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A trip 50 years in the past: Traveling exhibit coming to Bemidji covers Minnesota life in 1968

BEMIDJI—The year 1968 had been a turbulent one for the U.S., beginning with the Tet offensive in Vietnam, protests across the country, the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, race riots and the largest number of deaths (more than 16,500) of American soldiers in Vietnam of any year of the war. In December, the most optimistic report from Vietnam was that the death toll for the third week of December was the lowest in five weeks—just 151 Americans killed in action and 838 wounded.

But on Christmas Eve 1968, U.S. astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders were farther away from the conflicts on Earth than any man had ever been. Aboard the Apollo 8, as the Earth rose over the crater-filled moon, which they were orbiting, they broadcast a message of goodwill, reading the first 10 verses of Genesis as the brilliant blue earth rose out of the darkness. The rest of their simple message: "Good night. Good luck, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth."

At that time, their message was the most watched television broadcast ever. The three astronauts were named "Men of the Year" for 1968 by TIME magazine. The mission laid the groundwork for the first men to land on the moon July 20, 1969.

Earthlings in Bemidji and elsewhere were fascinated by pictures brought back by the crew—images never before seen by man — views of craters on the far side of the moon and an earth, beautifully removed from any sign of strife.

All of this news and more are coming back to life in Bemidji as "Coming of Age: The 1968 Generation," a traveling exhibit from the Minnesota Historical Society that portrays the lives of Minnesotans over the half century since 1968, will be on display from mid-December through March at the Beltrami County History Center.

And, in Bemidji in December 1968, local news focused on the weather, sports, and the holiday season.

Cold and ice

An arctic cold front over the five-state area brought bitterly cold northwest winds and temperatures in the minus 20s to Bemidji. A blizzard on Dec. 13 brought the first heavy snowfall of the year. Another snowstorm later in the month sent Bemidji shovelers to Montgomery Ward's for a snow thrower with a 26" bite, power reverse, and a Briggs & Stratton engine—on sale for $299.95.

But the cold month of December helped prepare Lake Bemidji for January ice racing. A quarter-mile track near the statues of Paul and Babe would be prepared for the first races in January. Twenty jalopies, mostly 6-cylinder 1950s sedans, had raced on the lake the previous year. Sponsors hoped to double the participation in 1969.

On other ice, the final game in the BHS Invitational Hockey Tournament between the Bemidji Lumberjacks and the Hibbing Bluejackets ended in defeat for the Jacks and snapped their 10-game winning streak. Sportswriter Cliff Morlan started his column, "No one asked for his money back after that thrilling 5-4 Hibbing victory over our Lumberjacks here Saturday night." Lumberjacks Tom Reise, Ernie Blackburn, Mike Langlie and goalie Steve Weber were mentioned in the column. In spite of the loss, the Jacks were still ranked No. 8 in the state; Hibbing was ranked No. 5.

Speaking of ice, Bemidji State College featured an exhibit in Sattgast Hall with a display representing a frozen body "waiting for immortality." Cryonics — the freezing of deceased persons with the hope of thawing them out at a later date — was a new concept. A caption under a picture of the display said, "Although science fiction today, in science anything is possible tomorrow."

Business and music

Bemidji shoppers flocked to stores downtown to find just the right Christmas gifts. At Ken K. Thompson, a huge sale celebrated the retirement of the store's namesake. Thompson had started repairing watches out of his home in Bemidji in 1935 and opened his own jewelry store in Cass Lake in 1941. In 1957, he purchased the Ken Norgaard jewelry store in Bemidji and operated it in conjunction with the Cass Lake business. His son Dewain joined him there in 1958. In 1959, they closed the store in Cass Lake. With Thompson's retirement, the reins were turned over to his son.

Another well-established business in downtown Bemidji also changed hands in December 1968. In 1915, Charles W. Vandersluis, Sr., had started Bemidji Hardware on the corner of Fourth Street and Minnesota Avenue. In 1920, he built a new two-story brick building on that location. A disastrous fire gutted the store in October 1927, and Vandersluis rebuilt the single-story structure that still stands. In 1938, he handed down the business to his son Angus and Frank Markus, who had worked for him since 1925. Chet Swedmark purchased the building on Dec. 2, 1968. Swedmark grew up in the hardware business. His father and uncle had started the Coast to Coast on Beltrami Avenue in 1936 and changed it to Swedmark's Hardware in 1948.

Bemidji State College students of music — Chamber Singers, Mixed Chorus, Women's Glee Club, and Brass Choir — performed at the BHS Auditorium. In 1969, the Chamber Singers would host the inaugural Madrigal Dinners.

The Mrs. Jaycees held a "Symphony of the Bells" Charity Ball on Dec. 14, featuring music by Joe Plumer and his Dixieland Band, emceed by Ted Otto and Bob Bergland of KBUN. Admission was $2.50/person, and proceeds went to the Day Activity Center.

On New Year's Eve, 1968, Benson Obermyer played for a dance at the Bemidji Armory on the lakeside of Bemidji and Third Street. Members of the band would form a new group called Podipto in 1969.