“Cold Blast” Equals Winter Fun 

2.6.2022 [originally published 1.18.2018]

Union suits ad 10-15-1921 Itasca News

“The extreme cold blast of Monday and Tuesday did not injure the feelings of the average school boy in Deer River for on those two days it was too cold to keep school.”

This statement was printed in the February 21st, 1903 issue of the Itasca News.  The article went on to explain that the furnace was kept going night and day, but that it was Wednesday before the temperature could be raised to an acceptable level for the students to return to the schoolhouse.

The following items highlight the fun of outside winter activities of years ago.  The first is written by John Broberg in his memoir, The Green Wing Story. John was a student at Scenic Park School in the late 1930s through early1940s.  His teacher, Mr. John Jarvela, taught at several rural schools in the northern part of Itasca County. 

The Ice Path

“One winter morning, the older boys had taken buckets of water from the pump and made an ice path completely around the school house.  The water froze in minutes when it was splashed on the ground.  We would line up and run to the ice path.  The person who could slide the longest distance was the champion.  We slid around and around the school.  Making the turn at the corners without falling down was the tricky part for all of us. 

I made one slide, tried to navigate around the corner, slipped, and fell on my face.  Just as I started to get up, a big boy came whipping around the corner and tromped down on my right arm above the wrist. The pain was excruciating.  My arm below the elbow was bent like a bow. I rolled on the ice and cried until the initial shock passed. Mr. Jarvela looked at the arm and thought it might just be a bad sprain.  There wasn’t much he could do about it.  He couldn’t call a doctor or my mother.  He couldn’t close the school since there was no way the students could get home without very long hikes.  He didn’t have his car at the school and, even if he had it, he couldn’t leave the kids.  I was stuck at school all day until it ended at four o’clock and the bus picked us up.  Skip and I got home that afternoon and Mom took one look at the arm and cranked the phone for the doctor in Big Fork.”

Sleigh Rides and Parties

Sleigh rides to winter gatherings were half the fun. It afforded small groups of young people an opportunity to visit with others they hadn’t seen since the busy planting and harvesting. The horses could travel more easily over snow and frozen water.  And the dances often lasted until daylight.

“A sleigh-load of young folk took in the dance at Turtle Lake last Friday evening, given in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Emil Krantz who were married Monday, Dec. 4. The boys presented them with a set of silver knives and forks and received in return each a piece of the wedding cake.  A bounteous supper was served after a most enjoyable time the young folks departed for Bigfork, wishing the newly married couple a successful journey along life’s pathway. – Mr. and Mrs. Krantz have accepted positions about three miles from Bigfork in one of the Pillsbury logging camps.” Bigfork Settler 12-14-1905

“A sleigh party will be given by the Caesar Club next Saturday night, each member to invite one friend.  Sauerkraut and wieners will be served after the ride.  All the members of the club are anticipating a good time.  We hope the weatherman will be good to them.” Bigfork Settler 1-25-1929

Skates and Snowshoes

For a few years there was an ice skating rink in Deer River, but with no funds for the upkeep, it was a short-lived endeavor.  As modes of transportation, skates and snowshoes were essential for those living in the wilds of the Big Fork Valley. 

“Orin Patrow of Evergreen made a flying trip to Bigfork early Friday morning, coming all the way from his home on skates.” Bigfork Settler 2-23-1911

“HD Horton and Ed Carlson skated up the river to town a distance of about twenty miles and report this as being the quickest way they have ever made the trip, making it in one and a half hours.” Bigfork Settler 12-18-1913

“Another nonstop record broken: Archie Randall snowshoed from Lunde’s camp near Togo to Bustitown in seven hours, a distance of 29 miles. (What is the attraction, Archie?)” Bigfork Settler 2-21-1930

Sleds, Toboggans and Barrel Staves

Snow, a hill and something to put between yourself and the ground is all you need for this age-old bit of frosty fun.  I remember how thrilled my siblings and I were to slide down a section of Mt. Baker, a glaciated volcano in the Cascades on pieces of cardboard in July of 1974.

“The ‘Rough and Tumble’ club (ladies), after an hour’s burlesque with bobsleds. Barrel staves (and one had a clothes pin) on Creamery hill Saturday night, ‘tore’ over to the Erik Johnson home nearby where by previous arrangement Mrs. Johnson had the coffee hot and a swell lunch in waiting, which they devoured and making the welkin ring, ‘hollered’ good night so we could all hear it.  The late Mrs. Wicklund, who passed away this week was also a hostess, having helped furnish the lunch.” Itasca News 2-10-1923

Ski Tournament in Coleraine

The first ski jumping hill of Coleraine was built up in 1906 out of wooden battens and plates from a sawmill on the banks of Lake Trout. A Ski Jump Club was formed in 1907.It only took a few more years before the ski jump achieved notoriety. Arrangements could sometimes be made for trains to make limited trips to special events or have reduced fares for excursions to Duluth or Crookston.

“A special train has been secured by Agent Beall to run an excursion to Coleraine and return to accommodate Deer River people who wish to witness the National Ski (skee) tournament tomorrow.  The fare for round trip is one dollar.  The train will leave Deer River at 12 noon, and returning leave Coleraine at 7, arriving home at 8.  Some who cannot leave at 12 o’clock will take the regular passenger train at 2:10 and drive to Coleraine from Grand Rapids.” Itasca News 2-19-1910

A Post Office No More ~ Rosy, Itasca County, MN

1.30.2022 ~ [archived ~ originally published 1.12.2017]

Rosy Post Office 1988 ~ T148N R29W, section 2, SW1/4 of SE1/4 [ICHS Archives]

Several months ago, I asked for information from readers regarding four categories of historical interest that I wanted to highlight during 2017.  Last week’s column had the first character sketch.  This week is about a community that no longer exists on the map and next week’s will be about a rural school.  Resorts, the 4th special interest series will start in late spring.  Throughout the rest of the year, I will periodically feature a column on one of these four categories.  Your suggestions, memories and photographs are always appreciated, so please keep them coming!

The community of Rosy was located on the northern boundary of section two in Third River township.  It is said that the name was given to the area because of the pink sand roses which grew in abundance. Mail came to Rosy from Bena.

In the fall of 1900, the neighbors volunteered to carry the mail from Bena to Rosy once a week. Apparently at the time, doing so for at least three months demonstrated the need for a post office in a community.  The postmasters in the thirty-some years the post office was active were Peter Bohn, Harry Sorby and Oscar Bohn.

The official register of the United States Postal Service, documents in long-hand that the post office at Rosy was established on February 1, 1901.  It was not expected that the post office be a special building, just a designated space.  In this case, it was in the home of the postmaster Peter Bohn.

The Bohn family had moved from Delano to Deer River in 1891, and then homesteaded in Third River Township.  Oscar, son of Peter and Anna, wrote “As the govt got the land surveyed it was open for homestead settlement and my father filed on the homestead in 1893, and in 1894, my mother and two sisters and I and our hired man Hans Bjurlein spent one winter from Jan to April 1st on the homestead and that $40 per month job my father had [when the family lived in Deer River] paid living expenses for us all.  My father had bought a small team of horses and a wagon for $20 and we had about three head of cattle as well.

The Fred Roberts and Frank Roberts also filed on homesteads in Third River township and also Matt Nolan and Charley Nolan took up homestead land, and in 1898 my sister Selma died of typhoid fever and about that time Emil Johnson, or possibly 1899, Emil Johnson came to us from Delano and filed on the homestead which later became and is now the Jack Westrem place.” [Oscar Bohn 8-20-1958]

There were enough families in the community to warrant a school, and on September 23, 1901 school commenced in an abandoned building on the property of Fred Roberts. The first teacher was Ada Fay Collins, whose salary was $40 per month.  She boarded with the Thomas Daigle family and three of her nine students were Daigle children; Fred, Flora and Philomina. There were also the Erickson children Minnie, Carl and Augusta; and Oscar Bohn, Nolan Cass and Alfred Johnson.  This school was known as the Decker School, Daigle School and even later as the Rosy School.

When this first school burned down, residents of Rosy donated logs and a new school was built closer to the hub of the community, near the Rosy Post Office.  By this time the Bohn’s had moved and built a large home across from the original location.  The post office and living quarters were on the first floor.  The second floor was one room that served as a meeting place, community center and dance hall. 

Another family who moved to the area were Norwegian immigrants Arnt and Sigrid Jamtaas. Their daughter, Gertina “Tina” was also a teacher, and split her time between Rosy and the Third River school between 1903 and 1905.  This was an unusual arrangement, but the school district felt it satisfied the needs of the two very rural communities.

The Peter Bohn family made plans to homestead in Canada, so Harry Sorby, a carpenter from Norway, who had lived with the Bohn’s for nearly ten years, was appointed postmaster on June 30, 1913.  Fulfilling a long-time community need, Sorby added a mercantile in the Bohn building.

Esther (Johnson) Connell’s Swedish parents were settled on a homestead in Good Hope Township when she was born in 1909. In 2001, at the age of 92, Esther wrote “Remembering Rosy,” dedicated to her children who pestered her to “put my memoirs down on paper.”  She shares fond memories of Sorby.

“Harry Sorby, a bachelor, was the postmaster and shopkeeper.  He sold a small line of groceries, such as flour, sugar, coffee and salt…also stocked kerosene for our lamps. My sister, Hazel, and I would walk or ride a horse to pick up flour and sugar for Mama. On a lucky day, Mr. Sorby would give us candy.  I especially liked the peppermint sticks.  I’d enjoy them all the way home.”

Esther started kindergarten at Dunbar school, which served the Rosy community by 1913. [Some records indicate the Rosy school closed in 1912.] “A bit jittery about what lay ahead, my teacher, Miss Agnes Murdock, made me feel at home. She was paid $40 a month. (And did she ever earn it.)

Quite primitive, the school was a small log cabin with a big wood stove that the boys kept filled.  Outside was an outhouse – a three holer and a handpump for water.  In the school yard we had a swing and teeter totter that one of the fathers made.  We girls liked to skip rope the best.  There were 11 of us in the school.  I can still remember all their names:  John Bardsley, Eino John, Irja Kuusela, Anna Kuusela, Helga Kuusela, Jacob Leinonen, Lempit Leinonen, Ida Sandness, Edward Simonson and Ronnie Simonson.

Most of the time we walked the one mile to school.  There were some days in winter – it got 30 below where we lived – when Papa would get out the sleigh and a team of horses and ride us through the snow.”  

Peter Bohn and his family returned to Rosy in the early 1920’s. They hadn’t been settled very long in the old homestead when Bohn was stricken with heart trouble and passed away in January 1924. Oscar, now 30 years old, stayed on the family home place.

The official register of the United States Postal Service indicates that Oscar Bohn became acting postmaster in September 1929 and was appointed postmaster on March 19, 1930.  Oscar married Grace in 1934 and they were the parents of three boys, Reynold, Peter and Donald.  Oscar died in 1960 and his wife Grace lived to be 102 years of age.

I am not sure exactly when the Rosy Post Office actually closed, but according to the United States census of 1940, Oscar was no longer postmaster, as he was working on a WPA project.

The building which housed the Rosy Post Office stood until 1990 when it was destroyed by a fire.  It was the last landmark of Rosy.

I think Esther (Johnson) Connell’s words ring true… “Rosy is gone now, but there‘s a mystique about it that lives on.” Her book, “Remembering Rosy,” is available for review in the library of the Itasca County Historical Society.

Groundhog Tails

1.23.2022 [archived ~ previously published 2.2.2017]

This looks just like the juvenile groundhogs I have seen around my cabin!

Well, here it is another Groundhog Day, and chances are regardless of whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not Itasca County will have at least six more weeks of winter.  The official first day of spring is March 20, 2017, six weeks and four days after February 2nd

For me, the end of winter is when the yellow cowslips can be seen in the lowlands.  For some it might be the pussy willows blooming and others say winter is not over until the ice is out of their favorite lake. According to the MN DNR Climatology Office, the average ice out for Lake Winnibigoshish is April 24.  The earliest was March 30, 2012, and the latest was May 10, 1996. 

But back to the woodchuck.  Yes, a groundhog and a woodchuck are the same animal. They belong to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots and are one of the few species that enter true hibernation.  Other names include groundpig, thickwood badger, whistler, whistlepig, and red monk. 

In Minnesota, groundhogs are likely to hibernate from October to March or April.  If we had to wait until say April 15th for a groundhog to emerge and he saw his shadow, guaranteeing us six more weeks of winter, that would bring us to the end of June!   I’ll stick to the cowslips, if you don’t mind.

I have two interesting articles specific to woodchucks from the archives of our local papers. 

Bags Black Woodchuck ~ Itasca News 6-30-1927

J.L. Cartwight late last week captured an odd animal, a coal black woodchuck.  It is a rare specimen.  Mr. Cartwright sold it to F. M. Williams, who added it to the collection at his zoo.

Jesse Levi Cartwright was a dairy farmer in Morse township.  He was married to Elsie May and they were parents of a large family.  Their children were Floyd, Ernest, Rosetta, Minnie, Everett, Ray, Violet, Vernon and Ruth.

Mr. Williams, who was affiliated with Williams’ Narrows resort, boasted in an advertisement earlier that year, that the “Largest Private-Owned Zoo in the State was open to the public after May 20th and was Absolutely free.”

Unusual ‘Mother’ Substitute ~ Itasca Progressive 6-2-1938

Clarence Horner of Wirt is the owner of a female Fox Terrier dog that mothers a young wood chuck and feeds it regular with her litter of little puppies.  The baby woodchuck nurses with its strange pals and huddles up with them to sleep just the same as if it was not an odd member of the family.

Mr. Horner’s children drowned the mother woodchuck out of a hole and captured the young one and carried it home alive and placed it among the little puppies to be nursed by the dog mother.  It proved a welcome member to the family by the mother dog as well as the pups and this peculiar incident has proven of keen interest to the

inhabitants of Wirt who visited Mr. Horner’s home to be satisfied with their own eyes that this freakish occurrence is really true.

Clarence Horner worked in the lumber camps near Wirt, and his daughters Della and Dolly were married with children of their own in the late 1930s.  I believe it was probably Mr. Horner’s grandchildren who found the young woodchuck and brought it home to be nursed.

Since I didn’t have enough stories about the groundhog for a whole column, I am also sharing a few “tails” about a very distant cousin, the muskrat.

650 Muskrats! ~ Bigfork Settler 5-16-1907

Jesse Bowerman who has been trapping at Wirt since last fall returned to Bigfork last Sunday and reports a very successful winter’s work.  He succeeded in capturing twelve fisher, twenty-two mink, two wolves, two bob cats, one fox, four lynx, two coons, two skunks, eighty-five weasels and six hundred musk rats for which he received the neat little sum of four hundred and twenty-five dollars.

As is evident from the article, Jesse’s full-time occupation was that of a trapper.  He was born in Kansas, homesteaded near Bigfork and spent more time outdoors than he did inside.  He was a very

solitary man, never married and died at Effie in 1923 at about the age of fifty.

I learned that muskrat was good eating, much to the surprise of the editor of the Bigfork Settler. In the October 10, 1907, issue of that paper, W.E. Johnson explained that he and several companions were visitors of the Magnuson and Peterson lumber camp. There over the noon hour, they were served a dinner of muskrat. 

“While it was our first feast on this kind of meat, we hope it will not be our last, especially if it is prepared in a manner that would tempt the appetite of the most delicate, as was the case in this event. 

We might add that if the people in general realized how delicious a meat the muskrat made, ‘Uncle Tom’ would have more competition in the trapping business.”

Uncle Tom was actually Damas Neveaux. He was a Frenchman who had settled in the Big Fork Valley very early, before others had arrived.  He was so hospitable to the newcomers, he was given the nickname of “Uncle Tom.”

Today, woodchucks are considered a nuisance, except for Punxsutawney Phil and his family.  The woodchuck is also eatable and has more meat on it then a muskrat.

Cooking Woodchuck

Woodchuck should be handled in accordance with the general rules for game in the field. The blood should be drained, and the entrails removed, and the body cavity wiped clean. When hung for 48 hours, they are ready to be skinned and cooked.

Woodchuck meat is dark, but mild flavored and tender. It does not require soaking; however, many people like to soak it overnight in salt water. If the woodchuck is caught just before he begins his winter sleep, there is an insulating fat layer under the skin. Remove excess fat. remove 7 to 9 ‘kernels’ (scent glands) in the small of the back and under the forearms.


1 woodchuck

2 slices of bacon

Potatoes, carrots, onions

2 onions or 1 onion and 1 apple

Salt and pepper to taste

4 c. water

Soak woodchuck in salt water for 24 hours before cooking.   Rinse well and place in roaster.  Put onion and apple in cavity.  Lay bacon over breast.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Place vegetables around woodchuck.  Add water.  Place in 350 degree oven and roast 3 to 4 hours.

This recipe is NOT Reminisce test kitchen approved, but I did find it in my grandmother’s game recipes folder.  Who knows…maybe I have sampled woodchuck at her kitchen table!

Winter Underwear and Union Suits

1.16.2022 [archived ~ previously published 1.8.2015]

1908 Sear & Roebuck Company Catalogue

The January 2, 1913, edition of the Bigfork Settler features an article titled “Winter Underwear – How to Make it Last”. Of course, the first thing that came to mind was long underwear. I consulted my 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue for additional information about longies, as we called them growing up, and discovered there wasn’t a category for long underwear. I soon found out why. All of the underwear, men’s, women’s and children’s was long (from the waist to at least the knee) so there was no need for a distinction!  I also learned that the selection was divided into summer underwear and winter underwear.

The summer underwear for men were made of cotton and sold in two pieces. The top was a long sleeved pullover undershirt with four buttons. The ankle length drawers (so called because they were ‘drawn on’) had three buttons at the fly. The colors available were blue, white and tan.

Ladies summer underwear was of white or ecru cotton and these too were sold separately. The top, called a vest looked like a modern tank top with ribbon and the drawers were lace trimmed in either knee or ankle length.

There was also winter underwear for both men and ladies which was made of cotton and lined with wool or cotton fleece. Again, they were two pieces, but the women’s vest was long sleeved and buttoned up the front like a man’s though it might have a bit of lace or ribbon at the neck.

The catalogue also advertised union suits for women, children and misses. Although I have worn long underwear during our coldest months most of my life, union suits were not a part of my wardrobe. I was surprised to see both summer and winter union suits.

The ladies summer union suits were short sleeved and knee length, with a low neck and of course, a drop seat. Some styles buttoned part way and most were in white, ecru or grey. Winter union suits were wool and fleece lined cotton and had as many as twelve buttons down the front. But there were no union suits for men!

Further research revealed that the union suit was patented in 1868 and was sold as a garment for women only. It is believed that ‘union’ referred to the uniting of the top and bottom pieces of underwear. Union suits were most likely always store-bought as the construction was somewhat cumbersome. They were initially made of flannel, and although not cited, it is believed they were red. While warm and cozy, flannel is a tight woven cloth and therefore had very little give to it. With the changes in manufacturing, cotton knit fabric was developed which had some stretch and was more practical for a one piece garment. As noted in the catalogue, the color red was not even listed as a choice.

So, when did men start wearing union suits and what were the color choices?  I referred to my other old Sears book dated 1908 and again found no mention of union suits for men. Based on the absence of them in 1908 and the newspaper advertisement that caught my eye in 1919, we can narrow it down to the intervening years.

I think we have all watched western movies and TV shows like “Little House of the Prairie” that depicted men in union suits – probably red – getting ready for a swim, a bath, or running from a catastrophe of some sort at an inopportune moment. The history detective in me wants to go back through the newspapers from 1908-1919 for the emergence of union suits for men; and determine if the classic programs appropriately dressed their characters for the time.

With the theme of winter underclothing I wanted to share a few amusing anecdotes I have saved for just this occasion. The first comes from Taito’s Stories – A history of Taito Mattila’s family in Deer River.(Compiled by the Mattila family in 2000 and is available for review at the Itasca County Historical Society.)  Taito relayed to his son an incident he recalled about an elderly Finnish neighbor, Andrew Niemela:

 The old smoke sauna Andrew had was pretty dark inside. Once in the wintertime, Andrew came in from there and told his wife there is something wrong with my underwear. They just don’t feel right. She said, well, let’s see what’s wrong. Here he had put his feet through the sleeves.”

The second anecdote is an epitaph for Peter Daniels from a 1915 issue of The Country Gentleman:                                                                                            

“Beneath this stone, a lump of clay

Lies Uncle Peter Daniels

Too early in the month of May,

He took off his flannels.”

Back to the article about mending winter underwear…it was very detailed in describing how to use an embroidery hoop to secure the damaged area, and carefully darn it using a small crochet hook. I would be happy to share it with anyone inclined to mend their long underwear or union suit.

And whether we call them long johns, longies, flannels, union suits and long underwear, it is essential that we keep a pair around, just in case it gets really cold this year. It is said that many people wore them from Halloween to Memorial Day. Some even say they wore the same pair…But I for one would not be doing any mending on them! 

Spuds, Taters, Murphies, Tubers, Goobers or Ground Apples part 2

Itasca County Homegrown Potatoes


Note: Part 1 of this two-part story appeared in the December 12, 2021, issue of the Herald-Review.  It covered the growth of the potato industry in Itasca County from the turn of the century until the late 1920s.

The Kremer White Gold Potato

George Kremer was one of four adult siblings who in the 1890s moved from Saginaw, Michigan, to the prosperous village of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.  George is the one most of us know because of the Geo. F. Kremer store which occupied a city block in Grand Rapids from 1893 until 1991. [Incidentally, in October 2021, his brother Arthur was featured in a two-part Reminisce column Law & Order ~ County Treasurer Embezzled Funds.]

George was a curious man, and the potato farming of his youth never quite left his thoughts.  It was probable that in the early 1910s Kremer put the word out to local farmers that he was interested in the “seed balls” that sometimes appeared on the potato plants. Kremer knew that by experimenting with the viability of the seedlings he could develop a new variety of potato.

Having never heard of a potato seed ball, and assuming readers might not either, I did some research. “A potato plant can occasionally sprout what look like a few tomatoes from the main stems above ground. Those aren’t the result of some strange experiment in your garden, but rather the result of potato flowers finally being pollinated. Those round seed pods are also called potato fruit, potato berries and seed balls. They look like green cherry tomatoes and usually appear in small clusters. The interior of a seed pod has up to 500 tiny seeds distributed throughout a mass of moist tissue.” [http://homeguides.sfgate.com/potato-vines-tomatolike-growth-97967.html]

When Kremer was given a seed ball, he saved and planted the seeds. It is thought that hundreds of seedlings were grown and discarded as they did not have the qualities Kremer was looking for. In about 1922 he thought he had a seedling that might have promise.  For eight years Kremer grew this new variety in trials.  He had the potatoes grown under ordinary conditions by farmer friends George Heinrich of Bass Brook, and Alva Sisler of Grand Rapids.  He also had the potato grown on different types of soil in Itasca County. Finally, Kremer was ready to share the potato he felt showed great value.  It was clear skinned, white, mealy, grew to good size, and ripened several days in advance of Bliss Triumph or other early varieties grown by Itasca County farmers.

Kremer was pleased with the potato harvest of 1930, especially when his new variety received a first-place prize at the Minnesota State Fair.  It was also at the fair that an established nursery took an interest in marketing the variety throughout the state.

May Contract for Kremer Potatoes ~ Deer River News 9-24-1930

“Geo. F. Kremer, originator of the locally famous early white potato, which is known here by his name, is negotiating with the Farmer Seed & Nursery Company of Faribault for the purchase of a large quantity of the potatoes grown here this year.  While the deal has not been entirely closed, Mr. Kremer is confident that an agreement will be reached which will be satisfactory to him and to the farmers who have grown the potatoes for him from seed which he originally supplied.

The potatoes were grown in large quantity this year on the Geo. Heinrich farm in West Cohasset.  In spite of the dry weather, the potatoes yielded well.  Their high quality was attested by the fact that they won first place at the state fair in the “any other variety” class.  Representatives of the Farmers Seed & Nursery Company saw them at the fair and opened negotiations for the purchase of a large quantity for sale as seed.

It is anticipated that the seed company mentioned, if successful in getting the selling agency for these potatoes, will have their yearly supply grown in Itasca County, where the potato originated, and where it appears to develop so successfully.  Mr. Kremer has been asked to name several good potato growers here who might be willing to grow them for seed under contract with the Faribault firm.  A distinctive name will also be selected for this potato which will associate it with Itasca County.” The name chosen was Kremer’s White Gold.

The Farmer’s Seed & Nursery Company is one of six horticultural companies that had a long life in Minnesota.  The others are Bachman’s, Bailey Nursery, Jewell Nursery, L.L. May & Company, and Northrup King. Farmer’s was originally founded in Chicago, but when the owners, William F. Kueker and his brother-in-law, Otto Kozlowski realized that most of their sales were to farmers in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, they moved their firm to Faribault in 1893. In 2018, the company closed.

Potatoes are an Itasca County Crop

For many years locally produced Kremer White Gold potatoes were stored, graded and shipped by rail or truck from a warehouse on 4th Street in Grand Rapids. The Cooperative Growers Association of the earlier potato years changed to the Arrowhead Potato Growers Association. It consisted mostly of Itasca County farmers and served as the marketing vehicle for the local producers of all potato varieties.

Since many farmers in the county were growing the new potato, in 1931, the Kremer White Gold was declared a separate category at the Itasca County Fair.  White Gold proved a successful yield, as did other varieties, especially in the community of Jesse Lake.

Itasca County has Potato Champion ~ Deer River News 10-15-1931

“Western Itasca County may now claim the residence of the champion potato grower of the world!  That’s taking in a lot of territory, but there is nothing lacking in the facts to prove it! E.J. Youngren of Jesse Lake, from his hill selected seed plot, this year harvested a yield of 1,100 bushels to the acre.

The figures are amazing but have been carefully checked and are reliable.  So far as is known, records of the nation do not reveal a greater yield at any time. For two years Mr. Youngren has been carefully developing his seed plot of Green Mountains.  Last spring, he had enough seed to plant a test row, and when the potatoes were dug recently the yield was at the rate of 1,100 bushels per acre.

And just to prove it was no accident, Mr. Youngren’s main field of potatoes gave a yield of 545 bushels per acre, second highest in Itasca County this year, surpassed only by that of Clair Cole, south of Cohasset, who secured a yield of 585 bushels of Rural Russets.

Mr. Youngren’s remarkable crop was not the only one in his community.  Other Jesse Lake farmers gave him a run for his honors. Among them were Lee P. Allen with 426 bushels of Rural Russets, O.B. Bendix with 422 bushels of Green Mountain, Theodore Alzen with 347 bushels of Green Mountains, and Eric Mortenson with 338 bushels of the same variety.

These remarkable yields stamp the Jesse Lake region as outstanding for the growing of potatoes.  It has furnished three-seventh of all the growers who thus far have qualified for the ‘300 Bushel Club’ in the county this year.  Our hat is off to Jesse Lake!

The Cohasset community is another with a remarkable showing.  In addition to the yield of Clair Cole, cited above, Geo. Heinrich grew 402 bushels of Kremers and 397.4 bushels of Green Mountains to the acre.  H.H. Keeler 399 bushels of Kremers, Matt Kassler 336 bushels of Rural Russets, R.B. Rasmussen 318 bushels of Green Mountains, and Ed Scherf 312 bushels of Green Mountains.

Chris Erickson of Wendigo, with 357 bushels of Rural Russets and Henry Thaxter of Harris with 330 bushels of the same variety, are other Itasca County growers who qualified for the ‘300 Bushel Club.’”

In 1939 there were sixty-three potato entries in the Itasca County Fair, proving potatoes were still the number one crop in the county. About this same time though, the Kremer White Gold lost its popularity because of its susceptibility to blight. George Kremer remained an active member in the Arrowhead Potato Growers Association until his death in 1942.  The following year, the Kremer family established the George F. Kremer plaque for best of show for a display of potatoes at the Itasca County Fair.  James Haugen of Pokegama Lake received the plaque in 1943.

Farmers continued to bring big potatoes into the newspaper office. “Victor Sandgren of the Chase Lake neighborhood brought in a huge potato Tuesday that is on display in the window of The News office. The spud is a Sebago, Mr Sandgren says.  He bought a small quantity of the potatoes for seed to fill in a small patch of ground, and in marketing the potatoes Tuesday, picked out the large one that is on display. He says that while not all the potatoes were quite that large, all ran exceptionally large.  Next week the big spud, which weighs two pounds, six ounces, will be taken home to make a few meals for The News family.” [9-28-1949 Deer River News]

The VanBuren Potato Grader

Along with the growth of the potato industry in Itasca County, there were folks looking for ways to improve on other aspects of the business of growing and selling potatoes. L. Elbert VanBuren was the postmaster of Blackberry from 1918-1942, but he was also a potato farmer and a bit of a tinkerer.

Invents a New Potato Sorter ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 5-29-1929

“L.E. VanBuren of Blackberry has invented a potato sorter which has been declared by potato buyers and others familiar with the automation to be something unique and entirely different.  The new grader is arranged on the principle of a crushed stone grading machine and is claimed to work much more satisfactorily than the screen machines now in use where the potatoes are carried over a moving screen.

The VanBuren grader, as the machine will be known, contains a hopper in which the potatoes are poured, a cylinder screen set at the proper angle and, at the delivering end of the screen, an ending chain or conveyor which takes the potatoes to the sacker.  Several features commend themselves to men who have handled large quantities of potatoes.  The hopper, instead of being made solid, is constructed of iron bars which permits dirt, sand, and gravel to fall out rather than be carried through with the potatoes.

While the VanBuren sorter and grader has not been tried on any large capacity of potatoes, those who have seen it work in demonstration claim that it will revolutionize the labor of sorting and grading potatoes and predict that Mr. VanBuren has invented something which will bring him a large and certain reverence.”

The Itasca County potato legacy did not end in the 1940s, in fact there is actually at least one other individual who made a name for himself.  You might have heard of the “Potato King” Marvin Schwochert of Morse township, north of Deer River.  Not only did he have some revolutionary ideas, but I also have a few great stories involving Deer River High School students working in his potato fields.  A column for another day! And if you can add to it, please get in touch with me. 218-244-2127 or chrismarcottewrites@gmail.com.

New Year’s Fortune

1.2.2022 [archived ~ originally published 1.1.2015]

Example of a Finnish casting and its shadow

Most of us are familiar with New Year’s traditions of resolutions, the countdown, “Auld Lange Syne” and fireworks. There are televised broadcasts that show celebrations as they are happening around the world. One tradition in the family I married into is that if you find living flies in your home on New Year’s Day it will be a prosperous new year. And even in wintery Minnesota, we sometimes do.

I have learned that certain foods are eaten for luck on New Year’s Eve or day such as black-eyed peas. In Spain one grape is eaten for each toll of the bell at midnight. In Italy it is one spoonful of lentil soup for the twelve chimes. Either brings good fortune as the round shape of the grapes and lentils represents coins. Incidentally black-eyed peas also symbolize prosperity because they swell so much when cooked.

In Greece it is tradition to eat vassilopita or King’s pie which contains a coin. Of course, whoever gets the coin in their piece of pie is sure to have good luck in the coming year. The person who finds a small China doll in their la galette des rois, a puff pastry filled with almond paste, in France becomes king or queen and gets to wear a gold crown for two whole weeks.

Wearing red underwear is a New Year’s tradition in Spain and Italy. Hmm, I wonder if that is why the original union suits were red…a future article, I think!  A Russian tradition is to keep silent for the last twelve seconds of the year and make your secret wishes for the next year.

One of the most intriguing traditions I have come across is from an interview with 70-year-old Cliff Niemala in 1996 when he talks briefly of casting metal fortunes. The interviewer, Elmer Mattila was one of several local historians interested in capturing the memories of folks that had settled in the communities north of Deer River. In January of that year, Elmer turned on his tape recorder and began asking Cliff questions about many aspects of his life. (The taped interview and transcription are at the Itasca County Historical Society as part of an extensive collection of oral histories.)

“They used to melt lead or silver of some kind. I suppose it was lead” Cliff said in response to Elmer’s question about traditions brought from the old country. Cliff explained that his father, Charlie came from Finland to Minnesota when he was only 6 years old. His mother Anna, also from Finland, was not much older when her family made the voyage. Charlie and Anna met, married, and started a family in Menahga, Minnesota and then moved in the Oteneagen area in 1925.

Cliff recalled that the lead came in bars and on New Year’s Eve under the supervision of adults, they would melt it and then toss it in cold water. The hardened metal would be examined, and fortunes told based on the figure. I have asked around but have not found anyone who still does this.

An online search provided the following information: Uudenvuodentina or the casting of metal is still done in Finland on New Year’s Eve. Everyone gets a small piece of lead, cast in the figure of a miniature horseshoe. The horseshoe is melted, and the liquid metal poured quickly in a bucket of cold water, making it harden into a more or less irregular-shaped, solid clump.

The shape and shadow of the resulting cast are examined and interpreted to predict the various future events of the coming year. The figures are often interpreted not only literally, but also symbolically: a bubbly surface refers to money, a fragile or broken shape misfortune. Ships refer to travel, keys to career advancement, a basket means a good mushroom year, and a horse means a new car.

Several years ago, I bought a cast iron ladle at an estate sale, and it will work perfectly for me to melt some old sinkers or wheel weights. I am eager to see what I learn. As for the flies, I did have some dancing against the window just before Christmas, so I hope a few more hatch out this week!

“Silent Night, Holy Night”

Local family’s connection to Christmas hymn & other Christmas snippets


Pfeil & Danielson Family

“My uncle Ob had the most beautiful tenor voice, and my mother had the most beautiful soprano voice. We were always so busy working there wasn’t much time for singing, but this is one thing I’ll always remember. On Christmas Eve my mother and Ob would sing Silent Night in German. It was the most beautiful thing you could ever hear. The house would be kind of dark and shadowy because they just had kerosene lamps. I have such a mental picture of it. The Christmas tree with all the home-made trimmings and stuff in the corner. Ob and mother would sit together, and they would sing.”

Kathryn “Kay” (Danielson) Miller (1916-2012) shared this memory during an oral interview conducted by Elmer Mattila and Taito Mattila in January 1996.  Kay also explained her family’s personal connection to that particular Christmas hymn. Her mother immigrated from Germany to work for her uncle Jacob Mohr.  “He had a big hotel in Cass Lake, and he had one in Deer River. The lumber people used his hotels. He was back to Germany to visit, and he brought my mother here as a chambermaid to serve at the hotel. She started at Cass Lake. He was a cousin of my mother. He was an uncle or some relation to the Joseph Mohr who wrote the hymn Silent Night.”

For this column I will show you the depth of research I sometimes do for my articles. Using the interview done twenty-five years ago as a starting point, this is what I believe to be true based on documented records.  Over time the names have been Americanized, so for continuity I am using those spellings here.

~ 1867 Jacob Mohr was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States when he was eighteen.

~ 1896 (about) Jacob marries Theresa. Theresa immigrated from Germany in 1891.

~ 1900 the Mohrs owned and managed a hotel in Cass Lake.

~ 1904 Theresa Mohr returns to Germany, brings Marie Pfeil back with her. Jacob may have also made the trip.

~ 1905 (about) Jacob and Theresa established the Mohr Hotel in Deer River.

~ 1906 (about) Marie Pfeil marries John Danielson.

~ 1916 Kathryn “Kay” Danielson born to John and Marie Danielson.

Kay makes three statements which I will explore further.  We will see what can be verified and what conclusions if any can be drawn.

[1] Jacob Mohr brought Marie from Germany to work at the Mohr’s hotel. 

~ On September 3, 1904, Theresa Mohr is a passenger aboard the ship La Savoie returning from Germany to New York.  Accompanying her is 19-year-old Marie Pfeil.  Both list their destination as Cass Lake, Minnesota. ~ The 1905 Minnesota State Census lists Marie as a chamber maid living and working at the hotel owned by the Mohr’s in Deer River.

Notes: Did Kay have the specifics incorrect about who brought Marie to Cass Lake or did Jacob perhaps come home on a different ship.

Conclusion: Marie did immigrate to Cass Lake to work for the Mohr’s.

[2] Jacob Mohr was a cousin of Marie Pfeil’s mother (making him 2nd cousin to Marie)

~ Resources are unavailable to determine without Marie’s mother’s maiden name

Notes: One of the handwritten notations on the ship manifest for 1904 when Theresa and Marie are traveling to Cass Lake is “cou” beside each of their names.  This perhaps denotes cousin (or 2nd cousin).  If so, (a) it is possible the term cousin was extended to Theresa through marriage to Jacob, (b) Marie was also a cousin to Theresa, or (c) Kay had the relationship mixed up and it was Theresa and Marie who were related, not Jacob and Marie.

Conclusion: Undetermined familial relationship.

[3] Jacob Mohr was an uncle or some relation to Joseph Mohr

~ Jacob Mohr was born in 1867.  Joseph Mohr was born in 1792, seventy-five years before Jacob.  Therefore, it is unlikely Jacob was an uncle to Joseph. 

Notes: He certainly could have been some relation.

Conclusion: Undetermined familial relationship.

So, let’s look at Joseph Mohr. My online search repeatedly brought me to articles written by Bill Egan, noted Christmas historian. He writes for Christmas Magazine and provides Christmas research for Charles Osgood of “The Osgood File” on CBS Radio.  He is thought to be the foremost Silent Night scholar in the U.S.

It is believed that Josef Mohr was born to Franz Mohr and Anna Schoiber in Salzburg, Austria on December 11, 1792.  Mohr’s father deserted him and his mother, thus they lived in poverty.  His musical ability attracted the attention of the choirmaster of Salzberg Cathedral who sponsored his early education.  Mohr was ordained at the age of twenty-two and served in the village of Mariapfarr for two years.  He wrote the poem Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht while there, but did not share it until he was the curate at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. 

The most credible story of the first performance of the poem set to music for midnight mass December 24, 1818, was the result of a broken organ. “Fr. Mohr wanted music for the Christmas service. He walked to nearby Arnsdorf, where his friend Franz Xaver Gruber was schoolteacher and church organist and asked for his help in creating a new song for Christmas. He gave Gruber a poem he had written two years earlier and suggested that it could be set to music for a guitar accompaniment with two solo voices and chorus. At that time, it was decided that the two men would sing the song with Mohr playing guitar and singing the melody and Gruber singing the bass part.

Returning to Oberndorf to prepare for the midnight service, Fr. Mohr was greeted by Gruber several hours later with the completed song. Gruber also served as organist and choirmaster in Oberndorf. It would be an easy rehearsal for the choir, since they would merely repeat (in four-part harmony) the last two phrases of each of the six verses.

As the two men, backed by the choir, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas Church and sang Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! for the first time, they could hardly imagine the impact their composition would have on the world. They were just trying to get through a difficult situation by providing music for Midnight Mass.” [http://silentnight.web.za/history/index.htm]

An organ builder heard the carol several years later when he was at Fr. Mohr’s church, obtained a copy of the composition, and shared it with several traveling families of folk singers.  One such family, the Strasser’s sang the song in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832.   The first known performance of ‘Stille Nacht’ in the United States took place near New York City’s Trinity Church in 1839. It was another twenty-four years before an English version of the carol was published.

Based on the information I gathered (no doubt there are international researchers who could take this further). there is not a straight line between the Mohr’s of Deer River and Joseph Mohr. A curvy one…perhaps! 

I found another Christmas story about Kay’s mother. Kay’s father suffered from tuberculosis so between the time this was written and his death in 1934, he was frequently a patient at the Ah-Gwah-Ching Sanitorium near Walker, Minnesota.

Has Christmas Spirit ~ 12-13-1928 Deer River News

“When it comes to doing more than one person’s share of the work of the world, you must hand the palm to Mrs. John Danielson of Oteneagen. Mrs. Danielson does a woman’s work in the home and manages the farm in the absence of her husband, who is in the San near Walker.  But she always has time to remember her friends.

Last Tuesday Mrs. Danielson brought to the News office the largest Christmas wreath we have ever seen.  It is approximately 14 feet in circumference and represents many hours of labor.  It was her gift to the local commercial club, in appreciation of courtesies extended by businessmen here.  It is a beautiful piece of work and will adorn the front of the building in which the club rooms are located, during the holiday season.

On behalf of the club, the News extends thanks and the season’s greetings to Mrs. Danielson for her splendid remembrance.”

A Letter to Santa

I found a handwritten letter to Santa Claus in a vertical file labeled Christmas at the Itasca County Historical Society. The letter, from 1929, was written in cursive by nine-year old Avis Irene Jorgenson.  The return address was East Grand Forks, but a clue in the letter steered me towards the possibility that there was an Itasca County connection.  Perhaps you will notice it as well. I have left the spelling as Avis wrote it.

December 19, 1929

Dear Santa Claus,

I hope you come to my house on Christmas eve and fill my stocking for I have been a good girl.  I expect to get a doll bed, a game, and a telephone.  I am going to tell you not to give the boys and girls in Mrs. Reeves’s room any presents for they are not believe in Santa Claus. Will you give Miss Gunna Christmas presents because she believes in you. I am so anxious for Christmas to come that I can hardly wait for you to come and fill my stocking, and Miss Guns’s too.

Your friend,

Avis Jorgenson

I recalled the family name of Gunn in the Grand Rapids area and wondered if that might have been the last name of the teacher in Avis’ letter, and if so, if she might be related to the Grand Rapids Gunn family. Using   Ancestry.com I learned Margaret Elizabeth Gunn was born in 1902, and that her parents Daniel and Anne owned a hotel in Grand Rapids at the time of her birth.

The 1930 United States Census shows that Margaret E. Gunn, age about 23, is living in a boarding house in East Grand Forks.  Her occupation is listed as teacher. I think it is a fairly safe bet to assume that Miss Gunn received her teaching certification from the Normal School in Grand Rapids, and at least for the 1929-1930 school year, taught in East Grand Forks.  In December 1935 she married Louis L Laurent, who was from East Grand Forks.  They resided in Grand Rapids and were part owners in a retail grocery store.  Avis married Oscar Legvold and remained in Polk County.

A Grown-up Letter to Santa

In 1930, the Itasca Iron News held a contest for the best letter to Santa Claus. Alma (Hermanson) Larson, of Bovey, was proclaimed the winner. The Bigfork paper reprinted the letter because Alma Larson is a sister of Esther Knight of Bustitown.

Nov. 29, 1930

Dear Santa Claus:

Do you know that mothers look forward to your coming too?  Only we call you Love or the Spirit of Christmas.  You know, we are only grown-up children who need so many., many things that you can give us.

First of all, send me Patience, enough to last through all the trials that daily appear; then give me Understanding, that I may be from day to day, a better mother, a better friend, a better neighbor.  And Charity, that I may see the good in all and not the small unimportant faults that I so easily find.  Give me a Joyous Spirit that I may spread cheer and sunshine along the way and that those whom I meet may know that I have walked and talked with the Master.  And give me Hope, the greatest of all gifts brought to the world by the birth of the Christ child.

And last of all I want a star, a bright guiding Star, to teach me how to use the precious gifts you bring.  And may the holiday season be a happy and blessed one for all the world, dear Spirit of Christmas.

Mrs. N.C. Larson

[12-19-1930 Bigfork Times]

Potato Soup for the Hearty

12.19.2021 [archived ~ originally published 1.28.2016]

1916 Buick similar to the one Mrs. Lillian Hewis of Deer River was awarded for selling subscriptions to the Duluth News Tribune

Potato Soup for the Hearty is my recognition of the small and not so small accomplishments of our grandparents and their neighbors. Potato Soup because it is a staple comfort food loved by all and For the Hearty because many of these endeavors required great stamina and fortitude.

I have collected a handful of stories of various undertakings that were mentioned in the old newspapers and selected six to share.  I am sure that for every one in print, there are another hundred anecdotes that haven’t been written and I hope with your help we can change that.

Eighteen-year-old Emma was in the wrong place at the wrong time but made up for it with a speedy return on foot.  “Though there are some good walkers among the women of this country, there are but a few who can do six miles in less than an hour as did Emma Johnson, a domestic in the employ of Mrs. P. R. Brooks.  While the local was in the yards she was in the coach talking to a friend Tuesday morning and instead of the coach halting at the depot, it pulled right out, and Emma had to ‘hike’ back from O’Brien spur, which she did.” Itasca News 3-29-1904

Harry and Ed were nearly twice as old as Emma when they flew up the river going over thirteen miles an hour on a frigid winter day. “H.D. Horton and Ed. Carlson skated up the river to town a distance of about twenty miles and report this as being the quickest way they have ever made the trip, making it in one and a half hours.” Bigfork Settler 12-18-1913

Lumberjack Halvor Olson didn’t intend to set a record, but he was a hard worker, and the weather didn’t delay his progress at all.  In fact, he “…set a record when he finished his logging contract for Ross Slack and landed over three hundred thousand feet of logs in less than six weeks.  If the rest of the loggers would get a hustle on like that, there would be no danger of anyone losing money at logging.” Itasca News 3-5-1914

Lillian Hewis, on the other hand, had a definite goal of winning one of the cars offered as prizes for selling newspaper subscriptions for the Duluth News Tribune.

Sells Lots of Newspaper Subscriptions ~ Itasca News 2-5-1916

Mrs. Hewis Wins Buick D-45 Car

“It isn’t the town, it’s you, may apply in the big newspaper circulation campaign in which the Duluth News Tribune offered prizes of automobiles and other valuable articles running into thousands of dollars, and which gave any person a chance by hustle to win a 1916 car valued at from $750 to as high as $1400.

In the campaign Mrs. James A. Hewis set out to win one of the larger awards, and she did it.  The young woman figured first it was worth the time and investment she would put into the work, then went ahead with ambition and zeal.  She visited nearly every town on the western iron range and most of the towns along the main line on the Great Northern road as far west as Fosston.  In the city of Duluth Mrs. Hewis had her greatest opposition, but to offset that she worked in her field all the harder and by the week before the close of the contest she was sure of winning either second or third prize.  The car Mrs. Hewis won is a 1916 six cylinder forty-five horse power Buick and the price of this car at Duluth is $1,035.  Figuring that her expenses would total $200 in her campaign, she is gainer by the two months’ worth $835.  Pretty good for a little smart woman, but she is one in a thousand.”

Seventy-year-old Howard Smith was born and raised in Iowa.  After his working years, he settled in Deer River, but enjoyed returning to his stomping grounds every summer when he could.  He didn’t mind walking but also welcomed the rides he got during the 4 days it took him to travel one direction or the other.  “H.M. Smith checked in last Monday at nine a.m. from a trip to Waterloo, Iowa, and return, a distance of 1,112 miles.  Mr. Smith left here May 19, packing seventy-five pounds of baggage.  He reached Waterloo four and one-half days later.  The return trip was made in a little over four days.  Automobile drivers were kind in offering lifts.  Mr. Smith is 70 years of age, and his accomplishment is much praised by his many friends.  He spent ten days with relatives in Waterloo.” Itasca News 6-11-1925

My favorite story was about thirteen-year-old Hugo. I tried to find a copy of his winning poster, but the Faribault County Historical Society was unable to help me.

Hugo Hannula Wins Community Poster ~ Deer River News 11-22-1934

“Hugo Hannula, son of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Hannula of Deer River, who is a student at the state school for the deaf at Faribault, Minn., recently won an enviable honor in a contest there.

The Faribault Community Chest committee last month offered prizes for the best posters submitted for their annual drive.  The advanced class included students in the high school, Bethlehem Academy, and the state school.  In this class, Hugo Hannula’s poster was given first prize among hundreds submitted, and was adopted as the official poster of the drive.

Hugo’s poster was 12×18 in size and shows a boy and a girl scout marching side by side with underneath the slogan, ‘Keep Us Going.’ The poster was reproduced in the Faribault Daily News on November 10th.

This newspaper, on behalf of the entire community, congratulates Hugo on his success.”

Emma, Harry Ed, Halvor, Lillian, Howard and Hugo represent only a few stories of individuals who did what they could to make something work for them.  I will keep looking for anecdotes of interesting accomplishments and also acts of kindness.  I hope that you can do the same and share with me stories or even snippets you have heard about your family and neighbors that could be featured in another Potato Soup for the Hearty article.  Please contact me at reminiscewithchhris@gmail.com

Bigfork’s First Thanksgiving

12.5.2021 [archived ~ originally published 11.27.2014]

Bigfork Settler 11-19-1903

School Program

The Thanksgiving program opened with a recitation of “The First Thanksgiving” by Bertha Rossing. Her mother Annie silently mouthed the words she had heard her eight-old-daughter practice for weeks.  Annie and her husband Ralph breathed a sigh of relief when Bertha successfully finished. 

It was November 25, 1903 and Miss Katherine Costello, teacher of the newly built school in the village of Bigfork had organized a Thanksgiving Program.  In all there were twelve recitations from the older students.  (Recitations are poems and short stories which are memorized.) The most challenging were “Tommy’s Thanksgiving” by Cleve Larson and Linnea Nordlin’s selection from “Hiawatha”.  In between the recitations were songs by the entire school of about twenty.  Thirteen-year-old Aminta Nordlin soloed with “Mother Goose”, and she along with several others sang “Five Little Gooses”.

The rough hewn school house was filled with parents juggling children too young to be in the front with the students.  The many lumberjacks and other bachelor homesteaders leaned against the back wall, watching the few eligible women as much as they did the performers.  It had been a cold early winter, but for once the building was toasty warm with so many bodies close together.

The program ended with all students joining together on the hymn “Song of Gladness.  After well deserved applause, the children scattered to their parents for additional praise.  Coffee brewing on the wood stove and metal washtubs of fresh donuts were set out on the desks.  Each family brought their own cups, plus an extra if they had one for the men who would inevitably forget.

Before long, the youngsters were bundled against the cold and snow.  Each single woman had at least a couple men to escort her if she so desired.  Many folks would gather in small clusters for a Thanksgiving meal the next day.  No one would be alone.  Children looked forward to an extra person or two at the table because the men were like uncles.  They had an easy way about them and loved to entertain with a harmonica or a whittled toy.

It was definitely a time to be thankful.  Permission had been granted to build a school and it was completed in March of 1903 by Frank Larson, Carl Pearson and others.  Katherine Costello was glad to have students again, and the children were eager to learn. 

Katherine was one of five teachers who had come from Red Lake Falls the previous year to homestead north of Bigfork.  At the close of the school year, she moved back to her land when a contester threatened the rights to her claim, so William Brown taught until spring.  Forrest Cochran, another woman teacher turned homesteader, was in charge of the school the following year.

All of the students listed on the Thanksgiving Program were born in Minnesota.  Roughly one half of their parents were immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany.  The Nordlin children were siblings, but the three Larson children weren’t even cousins!

Many of the students remained in the area and raised families of their own.  The ones I could verify are: Aminta (Nordlin) Skallman, Linnea (Nordlin) Holsman, Victor Nordlin, Alma Larson, Harry Larson, Cleve Larson and Robert Pederson/Peterson. 

Spuds, Taters, Murphies, Tubers, Goobers or Ground Apples part 1

Itasca County Homegrown Potatoes


Whatever you call them, potatoes have been a staple at the table for generations. As land was cleared in Itasca County, one of the crops that didn’t need to be planted in rows, surviving among the fallen tree trunks and uneven terrain, was potatoes.

By the end of the first decade of 1900, farmers here were growing enough potatoes to have a substantial surplus and the Cooperative Growers Association shipped the first carload of potatoes, 1,000 bushels, to Duluth. “…The potatoes were neatly done up in two bushel sacks bearing the imprint of the association. The spuds came from the farms of C.A. Buell, John G. Fraser, Wm. Hoolihan, A.M. Sisler, J. Affeck, Wm. Wheaton and Niles & Aiton. The potatoes were shipped to Duluth where they will be disposed of to wholesalers.” [Bigfork Settler 4-7-1910]

At about this same time, farmers in the Yakima Valley, Washington, were unable to sell their potato crops because the potatoes they were growing were simply too large, and thus were fed to the hogs. The Northern Pacific Railroad’s dining car superintendent Hazen Titus experimented with the two-to-five-pound potatoes and discovered they were delicious after baking in a slow oven.

“Titus contracted to purchase as many potatoes as the farmers could produce that were more than two pounds in weight. Soon after the first delivery of ‘Netted Gem Bakers,’ they were offered to diners on the North Coast Limited beginning in early 1909. Word of the line’s specialty offering traveled quickly, and before long it was using ‘the Great Big Baked Potato’ as a slogan to promote the railroad’s passenger service. Hollywood stars were hired to promote it… Premiums such as postcards, letter openers, and spoons were also produced to promote ‘The Route of the Great Big Baked Potato’; the slogan served the Northern Pacific for about 50 years.[streamlinermemories.info]

Back in Itasca County there was talk of building potato warehouses because in1916 the manager of the Minneapolis & Rainy River Railway stated that they would construct a potato warehouse and buy spuds at any station that could guarantee 5,000 bushels a year. Entrepreneur George Durkee considered several locations between Grand Rapids and Floodwood.


When the United States entered the First World War, farmers were encouraged to plant whatever they could to ensure a surplus for the soldiers.

Urge Potato Planting ~ Itasca News 3-30-1918

“Fearing many farmers will shun the potato crop this year because of the present low price and last year’s financial loss, the agricultural committee of the Northern Minnesota Development Association is urging all to plant more potatoes again this year. The following circular has been sent out signed by the committee.

The agricultural committee of the Northern Minnesota Development Association, after carefully considering all phases of the present potato situation, wishes at this time to advise all potato growers of Northern Minnesota to plant this season at least the usual acreage of potatoes for the following reasons:

1st – The potato crop is the safest staple food crop grown for market in this territory. There has never been a general failure of the potato crop in Northern Minnesota.

2nd – It will produce more human food per acre than any other staple crop suited to our conditions of soil and climate, which is important in the face of the present world food shortage.

3rd – The surplus of potatoes still in the hands of the growers can be utilized in no better way than planting them.

4th – We believe that the adverse situation in the potato market this spring will react to our advantage next fall in that the present glutted market will discourage the growing of potatoes in districts where the crop is of only secondary importance. With us the potato crop is the main crop for market, and we believe that this is the time to stay in the game.

5th – The potato growers of the Central and Southern states are just awakening to the fact that Northern Minnesota potatoes are the best seed potatoes on the continent.”

To ensure the soldiers were properly fed, the Federal Food Administration recommended that homemakers substitute the wheat with at least 20 percent of other grains in their baking. Their list included corn flour and corn meal, barley flour, graham, buckwheat, oatmeal, rice and rice flour, and potato flour. The following recipe doesn’t have potato flour, but certainly contains enough potatoes to meet the recommendation.

Potato Yeast Bread

“Take three cupfuls of hot mashed potatoes, firmly packed when measured, two teaspoonfuls each of salt, fat and sugar, a half a yeast cake dissolved in a fourth of a cupful of lukewarm water, and six cupfuls of wheat flour. Put a third of a cupful of hot water with the potatoes, mix well; add the yeast and one cupful of flour; knead or stir in the flour at first, adding one cupful at a time; it will be very stiff at the last, but with good kneading it will be smooth. The second kneading, because of the moisture in the potato, will be soft; add no more flour. When it is light, bake in a moderate oven one hour. This makes loaves of moist palatable bread. And potatoes contain about 80 per cent water, if no water is used, four cupfuls of flour will be sufficient, but it will take patience to knead it, but the results will be good.” [Itasca News 4-27-1918]

Boys and Girls Garden Clubs throughout the county planted a variety of vegetables, including potatoes. In 1919, the La Prairie Club was recognized as state champions for their 1918 harvest. The members grew 346 bushels per acre and were awarded $20 by the Northern Minnesota Development Association.

A Potato Warehouse for Deer River ~ Itasca News 12-27-1919

“George Durkee, the potato dealer who bought some spuds of the local farmers this fall, was here this week and announced to The News that he had made permanent plans for putting in a potato warehouse here. As to the matter further, the Grand Rapids Herald Review says:

‘There is no question about the future of Itasca County as a potato producing county. This is readily seen from the fact that George Durkee, local potato dealer, has made arrangements to build a potato warehouse at Deer River. The site is next to the King Lumber company’s new location. The new warehouse is to be 32×70 feet with a full basement. The building will have a capacity of 20 carloads of potatoes and will be one of the best on the line, this side of Duluth.

Mr. Durkee has potato warehouses at Grand Rapids, Cohasset, Rabey, Mississippi Landing, Floodwood, and at Warba, besides buying centers where warehouses are leased at several other points. Other vegetables of all kinds besides potatoes will be bought and stored here. Work on the new location will be started in the spring.’”

Bigger & Better

By June 1920 the dirt work for the potato warehouse at Deer River had started. The Itasca News reported, “It is to be 30×72 feet in size and will have a modern system of heating for cold weather storage. Mr. Durkee was here to start the engineers and workman on the job and stated to the paper that besides potatoes and vegetables he will buy all the blueberries the people wish to bring in; also that he will have a big motor truck here and where pickers have enough berries gathered he will drive out after them. The blueberry crop promises good again this year, and the promises of a good local market will be good news to many settlers and Indians.

Mr. Durkee has potato warehouses at different points along this line of the Great Northern and he says the one here will be the largest and best of any of them. He has studied the field and concluded the territory around here is the best in his territory and he calculates on big business in the future.” [Itasca News 6-19-1920]

The fall harvest was indeed excellent, and the warehouse was full. “Potato digging has begun, and it is a fact that never have the spuds attained such a full taste as these. They have not only ripened, but both the red and the white varieties are fully matured. The yield also is larger than seemed a few weeks ago being about normal. Most raisers are storing for future price. There are big yields of corn and if killing frost does not come within two weeks there will be lots of ripe corn here. Fodder is immense and the silos are now being filled with it. With an exceedingly large hay crop, taking all into account this has been a very successful year for local farmers.” [Itasca News 9-18-1920] The potato warehouse building still stands, it was last used as the recycling center.

In October 1925 two farmers brought their potato specimens to the Itasca News office to be measured and weighed. Jesse Cartwright of Deer River brought in four Carmine potatoes weighing a total of 7 ½ pounds, the largest weighing 2¼ pounds. He stated he has about 200 bushels.

A week later, Charlie Tervo of Bowstring brought in a potato that weighed exactly 2½ pounds. It was 7½ inches long and 6¼ inches at the widest point. The distance around it was 21¾ inches. It would take just two dozen of them to make a bushel, and at present prices they would be worth 50c a dozen.

Itasca Tubers Cop the Honor ~ Itasca News 9-9-1926

“Itasca County again demonstrated that it has a crop that no one else in the state can equal. The county made a clean sweep in potatoes at the state fair this week. Both the farmers and the boys’ and girls’ club work department carried off premier honors.

E.S. Brown of Warba entered a peck of Bliss Triumphs that took grand champion sweepstakes. In this variety the county also won a clean sweep, copping off 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places.

In the Green Mountain variety C.E. Featherstone of Goodland took first place. Again, Itasca County made a clean sweep, winning 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and fifth honors.

Jim Neubauer of Wabana won a 1st in the King variety. This class again copped first place for this section with only three entries, taking 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.

These potatoes will undoubtedly take prizes wherever they are exhibited. Let’s keep pushing Itasca County to the front in all fields of work and then view the results with satisfaction.”

NOTE:  Part 2 of Spuds, Taters, Murphies, Tubers, Goobers or Ground Apples will be featured in the January Reminisce column. George Kremer of Grand Rapids had experimented with growing new potato types for years, and eventually produced the ‘White Gold Potato,’ which made Itasca County famous. Kremer’s potato knowledge and history will be the focus of that column.

Beginning in January, the Reminisce column will appear only once a month as I am spending the coming year revising my 1897 family murder as a historical mystery!