Paul Bunyan Vintage Auto Club celebrates 50 years
When the founders of the Paul Bunyan Vintage Auto Club held their first planning meeting in February 1972, they had no idea it would still be going strong after 50 years.
BEMIDJI — When the founders of the Paul Bunyan Vintage Auto Club held their first planning meeting in February 1972, they had no idea it would still be going strong after 50 years.
In 1968, co-founder Larry Oakes moved to Cass Lake from Duluth, which had an active car club at the time.
“I missed having a group like that to perpetuate the hobby,” Oakes reflected upon his move.
In the four years prior to the club’s creation, Oakes got in touch with co-founder Roger Tell, who knew fellow co-founder Kermit Anderson.
Wanting to create a community for everyone to share their interest in vintage cars and restoration, the three joined forces to set up the club’s first meeting that drew in about 70 people with varying interests.
Nonetheless, these interests were all related to cars.
“Some had cars and were very interested. Some had junk and were hoping they could sell it,” Anderson said. “Some were just curious, but it was everybody from every walk of life.”
Drawing in a wide variety of members ranging from doctors to lawyers and farmers to youth, the club had leverage to rev up some excitement surrounding vintage cars in the Bemidji area.
Club car shows
The club has kept active with many activities, in particular their annual car shows.
Starting in 1983, the club began hosting car shows which have continued at various venues throughout the years.
With the first being held at the old fairgrounds where Target has since been built, the shows have also had a home at the Neilson-Reise Center field, the current Beltrami County Fairgrounds and Bemidji High School.
Discontinued in 2017, Oakes emphasized the amount of work that goes into planning a car show.
“They were lots of work. You had to start in January to begin planning a July show,” Oakes detailed. “Developing a program, printing flyers, getting vendors to come.”
Operating as a non-profit organization, the club still deemed it necessary to have a “rainy day fund” in case inclement weather prevented a show from being held.
“If we got rained out, we wouldn’t have enough money to pay for the show and it usually took about $12,000 to put one on,” Anderson said.
Despite the workload and cost, the shows were highly successful ventures.
Promoting the shows as family events, each show featured a seminar focusing on a specific activity including quilting, gardening, painting or car restoration.
“We were the only club that did that,” 20-year member Margene Parkos said regarding the seminars. “It really helped the ladies to be entertained.”
Margene’s husband, Rick, estimated 1,300 spectators would attend a show on average with about 200 cars on display.
Speaking to car show profits resulting from auto dealership sponsorships and donations, Rick emphasized the club’s philosophy of giving back to the community.
Detailing philanthropic efforts, profits were donated to many community organizations and causes year-to-year.
These include the BHS automotive class and industrial technology department, Beltrami County Historical Society, Northern Minnesota Regional Science Fair, Breast Cancer Walk, First Responders, Headwaters Science Center and Relay for Life among others.
“Some of these organizations have gotten many donations over the years,” Rick said. “Everything went back to the community because a lot of townspeople helped us out and it was our way of saying ‘thank you.’”
Cruises and camaraderie
With more than 120 current members, the club has seen significant opportunities to forge life-long friendships starting from a shared interest.
Car cruises took place in many shapes and forms starting with their spring dust-off.
Donning vintage vehicles in procession, members would drive 30 to 60 miles away to end their drive at a restaurant for a banquet meal.
The fall foliage cruises had the same idea, and weekly summer cruises allowed the club to take full advantage of the summer months.
Regarding mystery cruises, more specific rules were in place.
“The rules include having a full gas tank or money in your pocket,” Anderson detailed. “We didn’t know where we were going except one couple who would lead the way. (Rick and Margene) are the kings of mystery cruises.”
One of the first overnight cruises led members to Duluth while two others ended in Wisconsin. The weekly summer cruises brought members to others' houses.
These visits gave members a chance to give garage tours to show restoration projects they were working on or another collection besides cars.
“Car people are usually collectors of something else,” Oakes added.
These visits also allowed members to reflect on the past and exchange stories from their childhood.
“To me, the best part (of being in the club) is the gathering after a Thursday night cruise at somebody’s home,” Margene said regarding the conversations, food and laughs each cruise would bring.
Oakes detailed when he received his first car, a Model A Ford, when he was 15 years old.
“The Duluth paper advertised it at $45. My dad took me through Duluth to meet up with the guy selling it and he wanted $49.50. I said to him, ‘well, you advertised it for $45. Why’d you raise the price?’ He said, ‘I just filled the gas tank this morning and it was $4.50,’” Oakes recalled with a chuckle.
Another 50 years?
With 50 years under its belt, the club hopes that younger generations will continue the club’s operations for years to come.
“I think the car club will stay together especially with younger families coming up,” Margene said. “Maybe when they get older, they’ll realize that they like old cars.”
With plans to continue their cruises, philanthropy and various gatherings in the area, Oakes pointed out, “the club has to be turned over to younger people. We have members with kids who used to be in car seats and now they’re in high school.”
With the next 50 years upcoming, the club will evolve as members come and go. What will remain the same is the common interest that brought everyone together in the first place.
“We’ve never met such wonderful people as we have from this club. We would’ve never met the Oakes’ or the Anderson’s,” Margene added. “It’s kind of neat.”
Realizing the vision from 50 years ago along with Oakes and Tell, Anderson left off, “it’s been a wonderful 50 years.”