Bent, not broken: Looking back on Bemidji area happenings in 2020, a year like no other

This year was hard for everyone in different ways, but there was much good that developed out of these difficult circumstances. These are our top stories from around the community from this crazy eventful year.

Paul Bunyan Drive was quiet and devoid of traffic at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 30, in Bemidji. It was the first business day after Gov. Tim Walz’s “stay at home” order went into effect. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

This year was one for the books -- a phrase sure to be uttered by many as we head into 2021. No one ever knows what any given year will hold, but we usually have a general idea of what it will look like. We know the plans we’ve made, goals we’ve set, how we will navigate our daily lives based on our occupations and expectations.

But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the chaos it brought with it, this was a year of disruption. Established routines were sent into upheaval, plans we had made changed, goals we set were revised, perspectives were shifted, and we were forced to adapt to an ever-changing set of circumstances in almost every aspect of life.

This year was hard for everyone in different ways, but there was much good that developed out of these difficult circumstances. These are our top stories from around the community from this crazy eventful year.

Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic hit home

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic topped the Pioneer’s stories of 2020 list, as nearly every story has been influenced in some way by COVID-19 this year.

From initial problem solving and swift action by public health officials and city leaders to creativity and kindness shown by business owners, community members and educators, Bemidjians were resilient. People stayed at home and spent a lot of time outdoors. Zoom became a household name, restaurants embraced al fresco dining and virus testing events were some of the only to not be canceled or postponed this year.


The virus first left its imprint on the community in mid-March as schools and businesses began to shutter, but the sickness itself didn’t reach the area until March 25 when Beltrami County confirmed its first COVID-19 case . Since then, more than 2,800 cases have been recorded in the county.

In April, as the pandemic continued to rage on, people around the world rallied in support of frontline workers and those most affected by the coronavirus, some responded by placing paper hearts in their windows as part of a nationwide “World of Hearts” movement.

In response to the vast amount of businesses forced to close their doors both in the spring and again more recently, several relief programs were organized and launched to support local businesses and community workers. The United Way of Bemidji Area came to the rescue in many ways around the community, helping with emergency funds , making sure those who needed it had food and resources they needed , and helped to supply volunteers at places like the Bemidji Community Food Shelf.


Greater Bemidji Economic Development handled or assisted with many of these programs and in doing so, supported roughly 300 small businesses and provided nearly $3 million in financial support.

Schools and their methods of instruction delivery have been in limbo throughout the year. From mid-March until the end of the school year, area schools and universities made abrupt shifts toward online learning . Many closed out the year with creative virtual commencements or drive in graduation ceremonies . In the summer, school officials tried to create action plans for the upcoming school year, all the while waiting for the next announcement from Gov. Tim Walz, which could make their plans moot. In the fall, some schools began online, while others began in person, with many schools in the area experiencing multiple learning models over the span of a year.

Local governments have also been busy due to the pandemic. The city council issued a city-wide mask mandate in July . Early on Beltrami County partnered with Greater Bemidji in assisting small businesses and its health department has been tracking every COVID-19 case in the county.

The city of Bemidji, meanwhile, set up a loan relief fund of its own as a way to help restaurants and bars, they allowed business owners to set up patio space on several streets and sidewalks downtown from June through mid-October.


A spark of hope was reignited this month as COVID-19 vaccines arrived in the area on Dec. 14 , and the first vaccines were administered on Dec. 17 at Sanford Health in Bemidji .

President Trump comes to Bemidji

Local history was made on Sept. 18 when President Donald Trump touched down at the Bemidji Regional Airport to the roar of thousands while “God Bless the USA” blasted across the airstrip and through the hangers of Bemidji Aviation Services.

There is still no official count as to how many thousands of people came to see the president that Friday evening, but the guess has ranged anywhere from a couple thousand to around 10,000, depending on who you ask. Hundreds were in line by 9 a.m. that day in the empty field next to the Sanford Bemidji campus, waiting to be bused over to the airport. The buses began transporting the long line of anxiously awaiting passengers around 10:30 a.m. and continued throughout the day until the gates closed at 5:30 p.m. Attendees were required to wear masks and have their temperature taken upon entry, but the crowd sizes far exceeded the limit put in place by Gov. Tim Walz for large gatherings during the pandemic.

President Donald Trump speaks to thousands at Bemidji Aviation Services on Friday during a stop on his “Great American Comeback” tour. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

TOP STORIES GALLERY: Trump visits Bemidji

It was primarily a warm welcome to town, with events such as a tractor parade, logging truck procession, “Trump caravans'' and so forth, taking place throughout the day. However, several local groups peacefully protested the president's presence in town: Indivisible Bemidji held a rally along Bemidji Avenue with people holding signs in support of Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, while Our Revolution held a separate rally with a more Indigenous-focused perspective near the Target parking lot during the afternoon.

Trump landed at 6 p.m. and spoke to the sea of thousands of supporters for nearly two hours, touching on topics such as mining and the Iron Range, immigration and refugees, pandemic-related issues, and Democratic opponents.


At around 6:50 p.m. news broke of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, but Trump wasn’t informed of the news until after exiting the stage around 8 p.m. that evening.

Bemidji City Council welcomes new faces

A mix of incumbents and newcomers earned seats in local 2020 elections.

In the mayoral race, Jorge Prince, the chief financial officer of LaValley Industries, was elected over Ward 1 Council member Michael Meehlhause.

This was Prince's second bid for mayor, as he ran in 2014, where he was defeated by Rita Albrecht, who was Bemidji’s mayor from 2012 to 2020. Albrecht chose not to seek another term as mayor, and instead made a bid for the Minnesota Senate, which was unsuccessful.

Before his current position, Prince was the executive director of BSU's Small Business Development Center.

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Jorge Prince

Because Meehlhause didn't seek another term in Ward 1, two non-incumbents ran in the election. Leech Lake Tribal College Instructor Audrey Thayer defeated Joe Gould, 476-408, for the seat. It was a historic win for Thayer, making her the first Native American woman to serve on the Bemidji City Council.


In Bemidji Ward 3, incumbent Ron Johnson, a design and promotion manager for Lakeland PBS, earned a sixth term over Greg Kuhn, 967-608. In Ward 5, meanwhile, Nancy Erickson, a retired eligibility specialist for Beltrami County Human Services, held her seat for another term over Don Heinonen, 767-637.

Two special elections also took place for the city. In August, a special election was held where Josh Peterson defeated Jaime Thibodeaux 224-145 for the Ward 2 seat. Mike Beard resigned from the seat earlier in 2020 because of health reasons.

At-Large Council member Jim Thompson also resigned in 2020 for health reasons, resulting in another special election. Former mayor and council member Dave Larson and Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Employment Specialist Daniel Jourdain won the most votes in November out of four candidates, the others being Linda Lemmer and Roger Schmidt.

The two will face each other in a second special election in February.

At the Beltrami County level, all of the incumbents defended their seats.

District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson defeated Joe Vene, 2,247-1,884. For District 4, Commissioner Tim Sumner held off challenger Danny Anderson, 2,588-1,272. In District 5, Commissioner Jim Lucachick defeated Mike Bredon, 2,903-1,493.

For the Minnesota State Legislature, Districts 2 and 5 came out of the 2020 election under Republican control.

Local businesses celebrate important milestones

It was a challenging year for businesses, particularly retailers, as stay-at-home orders and an economic downturn kept shoppers away.


Still, some Bemidji businesses celebrated milestone anniversaries during 2020.

Bemidji Woolen Mills reached the incredible mark of 100 years in businesses in October, and fourth-generation owner Bill Batchelder shared stories dating back to his great grandfather, Ira Preston Batchelder. The founder came to Bemidji in 1912 and opened a general store in the building that now houses the Wild Hare Bistro. In 1920, he purchased a woolen mill located near Alexandria, Minn., and moved the business to Bemidji. It has been a destination store in downtown Bemidji ever since.

Another four-generation store, Patterson’s Clothing , celebrated 90 years in business in October. It is now owned by Molly and Jeff Miller. Molly’s great-grandfather, Abe Patterson, founded the store on the corner of Third Street and Beltrami Avenue in the midst of the Great Depression in 1930. It was passed down to Abe’s son, Ron, and then to Ron’s son and daughter-in-law, Steve and Sally. Molly and husband Jeff took over in 2018. “The younger, new blood is great for the business,” Steve Patterson said. “If you’re going to keep it going for multiple generations you need that.”

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Businesses in Bemidji celebrated important milestones this year. Clockwise from top left: Bob Smith, owner of Image Photography, celebrated his business’s 50th anniversary; Patterson’s Clothing celebrated 90 years in business; Raphael's Bakery and Cafe owners Brenda and Ray Sweeney celebrated 30 of business; the city-owned Sanford Center marked 10 years since it’s opening; Johanneson’s Inc., owner’s of Marketplace, had its 80th anniversary; and Bemidji Woolen Mills celebrated its 100th anniversary in downtown Bemidji. (Photos by Jillian Gandsey, Annalise Braught and Dennis Doeden / Bemidji Pioneer)

TOP STORIES GALLERY: Business anniversaries in Bemidji

Bemidji-based Johanneson’s Inc. had its 80th anniversary in September . It all started in 1940 with a country grocery store in the tiny community of Edinburg, N.D., a mom-and-pop business run by John and Thelma Johanneson. The company, now headed by their son, Keith Johanneson, includes Marketplace Foods in Bemidji and four Marketplace stores in Minot, N.D., with four liquor stores and three gas and convenience stores in Minot as well. It also operates five KJ’s Fresh Market stores in Moose Lake, Minn. and Wisconsin. Related companies, including Pace Development and Icelandic Properties, which are involved in real estate and residential development projects, also are under the Johanneson’s umbrella.

Bob Smith’s Image Photography celebrated 50 years in business this year, while Raphael’s Bakery and Cafe , owned by Ray and Brenda Sweeney, noted 30 years, and the city-owned Sanford Center had its 10-year anniversary.


George Floyd’s death encourages others to speak out against racism

Bemidji saw its largest protest after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officers.

Organizers estimated that up to 500 people gathered in Paul Bunyan Park on Saturday, May 30, and subsequently marched north on Bemidji Avenue to the Bemidji Police Department.

"The virus of racism is passed down from mother to daughter, from father to son," said BSU professor David Frison, a speaker at the event on May 30. "When liberty is denied to all citizens, we can't breathe, America."

Rumors swirled following the demonstration and the city of Bemidji enacted a curfew through the weekend. During the curfew, no travel was allowed on any public street, sidewalk, path or any public place.

Hundreds of people march from Paul Bunyan Park to the Bemidji Police Department during a demonstration Saturday against racism and the death of George Floyd while in custody of the Minneapolis Police Department. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The Bemidji Police Department also boarded up its windows following the protest and made a mutual aid request to surrounding law enforcement.

TOP STORIES GALLERY: Protest in Bemidji

The following Saturday, June 6, Bemidji State’s Black Student Union held another demonstration where attendees knelt for nine minutes in memory of Floyd. The president of BSU’s Black Student Union, Zoe Christensen, pleaded with the community to use their voices to fight against racism.

"If you are a friend, ally or supporter of the Black community, you must speak up," Christensen said. "Your silence only sides with the oppressors. It isn't enough to not be racist. Stand with us. It may be uncomfortable but do it anyways. You may have never seen it done before but that's OK, you can be the first. You might be scared but, trust me, we're scared, too."

Beltrami County Commissioners vote on refugee resettlement sparks an uproar

Beltrami County received national attention at the start of 2020 with a vote related to the country's Refugee Resettlement Program.

On Jan. 7, the County Board voted 3-2 to opt out of the program , with Commissioners Richard Anderson, Craig Gaasvig and Jim Lucachick voting in favor of a motion to do so. Commissioners Reed Olson and Tim Sumner were against it.

The vote was made possible by an executive order from Donald Trump, which gave local and state governments control on whether to opt in or out of the program. The Jan. 7 meeting was attended by at least 200 people.

Community members listen during the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners meeting held on Tuesday, Jan. 7, as the topic of allowing resettlement of refugees into the county is discussed. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

TOP STORIES GALLERY: Beltrami County refugee vote

The next meeting also had a large crowd , with nearly 150 people in attendance. The following months saw many letters to the editor on all sides of the subject submitted to the Pioneer.

The vote was later nullified as the executive order was blocked in federal court. President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he wants to increase the number of refugees the United States allows.

BSU men’s hockey soars into national rankings before premature end to season

The Bemidji State men’s hockey team experienced its best season in a decade in 2019-20, thanks in large part to a dominant second half.

Once the calendar flipped to 2020, the Beavers became almost unbeatable. They compiled a record of 12-2-2 over the final two months of the regular season and challenged Minnesota State for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship.

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The Beavers celebrate after defeating Michigan Tech in 3-on-3 overtime on Jan. 18 at the Sanford Center. Bemidji State senior Adam Brady scored the winning goal. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The No. 2 Mavericks rolled into the Sanford Center in late February for one of the biggest series the arena has ever seen. BSU captured a 3-1 victory to open the weekend , leaving the conference title to be decided on the final day of the regular season. MSU prevailed 4-1 to claim the league crown , but Bemidji State wasn’t done yet.

The Beavers climbed to as high as No. 10 in the March 2 national rankings, and the program appeared to be on the verge of its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009-10.

A WCHA quarterfinal series win over Lake Superior State advanced No. 2 seed BSU into the league semifinals where it would face Bowling Green, though that series would never happen.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the abrupt cancellation of both the WCHA and NCAA tournaments , and brought the Beavers’ season to a premature end with a final record of 22-10-5.

Bemidji State hockey fans will forever wonder what could have been in 2020 .

Red Lake girls basketball qualifies for 3rd state tournament in 4 years

The Red Lake girls basketball team continued its dazzling run atop Section 8A in March, winning its third title in four years and second in a row.

The Warriors, ranked third in the North, proved that their seed didn’t matter much come tournament time. Red Lake defeated Badger/Greenbush-Middle River 64-54 in the championship game to win it all .

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Red Lake seniors Autumn Holthusen (23) and Lashun Roy (10) cheer as the team holds up the Section 8A championship trophy on Friday, March 6, at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls. The Warriors defeated Badger/Greenbush-Middle River 64-54. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

The victory followed wins over Goodridge/Grygla (77-57), Cass Lake-Bena (73-69) and Fosston (73-65) throughout the Section 8A playoffs.

Red Lake’s big three of Autumn Holthusen, Gerika Kingbird and Kelanna McClain all poured in at least 16 points in the title game to book a return trip to state, where the Warriors met top-seeded Minnesota.

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The Red Lake Warriors cheer from the bench in the Class A quarterfinals against Minneota on Thursday, March 9, at the Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The Vikings proved to be too much for the underdogs from the North, as the defending state champions dealt them a 57-37 loss .

Shortly after the game, the Minnesota State High School League delivered a blow that was even more crushing. Due to concerns over the still-new pandemic (in which Hennepin County had under 10 confirmed cases at the time), the MSHSL canceled all consolation games. Soon after, the league also canceled the state championship games, as well as the upcoming boys basketball state tournament.

Ten Red Lake seniors completed their careers: Emma Kingbird, Kaylynn Chaboyea, Elise White, Brisenia Bravo, Marlene Blue, Daisey Nelson, Adriah Sayers, Lashun Roy, Gerika Kingbird and Holthusen.

Bemidji’s water system projects receive long-awaited funding

After several years of research and considering solutions , the city of Bemidji began working on a fix to chemicals near its water wells. In July, the Bemidji City Council authorized work on the first phase of a new water treatment plant, located near the Bemidji Regional Airport.

The new facility will treat chemicals in the water pumped from the wells known as perfluorocarbons. The chemicals were previously used in firefighting foams and the airport has been used as a training area for local fire departments.

The next phase of the project will expand the facility, allowing it to treat more water. In total, the project is estimated at $14 million. In October, during its fifth special session, the Minnesota Legislature approved a bonding bill with $10.1 million to help offset costs to the city. Gov. Tim Walz visited the facility in late October and met with local government officials after the passage of the bonding bill.

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Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a tour of the new Bemidji water treatment plant on Thursday, Oct. 29, which has been taking shape over the last several months near the Bemidji Regional Airport. From left: District 5A Rep. John Persell, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, Gov. Tim Walz, and Vice President of Barr Engineering Brian LeMon. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

The city has also entered into an agreement with a law firm, as well as a financial management company for representation in a lawsuit against 3M , which manufactured the chemicals. The city hired an engineering firm originally in 2017 and has been aware of the chemicals since 2008.

Over the years the amount of chemicals detected increased and at the same time, the state set stricter rules.

Revolutionary Red Lake Solar Project moves forward

An ambitious plan to help Red Lake Nation shift toward solar energy made significant progress this year. While the one-of-a-kind-undertaking of the Red Lake Solar Project is still in its early stages, it has the ultimate goal of creating more jobs and achieving energy sovereignty for the Red Lake Nation. The project is rooted deeply in Ojibwe values with the desire to make decisions that will positively impact the world seven generations into the future.

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Bob Blake, founder of Solar Bear, stands outside of the Oshkiimaajitahdah building in Redby during an afternoon of solar panel installation on Oct. 8. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Red Lake member Bob Blake -- who is at the heart of the project -- and his solar panel installation company, Solar Bear, along with Ralph Jacobson and his company Impact Power Solutions, have worked on a couple of solar installations in Red Lake so far. In October, they completed installing panels on the roof of the Oshkiimaajitahdah building in Redby.

TOP STORIES GALLERY: Red Lake goes solar

The project was originally conceived in 2016 when the Red Lake Band initiated an effort to diversify its economy and provide job opportunities to band members.

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Ralph Jacobson stands on the roof of the Oshkiimaajitahdah building in Redby during an afternoon of solar panel installation on Oct. 8. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

The project has three overarching goals involving installing solar panels on tribal buildings and eventually producing a 15 to 20-megawatt solar farm. The third phase of the project will be to develop a solar energy plant, and will culminate in the tribe buying out the existing arrays when the seven-year contract expires. The project so far has been funded via microloans and grants.

The first phase of the project began in 2017 and has been picking up steam ever since the first 70-kilowatt project on the Government Center in Red Lake was completed in 2018 . Going forward, up to 20 buildings around Red Lake are on the shortlist to receive panel arrays -- after the government center and Oshkiimaajitahdah, the Ponemah school is next on the list, with plans to be completed in the spring. Following will likely be the other school buildings, community centers, casinos, the hospital, the justice center and the food production building.

Construction finally begins on Minnesota section of Line 3 replacement

After nearly six years of environmental reviews and litigation, construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project was allowed to start in Minnesota.

The new, $2.9 billion pipeline project will replace the existing one, which was built in the 1960s. The existing pipeline is 1,097 miles long, extending from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., where a terminal is located.

Because of its age and condition, the 34-inch diameter pipeline has been operating at half capacity. Once finished, the new pipeline, measured at 36 inches in diameter, will carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day From Canada to Wisconsin.

The largest portion of the new pipeline will extend through Minnesota, coming to 337 miles. The pipeline also has 13 miles in North Dakota and 14 miles in Wisconsin.

Community members sign Enbridge's “Safest Way” pipe during its stop at the Hampton Inn in Bemidji on Nov. 15, 2019 to promote the Line 3 replacement project. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Both the new utility under construction and the existing pipeline follow a route from North Dakota through northwest Minnesota until it reaches Clearbrook. The original pipeline takes a direct eastern path toward Superior, going through the tribal lands of the Leech Lake Nation.

The new path, meanwhile, will go south from Clearbrook to the border of Hubbard and Wadena Counties, and then extend east to Superior. Once the new pipeline is operational, the old one will be decommissioned and remain Enbridge’s responsibility.

The pipeline has been opposed since its announcement by organizations, protesters and tribal governments. Late in December, the White Earth and Red Lake Nations, along with the Sierra Club and Honor the Earth, filed a federal suit in U.S. District Court to halt construction on the project.

Their argument is a water quality permit granted by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in November failed to consider several environmental impacts.

Enbridge moved forward in December, holding a virtual kickoff event as the project began.

Bemidji becomes all too familiar with alternative parade formats

While the coronavirus pandemic put a damper on nearly all in-person social events this year, Bemidjians still managed to safely celebrate community functions with socially distanced parades and an alternative activity dubbed the “un-parade.”

In early May, Solway Elementary School staff hosted a drive-by parade in the school parking lot to boost students’ spirits during distance learning. It was the first time in over a month that students came face-to-face with their teachers.

TOP STORIES GALLERY: Un-parades in Bemidji

A few weeks later, Bemidji High School graduates were honored with a graduation procession , in lieu of a traditional commencement ceremony, that began at the Sanford Center, circled around town and ended with them receiving their diplomas drive-thru style in the high school parking lot.

Class of 2020 graduate Abby Kieson tears up as she’s driven through Bemidji High School's graduation procession on Saturday, May 23. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

And as the summer holidays approached, the Bemidji Jaycees revealed the community’s 76th annual Water Carnival would go on as planned -- but with a special twist. The carnival’s Grand Parade was now deemed the Grand “Unparade,” with parade floats to be stationed and parked in the Sanford Center parking lot, allowing folks to drive through the floats while maintaining social distancing.

Josh Peterson and Gwen Labovitch wave to cars from the Bemidji Jaycees float as they pass by during the Grand Unparade on Sunday, July 5, in the Sanford Center parking lot. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

“It’s really a parade in reverse,” Josh Peterson, chairman of the 76th annual Water Carnival, said in an announcement in early June. When the day of the Grand Unparade arrived on July 5, more than 750 vehicles made their way through the Sanford Center parking lot.

Later that month, kittens, cows, a variety of dogs and even a tortoise -- along with all of their owners -- came together for a pet parade at Havenwood Care Center . The Jake Bluhm State Farm Insurance Agency hosted the event and suggested pets be dressed up to parade past windows of residents.

Addrianna Kinn, left, and Ashley Kinn walk their cows through the pet parade on Thursday at Havenwood Care Center in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Finally, as the holiday season arrived and the year grew to a close, the Bemidji Jaycees hosted the Night We Light Unparade on Nov. 27 in the Sanford Center parking lot. Attendees viewed a variety of brightly lit floats and saw Santa Claus in the ladder of a Bemidji fire truck.

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