Back in beautiful Bena: Restoring historic Winnibigoshish General Store, founding WinnieFest a labor of love for Arnold Dahl and Matthew Wooley
BENA -- He gave it all up.
A good-paying "suit-and-tie" gig at the corporate headquarters of an RV manufacturer, a life with friends and a loving partner in a progressive community in idyllic coastal Oregon, a future of near-guaranteed success -- all to return to Bena, and take over a floundering business in a crumbling, ancient building.
It was a smart move.
"I'm overwhelmed with gratitude," he said.
Since 2004, Arnold Dahl and his partner, Matthew Wooley, have been the proprietors of the Lake Winibigoshish General Store. They've also been carpenters, painters, electricians, plumbers, trash taker-outers and renovators, whatever the building needed.
"In the beginning, it was an extraordinary amount of work," Dahl said. "But I knew we could turn it around."
Dahl is from Bena. He grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation. His father, also named Arnold Dahl, and his grandfather, the first Arnold Dahl, have both owned and operated the store. But a 2004 trip home provided a disheartening discovery: Dahl's father was in poor health, and the general store was in poorer condition. In some places, literally falling apart.
"Most of the contractors we talked to wanted to destroy the building," Dahl said Friday, standing not far from the red, white and blue architectural eccentricity. "But it's a historical structure."
When Dahl came back in 2004, his father was in the process of trying to sell the building, in the family since his grandfather, Ernest Fleming, built the structure in 1932. Dahl, with the help of Wooley, wasn't having any of that.
"I asked him how much he was looking to sell it for," Wooley said of his partner's father, "then I asked him, 'How much would you be selling it to me for?'"
The answer was $150,000, but it came with one condition: "He wanted it restored to what it looked like when he was a child, and he wanted it done before he died."
The condition was met. And Arnold Dahl II can now look at the building as it once was, before his health and the structure began deteriorating.
"My father's just tickled pink for me to move back home and restore it," Dahl said. "He's very happy."
The legend goes like this: Frank Lloyd Wright was staying at a cabin near Lake Winibigoshish at some point before 1932. Fleming, who Dahl credits with basically constructing the town of Bena, told Wright of his vision. "This weird, oriental, Bavarian building," Wooley said. Wright works up a design for Fleming, who uses it as a template for store.
World War II brings a prisoner of war camp to the area. "They actually had a pretty good time here," Dahl said. The post-war prosperity brings the addition of 30 cabins to Fleming's expanding general store operation. Gangsters from Chicago travel to the lakeside resort and stay in the cabins.
"This town was really prosperous," Dahl said.
The logging industry brings jobs. A now non-existent train depot across U.S. Highway 2 from the store brings customers. Fleming builds. The town rises. Then, falls.
"There used to be two- to three-thousand people in this town," Wooley said. "Now, only a couple hundred."
The population swells in the summer, but drops to about 100 in the winter, Wooley said. This coming weekend, when Wooley and Dahl's restored general store and grounds play host to WinnieFest 2013, Bena will have a population in four digits, if only for the weekend.
Twenty-nine of the 30 cabins are gone. The one that remains is 1932 on the outside and 2013 inside. It's a stone's throw from the general store, which, if not for its quirky design would look the part of a Route 66 gas station thanks to the two ancient pumps out front that still spew fuel into waiting gas tanks.
Behind the store on Friday, sprinklers wetted the grass near a volleyball net. A few RVs, some, of the luxury variety Dahl used to be involved in marketing, were parked at a few of the 15 seasonals the pair has added in the past nine years. Cost: $40,000.
The building itself, with beveled clapboard siding and a new, Marlboro red steel roof, has taken on $100,000 in repairs, and untold gallons of sweat.
Dahl questioned his decision to take on the project "every day for six years," he said. Wooley, who sold his home along with the nightclub he operated on the campus of the University of Oregon, questioned on Friday only what area of the cabin or the store needed paint next.
"He keeps red, white and blue for me," he said of a Bena paint-supplier.
Dahl is used to overcoming adversity. Moving back home, taking over a business and restoring a money pit were all discussed with a wide smile, as were the memories of growing up gay on the reservation.
"I had girlfriends," he said, laughing at the lengths he went to in order to conceal his homosexuality, "it was difficult.
"I made sure I walked right, I made sure I talked right so there was no inkling I was gay."
For all his talk of history, Dahl is hopeful he represents the future. Not just of gay Native youth, but of younger Natives in general. He talks of wanting to "do good things here," to "show them what's possible," to "see beyond their situation.
"I want other Native American children to know they can do it, too," he said. "You can go to school, you can be successful. This wasn't handed to me; I had to work for it."
Dahl hid his identity until he reached the halls and classrooms of Bemidji State. Then, he came out. A group of gay students there offered an environment that accepted and welcomed Dahl's sexuality.
"I didn't have anyone to identify with, so I identified with myself," he said of his childhood. College, however, was different, and the passage of the Freedom to Marry Act means even more.
"I'm finally considered equal," he said.
But there have been challenges. Returning home for a funeral in 2004 to find his ailing father's store in disrepair, Dahl knew he had to come home. The decision wasn't difficult, he said, but as a gay man with a white partner, the consequences sometimes were.
"It was tiresome," he said, "hearing things all the time."
So, Dahl found another identity, this time as an advocate. He spoke to members of tribal government, sometimes asking them to pass their own legalization of gay marriage. He spoke to Native youth as well, becoming a one-man outreach program for members of the LGBT community on the reservation.
Dahl yearns for a return to the acceptance Natives had of gays before European settlement. Back then, the "Winkte," a Lakota word meaning "two spirits," according to Dahl, and generally used in reference to gays, were "highly respected" and considered "highly spiritual."
"And it kind of disappeared over the years." The reason why, Dahl said simply: "Christianity."
Fest for the future
When "Queen of the Blues" Miss Nora Jean comes to town next weekend for WinnieFest 2013, it will be less the arrival of a performer and more the return of a friend. Dahl and Wooley have used their contacts, mainly Beth "Dwa" Brown, a musician herself, to cultivate a community of progressives. They have two goals: To help those in need among the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and to return Bena and the Lake Winnibigoshish area to prominence.
This is the third year for WinnieFest and a Leech Lake charitable organization again will be the recipient of some of the proceeds from the event. First, it was the Leech Lake Diabetes Center, then the Homeless Resource Center, now the Leech Lake Elders Program.
"I'm trying to make a difference," Dahl said.
With the general store behind him Friday, and an ever-greener field of newly cut grass in front, Dahl described the scene that will encompass the area during WinnieFest: Tents, food, music, people, children, Natives, whites, acceptance, success.
The suit and tie have been replaced with shorts and T-shirts. The corporate job is a distant memory. Dahl is home, now, and it's a beautiful place, he said.
If you go
What: WinnieFest 2013
When: Blues music 4:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23; Country music 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24. Fireworks at 11:30 p.m. both nights
Where: 1510 U.S. Highway 2 NE in Bena, Minn.
Cost: Entry fee is $10 per day and $3 for limited parking.