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'He was Mr. Hardware': Longtime business owner, community member Chet Swedmark dies

The exterior of the building at Fourth Street Northwest and Minnesota Avenue Northwest still boasts the signage for what was once Swedmark Hardware. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

It was never hard to find Chet Swedmark while he was working.

"He always whistled," recalled Anne Sand, one of his three daughters. "You always knew where he was in the store."

Chester "Chet" Swedmark, who owned and operated Swedmark Hardware from 1952 through the early 1990s, died Saturday at age 88.

A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. April 2 at Bethel Lutheran Church in Bemidji.

"He was Mr. Hardware in Bemidji, I think," Sand said.

Swedmark Hardware was founded in 1936 by Paul Swedmark and his twin brother, Nick. Paul Swedmark, and his wife, Ada, eventually bought out Nick and ran the store until 1952, when they sold it to their son, Chet Swedmark, and his wife, Naomi. They ran the store until the early 1990s, when Swedmark retired and Sand took over.

But he never really retired completely, Sand said.

"He always worked a bit," she said. "It really was a big part of who he was."

The store closed in 1995.

"He had a really great staff, good people who worked for him for a long time" she said. "He always said, 'Nothing is ever successful because of one person.'"

Sand and her sisters, Sharon Jordan and Julie Cook, recently reminisced about their father. While all recalled unique memories, they also agreed the store was central to their lives.

"He loved his job," Sand said. "He loved hardware; he loved the retail side of it. He really thrived on the customers and the people. He was a social being to the very end."

Throughout its existence, Swedmark Hardware was located at different places throughout town. It first was on Beltrami Avenue downtown, near where the Headwaters Science Center is located.

Once Swedmark and Naomi bought the business, they moved it into the site that now houses Downtown Laundry on Fourth Street, across from where the U-Bar more recently was located. Eventually, Swedmark Hardware moved to the U-Bar space.

Later, Swedmark partnered with Joe Lueken for the construction of a new building on the north side of town. One-half of the new building housed Lueken's Village Foods North; the other half housed the hardware store.

The store was named Swedmark Hardware, but the family always viewed it as a Hardware Hank, Sand said. Once it made its final move to the Lueken's building, the name was officially changed to Swedmark Hardware Hank.

Swedmark served on the board of directors for United Hardware, the parent company of Hardware Hank; and the Minnesota Hardware Retail Association.

At Swedmark Hardware, Swedmark himself fulfilled a myriad of roles in the store, from ordering to stocking shelves to cashiering to cutting pipe and cutting glass.

"The store really evolved over time, from a very small-town, a really mom-and-pop store, to a really fine full-service store," Sand said. "He was very proud of that."

His nephew, Al Swedmark, recalled that Swedmark had a great, dry sense of humor.

And a full supply of Ole and Lena jokes.

Swedmark had been in and out of the hospital the last two years, but friends and relatives could always tell when he was doing better because he came up with another Ole and Lena joke, Al Swedmark said.

"I thought we had heard every one he had," Al Swedmark said.

"He had a million of them," Sand agreed, laughing. "He was always thinking of a joke that would be appropriate for the conversation."

Swedmark was born in Cambridge, Minn., but was raised in Bemidji in the Nymore neighborhood. He attended Lincoln Elementary School, during which time he also was in the Drum and Bugle Corps.

"He was really proud of (the Nymore area)," Sand said. "He loved living in that little community."

Sand returned to Bemidji in 1986, at which time her father made it clear that she was to be active in the community.

Noting that area residents supported his store, and thus supported his family, Swedmark told Sand she would be expected to give something back.

"He said that we have made a living in the community, (community members) supported us and came into our store," she said. "There is a commitment that you will give something back. And that meant I was to be involved as well. That came directly from my dad."

Swedmark himself was involved an array of community groups and organizations, including the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, Jaycees, American Legion, Shrine Club and Red Cross. He was a former Beltrami County commissioner and member of the Bemidji Regional Airport Commission.

Swedmark was a lifelong member of Bethel Lutheran Church, where he and Naomi were wed and where he served on the church council. His parents and grandparents also were members of the church.

Naomi died in November 2000. Swedmark had a significant other, Helen Kohl, for the past eight years.

While remembering her father, Sand also said any dedication to the Bemidji community went beyond Swedmark to encompass many other families who have been invested in seeing the area succeed.

"Bemidji has been very fortunate to have some longtime families that really, for generations, several generations, had businesses or lived in Bemidji," she said. "All are part of why Bemidji has been successful."

Swedmark, like others, was committed to seeing the community thrive.

"He loved Bemidji," Sand said, noting that he, too, was very proud of his Swedish ancestry. "The community, the business, his family, his heritage. These were all really important to him."