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Frank Lyons helped 'Old Waskish' get its start in 1900

Lyons was already homesteading on the property with a cook and a laborer boarding with him according to the 1900 census. He received his patent in 1902. He translated the name of the site Waawaashkeshi, which means deer in Ojibwe, to Washkish and later to Waskish.

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Frank Lyon’s Store and Post Office in Waskish is pictured in 1914.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society
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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.

With the opening of the fishing season., the community of Waskish on the eastern shore of Upper Red Lake comes to mind.

Always a popular summer fishing area, the town got its start when Frank Lyons, a widower from New York, built the first log cabin there. The building served as a store, home and eventually the post office.

Lyons was already homesteading on the property with a cook and a laborer boarding with him according to the 1900 census. He received his patent in 1902. He translated the name of the site Waawaashkeshi, which means deer in Ojibwe, to Washkish and later to Waskish.

Responding to a need for more room, he added a second log building for travelers. This was described as having double bunks, hay-filled mattresses, camp blankets and a cook stove.

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1340 Frank Lyons Homestead Waskish Tamarac R.jpg
Frank Lyon’s homestead on the Tamarac River is pictured in this undated historical photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

He also had a rowboat, so that he could earn a little money taking people across the Tamarac River. Those who could not afford the fee, or chose to cross the river without it, waded across the mouth of the river.

Pete Olson and his wife Johanna immigrated from Sweden in 1906 and settled on the river across from Frank Lyons. Olson built a log cabin and a large barn on the place in 1908.

Pete became the rural mail carrier between Waskish and Kelliher. He died in an accident about five miles northwest of Kelliher on a May morning when his Ford automobile skidded in the mud and overturned in the ditch.

Johanna was expecting their eighth child, with the oldest, Lena, just 11 years old. Talk about a plucky pioneer. With eight minor children to raise, she moved to Bemidji and lived at 612 Fifth Street and took a job as a ripper in a sawmill.

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The post office at Waskish is pictured in this undated historical photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

On Sept. 23, 1923, Johanna married Louis Shadiow and the family moved to Longview, Wash. They had one more child, Clyde Shadiow. Johanna was a businesswoman when businesswomen were rare, and she eventually owned the Commercial Hotel in Longview.

Dr. Earl Marcum, a prominent physician from Bemidji, paid a visit to Waskish in 1914 and praised the courage and perseverance of the people residing in the area, which was nearly 50 miles away from a railroad.

The county board appropriated money for the construction of a bridge over the Tamarac River that year but did not appropriate enough to pay for the approaches that needed to be built.

According to Dr. Marcum, the settlers agreed upon a “Turn Out” day for the purpose of constructing the approaches to the bridge. About 40 men with yokes of oxen or teams of horses were on the ground ready for work on the morning of “Turn Out” day. They hauled logs, roots and stumps for filling in on either side of the bridge and then covered them with dirt and gravel.

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Frank Lyon’s homestead in Waskish is pictured in this undated historical photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

Dr. Marcum was quoted in the Bemidji Pioneer on May 5, 1914, saying: "I never saw such a lot of hustlers as I found in and around Waskish. They certainly are workers, every one of them. They have erected houses all along the road, about half a mile apart, and have ditched their land in order to put the soil in tillable shape.”

It was indeed a remote area, and even when Frank Lyons was arrested for conducting an unlicensed saloon in 1915, it was a tough task for law enforcement to arrest him. George Denley, deputy sheriff, was forced to travel 80 miles by team in 35 below zero weather.

The deputy drove from Kelliher to Waskish and Smithport and back to Waskish in one day, a distance of 60 miles, and then made the 20-mile trip from Waskish to Kelliher, starting at 2 o'clock in the morning and arriving at Kelliher in time to board the southbound train for Bemidji. Lyons was fined $50 and released.

In 1915, John Morrison and Frank Gravelle bought a lot from Frank Lyons and built a store as an extension of the Chippewa Trading Company, which had stores in Redby, Ponemah, Red Lake and Waskish.

Charles Cook operated the store until his death during the flu epidemic of 1918. Peter and Eliza Sarff took over the store. In the 1920 census, he was described as a farmer and she was described as the storekeeper.

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Eliza Sarff became a mail carrier in Waskish in 1927 after her husband Peter died.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

The store itself closed soon after, but the first floor was popular for parties and dances, and the second floor was used as housing. Peter died in 1924. Eliza (Hutton) Sarff was his second wife and about 18 years younger than her husband. She remained in Waskish, became a mail carrier and took in borders.

Frank Lyons’ brother David and his wife Anna came to Waskish in 1916 to help Frank, whose health was failing. They built the Waskish Hotel, and Frank moved in with them. This was quite a transition for a 60-plus couple from New York.

Although Lyons’ name is spelled with the “s” throughout Waskish history, his name was actually just Frank Lyon. His last will and testament are clear on that point. It is interesting that he had a fair amount of money in his estate, and he willed $1,000 each to his daughter, Cora Dell Wilson; his brother David; his sister Matilda Van Etten; his niece Elizabeth Pratt; and his executor Advard Pratt, (all of New York), but he left only $5 to his son Edwin.

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He made his will and had it witnessed in Elmira, New York, on Oct. 20, 1920. Frank Lyons passed away, and the Lyons couple returned to their hometown in New York.

John Morris purchased the hotel from the Lyons’ estate in 1920. Mr. Morris added a large porch and renamed the hotel “Sunset Lodge.” He made a small store building on the northeast corner of the hotel. This was used as a grocery store and later as a pool hall and a 3.2 beer outlet.

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The hotel in Waskish is pictured in this undated historical photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

Norman Morrow moved to Waskish in 1916. He built a house and called it a halfway house. He was a jack of all trades, a cook, a barber, a gunsmith and a violin repairman.

He had a sign on the front of the house which read “Meals at All Hours.” On the 1920 census, he reported his occupation as the keeper of a boarding house, and on the 1930 census, he gave his occupation as a hotel cook.

He was divorced before he came to Waskish and he seems to have been a very independent plucky French-Canadian.

The entire town site was purchased by the state in 1934 because the Department of Conservation needed a portion of land where the Tamarack River empties into the lake for the purpose of netting pike and stripping spawn when the fish start their spring run.

That was the end of “Old Waskish” and the beginning of the current town of Waskish.

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