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Prime Time | Ann Daley: The life and times of John Buhn

I’m guessing that many of you who read this story will have visited the Inn at Maple Crossing at one time or another.

If you haven’t, and you want to take a ride sometime, it’s easy to find. Just take U.S. Highway 2 west to Mentor. Take a left at the Dairy Queen, go two miles and you will find the stately bed and breakfast on the shores of Maple Lake.

This charming inn, owned and operated by Nancy and Jim Thomasson since 1992, sits on the very site of the old Buhn Hotel Maple Lake, which was built by my granddad, John Buhn, in 1892. My story is about the adventures of John Buhn and his family.

The beginning

My granddad was born in Norway in 1861. He was the youngest of four boys, Jorgen, Christian, Charles and Johan, born to Ole Urdahl and Else Bohn Urdahl. When they were still very young, the family emigrated to America. Although they had no means of paying for such a costly trip, Else’s sister Caroline and her enterprising husband, George Silkworth, did. They were already established in the “new land,” and it had been a good move for them. They had a well-stocked farm of dairy cattle in Wisconsin, and as luck would have it, they could use some help. The rest is history.

George and Caroline made Else and Ole an offer they couldn’t resist. They would make all the arrangements and foot the bill for the Urdahl family to join them in America. The Urdahls would pay them back for their passage by working on the farm. Needless to say, the Urdahls took them up on their offer and began making plans to leave their beloved Norway.

A most unpleasant journey

It was early summer. The ship left from the seaport of Oslo, and it was one miserable ocean crossing. Cramped conditions, bad weather and choppy seas made for plenty of sick passengers. When they arrived in America things got even worse. A big storm caused them to get off course, and instead of landing in Boston, their intended destination, they ended up in New York Harbor at Ellis Island.

A big bump in the road

The change of ports caused a mix-up in immigration papers, and the family was held at Ellis Island for two weeks. This was a mighty unfortunate turn of events. How would they get to the farm in Wisconsin at this rate? According to one account I read, things got really out of hand when the family met up with some “sharpies,” otherwise known as swindlers or “shysters,” who took all their money, promising to get them to Wisconsin but instead hijacked them to Mississippi. The family found themselves virtually sold into slavery to a Mississippi plantation owner where they were forced to do very hard work. Little did they know that they would be working there for at least a year.

A stroke of luck

Although plantation life was no picnic, at least the family was able to save a little money that could come in very handy if they ever got the chance to leave Mississippi. Thanks to a couple of plantation supervisors who befriended the family, they finally got that chance. The two friends made arrangements for them to steal away from the plantation by night and board a Mississippi riverboat. At last they were on their way to the farm in Wisconsin.

When they reached their destination, the Silkworths had an oxcart waiting to take them to the farm. They had made it through the worst of it – all except for Ole Urdahl (my great-granddad). He had been in poor health for some time, and had become very ill. He died and was buried along the way, somewhere between Eau Claire and Black River Falls, Wis. Else and her sons continued, and eventually reached their destination, where they would begin working to pay off their passage.

The next chapter

I guess the Urdahls must have paid off their debts because I read that when Granddad John finished grade school, he and brother Jergen (George) headed up to Prescott and Ellsworth, Wis., eventually ending up in St. Paul. There, Granddad John went to Commercial College and George went to the University of Minnesota. It seems they got a little education and they were on their way. They headed for Crookston because they heard land grants were available there. George set up a blacksmith shop and later a jewelry store. Johan went 25 miles down the road to Mentor and opened a furniture store. In 1883 he bought and homesteaded several acres of land that included a log house built in the early 1860s.

The Buhn Hotel tale

In the early 1880s Granddad moved the 1860s log house to where it stands today as part of the old Buhn Hotel, now the Inn at Maple Crossing. An annex was built and attached to it for sleeping rooms. Four sleeping rooms above the main room were for the family. Later the annex was moved to make room for the main hotel building.

From 1890 on, more rooms continued to be added. By 1903 they had a 35-room hotel that would be available to the public for five months out of the year. There was no electricity, no plumbing and no insulation. They did get to have the luxury of running water in 1970. However, it was only available in the kitchen. The only restroom was a “four-holer” outhouse that could accommodate three adults and one child, all at the same time.

Hotel guests

Hotel guests included salesmen opening up new territories in the new world, politicians stomping the back country, logging and railroad representatives, and, of course, vacationers. Hotel Maple Lake became a popular resort, and people came from far and wide.  They came from Grand Forks, Crookston and Winnipeg, and some as far as Kansas City and New York. The guests arrived in Mentor by train and were transported to the Hotel Maple Lake by horse-drawn taxis.

Family business

There was plenty of work to keep Granddad John and Grandma Ella busy, and their eight kids as well. There was a stable to house cattle that would provide dairy products for the family. There was a chicken house and a pig pen and a huge vegetable garden. There was a large ice house. The boys would “put up ice” in the winter and peddle it in the summer. During the winter Granddad would add to his income by selling firewood and auditing books for business firms in Crookston and Grand Forks.

The Buhn kids all walked to school in Mentor, and although my granddad was a firm believer in education and held the distinction of being a school board member for 44 years and was instrumental in getting the Mentor high school built in 1921, I think only a couple of kids actually graduated from high school.

The End of an Era

Following World War I, the Buhn Hotel did a booming business. People liked this “old-time” hotel. All kinds of celebrations were catered at the hotel and on the grounds. They sometimes had more overnight guests than they could accommodate. Guests were impressed with the beautiful antique pitchers, bowls and slop jars (chamber pots) that graced each room.

The most favorite meal served at the hotel was the Sunday chicken dinner. It continued to be popular for more than 75 years, and even now, the Inn continues that chicken dinner tradition.

By World War II, business was clearly on the decline. For one thing, it was the end of the ice business. When electricity came on the scene, people bought refrigerators.

The late ’20s

The late ’20s brought hardship to the country. Granddad’s farm went with the crash. He tried to sell the hotel, but there were no buyers. Most of the Buhn kids had moved away for one reason or another. Some had other jobs, like my dad, Arthur, who worked for the postal service. The hotel business was not going well, although the Sunday chicken dinner thing was still going strong.

It looked like the writing was on the wall. The family members were going their separate ways — all but two of them, that is. They were sisters, my spinster aunts, Dora and Clarice. It seems that they would be left to look after John and Ella. Since that was the case, and the sisters accepted their lot in life as caregivers, the Buhn kids (all but two of them that is) thought it only right to give the spinsters their share of any inheritance they might be entitled to receive, and that did prove to be a problem in later years.

Spinster aunts carry on

Grandma Ella died in 1936. Some say she died from overwork at the Hotel. All I know is it didn’t look like Grandpa Buhn worked very hard, because I mostly remember him sitting around the premises dressed up every day in a three-piece suit and bow tie. He died in 1943 at the age of 82.

The girls continued to operate the hotel and care for the grounds as best they would. There would be a limited amount of business in the summer and in the winter season, from Nov. 1 to May 1, they would go to Minneapolis and get their same jobs back year after year. They must have had quite a work ethic.

They followed this routine for 25 years, until 1974, at which time they decided the jig was up. From that time on they spent their winters in Fergus Falls. By 1980 they could barely care for themselves

The spinsters had several well-known visitors during the early ’70s. Oliver Towne, a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, visited them. He marveled over the kerosene lamps and fancy wall brackets and said, “In this museum hotel there is nary a single piece of intentional antique. It all just became antique.”

There were 10 rooms available for rent at that time. There was no menu. Guests got what the Buhn girls felt like serving. And as for the cooking facilities, running water was available in the kitchen area only and there were three stoves: one electric, one gas and one big old wood stove. All three were used to do the Sunday cooking. When the reporter wound up his visit, the Buhn girls said, “Thanks for coming. We hope you had a nice time, but please don’t tell your friends about us – we don’t need any more customers.”

Demise of Hotel Maple Lake

Eventually the Buhn girls were unable to return to the hotel at all in the summer. The place was literally abandoned. Although they knew they would never be able to operate it again, they definitely would not consider selling it. And how could they? It wasn’t entirely theirs to sell. Because the place was vacant, we worried about vandalism. When I tried to discuss this issue with them (even suggesting that if they didn’t care about the place anymore that maybe they would consider giving it to the historical society), they would not discuss it. They would simply change the subject.

Eventually it was bound to happen. The heist of the century. I received a phone call, “You better get over here. Something bad has happened at the hotel. There’s been a burglary.” A cousin brought Clarice over from Fergus Falls, and I met them there. All Clarice could say was, “How could anyone do such a thing?” Meanwhile, I’m asking why wouldn’t they with the place being vacant for such a long time that thieves had the perfect opportunity. Obviously, sometime during the night a huge truck backed up to the front door of the hotel, and every piece of antique furniture and other valuables were loaded into the truck, never to be seen again. They made one slick getaway. Only the kitchen range and upright piano were left behind. Now maybe “the girls” would take this “vandalism problem” seriously.

Eventually the issue of ownership got settled and the property could be sold. The people who bought it had a burn permit and the local fire department planned to burn the hotel down for practice. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Enter Nancy and Jim Thomasson. They bought and renovated the dilapidated old building and have now been entertaining guests from far and wide since 1996 in their elegant Inn at Maple Crossing.

Memories of bygone days

I remember back in the ’40s when my sister and I would help our aunts serve that “mouth-watering” Sunday chicken dinner. After we had eaten the leftovers and cleaned up the place, we would go into the dining room, where my Aunt Clarice would play a few tunes on the big old upright piano and we kids would sing and dance. A favorite tune was, “I’m no millionaire, but I’m not the type to care ’cuz I’ve got a pocket full of dreams.” Catchy words, huh?

I also remember school picnics held on the hotel grounds. We served the food on a big bandstand. I loved snooping around the hotel. It was so mysterious. I actually got to see very few of the rooms, as they were always kept locked. Maybe they thought I would jump on the beds, or worse yet, break the antique pitchers and bowls.

One of my fondest memories was getting to go to the hotel for Thanksgiving. All Granddad’s family and their kids were invited. We had goose and turkey and all the trimmings. We even had designated places at the table. After dinner we would all go sliding down the hill in front of the hotel. And after that we would come back in and eat again.

I remember visiting my aunts in the little hotel in Minneapolis where they spent the winters. I was in nursing school, and they would invite me over for a Sunday meal. No one could cook like those old spinster aunts.

Now, when my daughter and granddaughters and I visit the Inn, I am reminded of those old times. We like to stay in the rooms that are named after Dora and Clarice. We listen for the sound of Dora’s rocking chair and wonder if her ghost is roaming around there someplace. I don’t know about ghosts, but my daughter Laurie has her own theory about the aunts. She says they are just plain old witches and she is sticking to it!

One last thing: I was thinking that if Caroline had bought Else and her family a round-trip ticket to America instead of a one-way ticket, maybe none of this would have happened and I wouldn’t be writing this story.

One more last thought: I’m still not sure how Granddad’s last name got changed from Urdahl to Buhn. When they first arrived in America, maybe there were too many Urdahls so they took Else’s maiden name of Bohn and just changed it to Buhn.

What do you think?