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Coffee Clutch: Historic gathering continues through generations in Bemidji

President Dwight Eisenhower had just taken office when Fran Saeger and the late Roy Lundmark began meeting at Bemidji's Third Street Café for coffee and to chat.

Saeger said coffee at that time, 1953, cost a dime and the two men matched coins every morning to see who would foot the 20-cent bill. About two weeks after Saeger and Lundmark started getting together, Charlie Naylor joined the gathering.

"When it came time to pay the check, the three of us matched coins with the odd man out as the loser paying 30 cents," Saeger said in a memoir.

When a fourth man joined, he said the coin matching didn't work, so they devised the "Number Game: 1 to 100."

Now the Coffee Clutch lists 35 living members, with 14 more names on the memorial board.

Naylor and Saeger are the remaining charter members of the Coffee Clutch, which later moved to the Markham Hotel, and now meets in Naylor's office in the basement of Wells Fargo Bank. When Naylor offered his quarters, it was Northern National Bank, owned by Coffee Clutch member Bill Howe. He sold the bank to Norwest, which joined with Wells Fargo.

Naylor was a member of the Northern National Bank Board. He said Howe at one time set a 70-year-old upper age limit for board members.

"Except for Charlie," Howe said.

"I told Bill that left me out," Naylor said with a smile. "He said he'd grandfather me in."

Coffee Clutch members descend the steep, narrow stairs ducking under the plaque that reads: "Charlie's Place. Come for coffee, cookies and conversation. Remember to bring your wallet."

Coffee now costs 25 cents a cup from Naylor's urn, but the Number Game continues. However, the range has been extended. The first man to show up flips a coin with the last man to arrive to see which one will choose the random number between one and 1,000. The other is responsible for assigning the order of guessing. The number man tells each guesser whether he is high or low as subsequent guesses home in on the secret number.

Bob Wilson, the number man at Tuesday's Coffee Clutch, said the ninth guess usually makes the hit. "That's statistics," he said. The person with the correct guess -- 139 on Tuesday --has to pay for everyone else's coffee. In addition, there is an assessment of $2 per month "Chair Rent," Saeger said.

"The money we raise goes for a Christmas party for the bank employees," Naylor said.

The Coffee Clutch room, furnished with Naylor's desk, a long table and framed awards, is also Naylor's office as director of the Bemidji Development Corporation. He presides at the head of the Coffee Clutch table in a chair, padded with a Paul Bunyan plaid cushion, he received for his 80th birthday 12 years ago. Naylor said Coffee Clutch membership is open to anyone interested in showing up at about 10 a.m. weekdays.

"We get 23-25 in the summertime," said Ron Patterson. "In the wintertime, it falls off. Only the hardy."

Naylor usually furnishes cookies, but if a member has a birthday, he brings treats and Naylor plays a "Happy Birthday" recording on a battery-powered spatula. On Tuesday, Coffee Clutch members celebrated Wayne Thorson's 80th birthday, about three months late because they had to wait for him to return from his winter home.

Although all the regular members are men, they said wives sometimes show up, especially on their spouses' birthdays. The congenial mood of the original 1953 members lives on.

"We don't talk politics here and no business is discussed," said Wilson.

"No business on a micro level. We'll talk world," added Tom Schwartz, one of the younger Coffee Clutch members, and son of deceased member William Schwartz.

"Actually, by seniority, I'm up there -- since about 1980," Schwartz said. "They like to tell me how it used to be. I tell them how it still is."

Naylor, who is 92, acknowledged that the average age of Coffee Clutch members is "pretty high," but he added, "We've had some pretty heavy hitters here. It's pretty amazing to have this many for so many years."