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March 4, 2015

Women of Perham – Audrey Esser

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March is National Women’s History Month and this year’s theme, “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives,” is an opportunity to write the contributions of women in the essential fabric of our nation’s history. Accounts of the lives of individual women are important, because they reveal exceptionally strong role models who share a more expansive vision of what a woman can do.

Audrey Esser was one of a number of women who demonstrated that strength by enlisting in the service during World War II. Audrey Esser was born to John and Lillie (Parrish) Nobles in Butler County, Mo. on June 15, 1919. In May of 1943, she entered the U.S. Army Air Corp and served until October of 1945, rising to a final rank of Corporal.

Audrey was an instrument flying instructor in the Link Training Department, where simulators were used to expose pilots to training. She served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), where she was one of seven women selected to become a flight instructor who would train pilots to safely land their planes during a blackout, or night mission.

She received her training at Daytona Beach, Fla., and advanced training at Kellogg Air Force Base, Mich. The remainder of her time was spent at Barksdale Field, Shreveport, La. There, she met her husband, Bob Esser. He was an altitude trainer instructor. They were married Feb. 10, 1945. At the end of the war, they made their home in Perham, raising seven children.

Bob became a plumber. In 1951, he worked in Thule, Greenland on a military construction project for four 9-month stints. When he returned to Perham, he continued plumbing and worked for Stan Sayer before buying that business and forming Esser Plumbing. In 1960, he became manager of the Perham Natural Gas Department and remained in that position for 25 years. In 1977, he sold Esser Plumbing to his son, Joe.  Bob died Nov. 19, 1985. He was a member of St. Henry’s Catholic Church, Knights of Columbus and the American Legion.

Audrey lived in Perham the rest of her life. She was a member of Catholic Daughters, Christian Mothers, VFW Auxiliary and East Otter Tail Unit of the American Cancer Society. She liked to travel, sew, cook, read, do water aerobics and garden. Her greatest joy was frequent visits from family and friends. Audrey Esser died Sept. 28, 2013, at the age of 94. She has many descendants in the area, all of whom can be proud of the contribution that she made to history.


Information for this article came from the National Women’s History Project, the Perham Enterprise Bulletin, and the East Otter Tail History Books, available online at Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


February 19, 2015

Early postal service and postmasters of Perham

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Perham’s location came within an ace of being located at the site of the old brewery on the Otter Tail River.

In 1872, Henry Kemper, then postmaster at Rush Lake, received orders to move his post office to that location. But since the Northern Pacific Railroad had already built a siding a mile west of the river, Perham’s current location, Kemper successfully petitioned the postal department to move the office there.

In June of that year, he and his partner, Henry Drahmann, erected the first wooden building in Perham, on the north side of the railroad track. This was the first mercantile business that was established in Perham. They secured a boot and shoe box and fitted it with pigeon holes, and this served as the first post office. The postmaster’s salary was then $12 a year.

When the Drahmann Store and Merchants’ Hotel was built on Main Street, where Thrifty White is now located, the post office was also moved there. Later, it moved across the street into what became the Weis Shoe Shop. Some years after that, the post office occupied a space where Dr. Ryan later established a chiropractic office. In 1962, a new post office building was erected on Main Street, on what was once the Globe Mill site.

Henry Kemper served as postmaster of Perham a total of 21 years. In the first hundred years of the post office, there were only 12 different postmasters, including: Henry Kemper (1872-1889), Stephen Butler (1889-1893), Martin Shea (1893-1897), Henry Kemper (1897-1901), George M. Young (1901-1914), Michael J. Daly (1914-1921), George M. Young (1921-1934), Casper W. Lotterer (1934-1938), John Mattfeld (1938-1940), Louise M. McGrann (1940-1941), John C. Grimm (1941-1944), Alfred A. Nelson (1944-1952), Lawler H. Olson (1952-1969), and Clarence W. Boedigheimer (1969-1976).

Boedigheimer began working for the post office in 1949 and was the first postmaster in the history of Perham to retire after completing 30 years of federal service. He was also the first letter carrier. Before then, mail had to be picked up at the post office.

During his years working for the post office, he saw many changes. Early on, mail arrived in Perham on four different trains each day. That was replaced by truck delivery once a day.

The name of Government Post Office was changed to U.S. Postal Service in 1971. Receipts climbed from $38,000 to $103,000. A new post office was built, with new equipment and fixtures that made for more efficient service. Letter carriers’ service grew from 30 stops to 550 per day for one carrier. At one time, postmasters were political appointments, but that changed to the merit system, which continues to this day.

Information for this article came from the “East Otter Tail History Books,” available online at

Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


February 4, 2015

Matt Winkels and the Winkels Carpet Center

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Matt Winkels was born in 1924 at the St. James Hospital in Perham. He was one of 17 children of Matt and Sarah Winkels, many of whom also married and raised children in the area.

In 1957, the junior Matt married Margaret Sonnenberg, the daughter of Fred and Ella Sonnenberg, who were farmers in Dead Lake Township. They had four children: Richard (Patty) Winkels, Sharon (Larry) Haarstad, Roger (Josie) Winkels, and Russell (Sheila) Winkels. Margaret was a clerk at the Kemper Drug Store in the early years of their marriage.

Matt began working in the Schoeneberger Furniture and Funeral Home at the age of 16 and worked there for 35 years. The business later became Perco Home Center. Starting in 1971, he managed the floor covering division. In 1981, he began Winkels Carpet Center. He retired in 1989 and his son, Richard, and his wife, Patty, now own and operate Winkels Carpet.

Matt was a veteran of World War II. He was inducted into the Army at Fort Snelling, Minn., in April of 1943 and took basic training at Fort Knox, Ky. After basic training he went to Fort Smith, Ariz., where the 16th Armored Division was being formed. He later went back to Fort Knox to attend Tank Mechanic School.

After completion of school, Matt was transferred back to Headquarter Co. of the 16th Armored Division. They left for the European Theater in December of 1944, landing at LaHavre, France. There, he joined with the 3rd Army in Germany under General Patton. They met up with the Russian Army in Czechoslovakia by V-E Day. Shortly thereafter, Matt was fortunate to reunite with two of his brothers, Alois and Leo, as all three were within a 50-mile area when the war ended.

Matt stayed in Germany for several months and was then discharged at Camp McCoy, Wis., in May of 1946.

Matt was also an antique car collector. He started by restoring a 1924 Model T coupe, then purchased a 1917 Model T from Meta Runge, who had purchased the car new from Marckels Implement. This led to a few Model As, early convertibles and a few other collectables made by Ford. Matt proudly displayed several of the prize cars at the Perham Pioneer Festival each year and attended many parades in the area.

He died in 2013 at the age of 89.

Information for this article came from “East Otter Tail History Book, Volume II, 1994,” as well as the WWII Supplement printed by the Perham Enterprise Bulletin. Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


January 30, 2015

The Tuskegee Airmen and their impact on local history

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The Tuskegee Airmen were America’s first black military airmen. Dedicated and determined, these young men enlisted during World War II in order to serve their country, at a time when there were many people who thought black men lacked intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism.

Many came from large metropolitan areas like New York City and Chicago, but their lives touched those of people from rural areas, as well. They served in segregated fighter squadrons, including the now famous “Red Tail” fighters who provided such tenacious bomber escort cover that they rarely lost a bomber.

Shortly after the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum (ITOW) opened in Perham, author Kim Russell presented a Reader’s Theatre version of her play, “Tuskegee Love Letters.” The play is based on letters, V-mails actually, between her mother and her father, a Tuskegee Airman.

At the time of the presentation, one of the volunteers at ITOW was Dorothy Ryan, widow of the late William K. Ryan. William had graduated from high school in 1943. A few weeks later he was drafted into the Army and served in the Army Air Corps in World War II with the 774th Bombardier Squadron and 463rd Bombardier Group serving in Italy.

After his military service, William attended the Logan College of Chiropractic in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1949, he set up a practice in Highland Village in St. Paul, and in 1953 he moved his family and practice to Perham, where he was a chiropractor for 34 years until his death from a heart attack in February of 1987.

Dorothy Ann Mayer married William in 1950. She remembered the stories he told her about his experiences in during WWII.

“I have always wanted to meet someone with the Tuskegee Airmen,” she said to Kim when they were introduced. “My Bill was with one of the Bombardier Groups in Italy during World War II. He told me that they ran into trouble on one of their missions and he didn’t think they were going to make it back. And then, like a miracle, the Tuskegee fighters appeared, and they were saved.”

She put her arms around Kim and gave her a big hug: “I don’t know if it was your father or not, but thank you anyway, from the bottom of my heart.”

In 1948, President Harry Truman enacted an executive order which directed equality of treatment and opportunity in all of the United States Armed Forces. In time, this order led to the end of racial segregation in the military forces. It was also the first step toward racial integration in the United States of America.

The positive experience, the outstanding record of accomplishment and the superb behavior of black airmen during World War II, and after, were important factors in the initiation of historic social change to achieve racial equality in America.

This story of the Tuskegee Airmen and how they impacted the life of one local veteran is the kind of amazing connection that happens more often than you’d imagine. The traveling exhibits at ITOW helped connect local stories with the stories of the larger world, often in surprising ways.

February is Black History Month, so I thought this would be a good story to include. The play, “Tuskegee Love Letters,” by Kim Russell, is being presented next month in Las Vegas.

Information for this article came from “East Otter Tail History Book, Volume II, 1994,” the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum and the personal papers of Lina Belar, founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


January 15, 2015

Origins of the Perham library

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The Perham Area Public Library was started in 1922 by the Women’s Club of Perham. It opened to the public in the old City Hall with a mere handful of books.

The committee that worked on the plan consisted of Bernie Kemper, Superintendent Randolph, Dr. Juergens, Mrs. Casper Lotterer, Mrs. Harry Davis, Mrs. Ben Esser, Mrs. A. Schwarzrock, Flora McDonald, and Anne Pancratz.

In the late 1920s, when the Burelbach Post of the American Legion thought of buying the Episcopal Church for a meeting place, they proposed that the building also be used as a library. As long as the post existed, the members would have the right to meet in the building. (This is why the library was always closed on Thursdays.)

Submitted photo. Built as the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in 1887, this historic stone structure housed the Perham Area Public Library for many years

So the Legion purchased the remarkable stone building from J.B. Miller and Grant Woodard. It had been built in 1887 by a Scottish stonemason, Nathaniel McConachie, and used for only a few years as an Episcopal church before various disagreements split up the congregation and many members joined the Methodist Church, which became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1939, Dr. Frank Brabec proposed that a community hall be added to the building. The city of Perham had to own the building in order to get a grant, so the city bought it from the Legion.

The library suffered through many lean years. Fundraisers kept it going, but buying books and materials on $350 a year was impossible, so when Royale Arvig became mayor, the library received $150 a month and the librarian rejoiced.

Dozens of volunteers worked at the library, giving a financial assist to the city. Catherine Drahmann, the librarian for many years, provided countless hours of volunteer time. Mrs. Al Schoeneberger was the cataloguer for 50 years, at no charge.

In 1978, the library became a member of the Viking Library System, which helped to improve financing. It also helped to provide patrons with many services besides books. Movies, audio books, CDs, a copier, magazines, fax machine, computers and more have since become available to the public.

Circulation (the number of items borrowed by patrons in a year) grew from 6,800 in 1970 to 63,000 in 1993. In 1984, the community hall was renovated and the library, which was suffering from lack of space, expanded into that side of the building.

In 1978, Catherine Drahmann became the first paid librarian. By 1994, there were two assistant librarians, Mary Jane Coates and Helene Pettit, and a summer librarian, Marie Doll. Those on the Service Board of Volunteers included Vera Bigler, Mary Helen Zitzow, Helen Lindberg, Jan Bennison, Marie Doll, Elsie Christie, Mary Holper, Audrey Johnson, Jeanette Kupferschmid, Becky Stolee, Joan Happel, Martha Lehmkuhl and Jeanne Schoeneberger.

The Executive Board consisted of Jeanette Kupferschmid – President, Vera Bigler – Vice President, Elsie Christie – Secretary, Jan Bennison – Past President, Mary Holper – Member-at-Large, Helen Lindberg – Member-at-Large and Lina Belar – Viking Library

Information for this article came from the “East Otter Tail History Book, Volume II, 1994” as submitted by Catherine Drahmann. Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


January 7, 2015

Train wrecks are part of Perham’s history

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The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad line through Perham has been an economic lifeline for the community ever since it was finished in 1872.

Tens of thousands of trains have gone through Perham in the last 143 years. Typically, they come and go with little notice, other than their loud horns and by tying up the traffic at crossings.

On at least three occasions, however, they haven’t made it through town because wrecks have occurred. One was in the early 1940s and another occurred in 1947, when two trains hit head-on in a snowstorm. But the train wreck of Oct. 1, 1992 was undoubtedly the most spectacular.

At that time, an eastbound BNSF freight train was just approaching the edge of Perham when a semi-trailer apparently fell off one of the cars. As it fell, it either struck a switch or got wedged under the train, causing a derailment to begin near the Holiday Station, about four blocks west of the stoplights.

Car after car derailed from the train, which was doing about 60 miles per hour at the time. As they derailed, they slid and tumbled toward the heart of the downtown area, threatening businesses such as Crane Johnson Lumber, the Perham City Offices, Strom’s Cafe, Ma’s Little Red Barn, Coast to Coast, Ace Hardware and others. Fortunately, one of the cars hit the loading dock at the Burlington Northern depot and came to a halt. That acted as a stopper for the rest of the cars, so instead of sliding, they began piling up.

When the train finally stopped, most of the 31 derailed cars were in a huge mound stretching westward about a block from the depot. Other than the depot building, which was wrecked, the only other structural damage was to a loading shed. Some adjacent vehicles were damaged or wrecked, one squished down to about two feet thick.

Submitted photo The BNSF train depot in Perham, in 1956. The depot was ruined in a train wreck in 1992.

One of the most incredible aspects of the accident is that there were no major injuries, despite the fact that it occurred at about 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.

There were a number of eye-witnesses to the event. Some people got pinged by flying rocks or shards from railroad ties, but there were no serious injuries. The town was lucky in another regard, too, because the train also had at least two cars with hazardous materials, one loaded with molten sulfur and another with propane. They were both behind the 31 cars that derailed and weren’t a factor in the wreck.

Cleanup crews hustled to Perham to get the mess cleaned up as quickly as possible and to get the railroad line open again. The westbound lane was re-opened 37 hours later, and the eastbound lane eight hours after that.

Information for this article came from “East Otter Tail History Book, Volume II, 1994.” Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


December 18, 2014

Perham’s ‘all girl’ precision cycle drill team

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From 1983 to 1992, Perham had the distinction of having the only ‘all girl’ precision cycle drill team to be found anywhere. The original idea came from Rick Tommervik, a local music teacher, who saw the red scooters at a cycle dealership. He mentioned them to Bob Kinlund, a friend who worked at Barrel O’ Fun, and things began to roll.

A drill team was formed, and for 10 years they traveled to parades and local celebrations throughout Minnesota, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin. The group was composed of girls from seventh through 12th grades and included members from surrounding high schools.

Over the years, the group made 35 to 90 appearances per year, making about 600 in its 10-year life, and was seen by an estimated two to three million people. Slightly over 100 young ladies participated in the program.

The group was originally called the Barrel O’ Fun Chippettes, using the theme from the then-popular TV show “Chips.” The name also reflected a natural tie to the type of product made by Barrel O’ Fun. The members of the drill team wore police-style uniforms and used a military type of discipline in their performances.

After four years, Barrel O’ Fun’s new owners elected to drop the program, but the group continued to operate on its own thanks to the support of several businessmen. Then, the Perham Chamber of Commerce, under the leadership of Tom Winjum, stepped forward to sponsor the group and re-named it the “Perham Escort Patrol.”

The group continued to travel throughout the area. It operated as a summer youth program and was used to promote the Perham area, becoming known as “Perham’s Traveling Ambassadors.” Doug Eckes became the Escort Patrol Chairman and he, along with two or three adult supervisors, ran the group through 1992.

The funding necessary to keep the group going was possible only through excellent local support. Groups such as the Perham Lions Club, VFW Post, Jaycees, and Athletic Association contributed money, equipment and manpower while hundreds of local residents gave support through fundraisers, breakfasts and raffles.

Submitted photo
Bob Kinlund, far right, makes sure all the Barrel O’ Fun Chippettes are ready before they go into their cycle routine at a performance in the mid-1980s.

Information for this article came an article submitted by Bob Kinlund for the “East Otter Tail History Book, Volume II, 1994.” Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


December 11, 2014

The history of Zion United Church of Christ

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The Zion Church was organized in 1890 by a group of men and women living in and around Perham. The congregation first met in what was known as Lange’s schoolhouse.

The Reverend S. Spahr was the first pastor. Two years later, the group decided to build a church. The first services were held in the church on Thanksgiving Day 1893.

The church enjoyed a steady growth and soon joined the Evangelical Synod of North America. This union had united the Reform and Lutheran faiths in one body. Its members had migrated to America in the 1800s, first settling in the Midwest, particularly Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin.

This Evangelical body then joined with the Reformed Church in the United States, whose members had migrated in the early 1700s from the Rhine country of Central Europe, first settling on the eastern seaboard, particularly Pennsylvania. They took a middle ground between extreme Lutherans and extreme Calvinists.

In 1934, these two denominations, the Evangelical Synod of North America and the Reformed Church in the United States, united to form a new body, the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregational and Christian Churches and became part of the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ. The name of the Zion Church in Perham was changed to Zion United Church of Christ.

Until 1922, the services of Zion Church were in German. At that time, the Reverend J. Mau started holding services in both English and German. This continued until 1945, when the German services were discontinued.

Information for this article came from the “East Otter Tail History Book, Volume II, 1994.” Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County. 

Submitted photo
Zion United Church of Christ in Perham, pictured in 1971.


December 4, 2014

‘A date which will live in infamy’

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Nearly three-quarters of a century have passed since that day when the bombing of Pearl Harbor signaled the end of America’s bystander status in World War II and imprinted on the nation’s consciousness “a date which will live in infamy” – Dec. 7.

Since then, the United States has become embroiled in a number of global conflicts and experienced other infamous days: the assassination of President Kennedy and the destruction of New York City’s Twin Towers on 9-11, to name two. Each event has had a major impact on the way we perceive our world, but perhaps none have had as much personal connection to so many people as the events surrounding World War II.

In the Perham area alone, hundreds of men and women were involved in that global conflict, and more than two dozen were killed in action.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, a lagoon harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

The attack was a surprise military strike intended to deter the U.S. Pacific Fleet from interfering with military actions that the Empire of Japan was planning in Southeast Asia.

The base was attacked by 353 fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, four sunk. In total, 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded.

Two of those who lost their lives in the bombing of Pearl Harbor were from Perham.

George Rasmussen enlisted in the Navy in 1941. He was assigned to the U.S.S. Arizona, where he was a welder. Rasmussen was scheduled to begin a leave of absence on Dec. 7 in order to meet his parents and wife.

Joseph Schedowski also enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941 and was assigned to the U.S.S. Arizona, where he was a fireman.

Both George and Joseph were killed, along with their crews, in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Several weeks later, on Dec. 25, a notice appeared in the Perham newspaper. The headline simply said, “Two Perham Boys Missing at Pearl Harbor.”

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a profound shock to the American people and led directly to U.S. entry into World War II in both the Pacific and European theaters. The following day, Dec. 8, the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S., an action that was promptly reciprocated.

There had been historical precedents for unannounced military action, but the lack of any formal warning, particularly while negotiations were still apparently ongoing, led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.”

The Perham VFW 4020 is honorably named after George Rasmussen and Joseph Schedowski.

Information for this article came from a November 1995 supplement to the Enterprise-Bulletin compiled by Bill Schoeneberger. Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County. 


November 20, 2014

The history of a successful team: Perham girls basketball

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The first girls basketball team at Perham Public Schools began in the fall of 1969.

Meryl Gisselquist was the coach. The team was made up of six players, with a ‘roving’ guard who could travel the entire court. That first season, the team played only seven games.

The next year, Ruth Cole took over the coaching position. Sometime during the 1970s, the game changed to five-player basketball. The girls improved steadily, and in 1972 they had their first winning season, with a record of 10 and five. The following year, the team tied with Dilworth and Frazee for the Heart O’Lakes Conference championship.

Perham went on in the following two years to be undefeated Conference Champions. The girls placed third, fourth, and second in the first three District 23 tournaments held in the fall of 1972, ‘73 and ‘74.

In 1975-76, the girl’s season moved to winter instead of fall. In addition to winning the Heart O’Lakes Conference, they also won the District 23 title for the first time ever.

The next year, Tony Bjork took over the head coaching job and led the team to eight consecutive winning seasons, including four District 23 Championships, three runner-ups and one third place. When Coach Bjork retired after the 1984 season, the girls had had 122 wins and 45 losses.

The next three years, the team was coached by Deb Meyer, with the girls finishing second in District 23 for two of those years. In 1988, Darrel Pederson came on board, and their success that year included a 22-3 record.

In 1991, the Perham team made history by being the first girls basketball team to ever qualify for the State Tournament. The team that year had a 25-4 record and defeated Osakis for the Region 6 Championship. The team went on to capture fourth place in the State Tournament.

Information for this article came from the “1994 East Otter Tail History Book, Volume II.” Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.