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Life es Lak at the
Contents An opening word from the Publisher The call of the water connects us all���������������������������������������������� 6
ears 150 Y kes it La | Detro azine unty ag er Co ennial M Beck uicent Sesq
What’s happened, what’s to come: Special 150th events throughout the year���������������������������������������
On the Cover: Photos of Becker County history, from the Becker County Museum and Detroit Lakes Tribune archives
The lure of the land, the call of the lakes
DETROIT LAKES NEWSPAPERS 511 Washington Avenue Detroit Lakes, MN 56501 • 218-847-3151 Every day is a news day
Melissa Swenson firstname.lastname@example.org
Marie Johnson mtjohnson @dlnewspapers.com
A look back at the history of Becker County and Detroit Lakes���������������������������������������������
The Anishinaabe, ‘the original people’�������������������������������
Life at the Lakes: Fun on the Water��������������������������������������
Additional people, places and stories of interest��������������
Closing thoughts from the Becker County History Museum
Looking back, thinking ahead�������������������������������������������������������
Viola Anderson violaa @dlnewspapers.com
Contributor: Vicki Gerdes vgerdes @dlnewspapers.com
A view of Detroit Lakes, in 1910.
Cover & Page Design:
Sara Slaby fccspecialsections @forumcomm.com A SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT TO THE SEPTEMBER 8, 2021 DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE
CONGRATULATIONS on 150 years!
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Life at the Lakes
Past and present, the call of the water connects us all A note from the Publisher, Melissa Swenson
ishing, water sports, Water Carnival, Polar Fest, an ice palace made from lake ice, and a milelong public beach that is enjoyed by thousands of tourists and locals alike — we are certainly blessed by the 412 lakes that surround us. It is only fitting, then, that we title this keepsake commemorative magazine, “Life at the Lakes.” After all, what better connects Becker County and Detroit Lakes history from 150 years ago to the present day? I have often pondered the perseverance and bravery of those who shouted, “Westward ho!” and settled this land. How determined must you be to leave everything you know behind to go off into the wild and make your home? Yet, I can see how the natural resources here would have been appealing. It is beautiful in Lakes Country, and life would have been made easier by the abundance of water, rich soil, woodlands and wildlife. 6 | Life at the Lakes
Up until 1926, the city of Detroit Lakes was known simply as Detroit. The name was changed to avoid postal mix-ups with Detroit, Michigan. I chuckle every time I think of this; 95 years later, I still get press releases several times a month — via email — asking that we publish information about a business or organization from Detroit. In fact, just recently, I was on the phone with someone who was trying to find out why, when I opted out of receiving their press releases, I no longer wished to receive them. When I explained that I lived in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota — not Detroit, Michigan, she exclaimed, “Oh, oh! I know Detroit Lakes! I think I’ve been to WE Fest!” She had attended the music festival once when she was in college (from what she could remember). A heartfelt thank you to Special Sections Editor Marie Johnson for taking on this massive project during a very busy time of year and to longtime Reporter Vicki Gerdes for her great writing and love of Becker County history. Thanks also to Elizabeth Molacek and Robin Stalley for tirelessly pounding the pavement to drumup the advertising support needed. To our press partners at Forum Communications
It is beautiful in Lakes Country. Printing (including the amazing Jane Sunram), thanks for fitting this into the press schedule! And most importantly, to our advertising partners and subscription members: Projects like this cannot exist without you — thank you for your support of local journalism. What an undertaking this project has been! 150 years is a lot of local history to try and fit into one magazine; we’ve done our best to show you some of the most memorable and interesting highlights. Johnson has worked closely with the friendly and helpful folks at the Becker County Historical Society & Museum to compile the historical information and photographs for this project. You know you work with the best when she tells you she worked until 3 a.m. on a Saturday night and loved every minute of it. That speaks volumes about the fascinating history of this place we call home.
Life at the Lakes would not have been possible without the help and resources of the Becker County Historical Society & Museum. The majority of the photographs, newspaper clippings, books, articles and other materials that were necessary for the creation of this magazine came from the staff and archives there. An exhibit on Detroit Lakes’ Sesquicentennial, which was on display at the museum in the summer of 2021, was heavily relied on as a source for the historical information contained in these pages.
FROM THE BEGINNING
“A Pioneer History of Becker County Minnesota,” by Mrs. Jessie W. West & Alvin H. Wilcox, 1907, and “White Earth: A History,” published by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe in 1989, were also repeatedly referenced, along with Detroit Lakes Tribune and Becker County Record archives, mnopedia.com, and other publications and websites, including two magazines previously published by the Tribune, noted below.
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Want more information about Becker County and Detroit Lakes history? Everything you ever wanted to know about downtown Detroit Lakes can be found in our 2019 Down to Business magazine, titled, “The Evolution of Downtown Detroit Lakes: 150 Years Ago to Today.” Print copies are available free of charge at the Tribune office, or the magazine can be read in digital pdf format via the Tribune’s online magazine rack (go to dl-online.com and click on “Read all our recent magazines here” at the bottom of the home page). For a comprehensive history of all of Becker County, visit the Tribune office for a hard copy of 150 Years of Becker County, a special publication released in 2009, 150 years after the county was first created (it was later organized by law in 1871, an occasion marked by sesquicentennial events in 2021).
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Sesquicentennial celebrations What’s happened, what’s to come:
Detroit Lakes, Becker County mark 150th birthdays with special events throughout the year By Vicki Gerdes | For Life at the Lakes
nowing that Becker County and Detroit Lakes would both be turning 150 years old in 2021 – the city was founded in 1871, and the county was officially organized that same year – community leaders came together in 2020 to make plans for these milestone birthdays.
8 | Life at the Lakes
Detroit Lakes festivities set sail
etroit Lakes’ sesquicentennial celebrations began with the “150 Sails Up in Detroit Lakes” public art project, launched in the fall of 2020. Over the course of several months, 150 steel sailboat sculptures — 75 large and 75 small — were festooned with unique designs by nearly 100 artists, most of them local. These sailboats can be seen today at locations all over town. That project culminated in a Sailboat Regatta Party at the Kent Freeman Arena on April 30, during which all the sailboats were on display for the public to see. Pandemic safety requirements limited the indoor crowd to 250 people, yet a steady stream queued up outside to take turns viewing the sculptures and chatting with the artists who had created them. Meanwhile, outside the arena, the crowd enjoyed a variety of culinary creations provided by local food trucks; a cash bar was also set up outside, and the Cropdusters performed live music throughout the evening. Kyle Meacham, the local man behind the creation of the Detroit Lakes Sesquicentennial website, dl150.com, made an interactive map of all the sailboat sculpture locations -- available on that website -- for anyone who wants to hunt down all 150 sculptures before the end of the year. Paper maps are also available, at sailboat locations around town and the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce, at 700 Summit Avenue. Starting Jan. 1, 2022, some of the sailboats’ owners and sponsors will be taking possession of the sculptures, and they may no longer be viewable to the public. Others will remain in place indefinitely.
ABOVE LEFT: Becker County Museum Executive Director, Becky Mitchell, left, and her daughter Emma created sailboats for the “150 Sails Up” public art project. One of Becky’s large sailboat designs is on display outside the museum, while Emma’s smaller sailboat is in the museum lobby. Vicki Gerdes / Life at the Lakes ABOVE RIGHT: A half-dozen sailboat sculptures for Detroit Lakes Public Schools as part of the “150 Sails Up” project. Six of the sculptures were installed at the school district’s four academic buildings, administration building and Lincoln Education Center, while another went to the high school football field, Mollberg Field. Pictured here is one of those students, Annika Gulseth, working on the sailboat for Mollberg Field. Tribune File Photo / 2021 LEFT: This sailboat sculpture celebrating the 150th birthday of Detroit Lakes can be found next to the kinetic sculpture at the Highway 10 overlook on Big Detroit Lake. Nathan Bowe / Life at the Lakes
Life at the Lakes | 9
‘150 Sails Up’ trivia • The sailboat sculptures come in two sizes: A 20-inch size on a wooden base, and a 4-foottall version on a cement base. There were 75 of each size manufactured for the project. • Nearly 100 artists were involved in the project, including students from Detroit Lakes High School.
• Almost half the artwork is vinyl wrapped, using digital images of original art. This technology opened the project up to media like watercolor, photography, oils, colored pencil and encaustic painting, which would otherwise not have been usable on the steel sculptures. • Three pairs of multigenerational artists (i.e. a parent and child) were involved in the project: Hans and Megan Gilsdorf, Becky and Emma Mitchell, and Twyla Bucholz and Tanya Strom. • The farthest traveling artist (doing direct artwork) was Brian Mahoney of Rapid City, South Dakota. • The farthest participating digital artist (in vinyl wrap format) was Erik Sukke of Smyrna, Georgia.
6 1. The ribbon cutting for the rededicated city sailboat sculpture concluded Detroit Lakes’ formal 150th birthday celebration on July 29, 2021 in the City Park, though other festivities continued into the evening such as an ice cream social, magic show, face painting, “Hoot and Toot” city vehicle fleet showcase and Trucks & Tunes event. Vicki Gerdes / Life at the Lakes 2. Detroit Lakes’ 150th birthday celebration was held July 25-30, 2021, culminating in a Sesquicentennial Birthday Bash. Logo Courtesy of the City of Detroit Lakes 3. Hundreds of people strolled through Detroit Lakes’ Kent Freeman Arena on April 30, 2021 to view all the sailboat sculptures created for the “150 Sails Up in DL” public art project. Vicki Gerdes / Life at the Lakes
10 | Life at the Lakes
4. This sign outside the Detroit Lakes Pavilion highlighted all the festivities planned for the city’s 150th Birthday Bash. Marie Johnson / Life at the Lakes 5. A total of 150 sailboat sculptures, each uniquely decorated by more than 80 regional artists, were on display during the Sailboat Regatta Party on April 30. Vicki Gerdes / Life at the Lakes 6. Matt Aakre was the featured performer under the City Park Bandshell at the Trucks & Tunes event. Vicki Gerdes / Life at the Lakes
Birthday Bash honors community’s past, present and future
etroit Lakes celebrated its official 150th birthday in style on July 29, 2021 — the same day the city was established in 1871 — with a party that featured live music, a time capsule burial, free ice cream and more. The Birthday Bash was the pinnacle of a weeks’ worth of sesquicentennial festivities that began with Art in the Park on Sunday, July 25 and concluded with a film festival at the Detroit Lakes Pavilion the following Saturday. The Detroit Lakes City Park was unusually crowded for a weeknight on the evening of the bash, as city staff, volunteers and guests celebrated. An Ojibwe blessing kicked things off, and a special edition of the Noon Rotary Club’s weekly Trucks & Tunes event capped off the evening. White Earth Nation spiritual leader Mike Swan and the Smoke Stack Singers led the Ojibwe blessing, pipe ceremony and a “song of honor” that Swan said was meant “for everyone in the community.” Next came remarks from Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk, Vice Mayor Ron Zeman, sailboat artist Hans Gilsdorf and Becker County Museum Director Becky Mitchell. “Since its beginnings, Detroit Lakes has always been a city that was forward-thinking and progressive,” Brenk said, referring to such examples as “quality of life”-enhancing projects like the creation of the city pavilion and park, its mile-long beach, Detroit Mountain and the community center, to name a few. He also read aloud a letter of congratulations from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. Leading up to the burial of a sesquicentennial time capsule, the museum’s Mitchell talked about the contents
Detroit Lakes has always been a city that was forward-thinking and progressive. -Mayor Matt Brenk
Continued on page 13
www.beckercountyhistory.org Life at the Lakes | 11
RIGHT TOP TO BOTTOM: This letter from an anonymous sender, dedicated to “My Future Family,” was one of several items included in the time capsule buried in honor of Detroit Lakes’ 150th birthday. A current dollar bill and a LEGO building block were also among the items included. These face masks were included, too, as a mark of the era of COVID-19. Photos Courtesy of Becker County Museum FAR RIGHT: The Detroit Lakes Sesquicentennial Time Capsule was gently lowered into the ground by city employees (left to right) Kelcey Klemm, Tom Gulon and Shawn King on July 29, 2021, after which it was buried as part of the city’s 150th Birthday Bash. It is scheduled to be unearthed on the city’s 200th birthday in 2071. Vicki Gerdes / Life at the Lakes
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Continued from page 11 of the capsule, which included a mobile phone, a 2021 Consumer Reports, a written collection of perspectives of life during a pandemic, DL Boys & Girls Club information, an aerial photo of current construction at the high school, an official Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 Decision Tree, a bus token for Lakes Transit, local maps, a boating guide, snowmobile use regulations, a Laker football sweater, a pickleball, Water Carnival memorabilia, a key to the City of Detroit Lakes, special handmade art from a local preschooler, various current newspapers and magazines, photographs, digital items, buttons, mugs, pins, and postcards and letters to future community members and families. The time capsule was lowered into a hole that had been dug next to the Washington Avenue plaza at the City Park, where the city’s large sailboat sculpture – newly refurbished and relocated – is now seated. Mitchell also discussed the creation of the museum’s new book published in light of the sesquicentennial, “Becker County Minnesota in the 20th Century,” written by Frazee native and journalist Pippi Mayfield, who was at the park that day for a book signing. The formal celebration concluded with a ribbon cutting in front of the sailboat sculpture, complete with a shower of glitter and streamers. After that, the community was invited to enjoy live music under the city bandshell, food truck fare, free face painting, a magic show, an ice cream social and a “Hoot & Toot” showcase of vehicles from the city’s fire department, public utilities and police department.
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Museum exhibit, heritage fest and more honor Becker County history
he Becker County Museum has been heavily involved in the sesquicentennial festivities, for both the city and county. In addition to the time capsule project and new Becker County history book already mentioned, a sesquicentennial exhibit was unveiled at the museum on May 27 — the same day the museum broke ground on its new 30,000-square-foot building, set for completion next year. The 150th birthday exhibit includes 35 historical panels about Detroit Lakes sponsored by the museum itself, plus another 25 banners sponsored by local businesses and organizations. It is on display through the end of the year. An expanded exhibit, to include all of Becker County, will be launched when the new building opens. The museum is also co-sponsoring a weeklong festival this fall called “I Am Becker County: A Celebration of Heritage,” set to run September 21-25. The heritage festival will include a demonstration day with artisans from all local cultures (basket weavers, lefse-makers, etc.) and performers, as well as sailboat sculpture auctions and more. The other co-sponsor for the festival, the Detroit Lakes Public Library, will be hosting some special events, as well. The last event on the sesquicentennial calendar actually takes place in 2022, in February, as it’s tied in to Detroit Lakes’ popular winter festival, Polar Fest. Details were still being worked out at the time this magazine went to press, but rumor had it that an ice palace, built on the city beach with ice blocks harvested from Detroit Lake, may be a part of the celebration.
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PHOTOS: The Becker County Museum’s Sesquicentennial exhibit currently includes informational panels about Detroit Lakes’ various historic sites and events, on display at the museum through the end of the year. An expanded exhibit, with information on all of Becker County, will re-launch after that, when the museum opens in its new location. Photos Courtesy of Becker County Museum
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The lure of the land, the call of the lakes A look back at 150 years of Becker County and Detroit Lakes history By Marie Johnson | For Life at the Lakes All photos are from the Becker County Museum Unless Otherwise Noted
he natural beauty and bountiful resources of Lakes Country have always beckoned. Long before Becker County and the city of Detroit Lakes became ‘official’ in 1871, the area’s rich mix of waters, woodlands and wildlife lured people with the promise of a good, healthy life. The first known inhabitants, the nomadic Lakota and Dakota people, fished the lakes and hunted the forests and prairies for hundreds of years before Europeans laid eyes on the land. The Anishinaabe people, or Ojibwe, arrived next, settling in the area that is now Detroit Lakes. The culture and traditions of those early Anishinaabe still resonate throughout Becker County today. The very name of Detroit Lakes stems from the Anishinaabe word for the large body of water the city came to be named after, Detroit Lake. That word, Ga’aazhawaawangaag, refers to the lake’s “crossing in a sandy place,” a reference to the sandbar that once served as a travel route between the “Big” and “Little” portions of Detroit Lake. French immigrants later translated that Anishinaabe word into one of their own, “detroit,” which similarly means, “a narrow stretch between two large bodies of water.” That term stuck as the name for Detroit Lake, and that lake name became the inspiration for the name of the little village next to it, Detroit, after European settlers established themselves there in the early 1870s.
We have a history of progress and a future of opportunity. We like to be proactive, progressive and prepared for opportunities. -Detroit Lakes Community Development Director Larry Remmen
(in a 2019 interview with the Tribune) That little village grew into the city we know today as Detroit Lakes. (The name was changed in 1926 to avoid confusion with the “other” Detroit – Detroit, Michigan.) But the city has been known by other names in its history, too. Some of those early European settlers jokingly referred to it as “Swamp Town,” “Sloughville,” and even “Mudville” because of its close proximity to several sloughs and wetlands. In those days, much of the area that is now downtown Detroit Lakes was one vast tamarack swamp. Wolves were known to howl in the streets, and bears were a common sight. Fur traders, buffalo hunters, loggers, migrant farm workers and other travelers passed through the area via Wood Trail, a part of the Red River Ox Cart Trail system,
Scenes from the early days of Detroit Lakes and Becker County.
16 | Life at the Lakes
LEFT: A man and his little dog take a pedal boat ride on Detroit Lake, ca. early 1900s. RIGHT: Swimming beaches – which at the time were called bathing beaches – at Detroit Lake and in resort areas throughout Becker County, like Shoreham, pictured here, used to have all kinds of recreational water toys, including the spinning water wheel seen here.
but only a small number of determined pioneers made a permanent home in this still largely undeveloped wilderness. Many of those first settlers started out at Tylertown, a makeshift community that sprang up around a tiny log cabin-turnedhotel owned by Melvin Tyler. Established in 1870 and situated on the northeast shore of Detroit Lake, just west of the Pelican River, Tylertown has the distinction of being the first town on Detroit Lake. The town grew, as in 1871 the Northern Pacific Railway Company cut its way through the local countryside and right past Tylertown, bringing new people and opportunities along with it. Tyler’s cabin became the local railroad stop, post office, stable and gathering place. The spurt of activity and growth there, however, proved to be short-lived. In less than a decade, the town was all but gone – and all of its amenities (and most of the people) had relocated about a mile west, to the newly founded village of Detroit. A man named George H. Johnston is largely to thank for that. Johnston is considered by historians today as the founder of Detroit Lakes. A Union Army veteran of the Civil War and a Trustee for the New England Colony, Johnston came to Becker County in 1871 to select lands and bought a number of sections in the area. He staked a claim about a mile away from Tylertown, on the south side of the tracks, and the community of Detroit was born. Johnston did a great deal of promotion work
to bring people to Detroit, and made his own home in the village for several years, building a flour mill on the Pelican River. There were only a few hundred people living in Becker County at the time Detroit was founded, with many of them on the White Earth Reservation, which had been established a few years earlier, in 1867. But the population was growing. Trains made it much easier and faster to travel – and transport goods – than the Ox Cart Trails made possible. That decades-old network of roughly-cut trade routes through Minnesota, the Dakotas and into Canada was rugged, and travel times were long. As the railway etched its way westward through Becker County, a smattering of new towns and townships sprang up along the tracks, sparsely dotting the landscape. Detroit was one of them. The area was opening up, and entrepreneurs saw opportunity. E.G. Holmes and John H. Phinney came to town just as rail service was beginning and built the first store here, The Pioneer Store. The editor of the Detroit Record, in a January 1886 edition of the newspaper, wrote about how that store got started: “E.G. Holmes & Co., the silent partner being our present sheriff, J.H. Phinney, brought a stock of goods to this place in August 1871, from Ottertail City, then in Douglas County. The goods were hauled in heavy wagons, pulled by nine ox teams. Securing a small building, the first store was opened, and it soon did a large business.”
Becker County Quick Stats • Becker County was created in 1858 and organized in 1871. • It’s made up of 1,445 square miles, divided into 37 townships, and contains 11 communities. • The county is home to more than 400 lakes. • It was named for George Loomis Becker, one of three men elected to Congress when Minnesota became a state; he never lived in Becker County.
Detroit Lakes Quick Stats • Detroit Lakes was incorporated in 1871. • The town was a resting place along the old Red River Ox Cart Trails. • It became the county seat of Becker County in 1877, after winning an election against other communities that were in the running, Frazee, Lake Park and Audubon.
Continued on page 18 Life at the Lakes | 17
FUN FACT: The first Becker County Fair was held Oct. 5, 1872
Continued from page 17 By the mid-1880s, there were several other businesses in Detroit, including the Holmes Opera House and Hotel Minnesota (in which E.G. Holmes was also a partner). The Opera House Block was located on Washington Avenue, south of the railroad tracks, and would later become the home of Blanding’s Department Store. There was a grocery and dry goods store on the block, along with saloons on both the south and north corners; the opera hall was located on the upper level of the building. With a seating capacity of 500, the hall was the hub of the village. Political rallies were held there, as well as balls, visiting road shows and musicals, masquerades, and talent shows. Detroit was officially established as the county seat of Becker County in 1875, and the first courthouse was built less than a decade later, in 1884. In May of that same year, work began on installing telephone lines to the courthouse, as well as to other major buildings and businesses in town. Several years later, in 1891, a steampowered electric plant brought light and power to the city for the first time (interestingly, many families in rural parts of Becker County didn’t have electricity until as late as the mid-1950s, as they had to pay out of their own pockets to get electrical lines extended to their properties and many couldn’t afford it). The town’s population by then surpassed 1,500, and the community had all the necessities of a self-sustaining village – a school, doctor, post office, jail, general store, blacksmith, wheelwright, barber, bank, hotel, restaurant, millinery and more. Clubs like the Freemasons and Oddfellows were running strong local chapters. It was a burgeoning time, and life was anything but sleepy. Lakes Country was Continued on page 20
An exhibit of corn and a large pumpkin for the Becker County Fair in 1909.
ABOVE: Arnold Olson takes a bite out of a caramel apple, in 1959. RIGHT: White Earth Reservation resident William McArthur was dressed up for a Wild West Show he was in, in this picture from 1910.
THIS IS US from the beginning to NOW!
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Detroit Lakes, Minnesota
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A view of Detroit Lakes, looking north, in 1908. The old courthouse is on the left, the Minnesota Hotel on the right, and the Baptist Church on the extreme right.
The water that comes out of Detroit Lakes taps today is from the same source as the water that was bottled and sold to railway customers back in 1896. Pioneer entrepreneur John K. West came up with the idea to bottle “Pokegama Springs” water, taken from a well used by the Fargo-Detroit Ice Company, and sell it to the Northern Pacific Railway Company, which served the water to passengers yearround. The popularity of the bottled water caught on, and Detroit Bottling Works, as it came to be known, ended up selling its bottled water for the next 75 years.
The Northern Pacific Railroad arrived at the eastern border of Becker County in October of 1870. The Soo Line arrived at the southern border years later, in 1903. In the early days, water towers were built along the tracks so steampowered locomotives could refill their water tanks. 20 | Life at the Lakes
Continued from page 18 popular with tourists, and a fleet of steamboats provided regular service and excursions to resort areas along the Pelican River. The 12-mile route flowed from Detroit Lake (a main landing was right at the foot of Washington Avenue) down to Pelican Lake, traveling through a string of smaller lakes and stopping at popular spots like Shoreham, on Lake Sallie, and Dunton Locks. A wooden plank sidewalk extended from Detroit down to the lake, running alongside Washington Avenue, which was then the main dirt road in town. There were boat and swimsuit rentals available at the beach, and the area now known as City Park was already a favorite spot for social gatherings and community events. Over the next 30 years, fueled by successful industries like tourism, lumber and ice harvesting, the population of Detroit Lakes continued to grow, more than doubling to more than 3,400 people. That wooden sidewalk was updated to cement, with granite curbs. A municipal power plant was providing electricity in the city. The Pavilion was wellestablished and was regularly hosting concerts and other events, and the Detroit Country Club was open for golf. There was a movie theatre in town, and a second school had opened. Many of the buildings downtown were brick by then, having been built during the community’s reconstruction period following a devastating fire in 1914. Twenty-two wood buildings in the
downtown area were destroyed in that fire, and the community rebuilt with brick to prevent another catastrophe like that from happening again. Some of the brick buildings in town still bear the year “1915” on their facades, a reminder of the rebuilding effort that year. In the decades that followed, Becker County and Detroit Lakes experienced immense change, as did all corners of the country. More recent, memorable history spans two World Wars, the creation of rock ‘n’ roll, the Civil Rights Movement, space travel, Vietnam, the Digital Revolution and invention of the Internet, the rise of feminism and the Me Too movement, the Afghanistan War – and the list goes on and on and on. Everything that’s played out on the national stage has played out here at home, too. Through it all, Becker County and Detroit Lakes have continued to grow, adapting to meet changing needs and demands and to keep moving forward. Community visions have shifted and evolved, local industries have fluctuated, businesses have ebbed and flowed, people have come and gone. But what hasn’t changed, in 150 years, is the lure of the land, the call of the lakes, the promise of a good life. Today, more than 35,000 people call Becker County home – nearly 10,000 of those in Detroit Lakes – and they’re all here for the same reason those first pioneers were here: to live a great “Life at the Lakes.”
The Anishinaabe, ‘the original people’
oday, the people of White Earth Nation are commonly called Ojibwe, or a variation of that, Chippewa. But in the beginning, they were known by the name they gave themselves: Anishinaabe, which means “the original people.” The Anishinaabe’s history in North America dates back to ancient times, when they lived throughout the northeastern part of the continent. About 1,500 years ago, they left their homes and began a centuries-long migration westward. By the mid-1700s, the Anishinaabe had moved into northwestern Minnesota, where they lived in bands of 300 to 400 people and got the food and materials they needed to survive from the natural world around them. They crafted canoes out of cedar and birch bark, and hunted and trapped animals for their meat and The White Earth fur. They gardened, harvested and Nation is the largest dried wild berries, gathered wild rice, made maple syrup, fished, and tribe in Minnesota, played games. with about 20,000 In the summers, they gathered along lakeshore villages in domemembers who live all shaped wigwams. In the winters, over the world. they lived in family lodges in the forest and gathered around lodge fires at night to hear the elders tell stories -- stories about the earth and nature, the legends of the clans, and the value of telling the truth, sharing with others and leading a good life. When Europeans first began to settle in North America, in the late 1500s, treaties were created that recognized Native Americans as owners of the land. In 1763, the King of England proclaimed the right of Native Americans to live on their land without being disturbed, and the Appalachian Mountains were set as the boundary line between them and the British. Two decades later, after gaining freedom from England in 1783, the United States made similar proclamations, promising that Native Americans’ “lands Continued on page 22
TOP TO BOTTOM: Benedict Big Bear and his grandmother, identified in the Becker County historical archives as Mrs. Razor, the mother of Joe Big Bear, harvest wild rice in Becker County in 1922. The annual White Earth Powwow is still held every year in commemoration of the arrival of the first group of people at White Earth Reservation. Pictured are dancers at the 2021 Powwow. Tribune File Photo The first newspaper of the White Earth Reservation was initially called ‘The Progress,’ and after a couple of years it was renamed ‘The Tomahawk.’ Eventually, it became ‘The Callaway Tomahawk.’ Photo ca. 1923.
Life at the Lakes | 21
William Warren was an early-1800s Ojibwe historian, with relatives and descendants at the White Earth Reservation, who helped raise awareness of Anishinaabe history and culture among white settlers. He held many long talks with tribal chiefs and elders, and published traditional Ojibwe stories and legends in a St. Paul newspaper, the Minnesota Democrat, before writing “History of the Ojibwe Nation.” He died at the age of 28.
Continued from page 21 and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty they never shall be invaded or disturbed.” That promise was not fulfilled, and for the next century and beyond, the Native American way of life changed dramatically. The U.S. government created laws, treaties and trusts that in theory protected Native American rights, while in practice stripped them of many of their homelands and traditions. Tribes were pressured into giving up huge tracts of land, and were moved to reservations. The White Earth Reservation was established in 1867, with the signing of a treaty in Washington, D.C. It encompassed 36 townships surrounding Rice and White Earth Lakes in Minnesota, and was named for the white clay that’s underneath the area’s soil. It was meant to bring all the Mississippi Anishinaabe Bands together onto one single piece of land. On June 14, 1868, the first group of about 200 people arrived at the reservation, led by Chief Turtle (Nay-bon-ash-kung). This arrival date continues to be commemorated today, with a traditional White Earth Powwow held every June 14 in celebration of those who arrived safely after the harrowing journey. Those first settlers pitched tents near the present village of White Earth and cut logs to build houses, a sawmill and a small church. They also built a storehouse for government supplies and food rations of flour, pork and other groceries. They farmed, fished, hunted and harvested wild rice. Soon, a doctor, teacher, carpenter and engineer took up residence on the reservation. An official Indian agency was created there, and over the next few years, several government buildings went up, along with a grist mill, hospital and industrial hall. This growth encouraged more of the Mississippi Anishinaabe to move to White Earth, and by 1876, the population had increased to over 1,400. Today, the White Earth Nation is the largest tribe in Minnesota, with about 20,000 members who live all over the world. The reservation consists of more than 829,000 acres, comprising all of Mahnomen County and portions of Becker and Clearwater counties. The tribe currently owns about 10% of the land within the reservation, with the majority, 51%, being privately owned, and federal, state and county governments owning the rest. An organized effort has been underway since 1989 to regain lands lost by the tribe because of treaty abrogations and improper purchases. Land grabs that took place in the late 1800s and early 1900s
were especially devastating to the White Earth Anishinaabe, leading to poverty and sickness among the population. A 1909 special investigation into White Earth land sales, launched by the government, found that the Anishinaabe people had faced “every scheme human ingenuity could devise.” Only a small fraction of the sales referenced in the investigation were undone. Government policies took a more favorable turn for Native Americans in the 1960s, as civil rights and discrimination grabbed the nation’s attention and sparked a cultural shift across the country. In 1965, the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, giving Native Americans the power to develop their own programs without government interference. Today, the White Earth Reservation is led by its enrolled members, who vote for their own governing body and elected officials. The present-day White Earth Anishinaabe continue to keep their tribal heritage alive by passing their teachings on to the next generations, and by sharing their culture with the region.
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Life at the Lakes
150 fun years of making a splash
akes Country isn’t called Lakes Country for nothing. There are 412 lakes within a 25-mile radius of Detroit Lakes, and the area’s early settlers were just as fond of swimming, boating, dropping a line, and other water play as residents and tourists are today. The earliest tourism advertisements in local newspapers boasted about the fish in Detroit Lake being so abundant that they would jump right into people’s boats. That may have been an exaggeration, but fish photos from the 1890s and early 1900s show plenty of anglers had reason to brag about their catches. Boat rentals and slips have been available at the Detroit Lake beach since 1889, first from Geuthling’s Lakeside, then Clem’s Big Dock, and now J & K Marine. For a time, the city provided bathing suit rentals, too, in a variety of sizes and colors; all were made of wool. The shallows at the Detroit Lake bathing beach used to be home to a giant
wooden slide with rollers, and then after that, a notoriously hot metal slide that would burn kids’ bottoms (but they’d keep going down it again and again anyway). That beach and others – at popular resort areas like Shoreham – used to have all kinds of water toys, including floating docks and diving boards, a spinning water wheel, a rolling log, hanging rings and more. A team of lifeguards was always around to keep watch. Other past amenities and attractions at the lake end of Detroit Lakes, such as Kiddieland, an outdoor roller rink, The Red Hen, A&W, and the Sandwich Hut, among others, ensured there was never a shortage of happy kids and crowds down by the water. The Pavilion, opened in 1915, was a big draw in the “good ol’ days,” too. In its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Pavilion would be packed every weekend during concerts. In 1935, the Detroit Lakes Jaycees Club came up with the idea to celebrate the Lakes Country’s love of water, and created
the Northwest Water Carnival. Still going on today, the Water Carnival is one of the longest-running festivals in the state of Minnesota. An annual 10-day celebration of all things watery and wonderful in the Detroit Lakes area, most of the carnival’s 50-plus events take place on or near the water, at the City Beach, Park, or Pavilion. While summertime tends to hog the spotlight in terms of tourism and outdoor adventure in Lakes Country, the winters have always had their share of fun, too. Winter sports like ice fishing, skating, snowshoeing, skiing and snowmobiling have been enjoyed for generations. More recently, in 1996, Polar Fest was started as a good excuse for people to get out and celebrate the cold season in Detroit Lakes. Polar Fest is held across multiple days every February and includes fun events and attractions like a polar plunge, ice sculptures, fireworks over the ice, an ice fishing derby, and more.
MAIN: The dock at Detroit Lake, in 1955, was a hub of water activity.
A group of guys take a swim on a local lake, in 1963.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Detroit Lakes Summer Rec program lifeguards, in 1963.
The old diving dock at Pettibone Lodge, in the Shoreham resort area.
Life at the Lakes | 23
Along with swimming and boating, fishing has always been a popular pastime in Lakes Country. Early advertisements promoted tourism to the area by boasting about the abundance of fish in local lakes.
1936 1900-1910 Area lake resorts, like Fair Hills Resort on Pelican Lake, seen here, have summer tourists flocking to Lakes Country for fun on the water. Steamboat service offered easy, reliable and fun transportation to and from the most popular resorts along the Pelican River chain of lakes. Fair Hills Resort opened in 1906; its dock and available boat rentals are seen here.
24 | Life at the Lakes
1940s-1950s Crowds line the lakeshore in 1936 during the community's second annual Water Carnival.
Water play became very popular in the 1930s, and for the next few decades swimmers enjoyed a variety of fun and thrilling (and sometimes dangerous) options for fun in the lakes. Pictured here on Detroit Lake are teeter-totters and, in the background, a spinning wheel, which swimmers would slip and slide around on before getting flung into the water.
Water slides, a water wheel, diving docks and more were still all the rage in the '60s, as illustrated by these postcards from the era (of the Detroit Lake City Beach and the Lake Melissa Bathing Beach).
The lakes continue to be a gathering place for fun and recreation all year long. Pictured here, in 2018, are thousands of concert-goers at the Detroit Lakes City Beach, outside the Pavilion, for the Water Carnival's big Bash on the Beach. Many came by boat. (Photo Courtesy Gene Lof / Dr. Drone Aerial Images / Detroit Lakes Tribune Files)
Paddle-boaters enjoy a ride on Detroit Lake, near Clem's Big Dock boat rental business in the 1960s.
A boat takes off from the dock at Clem’s in 1971. The Elks Club can be seen in the background.
Long Bridge, which extends over an arm of Detroit Lake three miles southwest of town, was rebuilt in 1976 to accommodate two-way auto traffic for the first time. The history of the bridge dates back to 1894, but had previously accommodated only a single lane of traffic. Long Bridge Resort was built at the bridge in 1946. By the ‘60s, boaters had dubbed the route out to the resort from town, “the pie cruise,” as they’d phone in their orders of pie and coffee from town and then boat to the bridge to pick them up. Today, the resort is still there as Long Bridge Restaurant, newly remodeled with a second level in 2019 and still with docking service and a marina for boaters.
Life at the Lakes | 25
Steamboats offered scenic rides from Detroit to Pelican
round the turn of the 19th century, the people of Detroit Lakes and nearby resort areas like Shoreham had a unique and efficient way to travel – by steamboat. A steamboat launch was located right at the foot of Washington Avenue, on Detroit Lake, and, beginning in the spring of 1889, steamboats offered multiple daily excursions from there. The route grew longer over time and at its max extended 12 miles down the Pelican River chain of lakes, ending at Fair Hills Resort on Pelican Lake after winding through Muskrat, Sallie, Melissa, Buck and Little Pelican lakes, with special passages at Dunton Locks, Bucks Mill and Kingsbury Lock, and Johnson Lock – a lockand-dam system created by the steamboat company to accommodate the route. The company, called The Pelican Valley Navigation Company, was the brainchild of John K. West, now considered the “Father of Tourism'' in the Detroit Lakes area. It operated a fleet of several steamboats over the years, which were used for travel by tourists and residents as well as for hauling wood, delivering mail, and, rumor has it, smuggling beer and liquor during Prohibition. The first pair of steamboats on the chain were the Lady of the Lakes and the Robert Fulton; the first to operate on Detroit Lake was the Minnie Corliss, a 70-foot-long boat that had two decks and could carry 200 passengers. Most of the company’s boats were much smaller, as passing through the locks limited their size to 35 or 40 passengers. A trip from Detroit Lake to Shoreham was said to take about one hour; a full ride from Detroit Lake to Pelican Lake took three hours. By 1918, there were more and better roads throughout the area, and the growing use of automobiles and gaspowered boats led to the steamboat company’s closure. According to mnopedia.org, some of the steamboats were scuttled in Muskrat Lake, where they remain, though the sunken hulls were stripped of their metal for military use during World War II. Some traces of the old steamboat line are still visible: Dunton Locks, for example, is now a county park, and Bucks Mill dam is still there, with the deteriorated concrete walls of the lock still below it. In the summer of 2021, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it wanted to remove Bucks Mill dam soon, for the betterment of the surrounding ecosystem.
TOP TO BOTTOM: The first steamboat landing on Detroit Lake opened in 1889, about where Washington Avenue met the beach. The city installed a wooden plank sidewalk along Washington, which was the main travel path from the train depot downtown to the lake about a mile south of there. This picture, taken in 1896, shows the landing as well as Guethling’s Lakeside Hotel in the background, the first establishment to offer boat and slip rentals on Detroit Lake. Most of The Pelican Valley Navigation Company’s steamboats were canopy-covered boats that carried 12 to 40 passengers – small enough to squeeze through the Pelican River’s system of locks and dams. The Minnie Corliss, pictured here, was quite a bit larger. It first launched from Detroit Lake on April 30, 1889 and traveled a shorter route, carrying up to 200 passengers. It’s pictured here at the Detroit Lake docking site.
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Plucked from the Pages of History Additional People, Places and Stories of Interest
Becker County’s many country schools
n the early days of Becker County, whenever a new township was organized, a school for that township was organized soon after. Generally, the townships would start by organizing one or two school districts, and then at least two more school districts would be added later. The average number of school districts per township in Becker County was four, but there were a few townships that had only one, and others that had as many as six. Several of these schools had 40 to 50 pupils at their height, and some even more. Country schools only accommodated students in first through eighth grades, so those who wanted to continue on to high school had to travel to neighboring towns, often staying with relatives while school was in session. The first school in Becker County was the Pine Point School, on the White Earth Reservation – which was also the first school district to have a hot lunch program. The first school district to become legally organized in the county, as District No. 1, was in Detroit Township. According to newspaper records, there were 126 rural school districts in Becker County in 1915, 101 in 1935, and 123 in 1943. In total, there were 132 rural school districts in the county. By the 1940s and ‘50s, country schools started to see a drastic decline in enrollment and began consolidating with other country or city schools.
There have been 132 rural school districts in Becker County.
Grand Park Township, which no longer exists (and much of which now lies within Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge), had just one country school district, District No. 95.
Did you know?
Minnesota’s first female doctor, pharmacist practiced in Detroit Lakes
Dr. Emma Ogden, the barrier-breaking first female licensed physician in Minnesota, moved to Detroit (now Detroit Lakes) in 1881 and opened a medical practice on Washington Avenue. She then opened her own pharmacy and brought in her associate, Emma Combacker, to run it. A barrier-breaker herself, Combacker was the first female licensed pharmacist in the state. Ogden had been a nurse in the Civil War, and became a doctor soon after. The two Emmas made history together in Lakes Country.
Life at the Lakes | 27
People, Places and Stories of Interest
The rough and rugged Ox Cart Trails
B FUN FACT: Cormorant Township, settled in 1870, received national attention in 2014 when a friendly, fluffy Great Pyrenees dog named Duke won the town’s annual election for the ceremonial mayorship of Cormorant. He served four consecutive terms before retiring.
Did you know?
Washington Avenue used to be a ‘corduroy road’ The area where Washington Ballpark is now, in Detroit Lakes, was once a big, impassable tamarack swamp. Extending Washington Avenue from the village center down to the lake was a huge project, but one that locals believed was vital to the town’s future. To get it done, they cut down all the tamarack trees and laid the logs down side-by-side (covering them with dirt) to make a “corduroy road” over the swamp. Before that road was made, people would take a cow path to go between the town and the lake. That cow path is now Summit Avenue.
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efore there were townships mapped out in Becker County, settlers and folks that were just passing through followed rough trails through the woodlands -- and even cut their own as they went. There were three main trails that went through Minnesota, and they were collectively known as the Red River Ox Cart Trails. Native Americans and fur traders were the main trail users at first, but by 1849, the trails were in constant use. The trail that carried people through Detroit Lakes was called Woods Trail, a 400-mile-long stretch that took up to 40 days to travel. The carts that traveled Woods Trail would often bring furs to St. Paul and return with merchandise and whiskey. The carts, which sometimes traveled in trains of 75-100 carts, had wheels made of solid wood and could haul 1,000 pounds. By the late 1860s, the development of dirt roads (which were important for logging) and faster stage coaches put the trails mostly out of commission, and the coming of the railroad line in 1870 further led to their demise.
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Life at the Lakes | 29
People, Places and Stories of Interest
The ‘Miracle Mile’
How Detroit Lakes’ mile-long beach came to be
hen Detroit Lakes’ mile-long city beach opened in the summer of 1967, it was immediately welcomed by the public. Known as the ‘Miracle Mile,’ it was a massive undertaking that took eight years to plan, engineer, and construct. Once complete, it was an instant attraction for thousands, and the city received great publicity for it. The Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers even named the beach one of “Seven Wonders of Engineering in Minnesota” for 1968. The $250,000 project cost – considered huge at the time – was taken on by the city’s Public Works Department, so no bond issues or local tax hikes were necessary. That department, along with the city council and planning commission, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and West Lake Drive property owners, worked together to bring the Miracle Mile to life. There was impetus in the community to make a major lakeshore improvement project like that happen, as water purity and shoreline quality had been deteriorating for years, and there were very few places still suitable for swimming along the
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Detroit Lake shore. Between 1940 and 1960, city storm sewers had deposited tons of silt into the lake, and there were extensive weed growths in the shallows. A planning commission was formed in 1960 to seek out a long-term solution. The plan they came up with seemed nearly impossible to achieve, as it required the cooperation of many people and organizations and, at the time, there had never been a lakeshore improvement project of that nature before. But they made it happen. After three years of negotiating with lake property owners, construction on the project began. It took two years. A sidewalk was constructed along the beachfront for pedestrian use and to separate the sand beach from the grass boulevard, and the boulevard was provided with an irrigation system with water pumped from the lake. In addition, West Lake Drive was widened and concrete curb and gutter were constructed, and a complete street lighting system was installed. Today, the beach is still a Miracle Mile, used and enjoyed by thousands all year long.
Dueling city leaders
Fight over utilities leads to gunfire
FUN FACT: Crowds used to
pack the Detroit Lakes Pavilion in the 1950s and ‘60s for weekend rock ‘n roll shows. The Pavilion hosted big names like Louis Armstrong and Bobby Vee, along with regular local favorites like The Unbelievable Uglies. It’s still a popular venue today, frequently used for community events, shows, and private events like weddings.
FUN FACT: The Detroit Lakes beach had a reputation as a pretty wild place in the 1980s. The Fourth of July weekend, in particular, would bring large and rowdy crowds into town, creating traffic jams and major headaches for law enforcement. In 1987, there were 125 arrests made by the sheriff’s office over the holiday, and 245 more by the police department. In 1989, the peak year of the madness, a survey in Playboy magazine named Detroit Lakes the “hottest” beach scene in the country, outranking Daytona and Fort Lauderdale. Things quieted down soon after that, as the State Patrol began cracking down on drunk drivers around town during the Fourth of July (they issued 500 citations the first year) and the city established new rules about overnight parking, which kept people from sleeping in their cars. These days, the town’s July 4th celebrations are family-friendly.
hink politics is brutal these days? Back in 1900, a power struggle between Detroit Lakes real estate magnate E.G. Holmes and tavern owner Mike McCarthy ended with McCarthy getting a bullet to the head. Miraculously, McCarthy survived, apparently saved by the metal band on his hat. And Holmes ended up being acquitted for the crime after pleading self-defense. Here’s the story: Holmes, a wealthy Civil War veteran from New York who owned much of Detroit (as Detroit Lakes was known back then) and was not exactly beloved by all, held a 10-year contract with Detroit to provide electrical lights to the village; but 8 years into that contract, the city wanted out. The townspeople decided to hold a referendum over whether to keep their electricity private, operated by the Holmes Light and Land Company, or make it a public-owned utility. Holmes felt cheated. McCarthy, a former city councilor, was an advocate of public-owned utilities and led the fight against Holmes. The political campaigning leading up to the referendum was intense and dirty, on both sides. The day before the referendum, McCarthy publicly taunted Holmes from the street outside Holmes’ bank, burning some informational pamphlets Holmes had created and falsely telling a crowd that Holmes was a Civil War deserter who deserved to be hanged. When an angry and frightened Holmes E.G. Holmes Mike McCarthy started getting into his carriage in an attempt to flee the bank, McCarthy tried to climb in after him, yelling, “There he is!” That’s when Holmes drew his pocket revolver and shot McCarthy, full in the face. McCarthy cried out and fell back on the street, blood streaming from his face. But the wound turned out not to be dangerous – the bullet had just glanced off his head. McCarthy attempted to sue Holmes for his injuries, but the case was tossed out of court. He still got the last word on the matter, however: After the court decision, McCarthy slowly and deliberately strolled down the town’s main street, breaking every window of Holmes’ many businesses. Not only that, but the townspeople swung his way on the utilities vote, depriving Holmes of the last two years of his contract with Detroit.
After his case against E.G. Holmes was tossed out of court, Mike McCarthy slowly and deliberately strolled through town, breaking every window of Holmes’ many businesses.
Life at the Lakes | 31
People, Places and Stories of Interest
Cold harvest, hot commodity
Lake ice was big business
rofessional ice harvesting in Detroit Lakes began in 1897, and by 1930, it was the second-largest industry in Becker County, second only to logging. An average of 100 men worked on the ice harvest every year – many of them farmers and tradesmen who were supplementing their income during the winter. The bulk of the harvest was done by hand, using specialized tools, though new technology like tractors and gaspowered saws were In peak years, enough sometimes used in later years. ice was harvested to The Fargo-Detroit fill over 4,000 boxcars Ice Company, the first large-scale firm plus provide the to operate out of the community with an area, advertised their ample supply of ice for ice as practically pure from organic matter. the year. They provided ice for the Northern Pacific Railroad and for the locally-bottled Pokegama Springs water, which the railroad used exclusively in its dining cars for many years. The railroad used the ice to transport meats, dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables from coast to coast. In peak years, enough ice was harvested to fill over 4,000 boxcars plus provide the local community with an ample supply of ice for the year. The invention of home refrigerators and refrigerated boxcars eventually brought the ice harvest industry to an end. The practice was resurrected locally in 2018, however, when ice was harvested from Detroit Lake for the construction of a massive ice palace, as part of Polar Fest. Ice has been harvested out of the lake every year since for ice structures used in the town’s winter celebrations, and will be again in 2022.
32 | Life at the Lakes
ABOVE: The historic practice of ice harvesting was brought back to life in 2018 for the creation of Detroit Lakes’ first-ever Ice Palace on the city beach, a part of the community’s annual Polar Fest and Minnesota Sn’Ice winter celebrations. It was done again in 2019, and 2020, for other ice structures created for Polar Fest, and will likely be done again for more events in the future. TOP: In the early days of ice harvesting, men with needle bars broke off 22-by-32-inch ice cakes, which weighed 400 pounds. The cakes then traveled along a tramway to the chutes, where they were loaded into railroad cars.
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“Moose Ventured On Main Street” A notable run-in with nature in 1896
From the July 31, 1896 Detroit Record: A large bull moose was seen by several people within one mile of the business center of this city on Monday, July 27. It was first discovered at Millard Howe’s in the pasture, from which place it went south along the Pelican River to the lake. It entered the stable at Mr. West’s ice house, and the noise made by the frightened horse attracted the attention of Mrs. Miller, who attempted to capture it by closing the barn door, but before she succeeded in doing so, the moose ran out and into the lake, which it crossed and disappeared into the woods. At this time of year, when their horns are in the velvet, moose are bothered by the flies and they appear to wander aimlessly about the country. A few years ago, a very large moose swam across Detroit Lake, passing within a few feet of a fishing party who were anchored near the sand bar.
Did you know?
‘Gosh all fish hooks!’ was something people actually used to say Folks used some pretty funny words and expressions in the early days of Becker County. Something that was hard to find was “scarce as hen’s teeth,” for example. And a nervous person was referred to as a “flutter-budget.” Instead of outright swearing, folks would say things like, “Gosh all fish hooks,” “Land o’ goshen” or “Jumping Aunt Hannah!” Women and men sometimes had their own separate ways of saying things, too: Women liked to say, “In all my born days” and “Land sakes alive” when something surprised them, while men opted for something like, “What in Sam Hill?” or “Zounds and garters!” Excerpted from an article in the Becker County Record archives
Historic places in Detroit Lakes
Seven properties in the city are listed on the National Register of Historic Places Detroit Lakes City Park, at 915 Lake Avenue, is a 39-acre park with a recreation building, ball park, picnic shelters, playgrounds and more. It surrounds the Pavilion, and abuts the mile-long beach. It was established in 1897. Detroit Lakes Public Library, established in 1913, was constructed with funds from a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation. It’s located at 1000 Washington Avenue. Edgewater Beach Cottages, built in a “stovewood” style in 1937. Two of the original eight cottages remain, at 321 Park Lake Boulevard. Graystone Hotel, at 110 Pioneer Street, was built in 1916 as a “fireproof hotel” after the city’s devastating fire of 1914. Holmes Block. Constructed in 1892 with an addition in 1900, this block that runs from 710 to 718 Washington Avenue spurred the early mercantile development of the city. Homer E. Sargent House, at 1026 Lake Avenue, is a 2.5story house built in 1885. It’s a wood frame Queen Anne style private residence with a barn and ice house. Northern Pacific Passenger Depot, established in 1908, is a one-story brick building with an 18-foot ceiling. It’s located at 116 U.S. Highway 10 West. Life at the Lakes | 33
People, Places and Stories of Interest
A threshing crew from Detroit Lakes, at a wheat farm near Fargo, N.D., in 1906.
The claim we hold is as good as gold – bonanza farms!
onanza farms were big business in northwestern Minnesota and the Dakotas from the 1870s to 1920. The large, commercial farming enterprises grew thousands of acres of wheat and were the subject of national farm periodicals, visited by business and political leaders from across the United States and Europe. According to information from the Minnesota Historical Society and Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, a total of 91 farms, ranging from 3,000 to 100,000 acres, qualified as bonanzas – nearly all of them were located within 40 miles of the Red River. It was the Northern Pacific Railway Company that encouraged the development of these large-scale farms, as part of its own effort to shed debts by exchanging land for bonds and preferred stock. The company touted the possibilities of large-scale agriculture in the Red River Valley, where the flat, treeless, fertile, stoneless prairie was ideal for establishing big farms. In their heyday, the bonanzas produced millions of bushels of wheat for hungry mills throughout the region. For the hundreds of workers employed by each farm, it was hard labor. They spent 16-hour days in the fields during the wheat harvest. After harvest, many of them would move on to other areas, often to the forests of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, to spend the winter working in logging camps. Advances in farming technology throughout the bonanza era, including the invention of horse-drawn plows, reapers, threshers and other machinery, made it possible for farmers to make more money from the same amount of land, and thus prosper.
In time, however, changing world conditions and a surplus of wheat, along with less plentiful and more costly migrant labor, made the bonanzas less profitable. The land was also suffering, having been stripped of essential nutrients by the big farms. By 1920, the bonanza era ended. Most of the farmland was subdivided and sold or rented to smaller-scale farmers. Today, only a few of the bonanza holdings remain intact today, and they operate much differently than the originals.
The Seven Sisters of the Lake Area are legendary.
So much so that 7 lakes were named in their honor. We continue to pay respect to these pioneer women and are always in their debt for helping to make the lake area so wonderful.
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FUN FACT: The first recorded boat parade on Detroit Lake took place over the Fourth of July weekend in 1956. Nearly 70 boats participated, circling the lake.
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The biggest industry of the early days
ogging was a major industry in the north, including in the Becker County area, where vast groves of pine timber grew. Logging companies came to the region around 1870, building roads and camps to meet their log harvesting needs. One of the larger companies to establish a presence in Becker County was the Nichols-Chisholm Company, which gained control of a large saw mill in Frazee in 1904 and employed 500 men. It had seven camps within about a 15-mile radius. The main camp was located deep in the woods and was like a little city unto itself. It had a blacksmith shop, office, two big bunkhouses, a store with three horse barns for over 200 horses, a large kitchen/dining room with four tables that sat 40 men each, and it employed the best cooks around. The loggers who worked at the camps had to be strong and able to work in cold weather. They worked for about 6 months out of the year, usually in the winters. Since the camps became their home-away-from-home, they got to know each other well, telling stories and playing music and card games on the weekends. They did their own laundry and mended their own clothes. Out on the job, they used standard hand tools like two-man saws and log-pokers, and spiked boots allowed them to stand and run on logs without falling. In the spring, the logs were “driven” down rivers to saw mills like the one in Frazee. Dams were sometimes constructed in the rivers to raise the water enough to float the logs. When the dams were released, the logs would rush downstream. Records from 1884 claim that a log drive occurred from Becker County to Winnipeg via the Red River, beginning on April 28 and reaching its destination July 26, covering an estimated 1,760 miles. In the winter, logs were hauled out of the woods by horse or ox-drawn sleighs to the nearest lake or river. An average load consisted of 60-150 logs, each branded or stamped with a symbol to show which company’s logs were being sawed into lumber. By 1919, the pine timber had been harvested and the supply exhausted, and the mill at Frazee closed. Today, the forests in Becker County consist mainly of broadleaf trees. The large pine trees that still exist are those that survived the lumbermens’ saws because they were too small to be valuable during the logging era.
TOP TO BOTTOM: A log drive on the Otter Tail River, in about 1910. An early days skidway crew in the White Earth area. The logging exhibit at the Becker County Museum features a number of old handsaws and axes, tools regularly used by loggers in the early days.
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Looking back, thinking ahead Cheers to the past 150 years, here’s to the next 150 By Kevin Mitchell Becker County Museum
e at the Becker County Museum have poured over hundreds of historical details, over the course of several months, in preparation for Detroit Lakes and Becker County’s 2021 sesquicentennial celebrations. We’ve worked on three things, primarily: A museum exhibition in honor of Detroit Lakes’ 150th; another for Becker County’s 150th; and a book about county history called “Becker County in the 20th Century,” written by Minnesota journalist Pippi Mayfield. The book is essentially the sequel to the 1907 book, “A Pioneer History of Becker County Minnesota,” by Jessie West and Alvin Wilcox, which is often cited by local historians and is mentioned elsewhere in this magazine. The new book, just published this summer, catches us up from where the old one left off, in early settler times. In those times, Detroit Lakes was still known as simply Detroit. It was a trapper haven and very near to timber cutting, and it was a tourist town, as it still is today. As things developed, the little community became home to numerous resorts and outdoor fun spots; Detroit Lake has been a popular fishing and swimming lake for over 100 years. Pioneering entrepreneurs took up residence in the area and set up banks, power plants, general stores and more, helping the town thrive. The process of gathering historical information like this is both fascinating and daunting. Research commonly turns up conflicting information from one
Things evolve and change constantly. Buildings wear down, people come and go, the current events of today become the historical events of tomorrow. What lasts is what we build together, and work on together to keep alive into the future. well-respected source to another, which takes you down long rabbit holes in a quest to determine the facts. Things like birth and death records, land purchase records, tax records, and news articles must all be explored. For much of this past year at the museum, the daily routine involved a workflow of researchers who’d locate articles, documents and photos and then share them with Mayfield for inclusion in the new book. Things were compiled for our exhibits, too – meaningful and interesting bits and pieces of local history, in text and photos, were chosen to be featured on a number of large banners displayed around the museum. We broke the exhibits down into categories, like “Healthcare,” “Electricity,” “Railroads,” “Schools,” “Ice Harvesting” and many others, to make the large amount of information more easily consumable. Some local businesses have banners about their own history on display in their offices, in addition to the museum, so folks might also catch a glimpse of the exhibits at other locations around town. The process of creating those banners was interesting, since we had to locate and select photos that were of high enough quality to enlarge and print, and also had to dig into the written histories of the businesses. It was a team effort, for sure – Peggy Stellmach and Virginia Weston spent countless hours tracking down information, and Emily Buermann, our program director, performed the massive task of banner design and layout. My
wife Becky Mitchell, the director of the museum, oversaw the overall vision for the exhibits, and led us to what the community would love. My role is always a bit odd – I scan photos, sometimes not even knowing what for, and then put them somewhere accessible. Sometimes, when file format issues or other technical errors come up, that’s my bailiwick. We invite you to come see the exhibit we put together about Detroit Lakes’ 150th, on display now through the end of 2021. And, once the museum is up and running in its new building (right next to the old one), we’ll be unveiling our sesquicentennial exhibit about Becker County. The new museum is currently under construction, and is expected to open next spring or summer. When it does, our current building will be torn down and become a part of the community’s past, its existence living on only in the very history books it now contains. That’s how time works: things evolve and change constantly. Buildings wear down, people come and go, the current events of today become the historical events of tomorrow. What lasts is what we build together, and work on together to keep alive into the future. So as you celebrate the Detroit Lakes and Becker County sesquicentennials this year, take a moment to think back on all that has happened to bring us to this day. And as you bid farewell to the last 150 years, just imagine what the next will bring.
The Becker County Museum’s new book about county history, written by Minnesota journalist Pippi Mayfield and titled, “Becker County in the 20th Century,” is now out and available for purchase. Grab a copy on the museum’s website, beckercountyhistory.org, or in the museum gift shop, at 714 Summit Avenue in Detroit Lakes.
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We love being a part of this community! What was once a dream is now a one-of-a-kind facility serving the physical and cultural needs of people in Detroit Lakes and surrounding communities. With a mission to provide quality experiences to learn, grow and play, the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center opened in the winter of 2001. Since then, the DLCCC has become a vital part of life in the lakes area, providing children, adults and seniors with a place to expand their minds and improve their health. The Center is a 60,000 square foot fitness and aquatics center and is the hub of fitness activities in our region. The once-abandoned Holmes Junior High School, built in the 1930s, now serves as a regional cultural center presenting dozens of national and international performing and visual arts events each year.
HISTORIC HOLMES THEATRE
DLCCC.org • 218-844-4221 826 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes, MN
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150 Years: Becker County / Detroit Lakes Sesquicentennial Magazine