

Mrs. Wood: ‘I’m going to have some fun with Murphy in the morning when he comes back.’

The witness said the balance of the conversation was unintelligible, it being just a confusing murmur…” [GRHR 11-22-1911]

The jury began deliberations Friday evening November 17th and on Saturday at 9:00 o’clock, returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. Less than two hours later, Judge Clenahan sentenced the convicted and to serve the balance of his natural life in the state prison at Stillwater at hard labor. 

“It is presumed he [Vincent Wood] became jealous of Murphy believing he was paying too much attention to her.  The arguments were attended by a large crowd and much interest in the case had been taken through the trial. Wood took his sentence very calmly. [Itasca News 11-18-1911]

Vincent Wood was convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life at the Stillwater Prison in 1911. He applied for parole on at least two occasions and was granted release sometime between October 1931 and June 1940.

The Continued Relationship

I followed this story from an article I found in the October 22, 1931, issue of the Deer River News.

“Sessions of the state board of parole at the Capitol last week in St. Paul caused considerable interest in this country because of the fact that this country because of the fact one of the applicants was Vincent Wood, convicted of first-degree murder at Grand Rapids twenty years ago next month.

The hearing on Wood’s application was held Wednesday of last week.  Associated Press reports named Stafford King as one of those who appeared.  On Saturday the board denied Wood’s application for parole.”

My research of Ancestry records surprised me.  Nearly thirty years after Vincent Wood killed a man, he thought was romantically interested in the woman he loved, they were together again. 

Evidently, Vincent Wood applied for parole again, because the 1940 United States census documents Vincent and Ella, married and living in Warren, Minnesota.  They are farming, and at the ages of 54 and 69, respectively, they had no children.

We can only speculate as to whether they stayed in touch during the intervening years. After the trial and imprisonment of Vincent, Ella returned to her husband James, and they made their home in Canada, at least for a while.  The 1921Canada Census indicates the family was together in Winnipeg.  In 1928, Ella returned to Minnesota.  James died in Canada in 1937. 

Squirrel Tails: Taking it Up a Notch

4.16.2023 [archived ~ originally published 3.31.2016]

Advertising gimmicks have been around for as long as there have been things to sell, and Deer River businessmen and women were as creative as anyone.  In the spring of 1925, the Deer River merchants gave away chances to win a new car during the Trade Expansion Event. For every 50 cents that was spent at participating stores, a ticket was given to the spender. Each ticket had a number, and one ticket was the winner of a Ford car.

Hans Anderson, the owner of the jewelry store in town was impressed by the excitement that was generated by the Trade Expansion and decided to use the same technique, with a twist at his store several months later.  Hans had a pet squirrel that occupied a corner of the store and spent a good deal of time running on a wheel inside his cage.  Hans decided it was time his squirrel earned his keep.

As had been done earlier, Hans gave away a ticket for every 50 cents spent, but instead of a drawing, the ticket holder had the chance to guess how far the squirrel would travel on the wheel during a designated period of time.  Prizes of course were awarded to the top guesses.

How Far Will the Pet Squirrel Travel? ~ Itasca News­ 9-10-1925

“H.P. Anderson has invented something else.  His pet squirrel has initiated more inventive genius than any other thing that ever came to the town.  Marveling at the energy and speed of his pet, Mr. Anderson has attached a speedometer that will accurately measure the revolutions of the drum in which the squirrel travels.  Each revolution makes a distance of two feet four inches.

Beginning bright and early next Saturday morning, Mr. Squirrel will set out for a world’s record.  For ten days the speedometer will be kept sealed.  On Monday night, Sept. 21, the total will be taken.

During the ten days, with every 50-cent purchase, Mr. Anderson will offer an opportunity to guess on the total distance the squirrel will travel.  Liberal prizes will be offered for the best guesses.  In all there will be eight prizes.  Read his ad on another page of this issue.”

Hans and his wife Elsie were both born in Demark and immigrated in the early1890s.  It appears they met and married in Chicago before venturing into the Dakotas.  Two of their children were born in South Dakota and by the time they moved to Deer River they were the parents of seven children. 

Their sons thirteen-year-old Harold and eleven-year-old Ingvar probably had hundreds of guesses, but of course were not in the contest.  It is easy to picture the boys and maybe their friends, closely watching the squirrel, the wheel and the clock to make their own predictions.  No doubt the boys also had more athletic names for the furry critter other than Mr. Squirrel which appears to be his father’s choice.

Squirrel Sets Record in Total Ten-Day Run ~ Itasca News­ 9-24-1925

“H.P. Anderson’s pet squirrel completed his ten-day indoor track contest last Monday night, finishing with a burst of speed that indicated he is no quitter.

Some time ago, announced in these columns, Mr. Anderson rigged up a speedometer and attached it to the wheel in the squirrel’s cage, which accurately measured the distance traveled.  Each revolution of the wheel marked a distance of two feet four inches.  Ninety-four revolutions of the wheel made one turn of the first disc, which in turn moved the third disc one notch.

At the end of ten days it was found that the squirrel had traveled within the wheel a total distance of 163 miles, 107 rods, six inches.  In addition to this, he probably traveled many more outside of the wheel.

The greatest distance for any one day was 10 miles, 498 feet on Sept. 14, the third day of the contest.  The highest total for one day was last Sunday, when Mr. Squirrel whirled the cage for a total of 23 miles, 150 rods, 8 feet.  Evidently Sunday isn’t a day of rest in squirrelology.

The judges awarded first prize to H.G. Wick and second prize to P.K. Vickjord.

Mr. Anderson’s measurements of the squirrel’s travel will be of great interest to students of wild life, and will probably be heralded throughout the nation.” 

As far as I could determine, Mr. Squirrel’s long-distance endeavor did not make the news in any other papers, but he did impress a few individuals and perhaps by word of mouth attracted the attention of the Graflex Photography Company. Whether a salesman was just passing through or stopped in Deer River specifically to see Mr. Squirrel is unknown, so we’ll stick with the story printed in the paper.

That Squirrel Again, Two of Them Now ~ Itasca News­ 11-12-1925

The thing in Deer River that has achieved the greatest notoriety in proportion to its size of anything here, is H. P. Anderson’s pet squirrel.

A representative of the Graflex photo service from Minneapolis, recently came here for a feature story induced by stories published in the News.  Mr. Squirrel had his picture taken, duly dubbed the “Greatest Long-Distance Squirrel in the World” and with the record of his long distance run as published in this paper is being heralded throughout the nation.

Mr. Anderson has concluded that two squirrels are better than one and has secured a mate.  A properly equipped department has been built in the north windows of his jewelry department, with a homemade tree, shelves, private bedrooms and a lot of other things.  Call it a miniature menagerie, squirrel farm, or whatever you wish.  The squirrels don’t care.

And now Mr. Anderson will study squirrel nature.  He proposes to learn which squirrel sleeps longest in the morning, which takes afternoon naps, and which stays out late nights.  He may yet prove that man has descended from the squirrel.   They have a lot of things in common, especially their toleration of ‘nuts’.”

There was one more article pertaining to Mr. Anderson squirrels which appeared on Christmas Eve.  It seems that a teacher, Mr. J.M. Martin had been sent a small alligator from Florida by U.S. mail and it was presumed the alligator would replace Mr. Squirrel in the limelight.

No more was said about the alligator though, so I am assuming it might not have survived a Minnesota winter.

And regarding the winner of the new car…you’ll have to wait for the article on the Deer River Trade Expansion scheduled for this June to find out who the lucky winner was.

“Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hills”


As I mentioned previously, many of the articles for 2023 are based on stories I found intriguing from the six-part Diamond Jubilee issues of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review (June 16-July18, 1966).

In February 1925, deputy sheriff John Dickie recovered $1600 in gold that had been stolen by three Grand Rapids boys between the ages of 12-17. The gold was taken from a private residence, the owner was not at home at the time. Because the boys were minors, there were no further details provided in subsequent issues of the paper, but this did prompt me to investigate the rumor I had heard about gold in northern Minnesota. And no, I’m not referring to Chief Busticogan’s gold—that’s another story!

Boy Robbers Caught with Gold ~ 2-25-1925 Grand Rapids Herald-Review

“When Deputy Sheriff John Dickie stopped some boys who were target shooting in the village limits last Sunday, he uncovered a daring robbery, or series of thefts, and led to investigations which cleared up several mysteries.  He also found and recovered for the owner about $1,600 in hoarded gold, the biggest surprise of the year.

The boys that were doing the shooting a short distance from the Dickie residence were Leslie Greene and Roland Anderson, aged 12 and 17 years, respectively.  When Greene was searched, Mr. Dickie found a purse of gold coin amounting to several hundred dollars. He decided to hold both boys for investigation, and they soon implicated a third, Leland Bradley, age 16.

After they had been questioned by the officers, the three boys confessed that they had stolen a large sum of gold from the home owned by Tony Zines, who lived in the west part of town, and who was supposed to be so poor that he could not pay his hospital and physician’s bills. The money had been equally divided among the three boys and the amount recovered was about $1,600, while a portion of the sum taken is believed to have been spent. Mr. Zines [Zeine] had not been at home for several weeks, being out at work on the Root ranch several miles east of Bigfork.

When the gold had been unearthed, the officers obtained search warrants and looked for more property. They found a large amount of stolen property including three rifles taken from Legion Hall, army service guns. These with the belts had been missing but no one knew where they had gone. A fair-sized truck was packed with stuff stolen from Forest Lake School. This plunder included books, pencils, shears, paper and almost anything that could be removed easily. Various other articles that had been stolen in homes or in places of business were found concealed in various places and revealed through confessions by one or another of the trio.

As the boys are all under eighteen years of age, they come within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. Their cases are to be disposed of by Judge McCullough today.”

Lake Vermillion Gold Rush

In the fall of 1865, geologist Henry Ames found gold in quartz along the shore of Lake Vermillion in St. Louis County. He brought a sample to St Paul, and it was sent to the Philadelphia Mint for analysis. Based on the information received from there, it was believed there might be enough gold to make someone very rich. “The St. Paul Pioneer newspaper 9-20-1865 speculated that the existence of the gold bearing quartz would ‘immediately turn the tide of California emigration to Minnesota.’ Ossian Euclid Dodge, a well-known singer and song writer (and sometimes journalist) was hired by the paper to report on the story.

Dodge chose to write under the pen name of ‘Oro Fino’ and submitted a series of nine ‘Gold Letters,’ between September 30 and the end of October 1865 to the newspaper.  To get to the gold fields, Dodge described vividly the route he took [after the train to Superior] and his sometimes perilous means of travel—the journey from Superior by canoe through waters often swift and full of rapids and over portages frequently narrow and steep.

He wrote of seeing, or hearing rumors of, gold veins ‘from three inches to ten feet in width, and some of them extend for many miles in length.’” [extracted and summarized from Lake Vermillion Gold Rush by David A. Walker, Minnesota History magazine, Summer 1974]

Dodge’s choice of a pen name was appropriate. “Oro Fino” translates to “fine gold” in Spanish. It was also the name of a gold mining camp established near Pierce, Idaho (then Washington Territory) in 1861.

By the end of December, the full force of gold fever hit the city of St. Paul.  Businessmen organized several mining companies and offered their stock to the public. Within two years, more than a dozen groups had incorporated to develop the Lake Vermillion gold fields. There were over a dozen gold mining companies which organized, established claims, and sought gold-bearing quartz.  The three most notable being Mutual Protection Gold Mining, Minnesota Gold Mining, and Vermillion Falls Gold Mining. The peak of gold fever was from spring 1866 to fall 1869. None of the companies yielded sizable profits, but many men who caught gold fever, including George Stuntz and Lewis J. Merritt, subsequently played major roles in the initial exploration of both the Vermilion and Mesabi Iron Ranges.

In 1934 a gold crusher, one of the first pieces of mining equipment brought to the area in the 1860s, was found under water near Lake Vermillion. The crusher is mounted on a historic marker in the city of Tower, MN.

Gold in Deer River

Using the search function on my computer I looked for other articles about gold in my Itasca County Research file (contains over 15,000 files), I found an article about gold in Deer River!

Gold found in Village ~ Itasca News 10-18-1902

“The neat job of gold leaf lettering on the window of the News shop was done by artist Holdridge, who cannot be beat in that line of business. This is the first and only gold leaf sign in town.”  John Holdridge was from Pennsylvania. He moved from Wisconsin to Deer River about 1900 and was a house and sign painter.  The building (former Western Itasca Review) still stands, but the window with the gold leaf lettering was removed and replaced with brick many years ago.

Gold in Bigfork

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) has reported that Bigfork is one of six major areas in the state which has gold deposits. The five others are Cook, International Falls, Linden Grove, Vermilion, and Virginia Horn. Overall, there are almost 62 areas in Minnesota where gold can be expected.

The scattered amounts of gold in Minnesota, as well as other midwestern states was brought down from receding glaciers from the last ice age.  Glacial deposits do not generally accumulate gold in enough quantity to be valuable by commercial endeavors, but smaller scale gold prospecting is a present and growing hobby within the state.

According to, in addition to the glacial gold, “past discoveries of low-grade lode deposits in the northern part of the state caused a few short-lived gold rushes but were eventually abandoned due to low yield. Lode discoveries in the past decade have caused a huge interest in recent years by commercial mining companies. For recreational gold prospectors, Minnesota has plenty of opportunities and several active clubs to help you get started pursuing gold.

Near the border with Canada, a short-lived gold rush occurred at Rainy Lake near present day International Falls. Several mines popped up in the summer of 1894 but, like other discoveries in Minnesota, profitability was an issue. The gold was locked up in ore, and the gold recovered did not cover the cost of production.”
[from] At the time of this discovery, the northern border of Itasca County went all the way to Canada.

If you are interested in finding gold in “them thar hills,” check out the Minnesota Gold Facebook page.

The May column is about Fish Stories & Trophies in Itasca County.

Whoozis Detective Agency ~ Bigfork 1929

4.2.2023 [archived ~ previously published 4.2.2015]

It was late February 1929 when a new business, Whoozis Detective Agency, hung its shingle here in Bigfork.  Of course, our community and some north of us had our share of small-town crime, disorderly conduct, vandalism and a few threats of bodily harm when the moonshine was flowing, but certainly nothing that the local sheriff deputy couldn’t handle.  Detective agencies were few and far between, in part because they were willing to delve into the less than savory aspects of human behavior and also because someone had to be willing to pay the high fees.  It was a bit of a mystery as to why Mr. Jabo Grabb had settled here.  Folks were definitely curious when they saw two notices in the February 22nd issue of the Bigfork Times

One was notification of a missing person – a man working north of Effie.   It read:  Lost – My only husband age 43 at present.  He has one brown eye, the other is out. When a child he fell on his head and got a permanent scar on his left lung.  Dark hair, yellow mustache, purple polka dot tie and grey teeth. If found warn his poor wife who is distracted to know exactly when he may return. Last seen near Craigville loading a car of railworks.  NOTIFY—THE WHOOZIS DETECTIVE AGENCY 

The other notification was written as an advertisement: 

When in need of real live police enforcement, Call on:  JABO GRABB T.C.

Our detective agency caters to all clients. Disguises and make up in all forms

Phone Your Wants


No one was sure what the initials T.C. behind Mr. Grabb’s name stood for, but he was a friendly fellow and soon found his way into the social circle of the Bigfork community.  He was professional and didn’t breathe a word of any client’s personal business, though more than a few folks tried to see who he might be conferring with at the back corner of the restaurant.

It was quite a surprise several weeks later, to learn that Mr. Grabb’s name was on the front page of the paper again.  It had nothing to do with his business dealings but listed him in the cast of a dramatic production that was to be performed by the Community Players.  Reading the article more closely, we see that he is not acting in the production but is actually one of the characters being portrayed.  A coincidence?  We think not. 

The first paragraph of the article explains “The Community Players announce their annual Benefit Play to be given in the middle of March.  The farce comedy The Dutch Detective, promises to fill a program that will be a laughing roar from beginning to end.

So the WHOOZIS DETECTIVE AGENCY was a ruse, a farce of its own to get us interested in the unusual occupation of a detective.  Well, it worked!  I for one was taken in by the missing man employed at Craigsville.  I felt genuine sympathy for his wife and thought of the children he might have left at home. 

As we later learn, there are ten characters in the play.  [Note: it took a detective’s skill to identify the females by their given names and not just as an accessory to their husband.]

Otto Schlmutz                         Mr. Dan Burman                                  

Jabo Grabb                              Mr. Wendell Freed

Major Hannibal Howler          Mr. Sydney Swanson

August Coo                             Mr. Joe Dugan

Gladys Howler-Coo                Mrs. Mansel Saunders [Ingaborg]

Plunk Jarleck                          Mr. Richard Rosen

Hortensey Smatters                 Mrs. John Pinette [Abbie]

Ambrosia McCarty                 Mrs. Oscar Pearson [Agnes]

Miss Arminta Sourdrops        Mrs. Arthur Leeman [Lois]

Katrina Kraut                          Mrs. Dan Burman [Mildred]

The synopsis of the story is that Major Howler hires the Dutch Detective Agency to find his daughter Gladys, who has eloped with the scoundrel August Coos.  Mr. Schlmutz and Mr. Grabb opened the agency after taking a correspondence course and have not yet used the newly acquired skills.  In their determination to meet the needs of a paying client, they mistakenly identify Plunk Jarleck and Hortensey Smatters as the newlyweds.  Jaleck and Smatters are actually on the lamb, having escaped from an insane asylum. Both couples are at the depot awaiting the train.  As can be imagined, all sorts of interesting situations occur because of this mix up, and no doubt it is very entertaining.

The Community Players performed for the students at the start of the Easter holiday, and again the following evening as a fundraiser for stage curtains.  The Bigfork High School, including the impressive auditorium had been dedicated six months earlier and was the pride of the community.  As had been done for generations, local entertainment was a source of income when needed for school items outside of the everyday budget.  Chances are if they didn’t raise enough with this performance, the Community Players may have gone on the road.

The playwright, Walter Benjamin Hare wrote over 200 plays, mostly during his spare time while working as a meteorologist between 1905 and his death in 1950.  His plays were very popular with amateur theaters around the country, though none of them made it to Broadway.  His most well-known play, Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick was made into a movie starring Alan Young and Dinah Shore in1952.

Hare wrote under three names and explains why: “I use the pen name Lt. Beal Carmack for the plays that I am ashamed of, the name Mary Modena Burns for the religious plays, and the other stuff I wrote under my own name.”  It is interesting to note that Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick was written under the alias Lt. Beal Carmack.  [Source:IMDb; Internet Movie Database]