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Blackduck Woodcarvers Festival: A festival at the top of the world

Blackduck, Minnesota, is a town full of unique characteristics with its vast forests, mighty rivers and mallard-filled lakes. But there is one thing that makes this town stand out among all the rest: the Blackduck Annual Woodcarvers Festival.

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This year's Blackduck Woodcarvers Festival is set for July 30.
Pioneer file photo
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Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on  a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area.  For more information about the Historical Society, visit  www.beltramihistory.org.

Every small town is known for something, whether it's known for its beautiful landscape, or known for its residents, every place has something special.

Blackduck, Minnesota, is a town full of unique characteristics with its vast forests, mighty rivers and mallard-filled lakes. But there is one thing that makes this town stand out among all the rest: the Blackduck Annual Woodcarvers Festival.

Settled in the late 1800s, Blackduck area homesteaders found logging to be a way of life and many of the men became lumberjacks. Men came from all over the country to join logging camps that were popping up all over the forests of Blackduck.

Millions of logs were harvested from the Norway pine forests and were then used to build homesteads as well as the village itself. Located on the Continental Divide, Blackduck is thought to sit at the top of the world. What a better place to have a festival than at the top of the world.

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Jim Schram, (1921-2010), a carpenter in his younger years, began carving wood in order to kick his smoking habit in 1969.

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Jim Schram

In 1984, Schram, Ann Floura, Nina Anderson and Robin Stomberg founded Blackduck’s Woodcarvers Committee. For the past 38 years, the organization has held a wood carving festival. The event has branched out over the years bringing in thousands of tourists from all over the country flocking to see the talented carvers.

Bemidji residents Raelyn Warner Mellema, and her husband have gone to the festival several times over the years.

“We enjoy the festival," she said. "It’s fun to check out how talented these woodworkers are. We find it’s a fun way to spend a day in the summer.”

Local wood carvers in the area, alongside carvers from neighboring states like Michigan and Iowa, show off their skills and sell their product.

“It’s well worth going,” said Bob Larson, President of the Woodcarving Club in Bemidji, who has attended the festival for the last 25 years. “There is a great variety of carvers. It is a place where you can get wood and carving tools. It’s a place where you can talk to other carvers, and learn new things.”

Larson started carving when he was a teenager, but his true passion for carving started around 2004.

“Rick Jensen from Crookston, he got me started in carving," he said. "He’s one of the best wood carvers around. He mentored me and we’ve been friends ever since.”

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Larson’s favorite woods to carve are cottonwood and basswood. He added that the best carving wood comes from John Crane, one of the best carvers in the upper Midwest.

“For carving, you want wood that’s pliable and is easy to carve,” Larson explained. “You can never go wrong with Crane wood.”

Between annual woodcarving festivals, Larson practices his art and shares what he knows with others.

Every Wednesday at the Bemidji Senior Center, he holds a club gathering of woodcarvers. Currently, there are about 28 members, with skills ranging from beginner to advanced.

“The club is a place where you can share your ideas with others and gain more experience," he said.

Bob Larson, of Bemidji, works on a mermaid carving during a workshop in April at the Senior Activity Center. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
Bob Larson, of Bemidji, works on a mermaid carving during a workshop at the Bemidji Senior Center.
Pioneer file photo

Like Schram, Larson openly shares his talents with anyone who is willing to learn.

“Sadly, I never got the chance to carve under Jim Schram, but many of the club members have studied under him," Larson added.

Alex Tindell, who was born and raised in Blackduck, has gone with her family to see the carvers since she was a small child. She has always been amazed by the festival.

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“I keep going back because it's so amazing to see a small town filled with people who are just as amazed as you are. There are also things that never change," Tindell said.

The Blackduck Public Library holds its book sale every year during the festival. Tindell also enjoys the man who sells puzzle boxes, a big attraction for tourists.

“There is so much talent in such a small place,” she said.

Robin Stomberg, the owner of the Northlander Gift Shop in Blackduck, commented that the wood carving festival is something that everyone should experience.

He explained that every penny earned goes back to the community or to the vendors selling their creations. For the people of Blackduck, this event is one of the largest public gatherings during the year.

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The Blackduck Woodcarvers Festival draws dozens of artisans each summer.
Pioneer file photo

When COVID-19 ravaged the country, everything was brought to a halt. And for a community that puts all they have into a single-day event, it was devastating.

But after two years of silence, the 38th Annual Woodcarvers Festival, set for July 30, is ramping up for another amazing year.

“I hope we can pick up where we left off,” Stomberg said. “The hope is that with this year's proceeds the committee can finally build a permanent stage on the grounds.”

The permanent stage would be used for local bands that play at the festival, and for other events hosted by the Blackduck community to keep the town of Blackduck on the map and to keep people coming back each year.

To keep the festival's memory alive, Schram and a few of his carving students crafted what’s known as the “Heritage Pole.”

People can see it today when entering the wayside rest area off of Highway 71. It stands skyward made completely of wood. Carved into the wood are eight images of wildlife, and on the very top sits a bald eagle that watches over the festival year after year.

The pole stands as a testament to those that made this truly spectacular event possible, and to those who have inspired many in keeping the ancient tradition of woodcarving alive.

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