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 www.beltramihistory.org.
Bemidji, during the 1930s Depression era, was a mixed bag of tough economic times, resilient individuals who helped each other out, the construction and development of roads, buildings, and lakeshore, and promotion of year-round tourism.
The October 1929 stock market crash and the Dust Bowl that followed in waves throughout the 1930s put much of the country into a tailspin, but Bemidji adapted and survived. The three main banks in Bemidji at that time — First National Bank, Security State Bank and Northern National Bank — remained open and endured.
Downtown businesses like the Bemidji Woolen Mills, Gill Brothers, Bemidji Hardware and others survived. Money was tight for most people, so they adapted — grew bigger gardens, foraged more, hunted, raised chickens and traded what they had for what they needed. With everything that occupied them, they still found ways to entertain themselves and to celebrate.
'We never went hungry'
In an account by Alice Benson Durand in North Country History, in 1982, Alice said her husband Ray "traded work for vegetables and produce and had odd jobs." In the winter, he "put up ice on Bass Lake," cutting out huge squares with ice saws and hauling it by sleigh and draft horses to be packed in sawdust and used in the summer. Eggs, she recalled, sold for 9 cents a dozen, and many people kept "layers" to produce their own eggs to consume, trade or sell. People traded labor for meat or hunted for venison.
In "Bemidji Between The Wars," a Lakeland PBS documentary produced by Gary Burger, Chet Swedmark (1922-2011) of Bemidji shared his memories of the Depression era days. "We never went hungry — we did a lot of berry picking. We'd buy peaches and pears and do a lot of canning. We didn’t have a nickel to buy anything, but always ate well — lots of venison." During those days, he said, his father "would occasionally accidentally shoot a deer." Chet’s job was to help grind the meat. "We canned the meat, raised pigs, chickens, cows, and had a good-sized garden."
Transient people who passed through town on foot or rode the rails stopped in Bemidji and were usually fed by residents who had little for themselves. Charlie Naylor (1914-2008), longtime Bemidji promoter, spoke of the "hobos" who came to town. "They were pretty nice people. They came to our house but were willing to work for food. My mother never turned anybody down."
With the loss of business from the Crookston Mill, which closed in 1930 and put hundreds of men out of work, many sought employment. At a city Council meeting in December 1932, a "committee on poor relief" presented information about the cost of caring for "the poor of the city."
During the month of October in 1932, the city had spent $1,300, not including "mothers' pensions." This amount included "$650 … for food, $150 for rent, $100 for clothing, $150 for medical services and medicine for the sick and $250 for hospital services." Relief money from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, obtained through Beltrami County, would hold out through early February 1933, the committee said, but there was "no guarantee that the relief (would) be continued after that date."
Still, people found ways to socialize. Alma Duhamel wrote in North Country History in 1987, "No one had any money to spare for entertainment so we had to do things that didn’t cost anything but the effort. We had house parties and danced if there was a space large enough. If not, we played parlor games … We organized whist clubs and pinochle parties."
In the summer, she wrote, "We had baseball. The young men in each community organized a baseball league and played every Sunday afternoon in a different community."
WPA brings work to meet infrastructure needs
In May 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order and created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), designed to create jobs while addressing important infrastructure needs in the country. This ambitious program resulted in employment for some 8.5 million Americans, skilled and unskilled, and thousands of projects from road and building construction to the arts. WPA projects brought work opportunities to Bemidji when they were most needed.
In Bemidji, WPA projects included rip-rapping along the lakeshore, the building of Bemidji State's Memorial Hall, the stone highway building on Bemidji Avenue, the old high school auditorium, the log building at Lake Bemidji State Park, the recently restored stone bathhouse on Bemidji’s south shore, stone walls, walkways, and overlooks along Lake Bemidji, the Fireplace of States and more. Some of these structures still stand today.
Bemidji promotes itself as a year-round destination
Bemidji had been a summer destination since its early days, but promotions to bring year-round visitors increased as an improved road system brought more and more people by automobile. In 1932, Bemidji held its first Winter Carnival, complete with an impressive ice castle near the armory by the lake.
The biggest ever Winter Carnival, in 1937, featured several days of sports — everything from curling to speed skating, five parades, lumberjack competitions, a pancake eating contest, Ice Follies, a sled dog derby, and even a half-mile, free-for-all horse race down Minnesota Avenue.
The crowning event was the unveiling of Bemidji’s icon — Paul Bunyan, the first ever statue of the lumberjack legend anywhere. The February 1, 1937, edition of Life magazine featured the statue and his sidekick in a two-page spread. Babe the Blue Ox, first built to ride atop a 1.5-ton truck, led parades in Bemidji and made appearances in other parades around the state, including St. Paul’s Winter Carnival.
An estimated 10,000 people attended the 1937 Winter Carnival. Babe traveled for about a year, and was then cemented and placed permanently beside Paul in 1938.
Bemidji State Teachers College
The Depression years were tough on all of the state colleges. In an article in 1978, BSU history professor Art Lee described the declining enrollment at Bemidji State and a bill that was proposed to the state legislature in 1933 "to close all the state colleges and turn them into something that the bill's sponsor said would be more useful, that is insane asylums or prisons." Although the bill did not pass, another bill did, "requiring students for the first time to pay tuition, 10 dollars a quarter."
BSTC's enrollment was just 208 in 1930 and dropped to 193 by 1937. Enrollment rose at the end of the decade, bringing it up to 501 by 1940, but then came World War II, and enrollment of male students plummeted to almost nothing. The lessons and adaptations learned and practiced in the 1930s would prepare Bemidji for rationing and victory gardens in the 1940s.