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History of Bemidji: Woman chronicles 20th century middle decades

Cecelia McKeig studies old newspapers at the Beltrami County Historical Society Thursday. She is compiling a picture history of Bemidji for the decades 1940-1960 and welcomes contributions from people who have photos and stories from that era. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Cecelia Wattles McKeig grew up in Bemidji in the years during and after World War II.

She is now in the process of putting together a photo history book of the years 1940-1960 in Bemidji. She plans to have the book published in time for the 2010 All-School Reunion scheduled for Aug. 12-15. It will cost $20.

McKeig has also put out a call for anyone who has stories and photos of happenings in Bemidji during those decades and would like to contribute to the history book. She said she needs the material by April 15. She can be reached at or 218-654-5011.

"I really hope it will be a reference for people because I am documenting as much business, events, places history as I can," McKeig said. "My immediate goal is to get people to share their photos and stories of that era so that they won't miss out on this opportunity to be included in the book."

McKeig's father, Waldo Wattles, was a photographer in town. He and her mother, Ann Wattles, operated Wattles Studio from 1951-1961. Waldo was also a pilot and owned Bemidji Aviation from 1961 until 1969, when he was killed in a plane crash.

When he died, Ann packed up all the negatives from the studio days and put them in storage. Recently, her brother and son began scanning the negatives and searching for photos for the book.

"Most are commercial photos of weddings, children, anniversary parties and are not appropriate for the book," she said. "They will eventually go to the Beltrami County Historical Society for their photo collection."

Some, however, chronicle festivals, events, weather phenomena and landmarks around the city.

"My mother stored the studio photos for 40 years, and it was not until my son asked to start going through the negatives that we realized how much Bemidji history there was in them," McKeigsaid.

Some of the events she recalled include the huge army worm infestation, blizzards and fishing derbies. Her father flew over the Bemidji Curling Club on American Avenue Northwest after the building collapsed and took pictures of the ruins. McKeig happened to be skating at the curling club rink when the roof fell in. She said she heard the roof cracking, but wasn't able to get out. The timbers came down around her and balanced like pickup sticks over her without hitting her.

She said she crawled out, walked down the alley to her home still wearing her skates and told her parents of the disaster. Only a few people were skating at the time, and all got out safely, she said.

She also remembered the Cold War fears that Russians would come across the Canadian border to invade the United States and the civil defense precautions community members took.

Ground observers would take shifts to watch for planes and track their courses. If a plane looked suspicious, the observers would call Minneapolis, Duluth or Grand Forks, N.D., to get ready to scramble the fighters. She said her parents were ground observers and were stationed with binoculars in the cupola of the Beltrami County Courthouse for their shifts.

McKeig graduated from Bemidji High School in 1952, married the late Monte McKeig in 1964 (with a reception at the Markham Hotel) and spent most of her career as Indian Education director for Remer-Longville School.

She said there are good histories of Bemidji's early years but little of the area after World War II.

"This book doesn't cover everything - it can't - but it will provide the 250-page snapshot of life in Bemidji 1940-1960," she said.