Bemidji saw many ups and downs during the 1920s

The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles celebrating 2021 as the 125th birthday of the city of Bemidji.

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Construction on the new Bemidji hotel by Morris Kaplan was done in 1919. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles celebrating 2021 as the 125th birthday of the city of Bemidji. For more information about the Historical Society, visit .

Bemidji saw some hard times in the decade preceding the 1920s. Saloons were closed, sons and husbands went off to war, and the Spanish Influenza epidemic closed schools and businesses for seven weeks. Major fires took down many of the frame buildings on Second and Third Street, and the city was left with a lot of empty real estate. Many thought that when the saloons closed due to Prohibition, the town would die.

On the contrary, Walter Brooks, banker, reported that savings went up substantially, and money was more available than ever. A local building boom started in 1921 and held up through the 1920s until the collapse of the financial world on Black Friday in 1929.

Realizing the need for housing in Bemidji following WWI, Morris Kaplan scrapped his plans for a manufacturing plant on the southeast corner of Second Street and Minnesota Avenue and built a three-story building with stores on the first floor and apartments and single rooms on the second and third floors.

This was the new Bemidji hotel. The building was set on 380 piers and used poured concrete. It was said to have one of the strongest foundations in the state of Minnesota. In securing the required brick for the erection of the building, Kaplan found the price had jumped to an exorbitant cost, so he secured Bemidji’s brick manufacturing plant and commenced the burning of 500,000 bricks, of which he used 250,000; the rest were put on the open market.


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Charles Vandersluis and W. Z. Robinson built this two-story hardware store in 1922 at 324 Minnesota Ave. The former building was moved back and located to face Fourth Street. In 1927, there was a fire, which burned out the store and in the reorganization that followed, Vandersluis bought out Robinson and repaired the building, cutting off the second floor to make it a one-story structure. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

On almost every business block in the city, some construction was going on. The Salvation Army building, which stood on Minnesota Avenue just south of the Nangle block, was condemned in 1920 by the State Fire Marshal. This building was removed when the new Army Hall was built in the summer of 1920.

A new Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church on Thirteenth Street celebrated the laying of its cornerstone on Oct. 22, 1922. A new Masonic Temple was dedicated in April 1924. St. Philip’s School, the first parochial school, was started in 1923 and finished in 1926. The original home of the Presbyterian church, a small white frame building, was replaced in 1928 with the present brick structure.

Fires abound

Fires continued to plague Bemidji’s older buildings, but new construction followed. The high school, which had been constructed in 1908 on America Avenue, caught fire on Jan. 17, 1921, and was destroyed. Only two days elapsed before Bemidji’s plucky students assembled at the Elko Theatre and were assigned to new classrooms throughout the city. Headquarters for the high school was maintained at the Moose Hall with Professor J.W. Smith in charge. Superintendent Bagby moved his office to Central School.

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Crookston Lumber Co. caught fire in 1924 on the south side of Lake Bemidji. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

The Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches all hosted some of the classes. After much discussion as to the location, a new building was constructed in 1922-23 and dedicated on Feb. 12, 1923. The lots remained empty for many years until the WPA helped construct an ice arena for curling and skating. The lot is now occupied by Northland Apartments.


The oldest building on the townsite, the three-story Remore Hotel, caught fire on a Sunday evening, May 16, 1926. As the Bemidji Sentinel reported, “Thousands of People Watch Firemen Hold Spectacular Fire to Two Buildings.” Fire, likely caused by the explosion of a gas stove, broke out in the Harper Shoe Repair shop, located in about the center of the first floor. The flames spread rapidly in the dry frame building, fanned by a brisk breeze.

Although the Remore building was reduced to rubble and there was damage to the upper floor of a second building, firemen were credited with preventing the entire row of buildings east on Third Street from being destroyed. This lot at the corner of Third Street and Beltrami Avenue was prime property, as it was located on the intersection of the two main business streets at the time. It became the site of Ben Munig’s Bemidji Oil Company station, and then the Dokken Oil Company. The site is now occupied by Tutto Bene, a restaurant serving Italian dishes.

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The new Bemidji hotel is on the right when looking north on Minnesota Avenue in the 1920s. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

Creamery industry emerges

As logging interests moved west, more and more farmers moved into the area. Prior to 1910, there was relatively little farming, but with access to formerly wooded areas, farmers began to look at the benefits of the dairy and sheep business. With that shift, several creameries were established in Bemidji.

The Bemidji Creamery owned by the Melges Brothers opened in May 1906 and was producing high-quality butter, but the 1920s saw this industry expand exponentially in Bemidji. Koors Bros. decided to open a modern creamery, and Bemidji’s first centralizing plant came into being in 1919. The Koors Bros. Creamery was at 111 Beltrami Avenue.

F.W. Langdon was manufacturing ice cream as well as soft drinks in 1920. The Blue Valley Creamery was built on the old Svea Hotel lot in 1923 and operated until 1938. The Koors Creamery went bankrupt, but once the property had been cleared through bankruptcy proceedings in federal court, David Park purchased the property and reconstructed the building. The David Park Creamery opened in February 1926 and provided ice cream and other dairy products for decades in Bemidji. Bemidji’s Cooperative Creamery opened on Feb. 6, 1929.

The 'Roaring 20s'

Bemidji’s experience with the "Roaring 20s" was different from Chicago or the major cities, without an abundance of speak-easies or Flappers. Nevertheless, there were more than a few incidents that showed the desire for liquor had not gone away with a change in the law.


Sixteen people, including five women, were arrested on liquor and related charges on Nov. 22, 1921. The raids began on a Tuesday evening at 9 o'clock and continued until after midnight. Several more persons were arrested Wednesday morning, and Wednesday afternoon was devoted to the hearings of the various cases in court.

The raids were perhaps the most complete and far-reaching of any that had been attempted previously. Working in cooperation with plainclothesmen, the police had been obtaining evidence for several weeks and the raids Tuesday were all made on warrants. In a statement to the Bemidji Sentinel that Wednesday, Mayor Garlock said that the apparent laxity on the part of the police during the previous few weeks was merely to have their case well prepared before action was taken.

Fines and abatement hearings were used in the 1920s to put the brakes on the use of illegal liquor in the soft drink parlors of Bemidji. The term abatement was used in law to mean the removal or control of an annoyance. Those who were classified as a liquor nuisance risked forfeiture of a lease or abatement of their property.

Morris Kaplan, owner of the site at 219 Second Street, and J. E. Maloy and Oscar Sorenson, bartenders, were in court following a raid on Dec. 29, 1927. An injunction followed, preventing business of any kind from being conducted on the portion of the property used as a barroom. It was just one of nine alleged “nuisances” to be padlocked after a raid on Dec. 29, 1927. Abatement proceedings were started by the state on Feb. 7, 1928, to close up the places.

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Bemidji High School football team of 1924 is pictured on the steps of the new Bemidji High School. In the front row from left are “Skinny” Rhea, “Doug” Neeley, Lars Hakkerup, Pete Peterson, “Walt” Woock, “Mike,” and another. In the middle row are coach Doc Diedrich, “Les” Boe, “Os” Oscar Baney, Louis Neumann, Verne Hickerson, “Les” Bailey, and coach Kovak. In the back row are Allen Oine, “Doc” Smith and Leonard Japp. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

A shift in hospital administration

The 1920s saw a major shift in the administration of the local hospital. St. Anthony’s Hospital was operated by the Benedictine nuns until 1922 when it was abruptly closed. One factor in their decision may have been the division of the Benedictine order into two motherhouses, one in Crookston and one in Duluth.

St. Vincent’s Hospital in Crookston needed additional staff as much or more than Bemidji did. A second hospital called the Samaritan Hospital, operated by Mrs. Smith, had offered maternity and general care from 1912-1915 only a few blocks away until it burned in 1915. The order must have been aware that the Lutherans had been looking for an additional site as well. Whatever the reason, the Benedictine nuns closed St. Anthony’s on June 1, 1922.


The North Central Lutheran Hospital Association had been scouting for a site for two years for a general hospital. In May 1920, they secured an option on the old Erickson Hotel located on America Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets and planned to open in the fall of 1920. When they could not get permission from the Minnesota authorities to use this old frame building for a hospital, they looked elsewhere.

As plans went forward, they actually purchased a site on 14th Street between Bixby and Bemidji Avenues. This same property was considered as a possible location for the new high school in 1921. Unanimous endorsement of the need for a new modern fireproof hospital for Bemidji was given in a meeting on April 10, 1921, at which all the medical practitioners and druggists of the city were present.

The plan of the North Central Minnesota Lutheran Hospital association for the erection of a modern hospital in Bemidji was discussed at length. It was pointed out that the presence of so large a body of Lutherans in the territory adjacent to Bemidji, which would be served by a hospital in Bemidji, would of itself practically assure the success of the venture.

Consequently, when St. Anthony’s closed, the association contracted to purchase the old hospital and to raise $35,000 during the week of Sept. 11, 1922, to pay for the site and building and to put it into the best possible operating condition. Businessmen and residents alike were asked to purchase shares at $25 each. The hospital was reopened on Oct. 10, 1922.

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Crookston Lumber Co. and the south side of Lake Bemidji can be seen from an aerial shot in 1923. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

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