Perham Progress 2022

Page 1


Progress A magazine by the Perham Focus

YEARS The Sesquicentennial Issue


We are proud to celebrate

a milestone year! We are thrilled to celebrate 120 years of dedication to health and wellness. Over the years, we have expanded the depth and breadth of our service offerings to meet the ever-changing healthcare needs of our local communities. We are grateful to be celebrating this milestone year and honored to continue serving all who come to us for care.

We look forward to celebrating as a community on

August 11 & 12, 2022 - more to come! 1000 Coney Street West, Perham, MN 56573 218-347-4500 |

connect with us

Contents 6


Perham’s proactive approach to progress has kept the community booming, even during times of national bust

Perham’s built a name for itself as a progressive, entrepreneur-friendly city

150 years of economic strength

‘Can-do’ community


Peeks at Perham’s past

Historical people, places and stories of interest

Editor’s Note Happy 150th, Perham! That’s quite a milestone, and it’s worthy of celebration. The busy little city that Perham is today, with its population of almost 3,500 people, by MARIE JOHNSON is a prime example of what every small town in America strives to be: Thriving. Even now, at the end of the second year of a viral pandemic that’s stretching wallets around the world, Perham is alive with commerce and bursting with new developments in every corner. From roadwork to retail, child care to housing, healthcare to education, industry and beyond, Perham is, undeniably, economically robust. The city’s a survivor, even when times are tough. If the charm and vitality of the downtown retail district doesn’t paint

a clear enough picture of that, then the manufacturing towers that stand strong in the Perham skyline should. Or, there’s the state-of-the-art Perham Health and Perham High School buildings, or the new Hub facility, or ongoing PACC project, or the multimillion-dollar complex being built on Main Street, or the expansion at St. Henry’s Church and School, or updates at the Perham Center for the Arts, or... the list just goes on and on. Fact is, when it comes to Perham, the list always goes on. It always has, ever since the pioneers first stepped foot here in the late 1800s, seeking opportunity in the prairie, woods and waters of Minnesota’s great west. They came here to log, to farm, to homestead, and to establish businesses along the Northern Pacific railroad line. The city’s early leaders were trailblazers. Optimists. Entrepreneurs. They had dreams and a vision for what



300 West Main Street, Suite C • Perham, MN 56573 p: 218.346.5900 • f: 218.346.5901 For advertising inquiries, please contact: Melissa Swenson,


they wanted the city to look like, and how they wanted it to operate. To bring that vision to life, they worked hard, and they worked together. The precedents those folks set, and the traditions they started 150 years ago, continue to be carried out in the community today. The modern trailblazers that are all around now – forward-thinking leaders who put all they’ve got into pushing Perham into the forefront of the future – are keeping the entrepreneurial spirit flowing, and the city growing. It’s taken the guts, grit, ingenuity, support and collaboration of thousands of people to build the community into what it is today. And thanks to those efforts, the years have been kind to Perham, and the future looks bright. So, Perham, congratulations on 150 years of growth, 150 years of moving forward, 150 years of progress. PUBLISHER:

Melissa Swenson | MAGAZINE EDITOR:

Marie Johnson | CONTRIBUTORS:

Dawn Duncan | Elizabeth Vierkant | DESIGN:

Tasha Kenyon |

students for the rest of their educational futu and other teacher supports, including Connect4Learning, an engaging curriculum that and problem solve with one another. This curric preparing our students for the rest of their educatio


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150 YEARS of economic strength

Perham’s proactive approach to progress has kept the community booming, even during times of national bust BY DAWN DUNCAN For Progress

▲ A historical photo of downtown Perham, circa early 1900s, a time of rapid growth in the community. (From “125 Years and Still on Track,” a 1997 publication of the Perham Enterprise Bulletin and History Museum of East Otter Tail County)

For 150 years, Perham has boasted a thriving economy. Even through recessions, pandemics and other hard times, the city has proven to be a resilient and steadfast entity that is able to stand strong. City Manager Jonathan Smith says Perham has long prided itself on being a proactive community – one that takes time to continuously prepare for the future. And it is this mindset that allows the community to keep growing even when the national economy suffers hits and setbacks, such as the COVID19 pandemic. Nick Murdock, economic development director for the city, agrees and adds, “There is a team

mentality here. Things that tend to affect other areas more severely don’t usually faze Perham economically. The culture and attitude here ensure that we’re prepared at all times.” Smith and Murdock say Perham’s economic strength, at least in memorable history, has stemmed greatly from the city council and its nontraditional approach to planning. “The experience I’ve had with this council has been outstanding,” says

Smith. “They are willing and adaptive, open to listening to ideas and proposals. They quickly figure out ways to make things work.” He went on to comment that the council, along with the entire city leadership team, finds ways to say “yes” and to work with others: “We have been very progressive by upholding our values and listening to the needs of the people around us.” Murdock, a Perham native whose parents owned the ACE Hardware store in town while he was growing up, says he has watched Perham go through incredible growth and change during his lifetime and is impressed by how well the community got in front of the pandemic, as much as possible. “Perham stepped up fast,” he recalls. Leaders from one of Perham’s PERHAM PROGRESS | 7

largest employers, KLN Family Brands, constructed a grant program for local businesses, called The Starfish Fund, shortly after the pandemic hit. Within just one month, $120,000 local dollars had been raised for the fund. Those funds were then distributed to businesses in town that were economically impacted: businesses that were in operation for less than three years, those forced to close due to mandatory shutdowns, and other criteria were created in order to quickly determine where the dollars would go and in what amounts. “The thought was that if we could cut this economic situation off as early as possible, we’d be in a much better position than if we waited,” remarks Smith. “That is how we do things, and it works well to ensure present and future economic standing and growth capabilities.” To ensure that growth does continue, Smith says it’s a cultural value in the community to foster entrepreneurs. “We haven’t had to put programs together to ask established entrepreneurs to take younger ones under their wing, because they just do it naturally,” he says. “There is a network and it’s open, accepting.” “Businesses are engaged and making things progress is usually easy here,” Murdock adds. Also, he says, Perham is extremely committed to ensuring the success of everyone, not just a select few: “The thought here is that if we help a little, it doesn’t just help us directly, it helps our neighbors. Everyone benefits.” One of Perham’s primary economic focuses is on retail. The small city is

“ Businesses are engaged and making things progress is usually easy here… The thought here is that if we help a little, it doesn’t just help us directly, it helps our neighbors. Everyone benefits.” — Nick Murdock, Perham economic development director


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▲ A pioneering farmstead in the Perham area, circa late 1800s. Perham established itself around that time as an agricultural center. East Otter Tail County Historical Society / Perham Focus Files ◄ Perham City Manager Jonathan Smith, left, and Economic Development Director Nick Murdock, pose for a picture in front of a banner in the winter of 2021. Dawn Duncan / For Progress ◄ FAR LEFT: Perham City Hall, also known as the Perham Area Chamber of Commerce building, is a historic, two-story brick structure built in 1906. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Perham Focus File Photo

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known throughout the area for its exceptional shopping options and quality of unique goods. Downtown stores like Nadine’s Ladies Fashions and Karvonen’s Furniture have been at the forefront of Perham’s retail scene for decades, while newer shops like Sweet Bee’s Children’s Wear are just starting to make their mark on the local retail scene. “We have the mainstays, and we continue to welcome new stores,” Smith says. “We want steady, responsible growth, not just ‘more.’ It’s about bringing in options for people and giving them a good experience here.” Murdock comments, “We have to be careful to not outgrow our shoes. We are concentrating on infrastructure; it’s about a sense of place.” That thoughtful, targeted focus is reflected in the new multi-use building development that’s slated for spring of 2022 in the heart of downtown. The development will feature main floor retail space with residential rental units above, similar to McKinley Plaza in downtown Detroit Lakes. The mixed use building is designed to attract demographics from young professionals through seniors, with a strategic mission to continue creating density in the downtown district. “The best way to support our retailers and small businesses downtown is to keep ensuring that there is density here,” Smith says. “This allows for vibrancy, ease of shopping and dining, convenience in parking, and an overall vibe of thriving community.” Murdock notes that as new attractions are built and the city

▲ Perham’s International Turtle Races, which started in the late 1970s and continue every Wednesday in the summertime, bring thousands of turtle racers into Perham every year, from all over the world. Turtle Fest, which was inspired by the races, has become the community’s biggest summer festival, with multiple events that culminate in a parade. ► Community events like the annual Fourth of July fireworks at Krueger Field bring people into town for fun and recreation, and at the same time create a little extra spike in the local economy. Perham has become known for hosting family-friendly community events. Perham Focus File Photos

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The economic climate of Perham is very strong right now, and the future, without question, is bright. Main Street storefronts are full, we have a variety of shops, places to eat, things to do, and in general, the price is right. What keeps us growing is that people want to come here. Our schools, hospital, the Perham Area Community Center, and many other spots are huge drawing cards. We have a new gym that specializes in CrossFit and personal training. This summer, new pickleball courts will be built. Our fire department, EMS or ambulance service, and police department are strong. And we have many factories that employ more people than Perham has total population! Our trail system for biking and walking/running is well used, new cross country ski trails have been developed this past winter, and we built a large sledding hill last year in Arvig Park. The opportunities here in Perham, and in the lakes area, are abundant. Here, when someone has an idea, people listen, and a plan is laid out quickly. If it makes sense, we will make it happen. What really makes us strong is we have our city proper but also so many great people in the outlying areas around us, on the farms and in businesses. It’s an area full of individuals ready to make sure that Perham is booming and a wonderful place to live.



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constantly improves, there is always the need to focus on issues such as housing, child care, and programs that ensure accessibility to resources. “Supply in terms of real estate is minimal,” he comments. “This has been driving prices up 20-30% over the past two years. The EDA (Economic Development Association) and HRA (Housing and Redevelopment Authority) have down payment assistance programs in place to help new residents of Perham, first time homebuyers, and others needing help with housing-related financing to have opportunities to meet their needs.” “We are creating ways to provide housing options and make things affordable again; this helps the overall economy here,” adds Smith.

With most potential problems or setbacks that arise, Perham’s adaptability and creativity prove to be the keys to pushing through. When issues are presented, they are addressed, and the city is unafraid to step in to avoid pitfalls whenever it can. Such was the case recently, when the city took action in the critical area of child care, an industry that is suffering from shortages both locally and nationwide.

“There’s nothing Perham cannot do – we’re resilient and ready.” — Jonathan Smith, City Manager

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When a Perham couple who owned two daycares in town announced their retirements in 2021, it presented a dire need to find care for the children who had been enrolled in the couple’s programs. Instead of just letting the two businesses close and the impacted families suffer, the city invested in the daycare facility, and then partnered with MAHUBE-OTWA Community Action Partnership, to keep the programs open under new ownership. Another initiative the city has been involved in recently is the renovation and repurposing of the old Perham High School building, which is now the home of the local Boys and Girls Club and Empowering Kids autism center. Funds were raised through community donations, state funding and city

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◄ A busy Market Day in Perham, in 1910. East Otter Tail County Historical Society / Perham Focus Files FAR LEFT: Perham’s downtown and other commercial districts today are thriving, with a mix of retail shops and boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops, professional offices and more. Perham Focus File Photo

investment to ensure the space would not go to waste. And, though Perham’s Sesquicentennial landed in the throes of a pandemic, causing celebrations to be condensed down into the month of September

instead of spread through the year, the community was still able to showcase where Perham has come from and what its future holds. “We did several self-guided activities,” Murdock points out. “Working with

the incredible women from the East Otter Tail County Museum, we erected placards around town that were placed in front of historic buildings.” These, Murdock explains, featured photos of a particular building over different years, from its initial stage to present day. Additionally, a scavenger hunt, a historic homes tour, and partnerships with area businesses such as Nest and Disgruntled were also offered. Now, as Perham embarks into its next phase, the community is positioned as a competitive force in the region and state for tourism, commercial developments, and entrepreneurship. “The quality of the community is stellar,” Smith says. “There’s nothing Perham cannot do – we’re resilient and ready.”♦

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Peeks at Perham’s past Historical people, places and stories of interest COMPILED BY ELIZABETH VIERKANT AND MARIE JOHNSON

Pictures and information from the Otter Tail County Historical Society archives, unless otherwise noted.

PERHAM’S RAILROAD TIES The iron horse birthed this bustling little city

Before the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in the fall of 1871, Perham wasn’t much more than a vast, wide open expanse of land. The few German colonists who lived in this region knew the area simply as “the big prairie north of Rush Lake.” After the arrival of the railroad, however, the landscape changed in a hurry. Perham’s shipping point was one of many along an ambitious new route that cut across the northern U.S., opening up a wealth of possibilities and economic promise. Plenty of adventurous souls wanted a piece of it, and by the spring of 1872, the Perham townsite had sprung to life. Buildings were up, and commerce had begun. Perham’s earliest entrepreneurs, Henry Kemper and Henry Drahmann, opened the town’s first store, a mercantile, on the north side of the tracks, conducting sub14 | PERHAM PROGRESS

An engineer, fireman and section foreman are among the men pictured here in front of a work train in Perham, circa 1902.

stantial business with the railroad. Kemper was Perham’s first postmaster, and later became its first mayor. Soon, the town not only had Drahmann’s general store but also a blacksmith shop, butcher shop, hotel and more. It had its own newspaper by 1874, and a schoolhouse the following year. Over the next decades, the town exploded with growth. New businesses, churches, and service providers (like doctors and law enforcement officers) established themselves, and new homes and farms sprouted up all over. The community gained a reputation as an agricultural center as well as a fishing, hunting and

resort town. Passenger trains came to town every Sunday through the tourist season. The Perham station was purportedly one of the busiest smaller stations along the line – one month in 1883, the railroad company reported an impressive $10,000 in business there. In 1889, a local newspaper called Perham “the liveliest town in the west.” Right around that time or soon thereafter, Perham had its first telephone exchange, hospital, and electric service. It also had its share of saloons – as many as 13, at one time – and could be a wild place, with train robberies, vandalism, fighting, theft and other

crimes all known to happen. The town saw its share of tragedy over the years, too, suffering through storms, fires, and epidemics of disease. But Perham always bounced back from adversity, and never stopped growing. By 1930, the population was 1,407. By 1950, it was 1,919. Signs of change were everywhere by this era, and the popularity of the railroad became overshadowed by other, more modern forms of transportation. In 1971, exactly 100 years after the railroad came to Perham, the last passenger train rolled out of town. The community was sad to see the service go, but had no fear for

the future. By then, Perham was no longer dependent on the rails to bring in people or stimulate economic growth, as it had grown into a strong and economically diverse little city. Today the multiple oil and cargo trains that still travel through town on a daily basis

“The liveliest town in the west.” — A local newspaper in 1889, referring to Perham

serve as a constant reminder of, and ongoing connection to, Perham’s past. While it’s been a long time since Per-

ham’s success was tied to the tracks, the community will always have the railroad to thank for its beginnings.

*This information is from the 2018 Progress magazine, which is all about the town’s historical ties to the railroad. For more pictures and information on this topic, read the 2018 Progress on the Perham Focus’s online magazine rack, at


Martin Shea

The Merchants Hotel was an iconic structure and business in the early years of Perham. Local newspapers at the time called it one of the most successful hotels along the Northern Pacific line. Much of the hotel’s success was due to owner Martin Shea, who devoted a lot of personal attention to the business and was a widely known and popular man. At various points in

time, Shea was also the mayor of Perham, postmaster, and a member of the Democratic State Central Committee. Before he owned the Merchants Hotel, Shea was the first section foreman for the Perham section of the railroad. He left that role after his hand car was smashed to pieces by a passing train, and moved into farming instead. Then, Martin Schoeneberger, who established the Schoeneberger Funeral Home in 1881 and also owned Merchants Hotel for a period of time, found he didn’t really like the hotel business and sold it to Shea, who made it a success. The hotel was owned by the Shea family for years thereafter.

The popular Merchant’s Hotel, on Main Street in Perham (pictured here in 1881), was flanked by two other beloved businesses of Perham past: The Schmitz Garage, seen here on the left, and Drahmann’s Store, on the right.

‘CAST YOUR LOT WITH US AND BE HAPPY’ Early newspaper articles touted Perham as a fertile, growing town An article in an 1875 issue of The Perham News, called “A Word to Those Intending to Emigrate,” encourages folks to consider relocating to Otter Tail County. The article describes the soil around the Northern Pacific Railroad’s route as fertile, and further reads, “A glance at the map of Minnesota will show anyone that Otter Tail County need never lack for water. It is thickly dotted with lakes, all of them clear and deep with the purest of water and abounding with fish.” Another article from that same paper, printed that same year, touts the local Perham businesses

and their successes. Called, “A Flourishing Town and a Healthy Business,” the article reads, “It is conceded by all who have passed over the line that Perham is the neatest built and the most thrifty lifelike town on the Northern Pacific Railroad; one that is here to stay and not composed of tents.” Perham was described as a growing, promising settlement. It was reported that 150 men had come to town three years earlier with only enough money to put up their longhouses and buy a plow; at the time of the article, those men were cultivating many acres of land with comfortable houses. The article written for potential immigrants ends with advice from an early Perham resident: “Don’t settle upon a location until you have looked over the Northern Pacific Country in Otter Tail County, and the chances are you will then cast your lot with us and be happy.” PERHAM PROGRESS | 15

SETTLERS ONCE WORKED TOGETHER TO SAVE THE TOWN Bad weather was always a threat in the pioneering days of Perham, but perhaps never more so than in 1874, when a cyclone hit.

A map drawing of Perham as it looked in 1880. The town may have looked quite different then had early settlers not pulled together in 1874 to protect the area from a tornado-induced fire.

wasn’t a single spark on the ground. The tornado managed to destroy a new mill, lifting it 40 feet into the air and breaking it to pieces, and also lifted several mules a few feet into the air (they were miraculously set down unharmed). Shingles were torn from buildings and there were other minor damages, but no people were injured.

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© Morphart / Adobe Stock

John Foltz of Rush Lake was standing outside and looked north when he suddenly yelled to everyone around him that a black funnel-shaped cloud was reaching toward the ground. Afraid that the tornado would set fire to the town, which was surrounded by dry prairie grass, settlers came together, grabbing buckets of water to wet the grass. By the time they were done, the cyclone had reached town. It picked up straw, which was reportedly seen burning high up in the air, but thanks to the settlers’ efforts, there

Greg Schmitz

Tim Schmitz

Gary Kurtz


‘UNCLE LOUEY,’ A PIONEER WITH PERPETUAL YOUTH When the people of Perham needed to buy clothing in the late 1800s, they knew exactly where to go – to Louis Struett’s house, or “Uncle Louey’s,” as it was better known. Struett immigrated to the United States from Germany when he was 18 years old and came to Perham in 1872 to engage in the clothing and gent’s furnishings business, a business he would later expand to include general merchandise. Well-known and beloved for his youthful spirit and appreciation for a good time, Struett was rumored to draw his vitality from some fountain of perpetual youth. Among the first settlers of Perham, he figured largely in its early history, even serving as an official at the first election in Perham, held in 1881 to establish an initial government for the village. Struett’s shop had a good reputation for quality and selection. The Perham News in April 1875 wrote, “Mr. Struett is well acquainted with the wants of the public in his line and…his goods will be of the latest styles and of the best quality.”

He remained in business for 40 years, when he retired and reportedly took to the pursuit of happiness. His red brick home, which is believed to have been built around 1895-1896, is still standing and in use as a Perham residence today. Struett died in 1925 and is buried in St. Henry’s Cemetery. His funeral was held at St. Henry’s Church, where a large number of friends from the village and surrounding countryside gathered to pay their last tributes to their beloved “Uncle Louey.” Henry Kemper, an influential pioneer of Perham who recorded accounts of the town’s early history.


Image of the Struett family plot at St. Henry’s Cemetery in Perham.


The home built by “Uncle Louey” Struett is still standing and in use as a family home in Perham today. (Perham Focus File Photos)

In his writings about early Perham, pioneer Henry Kemper recalls several moments of fun that were had in-between the long days of hard work that went into building the town. One of those times was when the farmers and early businessmen decided to pull a prank on Mike Doll. Several of them “playfully” put a bit of gunpowder in Doll’s pipe, along with his tobacco. As Kemper wrote, “The peace of the colony was shattered, when a bit too much of the powder went off in his pipe, singed his eyebrows and hair and nearly blinded the poor fellow.” PERHAM PROGRESS | 17


MOB NOTORIOUSLY KILLED A PRISONER – ONE WHO WAS WANTED FOR MURDER HIMSELF As influential Perham settler Henry Kemper once said, not all of Perham history is happy and joyful. In fact, some of it is quite dark. Following is an account from the historical archives of one of the town’s most grisly events to ever occur: In June 1882, two men, E. Washington and Leo Fernbacher, came from Michigan to examine lands in the Red Eye Valley, northeast of the village of Perham. They lodged there with G. Dornbusch before heading out every day to work. On the same day that Dornbusch heard two gunshots fired, the men didn’t return to their lodging that night. After they continued to not return, Dornbusch became concerned and made his way into Perham to ask around. Shop owner Louis Struett, after hearing Dornbusch’s story, was immediately suspicious of John Trivits, a 16-year-old boy who had come into Struett’s store a few days earlier, looking ragged. When Struett was fitting a hat to Trivits’s head, the latter said, “Don’t press so hard, my head is sore. I had a fight with Leo Fernbacher.” When Struett asked who won, Trivits continued, “I did. It was a red hot one, but I got away with him.” As word continued to spread through Perham about the disappearance of the two men, a search party started scouring the Red Eye Valley. They soon discovered Washington and Fernbacher, dead from gunshot wounds. Deputy Sheriff Steve Butler was chosen to track Trivits down. He found out that the boy had purchased a train ticket and gone west, so he took the next train out to follow him. He soon located Trivits, handcuffed him, and took him back to Perham. On the way back to Otter Tail County, Trivits made several unsuccessful escape attempts, as well as a full confession, saying he became angry at the surveyors because they wouldn’t let him tamper with their instrument. Back in Perham, the people were planning an attack. It was a cold, rainy night when Butler returned to Perham with Trivits in custody. Trivits sat in the little Perham jail cell as a mob began to gather around town. The mob grew more frenzied and eventually rushed into the jail, seizing the prisoner. The next day, Trivits was found hanging on the crossbar of a telegraph pole.


The rebuilt St. Joe School House, located where the original schoolhouse was before being destroyed in a fire in 1900. (Perham Focus File Photo)

PERHAM’S FIRST BAND WAS MET WITH FANFARE St. Joe’s School House rebuilt after 1900 fire

Perham got its first band in the early 1880s after John Hauck moved to town from Ohio to teach at St. Joe’s School House. Hauck decided to organize a band and become its instructor, and the opportunity awakened musical talent in several young men of Perham. The members included the merchant Louis Struett, Michael Wals, John Wimmer, Theo Strukens, J.B. Kemper, C.H. Tously, John Gerber, Peter Mohr, Andrew Schoeneberger and Henry Kemper. The band quickly grew their talent through weekly Thursday rehearsals, and was known to play “Comin’ Thro The Rye” as well as other classic tunes and serenades. A quote from Kemper about the band reads, “I shall never forget the first open air concert we had on the

street crossing. The people were highly elated over our achievements and threw bouquets and other things at us. We started from the village hall and marched up the street, just as we had seen other bands do in the cities, and played the last strains.” St. Joe’s School House was built in 1884 by the benedictine nuns of St. Joseph, Minnesota. The original school building burned down in 1900 and was replaced by the existing two-story building. The school was located across the street from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which burned down in 1965. Records show that about 20 nuns taught at the school between 1884 and 1916, at which point it became a public school. It closed in 1970 due to declining enrollment. Today, the building is privately owned and operated as a quilter, crafter and yoga retreat center. It’s located between Perham and Dent, on County Highway 49.

PERHAM’S FIRST DEATH, AND FIRST BIRTH The first recorded death to occur in the Perham settlement came early in the winter of 1866-67. Clemence Cole grew ill from pneumonia, and there were no doctors within a hundred miles. With no local funeral home, the settlers had to improvise: They knocked apart packing boxes and built a crude coffin,


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and buried Cole on top of a knoll that ended up being used as a cemetery until 1885. The first birth to take place in Perham didn’t come until almost a decade later when, in 1875, Lizzie Geitman, the daughter and only child of Henry Geitman, was born. She later married John Gratzel and continued to live in Perham.



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‘RUFFIANS’ RULED IN THE LOGGING DAYS Pioneer life was pretty rough and tumble at times. As a historical article in a 1958 issue of the Enterprise Bulletin stated, “Perham in those days was a logging town composed mostly of lumberjacks, saloons and ruffians, with the respectable element considerably out-numbered or intimated.” A case in point (as later written by pioneer Henry Kemper): At about 8 p.m. on Jan. 12, 1884, at M.L. Hush’s

Perham in 1904, a couple decades after the rough-and-tumble era of logging and saloon fights.

saloon in Perham, a man named August Mutschler approached another man, J.C. Sterner, demanding to know what Sterner had been saying about him.

Mutschler, however, didn’t get a chance to hear the answer he wanted, because Sterner whipped out his revolver without warning and shot him in the breast.

Mutschler was dead within a few minutes. Sterner gave himself over to Deputy Sheriff Steve Butler, but was cleared in district court on the ground of self defense.

HISTORY OF HEALTHCARE What the Franciscan Sisters established, Perham Health has carried on – and then some

The opening of the new Perham Health hospital and clinic in January 2012 was one of the biggest things to happen to the Perham community in recent history. The $38 million, 120,000square-foot facility fronting 20 | PERHAM PROGRESS

Franciscan Sisters Sr. Emmanuel, Sr. Raphael and Sr. Ives, in the first floor nursery of St. James Hospital in 1952.

“Their dedication still inspires us, just as the values they instilled all those years ago still hold true.” — Perham Health, referring to the Franciscan Sisters

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Hospital and converted the old St. James into a nursing home. Several additions and expansions were made over the years, until construction began on the new facility in 2009. The Franciscan Order ran the hospital for over 60 years. In 1968, operations were taken over by the Memorial Hospital and Homes Association, and in 1976, the Perham Hospital District was formed. The 14-member governing body represents three cities, 10 townships and one at-large position. “The Franciscan Sisters established traditions and ideals that are honored to this very day,” states Perham Health on its website. “Their dedication still inspires us, just as the values they instilled all those years ago still hold true.” Going even further back in Perham’s history, to the time

St. James Hospital, in 1902.

before the Sisters established their hospital, medical care was provided inside a small two-story red brick building in the village, by a Dr. F.J. Brabac. Brabac is known to have ended up in Perham by

accident, when the train he was riding was delayed at the Perham station. He toured the town to fill time, and liked what he saw, so he decided to stay. He opened his first practice over a drug store, but quickly outgrew it, moving

to another location that he again quickly outgrew. He eventually persuaded his landlord, a Mrs. Price, to build a small hospital, a red brick building that still stands on 8th Street, and that’s how Perham’s first medical facility came to be.

The new Perham Health hospital and clinic opened in January 2012. Perham Focus File Photo




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In the early 1870s, before there was an official school system in Perham, there was a group of nine local kids who met at a makeshift ‘school’ inside the front area of a local shop, Christ Schrader’s Harness Shop. Things got more official in 1875, with the construction and opening of the town’s first schoolhouse. That school served its purpose for about 13 years, at which point a new, two-story, brick schoolhouse was built. This one was made to be more permanent, and the local

newspaper at the time called it “one of the finest school buildings in the northwest.” It had a library, and an auditorium with seating for up to 150 students. An addition was built onto that schoolhouse in 1898, and the building continued to serve the district until a new high school was built in 1916. That high school, a threestory structure, remained in use for over 100 years, with various additions and renovations made over the years to accommodate a growing student body and changing

The commons area of the new high school features an open, modern design with a tall ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows on both ends.

academic and athletic needs and standards. Consolidation with Dent in 1970 resulted in the construction of Dent Elementary that same year, and for over 15 years, that new

The new Perham High School opened in 2018, to much acclaim. Perham Focus File Photos


building, along with the Perham building, sufficiently served the district. By 1988, however, space was an issue of concern, and a $5 million bond was passed for the construction of a new




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elementary school in Perham, Heart of the Lakes Elementary, which is still in use today. The Dent Elementary school was renovated at that time, too. Continued rapid growth in enrollment created more space problems, and in 1993, a $6 million bond was passed to construct a new middle school, which we know today

as Prairie Wind Middle School. The late 2000s and early 2010s was an era of financial difficulty for the district, and significant budget cuts led to the loss of some school staff members and student programs, as well as Dent Elementary, which was closed in 2009. Things began to turn around for the district soon after that,

and as fiscal health improved, school leaders turned their attention once again to growth and improvements. By then, it was clear that the aging high school building was becoming overcrowded and expensive to maintain. Thanks to the passage of a bond referendum in 2015, a new high school building opened in 2018. Featuring a

modern academic design and state-of-the-art technology, the facility’s opening marked a major milestone in Yellowjacket history. Today, student enrollment in the school district is about 1,500 and growing – quite a difference from those first nine students who met at a local harness shop in the early 1870s.

Growth at other schools and places of learning In addition to the change and growth seen within the public school district, Perham’s parochial schools and supplemental educational programs have experienced change and growth, as well. Most recently, in the winter of 2022, the city celebrated the opening of its new Hub building. Located where the former high school sat for 100 years, The Hub is a stateof-the-art educational facility that houses Empowering Kids on one side and the local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club on the other side. Empowering Kids is a unique service program for kids with autism and their

Construction was well underway on the new St. Henry’s Area School as of early January, 2022.

families, and the Boys and Girls Club provides structured programming for school-aged kids, outside of normal school hours. Both programs are well-utilized, and continue to grow. Still in progress at the time this magazine went to print was another major con-

struction project in Perham’s educational world: A new St. Henry’s Area School. The school was being built onto the existing St. Henry’s Catholic Church, and the addition was planned to house not only K-6 classrooms but also a new chapel and parish hall for the church. Once

The new Hub building in Perham, located where Perham High School used to be, houses Empowering Kids and the local Boys and Girls Club. Contributed Artist Rendering / Perham Focus File Photos


complete, the new school will replace the existing St. Henry’s school building, which is over 100 years old. The project was expected to be done in time for the start of the next school year. At St. Paul’s Lutheran School, another longtime parochial school in Perham, there’s been significant growth in recent years. Since 2017, the school has added a preschool program, new technology, new teachers, and a robotics program, among other things, all of which have contributed to, or have been a direct response to, growing enrollment. St. Paul’s also underwent a building expansion in 2018 that added four new classrooms and three bathrooms. ♦



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‘CAN-DO’ COMMUNITY Perham’s built a name for itself as a progressive, entrepreneur-friendly city BY DAWN DUNCAN For Progress


En·tre·pre·neur (noun): a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so. It doesn’t take an advanced study of Perham to learn that it’s a city built upon 150 years of entrepreneurship and a can-do attitude. From its early years through the present, Perham has been noted as one of the state’s entrepreneur-friendly cities, with longstanding businesses as well as many brand new ones all rooted in the thriving community.

ENTREPRENEURIAL SUCCESS STORY NO. 1: KLN, a third-generation family business and pillar of Perham


▲ Kenny Nelson, the man behind KLN Family Brands, is one of Perham’s biggest entrepreneurial success stories. Contributed / Progress ◄ Tuffy’s Pet Foods, now a massive can’tmiss mainstay of the Perham skyline, got its start in 1964 as a small feed company that employed 13 people. Today, the company makes Tuffy’s, NutriSouce and PureVita pet foods, among others. Dawn Duncan / Progress

s soon as visitors drive into town, or even just drive by on Highway 10, they’ll notice the Tuffy’s Pet Foods building towering in the Perham skyline; the pet food manufacturing facility is located just a few blocks off of Main Street. It is there that the company – now run by the grandson of founder Darell “Tuffy” Nelson – continues to grow and serve as an anchor of corporate stewardship, both in the local area and far beyond. Nelson launched his feed company in 1964 with 13 employees working for him. That same year, with a fresh business degree in hand, his son Kenny returned to Perham to partner in the business, then known as Pine Lakes Feed. The senior Nelson suggested the company step into making pet food, and from there, Tuffy’s Pet Foods was created. Tuffy’s started making cat food in 1965 and added canned dog food two years later under the Muggies’ and Tuffy’s labels. Tuffy Nelson retired in 1971 and the burgeoning Tuffy’s was sold outside the family, but Kenny stayed in Perham and

soon launched another company that would serve as a major employer for the community – Barrel O’ Fun Snack Foods, which produces potato chips, popcorn and cheese snacks. Just like at the beginning of his father’s company, the younger Nelson’s new endeavor started with 13 employees. About 15 years later, in 1987, he launched yet another company in Perham, Kenny’s Candy, again adding more jobs to the region and continuing to build upon the entrepreneurial legacy of the Nelson family. In 1995, after significant growth and sustainability of each business, KLN Family Brands was formed. Tuffy’s Pet Foods was brought back into Nelson ownership, becoming a division of KLN along with Barrel O’ Fun and Kenny’s Candy. In 2003, the success of Tuffy’s grew even further with the launch of NutriSource, a premium pet food line. And the growth wasn’t done. In 2007, Tuffy’s expanded its super premium line with the organic pet food, Natural Planet Organics.


▲ Four generations of the Nelson family: Albert (with Charlie on his lap), Tuffy, and Kenny, left to right. What Tuffy and Kenny started in 1964 as a small father-son pet food-making business had grown into a $500 million corporation by 2014, the year KLN Family Brands celebrated its 50th anniversary. Perham Focus File Photo

That same year, Kenny’s Candy launched its popular Wiley Wallaby Australian Style Liquorice. KLN Family Brands moved its office headquarters to a new, environmentally-friendly building in 2010, and the following year, opened Nutheads Chocolate

Factory. In 2015, KLN opened a new $50 million Tuffy’s production and packaging facility in the heart of downtown Perham. After selling Barrel O’ Fun to Shearer’s Snacks in 2015 and merging Kenny’s Candy and Nutheads the

following year, Kenny Nelson has eased into retirement. KLN Family Brands is now being run by his son, Charlie Nelson, making the company a thirdgeneration family-owned business. “We’ve had a good run,” Kenny Nelson reflects in his lighthearted tone. “I moved to Perham when I was five – that’s 75 years ago! Even though it’s still a small town, it is aggressive in being progressive. It’s a growth-oriented place because of its attitude.” He elaborates on the community’s ongoing commitment to giving, along with a focus on the future, saying, “In just recent years, we’ve built a new hospital, new high school, refurbished buildings and repurposed them, and made sure that new businesses are supported, too.” His wife, Kim Nelson, recently founded Empowering Kids, an autism program that provides a variety of services to individuals with autism or other social challenges, as well as their families and the local community as a whole. Housed in the former Perham High School building (which also houses the


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“Even though it’s still a small town, it is aggressive in being progressive. It’s a growth-oriented place because of its attitude.” — Kenny Nelson, on the community of Perham

local Boys and Girls Club), Empowering Kids is a nonprofit initiative that reflects the community’s spirit of helping others and jumping in when a need is presented. Many of the funds raised for the remodeling project came from local corporate and individual donations, reflecting Perham’s sense of pride in giving back. “We come together when we need to,” Kenny Nelson comments. “The economy here is great, with key businesses and leaders in place, from the larger employers to smaller businesses. Everyone works together.” The community has raised millions to build new and remodel old structures. In addition to the high school remodeling

► Perham recently pulled together to donate $600,000 to fix up the old church that now houses the Perham Center for the Arts. The donation will make it possible for the event center to get a new elevator and essential repairs. Dawn Duncan / Progress

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project, Perham has also recently pulled together to donate $600,000 to fix up the old church that now houses the Perham Center for the Arts. “The owner had been working on repairs and remodeling here and there,” Nelson explains. “By raising a significant amount of money, the community made it possible to give on the level where it will really make a big difference. It will have what it needs, like an elevator and essential repairs. The building will be an events venue, space for dance classes and service group meetings, and much more.” When it comes to Perham, Nelson says he’s “all in,” and that includes making sure the city continues to be abundant with opportunities and support. Nelson represents the entrepreneurial core of Perham, along with fellow business and community leaders like the Arvigs, Swansons, and other families that have established a longterm company presence and have employed thousands of Perham area residents over the years. ♦


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The Perham community came together in 2014 to support the creation of a sprawling and decorative 70-by-8-foot concrete mural on the side of the Photo Magic building downtown. The nature-themed mural was created by artists Cindee Lundin and Chenoa Pickrain, and weighs 4,000 pounds. The mural features a family of loons on the water, and, on closer examination, more than 50 smaller items associated with the region’s history, culture and natural resources can be found hidden within. Perham Focus File Photo



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ENTREPRENEURIAL SUCCESS STORY NO. 2: Girl on the Go, a startup that’s finding community support


longside the familiar family names and large employers within Perham’s business circle are new entrepreneurs like Ciera Esser, 32, who just launched her company, Girl on the Go, last year after leaving her fulltime corporate job. Girl on the Go provides errand and delivery services to private clients, many of whom are elderly. Often, Esser is hired by the families of her clients; family members sometimes live out of the area and want to ensure their loved ones are taken care of in their absence. Esser not only runs errands for these clients, but is also a source of friendly connection for them, often spending extra time just to visit and make sure they are taken care of. ► Ciera Esser launched her Girl on the Go errand and delivery service last year and has found support for her business within the Perham community. She’s pictured here with her husband, Justin, and their four kids: Adler, Sawyer, Chesney and Reecelyn. Contributed / Progress

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Born and raised in Perham, Esser graduated from Perham High School in 2008. She met her husband, Justin Esser, while still in school, and they’ve been together for 16 years now. He’s also a Perham native, and works at his father’s company, Phil’s Plumbing. The couple have four kids: Chesney, 15, Reecelyn, 11, Sawyer, 9, and Adler, 6. They lived out of the area for just four years before moving back to Perham and settling into the next chapters of their life, in terms of work and raising children. “Being a young entrepreneur in Perham is wonderful,” Ciera Esser says. “I love knowing I started a business here where I grew up. Perham is home to me, and there’s a sense of security in familiarity. I think it’s easier to launch a business in a community where you know people, versus in a place like a big city where perhaps you aren’t connected to anyone or just to very few people.” Girl on the Go’s errand services run the gamut from picking up prescriptions and groceries for clients, to taking pets to grooming or vet appointments or doing general shopping. Esser promotes

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the idea that her business will do most errands: “Just about any task, just ask” is what she likes to tell clients. She also works with contractors, daycare providers and other professionals who simply cannot leave their businesses every time they need to pick up a part, an item, or run an errand.

“I feel encouraged here and know that Perham is the right place to make things happen.” — Ciera Esser, entrepreneur, founder of Girl on the Go

This spring, Girl on the Go will launch its next level of services, those dedicated to assisting homeowners with stocking their pantries, fridges and supplies, especially during the summer months at lake cabins and vacation dwellings. Esser is able to do bar stocking for clients and will also assist real estate agents and property managers with ensuring

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a home has desired items in it before showings and tours. “Perham has been supportive of my ideas and my company; it’s nice to be well-received and know what I am doing is helping people,” Esser says. She adds that having community support provides encouragement when things get tough, as they do sometimes in business: “It keeps me going.” With things going well at Girl on the Go, Esser says she’s excited to continue raising her family and multi-tasking as a mother of four, wife, fitness devotee, and entrepreneur. “I look forward to growing in business, learning from others who are entrepreneurs, and to expanding my network, too. Perham is a healthy and fun place to do this,” she says. In the future, she’d like to give more to the town’s schools and other organizations that help kids. “I feel encouraged here and know that Perham is the right place to make things happen,” Esser says. “I feel positive about my future as a young professional and business owner.” ♦

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