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March 13, 2014

St. James Hospital cared for 40,000 patients

The St. James Hospital stood at the corner of Fifth Street and Sixth Avenue SW in Perham for more than 90 years.

Built in 1902 at the request of Dr. Frank Brabec, it was constructed of yellow brick from a local brickyard owned by August Haut. Many turn-of-the-century buildings in Perham were built from this yellow brick, and a few still remain.

The St. James Hospital was built by the Franciscan Sisters, whose primary concern was function. Nonetheless, the structure had a pleasing symmetry, and the bricklayer, named Alex Nelson, topped each window with a graceful arch.

Above the main entrance was a bell tower. The bell was used to summon the doctor who lived across town. In 1925, a new wing was added to the building, which botched the original symmetry but greatly increased the ability of the hospital to serve the growing area. The 60-foot addition contained an elevator and many other modern features of the day. This addition was also built by Alex Nelson.

The hospital served the village of Perham and surrounding communities for more than 50 years. Although it was managed by the Franciscan Sisters, it was described in Mason’s History of Otter Tail County as “a public institution, being maintained by donations from Catholics and their friends for the benefit of the public generally irrespective of religious beliefs.”

The building contained 70 rooms and was always filled. By the late 1950s, it was necessary to build a new hospital to conform to the burgeoning regulations for medical facilities. St. James became a home for the aged. It continued to be staffed by the Franciscan Sisters until, finally, they gave the St. James building, land, and a cash donation to the community.

Once a new nursing home was built, the St. James building was left vacant (except for storage of medical records and supplies). In 1989, hospital district representatives voted to demolish St. James, but delayed doing so at the request of local citizens and because of a lack of money. It was eventually demolished in 1993.

St. James Hospital played an important role in the history of healthcare in the Perham community. During the half-century that it flourished, it cared for close to 40,000 patients.

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

Forgotten Towns,History,New York Mills

February 27, 2014

Following the Northern Pacific Railroad through Otter Tail County

In the mid to late 1800s, the Northern Pacific railroad platted towns along its tracks in order to draw more business to the railroad. The first town platted by the railroad, entering Otter Tail County from the east, was Bluffton. It was platted by A.M. Arling for the proprietor, C.M. Maltby in 1880 and recorded in March of that year.  Charley Maltby also established a grist mill in the town, which accounted for its rapid growth. In the early 1870s, its population was larger than that of Wadena.

Next up the line was Topelius, also spelled Dopelius. It was located about four miles east of New York Mills and had a depot that was open day and night. Further on was Boardman, the first village platted in Newton Township. It was located on the Northern Pacific railroad in Section 7 and its plat recorded in 1880. Being that New York Mills was laid out one-half mile from Boardman, it was eventually enveloped and lost its identity and became a part of New York Mills, which was platted in 1883.

New York Mills had been named by Dr. Van Aerman and his two partners, Olcot P. Boardman and George L. Cornwell, who built their sawmill in Section 8, the present town site. The first car lot shipment of material hauled by the railroad was supplies for their saw mill.

Richdale, which was a few miles west, was located in Section 33, where the railroad crossed Pine Lake Township.  It was platted in 1899 by George A. Burbank for Albert and Augusta Boedigheimer. It was originally platted as Richland, but due to another town by that name, it was changed to Richdale.

Coming next:  Perham and westward on the Northern Pacific railroad line.


February 20, 2014

Perham hospitals vital to the community

Dr. Frank J. Brabec came to Perham in 1893. He first established his office over the old Kemper Drug store, adding a small operating room in which to do surgery. As his practice grew, he utilized the space over an old tavern and then persuaded a Mrs. Price to build him a hospital downtown next to the Bauck store. Dr. Brabec’s practice soon outgrew these quarters and the doctor appealed to the Franciscan Sisters to build a much needed hospital in Perham.

The St. James Hospital was built in 1902 at the corner of 5th Street and 6th Avenue. Brabec was responsible for the 45-degree angle of the building. It, like the home he built for himself on the north side of town, was set on a true north axis, to get maximum light exposure. For years, they were the only two buildings in town to have this orientation. The rest of the community is aligned with the railroad tracks which run northwest to southeast. The St. James Hospital played an important role in the history of health care in the community, and was the cornerstone on which today’s hospital is built. During the half-century that it flourished, it cared for close to 40,000 patients. Many are still alive and many more remember loved ones among those numbers. Dr. Brabec died in 1950.

Over time, medical technology and population growth outpaced its ability to function as a modern hospital. The hospital remained until 1993, and then it was demolished. Many artifacts were rescued from the building prior to demolition. They have been catalogued and archived by the History Museum of East Otter Tail with larger items stored at the Pioneer Grounds.


February 6, 2014

History of the ‘Red River of the North’

Sometimes called the Red River of the North, the Otter Tail River is considered by many to be one of Minnesota’s most beautiful streams.

The river begins in Big Rock Lake in southern Clearwater County and travels southward 200 miles until it reaches its junction with the Bois de Sioux, where it empties into the Red River and then flows north to the Arctic Ocean. At the railroad crossing near Perham, the river is 1,343 feet above sea level.

Before the glaciers melted, and Lake Agassiz dried up, the river flowed south into the Mississippi watershed. Many of its fish are similar to those in the tributaries of the Minnesota River. There are six species of fish and two species of mussels that have been found in the Otter Tail River and nowhere else in the Red River system. Some unique residents of the Otter Tail River include the Fresh Water Sponge, Northern Hog Sucker, Least Darter and Pug-nosed Shiner.

Because the Otter Tail River passes repeatedly from lake to wild rice marsh and back to stream, it may be the best naturally regulated waterway in the state. Mussels are important as an alarm system for the health of a river. They are filter feeders, siphoning nutrients out of flowing water and cleaning streams in the process. A drop off in a local mussel population is the first sign that water quality is deteriorating.

There are many species of mussels. Some live more than 50 years. The Otter Tail River has the highest density of mussels in the state. Mussels are a popular food source for fishes, muskrats, raccoons and otters. Mussels are a protected species and harvesting is illegal.

Early settlers used the power of the river for grist mills and sawmills. The Craigie Mill near Otter Tail Lake and the Thomas Mill (now Phelps Mill) are both historic sites. Lumberjacks cut trees and used the river to transport the logs to Winnipeg, Canada.

In 1907, the first hydroelectric dam was built on the river. The site was Dayton Hollow, a historic ford used by the Red River oxcarts. In time, five dams were developed by Otter Tail Power to harness the potential power of the river.

From 1936 to 1941, the Department of Conservation restored 63 lakes in Otter Tail County by building many small dams at the outlets of lakes to control water levels.

The turbulent rapids of the Otter Tail River that caused problems for the early voyageurs created a unique habitat for lake sturgeon, but since the construction of dams these fish have vanished. The DNR is now trying to reconnect the Otter Tail to the Red River by putting in “fishways.”

To discover more about the Otter Tail River, visit the displays at the History Museum of East Otter Tail County. Lina Belar is the founder and retired executive director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.

Forgotten Towns,History

December 12, 2013

A tale of two saloon owners (and one dime)

In the early days, when grasshoppers were ravishing the country and business was dull, there were two saloons in Fergus Falls, both on Lincoln Avenue and about two blocks apart. One was kept by a Norwegian called John, the other by a Frenchman, Captain Dampier.

Trade was dead. Gloom settled down with the grasshoppers. Farmers were futilely fighting the pests and watching their crops disappear as the locusts, in myriads, marched over their fields.

Merchants sat waiting for customers that did not come, and the only place of activity in town was at Nichols and Dearborn’s drug store, where the everlasting game of checkers went on day and night.

The general inactivity seemed to get hold of even the dogs. The very hens, gorged with grasshoppers, refused to lay. Nothing is known to equal a locust raid for spreading gloom.

One morning, during this depressing period, John opened his saloon, stepped out front and looked on this scene of inactivity. Up and down the street, not a thing was moving. He returned inside and sat down to wait for the customer that did not come. The stillness and utter quietude got on his nerves. For lack of something better to do, he got up and went to the money drawer, thinking to count the cash receipts of yesterday. There he found only a lone 10-cent piece. The dime looked as lonesome as John felt. He put it back and waited.

After a time, he approached the till, took out the solitary dime and started down the street for Cap’s saloon. He found that to be as quiet and deserted as his own place of business. He bought a drink, paid for it with his only piece, and went back to his own saloon.

In Cap’s till there had been no cash at all before he made a deposit of John’s dime. This transaction encouraged Cap. Business was ‘picking up.’ In a short time, it occurred to Cap that he ought to reciprocate and patronize his competitor, so he took the dime and started for John’s place. There, he bought a drink, paying for it with this nimble piece.

In a little while, John, imbued with the same spirit of reciprocity, took the dime and started on a trek for Cap’s place, where he indulged in a libation equal in value to the whole volume of circulating medium in town. Soon Cap “reciprocated” some more, and so these business transactions continued throughout the day.

When night came, both felt happy, hilarious and prosperous. As they meandered up the street, each supported by the loving arms of the other, Cap said: “John, that’s what I call financiering. We both got full and it cost us only 10 cents. Can you beat it?”

This story and many more can be found in “History of Otter Tail County,” edited by John W. Mason, published in 1916. Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.

Forgotten Towns,History

November 8, 2013

A bear hunt in the early days of Dora Township

Gust Fredholm left Sweden in the fall of 1880. After a few years in Wisconsin, he heard of a farm in Dora Township. He went to look at it and decided that this land of woods, lakes and hills was just what he wanted. In 1885, he sold his prairie farm and traveled by covered wagon to Dora Township. He married Christine Erickson and they had two children, Augusta and Carl.

On their farm, land was cleared. Cordwood and railroad ties were the sources of income, being hauled to Pelican Rapids, mostly across Lake Lida in the winter. Gust bought a team of very dependable horses. During the really bad snowstorms, he would depend on the horses to find the right road home, as there were many roads out on the big lake. When the snow was blowing hard, he couldn’t see any shoreline.

In the early days, people who drove with teams through the area would stop at the Fredholm home to feed and rest their teams, and would sometimes stay overnight.

Occasionally a bear would come walking through the area of the early settlers.

One windy fall day, when Gust returned to his plow, he found bear tracks in the newly-turned furrow. Along came a neighbor, Joe Jacobs, who’d been out squirrel hunting with his pedigreed bulldog and a .22 rifle. Gust showed him the tracks, the dog sniffed them, and away he went along the trail with his plow, followed by Jacobs, who thought they were just following a “‘coon.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t a raccoon they were following. The dog had a big black bear up the tree. Jacobs shot it, but he had only that one shell. Down the bear fell. It laid still a few minutes, then came back up.

Jacobs called, “Sic ‘em” for all he could. The dog took after the bear, biting him in the hind legs (a bulldog never knows defeat). Finally, the bear collapsed and died.

The hunters came back unhurt, but to get the bear out of there was another problem. Jacobs had horses and no suitable rig. (Horses, cattle and most animals, including most dogs, will not go near bears.)

So Mr. Jacobs decided to get a neighbor, Wm. Schimmelpfenig, who had a suitable rig and a team of oxen. The oxen were well trained, but someone had to hold onto them while others loaded the bear. The oxen galloped over the plowed field, up the hill, with the men barely managing to hang onto them until they reached their destination. Oxen never went so fast again.

The venturesome bear became a bear skin robe and bear steaks after a lucky hunting trip that ended happily for all (except for the bear).

This story and more can be found in the East Otter Tail County History books, available online at Lina Belar is the founder and former executive director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


September 26, 2013

Early German settlers: William Hancock and Louis Struett

Between 1820 and 1910, more than five million Germans crossed the Atlantic in search of new lands, opportunities and freedoms. Some settled in East Otter Tail County.

Rush Lake, the second permanent settlement in the county, was founded by a colony of Germans from St. Joseph, Ohio in the summer of 1866.

William Hancock settled in Dead Lake township with his wife, who had come over from Germany when a small child. As the community was predominately German, church services were held in the German language. Children started school knowing little or none of the English language.

Eventually, with new members in the community and the influence on teaching English in the school, affairs were more and more conducted in English. Older members still used German among themselves.

At the St. Joseph School District between Perham and Dent, German was taught as well as English, reading, arithmetic, penmanship, geography and physiology. When World War I started, German was dropped and the children were not allowed to speak it in public.

In 1869, Louis Struett arrived from Germany and located on a homestead in Pine Lake township adjoining Gustav Morganroth’s homestead.

Since Louis had been brought up in a large city in Germany in the merchant tailoring business, he was not accustomed to farm labor. He had a fine pair of oxen, but somehow the beasts would never go where he wanted them to go. Instead, they had pretty much their own way. His friends suggested that perhaps this was due to the fact that he spoke German to them, such as “Hott,” “Bist” and “Br-r-r-r,” instead of “Gee,” “Haw,” etc.

One day they found Louis rambling about the prairie with his team. Naturally, they asked him where he was going. He said, in German, “I do not know. My oxen could give you better information.”

Despite his lack of skill with animals, Louis was a very economical farmer. When his overalls were worn out in front, being a good tailor by trade, he would make them over and turn the back to the front.

As soon as the village of Perham was platted and lots offered for sale, Louis struck out for town. He bought a lot, erected a building and started a clothing store, where he had great success.

Louis became one of Perham’s principal merchants and the vice-president of the First National Bank of Perham.

Information for this article came from “Perham in its Early Days,” by Henry Kemper, and the East Otter Tail History Books online at Lina Belar is the founder and retired director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.

History,New York Mills,Ottertail,Perham

August 8, 2013

Pioneers of Rush Lake Township

William Gremmert was born in Hanover, Germany in 1866 and came to the United States with his parents and a young sister in 1880.

The next fall, they came to Perham and settled on a homestead in Section 35 of Rush Lake Township. While still a lad of 15 and 16 years, he hauled wheat with an ox team 12 miles to Perham and to the mill at Balmoral and Phelps to be ground into flour for the family use.

He was also employed by John McNellis at Otter Tail City, his wages being $10 a month plus board, or 50 cents a day for a 14-hour day. The old hotel, dwelling house and post office were located in a log building on the west side of the road with the sign “St. Paul House.” Mrs. McNellis was famed for her fine cooking. Meals at that time cost 25 cents, and they were real meals.

There were many Chippewa Indians about at that time, and on one occasion they speared a 60-pound muskie in Otter Tail Lake. It looked like a whale and was taken to Minneapolis to be mounted.

The public school for that district was located between Otter Tail and Buchanan lakes in the 1880s, and Mr. Gremmert’s mother boarded the teacher at $10 per month. Among the teachers were Freman Lurten, Miss Adella Bickford, Archie Chapin, Cecilia Bussness, Julia Rovang and Jessie Smith.

Later, the Gremmerts moved 10 miles north of Perham and six miles east of Frazee, across the Gorman line into Becker County, where they purchased 160 acres of wild land from the railway at $3.75 per acre.

Excerpts taken from an article first printed in the Detroit Lakes Tribune, dated December 14, 1944, later republished in the East Otter Tail County History – Volume II and now available online at Lina Belar is the founder and former executive director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


July 17, 2013

Characters of Perham’s past: Trapper Mac

Henry Kemper, one of Perham’s first citizens, wrote a number of articles for The Bulletin newspaper about the history of the area’s early days. In one of them he told the story of the pioneer trapper and hunter, James McDonald.

While a young man, McDonald had worked for the Hudson Bay Company, which took furs to England and sold them there at fabulous prices. When McDonald, or ‘Mac,’ as he was called, was 94 years of age, he was arrested for selling whiskey to Indians.

When the Marshall arrived with him at Perham and he saw a locomotive and a train of cars, he remarked that it was wonderful and that it was the first locomotive he had ever seen. He was then taken to court in St. Paul. When the judge asked him whether he had sold whiskey to the Indians, he answered, “Yes, thousands of barrels have I sold them.”

The judge told him he must not sell whiskey to the Indians in the future. Whereupon Mac replied, “You devils do worse things than that. Whiskey will not harm an Indian any more than it will you.”

Several of Mac’s former acquaintances were present at court, one in particular who had won $9,000 in gold from old Mac in one night at playing poker. Mac used to keep his gold in an old paint keg down in the cellar and that night he brought up from it $1,000 after another until the keg was empty.

After court in St. Paul, they kept Mac confined in a fine parlor for three or four days, had lots of fun with him, and sent him home with a new silk hat.

Old Mac always wore a very high silk hat, brown overalls and a blue gingham shirt, but no coat nor any underclothing. He often said that the Hudson Bay Company would hire no man that wore underclothing.

McDonald moved to the White Earth Reservation, where he died at the age of nearly 100 years.


This story and many others were written by Henry Kemper in 1901 for The Bulletin newspaper. They were published in book form in 2002 by the History Museum of East Otter Tail County. Lina Belar is the founder and retired executive director of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.


July 3, 2013

The Declaration of Independence: A cherished symbol of liberty

Elegant in language, compelling in reason, the Declaration of Independence is this nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty.

Proof that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, this simple piece of parchment changed forever the course of history in ways that wars, which often resulted in the substitution of one tyrant for another, had never.

Approved by Congress on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence embodies the ideals of individual liberty that were so important to the American experience. The declaration contains a long list of grievances against the King of Great Britain. It charges him with tyranny and states, for all the world to see, compelling reasons for breaking the ties between the colonies and Great Britain, and concludes that the only recourse left is to sever all political connections.

The idea of colonial independence gained momentum with the work from another pen, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense.” Published in January of 1776, it sold by the thousands. Then in June, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented Congress with a motion to sever all political connection between the United Colonies and the State of Great Britain. Congress appointed a Committee of Five to prepare a declaration and the young Thomas Jefferson was chosen to draft the document.

In the beginning, the declaration was viewed primarily as a pronouncement of independence from Great Britain. Each year after its signing, July 4 was considered a day of celebration. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress officially declared July 4 a national holiday.

Today, the Declaration of Independence has evolved into a powerful symbol of American nationalism. Along with the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States, it represents a major step in the establishment of our unique system of American government.