Bouncing back: Bemidji's 125th year was full of ups and downs

This year, the Pioneer’s top stories range in theme from big losses to even bigger wins. For 365 days, we not only reported on local community struggles but also captured the perseverance -- the ability to seek and find joy in life -- of our town in moving forward into the future, into 2022.

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Paul Bunyan Park is bright with lights following the Night We Light ceremony on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in downtown Bemidji. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

While 2020 was a rollercoaster of events -- a devastating global pandemic, a wild election cycle, fervent political and social movements and a whole lot more -- this year had its own share of turbulent ups and downs.

It wasn’t as if when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1 all the insanity of the now infamous year just ceased.

Its effects lingered well into 2021, leaving many of us with apprehension of the unknown as we determined if things could get back to how they used to be, or if they would remain forever changed -- our “new normal” as it was dubbed.

The Pioneer newsroom can’t even quantify the number of times words and phrases such as that were typed and then published by our staff this year. For sanity’s sake, we’ll just say it was a lot.

While some aspects of pre-pandemic life did indeed get back to usual, many others have been left in the lurch.


This year, the Pioneer’s top stories range in theme from big losses to even bigger wins. We not only reported on local community struggles but also captured the perseverance -- the ability to seek and find joy in life -- of our town in moving forward into the future, into 2022.

The gradually triumphant ‘return to normal’

Just as the coronavirus pandemic predictably topped the Pioneer’s stories last year , so has the slow recovery from its effects reached the top of the list this year.

While many events during 2020 were downsized, turned into new forms of parades or canceled altogether, a large number of our usual happenings made a comeback in 2021.

As mask mandates and other restrictions lifted as the weather warmed, summer mainstays like the Bemidji Jaycees’ Water Carnival , Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival and Beltrami County Fair were held once again.

The Nordic Whitecaps compete in one of the afternoon heats on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in the 15th Annual Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

Students were able to return to college campuses in person and Red Lake held the first powwow in more than a year.

As winter approached, the annual Night We Light Festival was bigger and better than ever with more than a half-million lights illuminating the Lake Bemidji waterfront.


Leech Lake awarded for community vaccinations efforts

On Dec. 14, 2020, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe likely became the first tribal nation in the country to receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine . The vials were welcomed with fanfare and traditional prayer and inserted into the upper deltoids of some carefully chosen tribal members and employees.

Nearly six months after Leech Lake's vaccine distribution was launched, the unsung heroes reflected on the process since then. More than 20 members of the COVID-19 vaccine team assembled in Leech Lake on May 5 -- including Indian Health Service employees and Leech Lake Tribal employees, nurses and others -- to reflect on what they had accomplished over the past months.

Members of the IHS vaccine team in Cass Lake are pictured on May 5, 2021. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

In November, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe was recognized by the Minnesota Department of Health for its extraordinary work to vaccinate the community. In 15 community events, the Cass Lake Indian Health Service and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Health Division provided 12,096 coronavirus vaccines to residents from across the region.

In recognition of its efforts, Leech Lake was given the 2021 Minnesota Rural Health Team Award. The efforts on the Leech Lake Band to get people vaccinated were similar across the state, as health workers continued their push to get people their doses.

By year's end, Beltrami County had more than 27,000 residents with at least one dose and nearly 25,000 fully vaccinated.

Bemidji schools’ referendum comes up short

The Bemidji school board made more than a few headlines this year with the district's efforts to address the severe budget deficit. The shortfall was the result of stagnant state funding, underfunded mandates, falling enrollment and a previous failed first attempt at a referendum levy increase in November 2020.


Prior to considering a second referendum attempt , budget cuts and considerations were not uncommon. January through May saw district-wide changes including the closure of Central Elementary, Paul Bunyan Center and Community Education buildings , as well as more than 20 teaching positions being cut -- all were met with public criticism.

Paraprofessional Taunya Nicholson hugs a student as the final class of students leaves Central Elementary School on Thursday, June 3, 2021. The school is closing as a cost-saving measure for the Bemidji school district. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

In July, the school board agreed to go for a second referendum as part of a special election, but contentious board meetings brought spirited public opinions regarding the district’s budget, along with a mask mandate implemented at an Aug. 25 special meeting .

Various community groups including Vote Yes Bemidji, and oppositely, Vote No Bemidji, influenced public opinion on both sides of the referendum coin. When the Nov. 2 election rolled around, Bemidji residents took to the polls and once again the referendum failed, with 3,432 “yes” votes and 3,749 “no” votes. A mere difference of 317.

The school board also wrapped 2021 with one less board member following Jeff Haack’s Nov. 15 resignation . The board will now need to fill his spot, explore further budget reductions and heed the public outcry that’s sure to come along with them.

A whole lot of ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings

After months of projects being postponed and events being canceled, the latter half of the year certainly made up for lost time with a slew of new developments happening around the region.

Many facilities relating to health, housing and social assistance were also dedicated with ceremonies in 2021. In May, the Bemidji City Council cut the ribbon on its new water treatment plant. Located near the Bemidji Regional Airport, the plant was phase one of two, with the second being an expansion of the facility to handle more water.

Several months later, ground was broken on the East Conifer Estates , the third and final housing project by the Headwaters Regional Development Commission. The complex, set to have three buildings with 24 units, will cost $7 million and be completed in 2022. The HRDC's goal is to create supportive housing where residents can reach out to staff for a range of assistive services.

After 14 years of advocacy by local and state officials, ground was broken in August on the Bemidji Veterans Home project. During the event, leaders from the local, state and federal levels gathered to celebrate the milestone. Once finished, the 80,634 square-foot facility will have 72 rooms for veterans.

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State and federal officials break ground on the Bemidji Veterans Home on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, near the Sanford Health campus. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

The people who helped bring a new Bemidji playground to life gathered on Aug. 30 to help cut the ribbon on North Country Park’s new Natural Playground . The unveiling of the Natural Playground completes phase one of the developments at North Country Park , which is located at 1001 30th Street. This phase has been in development since it was brought before the city in 2019 .

On Sept. 22, Leech Lake officials held a ceremony to mark the opening of the Maajiigin Child Care Center , a 10,000 square-foot building in Cass Lake that will serve up to 32 children ages 3 and younger. Children at the center will have opportunities to learn the Ojibwe language and participate in a variety of hands-on traditional teachings.

In October, another groundbreaking took place, with Beltrami County and Sanford Health officials celebrating the construction of a mental health facility. The $6.2 million Behavioral Health Crisis Center will be a 12,000 square-foot facility along Hannah Avenue.

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Attendees pose for a group photo following a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, for the new Endazhi-Nitaawiging charter school in Red Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Just a few days later, more than 50 attendees gathered to offer tobacco to the ground where the future Endazhi-Nitaawiging charter school in Red Lake would be located as part of an unconventional groundbreaking. The school will enroll up to 86 students when the first classes begin next fall.

Within the same week, Leech Lake Market, formerly known as Teal’s Market, in Cass Lake changed ownership after being acquired by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which prompted an Oct. 21 ribbon-cutting attended by over 100 tribal council and community members.

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Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson cuts the ribbon on the newly acquired Leech Lake Market, formerly Teal’s Market, on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Rounding out the season of new beginnings, a ceremony was held in November to commemorate the start of work to transform a former health services building in Bemidji into a day center for the homeless . The building, formerly owned by Sanford Health, was donated by the provider to the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless.

Beavers author new history in multiple sports

A number of Bemidji State sports made historic runs in 2021.

First, the men’s hockey team shocked the college hockey world when it knocked off No. 1 Wisconsin in the East Regional semifinals on March 26. The Beavers scored six goals in the win, including two from Ethan Somoza, while Zach Driscoll collected 30 saves. Later, the team also reflected on playing for a national championship amid the pandemic .

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Bemidji State celebrates at the final horn following a 6-3 victory over Wisconsin in the NCAA East Regional semifinals at Bridgeport, Conn., on Friday, March 26, 2021. (Greg Vasil / Special to the Pioneer)

On the other side of summer break, the BSU football and women’s soccer teams made unprecedented moves on back-to-back days.

On the gridiron, Bemidji State made the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever, and then the Beavers upset Augustana 28-24 in the first round on Nov. 20. Wide receiver Brendan Beaulieu went off for 142 yards and a touchdown, and backup quarterback Sam McGath rushed for the winning score. The win also avenged a homecoming loss to the Vikings two months prior.

And on the pitch, Beaver soccer made the latest step in its rise to a national powerhouse on Nov. 21. Bemidji State beat Emporia State 1-0 in the NCAA Tournament’s second round on freshman Mariah Nguyen’s goal , which launched BSU into the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.

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The Beavers celebrate senior Sara Wendt’s (14) goal in the NSIC Tournament semifinals against Concordia-St. Paul on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Finally, longevity was recognized in December when Beaver basketball reached its centennial . Bemidji State first formed a men’s basketball team in 1921, and the program celebrated its 100th anniversary on Dec. 15 after decades of dominance, program oddities and plenty of legends repping BSU’s green and white.

Line 3 completed after nearly a decade of review

After eight years of regulatory review and construction, Enbridge was finally able to start sending oil from Canada, through Minnesota, to Wisconsin. In late September, the company announced its Line 3 project had reached substantial completion.

The new pipeline replaced the original Line 3, installed in the 1960s. The company argued the project was needed because of the original pipe's age and condition.

Community members pose in front of the "Safest Way Pipe" during its final stop at LaValley Industries on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, in Bemidji. (Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer)

The new pipeline route begins in Canada and goes south into North Dakota. From there, it enters Minnesota, going to Clearbrook and then south to the border of Hubbard and Wadena Counties. The pipeline then extends east to a terminal in Superior.

The project, estimated at nearly $3 billion, can carry an average of 760,000 barrels of oil per day along its 1,000-mile-long route. As part of the review process, there were 71 public comment regulatory meetings and 3,500 community engagement meetings.

As it created a workforce of nearly 4,000 at its peak, the project was celebrated by labor unions and politicians. However, it also attracted fierce opposition. During the past year, numerous protests were held across Minnesota, including several in Bemidji.

Protesters use the “sleeping dragon” method of locking themselves together on Friday, April 9, 2021, outside of Enbridge’s Bemidji office. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

In September, progressive Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, MN5, Cori Bush, MO1, Ayanna Presley, MA7, and Rashida Tlaib, MI13, visited Bemidji, calling on the White House to halt the project. Over the course of the project, nearly 900 people were arrested during protests.

Much of the opposition to Line 3 was based on environmental concerns. During the course of construction, there were some environmental issues. For example, operations near Clearbrook caused a breach of an artesian aquifer, which is a confined aquifer containing groundwater.

In response, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fined Enbridge $3.32 million .

Changes for the Bemidji City Council

It was a time of transition for the Bemidji City Council at the start of the year, as the community welcomed Jorge Prince as its new mayor. Additionally, newly elected Ward 1 councilmember Audrey Thayer was sworn in at the first January meeting.

Another newcomer arrived in February when Daniel Jourdain won a special election for the At-Large seat on the council . Jourdain's victory was several months after another special election, where Josh Peterson earned a seat on the council for the first time to represent Ward 2.

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From left: Councilor Nancy Erickson, Mayor Jorge Prince, Councilor Audrey Thayer and Councilor Ron Johnson are sworn in by City Clerk Michelle Miller during a Jan. 4, 2021, meeting of the Bemidji City Council. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The council's biggest decision of 2021 was terminating its contract with VenuWorks, the Iowa-based company that has been managing the city-owned event facility, the Sanford Center, since it opened in 2010. The move was made in a narrow, 4-3 vote.

Initially, VenuWorks intended to renegotiate with the city for a new contract. However, based on commentary from the community, the company opted not to proceed.

The action by the council set up VenuWorks to close its time at the Sanford Center in early March. To assist with the management transition, the council in October hired the firm Convention, Sports and Leisure International.

Following the Sanford Center vote, Nancy Erickson, who won her fifth term as the council member for Ward 5 in 2020, resigned .

A special election will take place on Feb. 8 for the Ward 5 seat. Candidates include Bill Batchelder, Kevin Campbell, Lynn Eaton, Micaiah Graham and Don Heinonen.

If no candidate earns 50% of the vote in the special election, a runoff will take place in August between the top two finishers.

A year of losses

The Bemidji area lost several prominent residents in 2021, from talented artists to business leaders, a generous “Santa Claus” and a legendary hockey coach.

Known around the region for her stunning paintings, Maureen O’Brien was known for her kindness, humility and presence. O’Brien, 78, died on June 12 following a three-month illness from COVID-19, pneumonia and a perforated bowel. She was being treated at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and was unaware that her 103-year-old rural Solway home was destroyed by fire on June 1.

Another fine artist and teacher, Marley Kaul, died on Aug. 1, at the age of 82 , and tributes from former students, friends and artists poured in. Kaul was so much more than a teacher of art. He and Sandy, his wife of 58 years, became active leaders in the arts community in Bemidji, their home since 1967. The Marley and Sandy Kaul Gallery is the largest display area at the Watermark Art Center.

Larry Zea
Larry Zea of Blackduck, a former member of the U.S. Navy Band, remembers being part of the procession for President John Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963, in Washington, D.C. (Pioneer file photo)

Larry Zea certainly had a zest for life. He enjoyed opera, flying, hunting, fishing and raising Scottish Highland cattle. For many years the jolly, white-bearded man became Santa Claus, working at shopping malls in Bemidji, Mankato and suburban Chicago. But for his family and neighbors, he was Grandpa Santa or Santa Larry. Zea died on Nov. 12 at his Pennington home at age 84.

Longtime bus driver, Eckles Township board member and logger Ervin Blom was never a Cadillac kind of man. Affectionately known by many as Erv, he was not concerned with having the newest trucks or accessories. His biggest passion was working hard and instilling that into his own family. Blom died on Oct. 23, after ongoing health issues.

Tom Welle, chairman of the board of First National Bank Bemidji, died on Dec. 9 at the age of 71. Welle retired as the bank’s president in 2020 after 35 years, and he continued as chairman of the board after retirement. Tom was managing Bremer Bank in International Falls in 1985 when he was recruited to First National by his uncles, Joe and Bob Welle, along with cousins Paul and Hugh Welle.

R.H. “Bob” Peters drops the puck on Jan. 21, 2017, ahead of the Bemidji State men's hockey game against Ferris State. The Beavers celebrated the 50th anniversary of Peters and his wife, Lou, being associated with the BSU hockey program. (Pioneer file photo)

R.H. “Bob” Peters , one of college hockey's all-time winningest coaches and the key architect of Bemidji State's program, died on Dec. 15 at age 84. Peters was the only coach to lead teams to the final four at the NAIA, NCAA Division III, NCAA Division II and NCAA Division I levels. He was the first to win 700 games at a single institution. He later became an athletic director who helped bring women's hockey to Bemidji State, as well as the commissioner of a college hockey conference, the CHA.

Bemidji Pioneer celebrates 125 years of publishing

When Bemidji Pioneer subscribers received their newspaper on March 19, 2021, it was a monumental day. Exactly 125 years earlier, the first edition of the Pioneer was published. That makes it the longest continuously running business in Bemidji.

On March 19, 1896, two months before the village of Bemidji was incorporated, the first edition of The Bemidji Pioneer was printed.

The newspaper business has changed a great deal since then, especially in recent years with the advent of the internet. Fewer copies of the paper are printed these days as more people access Pioneer stories, photos, videos and advertisements online. But the mission of providing that information has not changed.

The earliest front page of the Bemidji Pioneer available is from April 30, 1896. (Photo courtesy Beltrami County Historical Society)

The Bemidji Pioneer was printed once a week when it was first established by Edward Kaiser, who also had a role in developing the townsite. In April 1903, the Daily Pioneer was launched. It changed its name to the Bemidji Daily Pioneer in 1904 and was designated the official county and city paper.

Publishers, editors and other employees have come and gone. The newspaper’s location has changed several times. Printing presses have gone away. But the Pioneer’s commitment to informing, entertaining and delivering the news to readers has not wavered.

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