Rooms for rent: Boarding houses filled a need in Bemidji’s first 25 years

The village of less than 500 people in 1898 became a boom town by 1900 with some 10,000 lumberjacks within a 10-mile radius of the town. Bemidji’s resident population more than doubled from 1900 to 1910. The housing supply simply could not keep up with demand.

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Tenants gather outside the Arthur Bell boarding house on Lake Irving. It was one of many such houses in the early days after Bemidji was incorporated. (Beltrami County Historical Society photo)

Editor's Note: This is the first chapter of five that chronicle the city of Bemidji's development since it was incorporated as a village on May 20, 1896. Each chapter covers a span of 25 years and was originally published in the Pioneer's Annual Report on May 22. Here you can find our printed section and here you can find the next four chapters.

As lumbermen and budding businesses descended on Bemidji in early times after the village was incorporated 125 years ago this month, housing was quite a challenge.

Much of the housing during the first 25 years of Bemidji’s history consisted of boarding houses and small hotels that served a population eager for jobs and new opportunities. Urban scholar Paul Groth estimated that a third to a half of city-dwelling Americans either boarded or took boarders at some point during the turn of the century.

To rent a room in someone's house wasn’t a lifestyle choice as much as a necessity. This village of less than 500 people in 1898 became a boom town by 1900 with some 10,000 lumberjacks within a 10-mile radius of the town. Bemidji’s resident population more than doubled from 1900 to 1910. The housing supply simply could not keep up with demand.

Additionally, only a small number of Bemidji’s families had put down roots. Many were still eyeing business and more risky adventures. C.J. Carlson, Bemidji’s first blacksmith, went with Frank Snyder and the Carson Brothers to Cape Nome, Alaska in search of gold in May 1900, but returned in the fall. Others also went west but returned and decided to stay in Bemidji.


Bemidji had a large offering of hotels. Besides the Markham Hotel in 1900, there were the Brinkman, City, Dewey, French, Svea, LakeShore, Merchants, Palace, Scandia House and the Schultz House for a total of 11 hotels. Soon after came the Challenge, Dalton and Blocker Hotels.

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The City Hotel was one of 11 hotels in Bemidji in 1900. It also served meals "at all hours." (Beltrami County Historical Society photo)

This was still not enough, so boarding houses offered an alternative and also served a slightly different purpose. As early as 1899, Mrs. James Doran opened a private boarding house in the Doran home. An advertisement read: “She desires a larger number of boarders by the day or week and will get them, if excellent fare and good treatment are any inducements to the hungry.”

While timber cruisers, company management and logging superintendents rented homes on Lake Boulevard and upper Bemidji Avenue in Ward 1, most of the laborers lived in small hotels and boarding houses. Residents like attorney Henry Funkley or banker Clyde Bacon could afford to build homes on Lake Boulevard, but their employees also needed decent housing. Boarding houses became the lodging of choice for young clerks, stenographers, dressmakers, and so on. They provided a respectable solution for the working class who put in long hours and needed decent food and a safe room to return to at the end of the day.

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This is what downtown Bemidji looks like from above in its first quarter century. Bemidji High School is in the upper left, between Irving and America Avenues. (Beltrami County Historical Society photo)

Rooming houses were often the most affordable option for lower-income working people. Women who operated the boarding houses often would clean the rooms and do washing for the residents, as well as provide meals. It was also common to house one or two elderly long-term residents. The phrase "boarding house reach" stems from an important aspect of this rooming arrangement. Breakfasts and evening dinners were served family style in a common dining room. Traditionally, the food was put on the table, and everyone scrambled for the best dishes. Those with a long, fast reach ate the best.


Boarding houses varied to be sure. Potential boarders and landladies soon learned the subtleties of the venue and word spread about the cleanliness of a place, the quality of the food, and the types of clientele that lived in various houses.

A family might insist that their young daughter, working as a clerk, might respond to an ad such as these in the fall of 1902: “For Rent: Furnished room, two blocks west of new courthouse. Boarders taken Rev. Benj. Iorns” or “Mrs. E. H. Cornwall, living in the W.F. Street log cottage on the lakefront, has decided to take a few private boarders.”

However, many workers chose the sociability and economy of living in less private circumstances in boarding houses. Mrs. A. Thompson's boarding house, opposite the City Hall on Minnesota Avenue, was a popular choice. Mrs. Bertha Edd had a dozen boarders in 1910 in Mill Park, including five of her own sons, all employed by the Crookston lumber mill. At 211 Second St., Alfred Burke, proprietor of a theater, had lodgers that included a stage carpenter, a musician, two laborers and an actress.

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Spectators line the Third Street dock to watch canoes in Lake Bemidji in 1903. (Beltrami County Historical Society photo)

A boarding house could have its excitement, too. Frank Warriner, a well-known character in police circles, went on a good-sized bender. After that, he went down to Jens Hanson's boarding house and made the boarders "go some" by perforating the doors with a 38-caliber revolver. When Officer Helmer was called, Warriner attempted to carry on the gun play there, but the officer was too quick for him and Frank went to the county jail.

Unless a boarding house served a specific purpose such as a nurses’ home, an all-female boarding house was always suspect. Most boarders were men, A co-ed boarding house might mean sharing common spaces with objectionable men, but Bemidji had a large number of single women who were sales clerks, millingers, teachers, dressmakers and office workers, so they generally boarded in mixed company. The four two-story “Female Boarding” homes listed on the Hill on Second Street were clearly houses of ill-repute.

In 1910 as the census approached, residents were urged to help out those who were responsible for collecting the data. A.G. Rutledge, enumerator in the Fourth Ward, had nearly all the hotels and boarding houses to canvass, and in order to get all the tenants counted, he was up before 6 in the morning and after 6 in the evening to see that everybody housed in the various establishments was properly listed.


Even though the population had stabilized a bit by 1910, there was still limited home ownership in Bemidji. There were 15 hotels in downtown Bemidji and two in Nymore in 1910. The Hotel Blocker advertised rooms for $1 per day with special rates by the week or month. Hotel Nicollet, with John Croon as proprietor, advertised a good table and comfortable rooms at $1 and $1.25 per day. “There’s No Place Like Home – But If You Can’t Be at Home, Stop at the Hotel Nicollet.”

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This 1917 photo shows businesses along Third Street looking west. (Beltrami County Historical Society photo)

A cursory study of the 1910 census shows that in Ward 1, which included Lake Boulevard and similar residential areas, 48% of the adults were owners, 34% were renters, 12% were boarders, and 6% were domestic servants. In Ward 4, which included Second and Third streets, and lower Beltrami, Minnesota and America avenues, nearly all adults were renters, lodgers or boarders. The census includes pages of boarders and boarding houses. Some of those buildings still exist on America and Minnesota Avenue.

Spinning a tale on the boarding houses of Bemidji -- both respectable and suspect -- could fill a book. They fulfilled a vital need for housing for a growing village.

As the first 25 years neared its end, Bemidji Normal School (now Bemidji State University) opened its doors in 1919, following World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic. As soldiers returned from the war and the town continued to grow, Bemidji was ripe for its next chapter.

UP NEXT: Bemidji’s second 25 years saw growth in population, business and tourism Lumber had originally drawn people to the area, and sawmills continued to thrive, but the rough-and-tumble town of the late 1800s had matured to the point of being a hub for railroads, bringing freight and passengers and taking huge loads of lumber away.

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