Downtown apartment living was popular and practical for many in Bemidji's early days

The Rex Café, also the home of Agnes Mastor and family for years, is pictured along Beltrami Avenue. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. For more information about the Historical Society, visit

BEMIDJI -- There were many second-story men and women in downtown Bemidji in the early days of the city.

No, we aren’t talking about burglars who entered a house by an upstairs window, but about the many residents who chose to live on the second story above their business or others' business buildings in the downtown area, especially on Beltrami Avenue, Minnesota Avenue and Third Street. This was common in Europe and the eastern cities, and the tradition continued during the early years in Bemidji through the 1960s.

Third Street upstairs apartments and businesses

We can go back to the days of the Brinkman Theatre on Third Street, when the Brinkmans lived upstairs in their theater building. When Frank Frost was a manager at the theater, he and his family lived on the second floor of the building. That may be what gave Terry Frost his incentive to become an actor in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. The building burned in 1936 and a new Municipal Liquor Store replaced it.


On the same street was the Suman Building at 202-204 Third Street which housed the Bemidji Bootery, the Candy Kitchen, Singer Sewing Machine Co., the Gold Bond store and Suman’s Luncheonette at various times. George and Mary were the parents. Abe, Joe and Mae were all siblings. In 1939, George and Mary were proprietors of the Candy Kitchen. Abe managed it, and Mae Suman was the bookkeeper. Joe married Ruth Petsch in 1939 and they became proprietors of the Bemidji Bootery. All three families lived upstairs -- George and Mary, Abraham and Teresa, and Joseph and Ruth. By 1963, Mary was a widow and was the last of the Sumans to live upstairs. By 1989, the upstairs had been split into four apartments.

The Brunswick Building at 206 Third Street housed five apartments on the second floor. In 1946, James McDermott, a chiropractor, who had an office further down the block, lived in Apt. No. 1. Max LaCore, an engineer for the Northern Pacific Railway, his wife Florence, a saleswoman at J.C. Penney, and a daughter Beverly lived in Apt. No. 2. Edward Beck, district superintendent for Otter Tail Power, lived in Apt. No. 3. Everett Conklin, a salesman for Gill Brothers, lived in Apt. No. 4. Kingsley Dyer, who worked for the Welfare Department, and his wife Leojean lived in Apt. No. 5.

The Bemidji Music Store had a thriving business at 220 Third Street until fire destroyed it in February 1916. The fire was discovered at about 4:30 in the morning by Harry Gunsalus and Officer John A. Zacharias when smoke was seen coming from the building. Families living above the music store were notified and guests at the Hotel Brinkman, who heard the alarm, fled from their rooms in panic. The flames ruined the first floor and the piano stock landed in the basement. The second floor was occupied by the families of R. Gulbranson and Walter Marcum, who escaped serious damage, except that done by smoke. The building was rebuilt and the Bemidji Federal Credit Union had ten apartments above it in 1989.

Ira Batchelder and his wife Edwina lived above Bemidji Auto Parts in the 1970s at 325 Third Street. He was president of Bemidji Woolen Mills and Edwina was secretary-treasurer of the business. He was active in the business until his death and regularly put in four or five hours at the mill. Batchelder was a very civic-minded person. He served on the board of directors of Northern National Bank from 1968 to 1980, the board of Bemidji Community Hospital, and on the City of Bemidji Police Commission.

Beltrami Avenue businesses, apartments and residences

The Rex Café was a growing business at 207 Beltrami by 1920. It was originally owned by James Economos and Thomas Georgas, with three apartments upstairs. Philipos Mastorakis married Agnes Sekula in 1923. Mastorakis shortened his name to Phil Mastor, and the business was owned by Sekula and Mastor in 1927. Philip and Agnes, three sons, and her three Sekula brothers-in-law worked for the restaurant. Agnes Mastor lived in the apartments through 1970. Her son Philip was a lieutenant in the USNR and served in World War II. He died at the age of 27 in 1951, leaving Agnes a Gold Star Mother. Besides Agnes, occupants of the apartments in 1946 were Lawrence and Ruth Baron, cook and waitress for Rex Café; and Meral, Frances and Obert Rood of Rood Bros. Oil Co.

There were three apartments above 317 and three above 319 Beltrami Avenue. W. Harold Jorden, Gust S. Nygaard and Mrs. Alice Witting lived above 317 Beltrami in 1942 when the bottom floor was occupied by Jahren’s Dry Goods. Nygaard was a partner with Oscar Stennes as auto repairers. Jorden was secretary-treasurer of the Bemidji Wood Products Co. He and his wife Rosemary lived here, while the two other officers of Bemidji Wood Products Co., D. J. Jorden and Robert J. Jorden, resided at the nearby Hotel Markham. The building changed hands in 1945 when owner Jack Vinding leased it to Edward O’Meara. Occupants of the three apartments upstairs in 1946 were Harold and Elizabeth Gennes, Dorothy E. & Laura Goodmonson, and Mary McManus. Harold was a salesman for Charley Saeks men’s clothing, and Elizabeth was a salesperson for J.C. Penney. Neither had far to walk to work. Dorothy was a clerk for the Markham Hotel and Laura was the assistant manager of the Markham Hotel. Mary McManus was a teller for the Northern National Bank.

Daisey Norgart, beloved English and journalism teacher at Bemidji High School, and advisor for the Bemidji Lumberjack, lived here for over 20 years in the 1950s and 1960s. Miss Norgart was chairperson of the Minnesota Education Association in the 1970s. She was a staunch Republican and a member of the AAUW and the Ladies Bridge Club. She retired in 1981 after teaching 36 years at BHS.


George “Ike” Patton lived in Apartment No. 4. Ike was a fixture in downtown Bemidji living above what is now Brigid's Pub for nearly 50 years. Ike had a variety of jobs including painter, driver for the Johnson Baking Co. and Tom Lloyd Mobil Oil. He worked for O’Meara's Department Store and then for the First National Bank of Bemidji for 11 years doing maintenance and working in the mailroom. He could be seen sweeping or shoveling the sidewalk in front of the building nearly every day or having breakfast and lunch at Raphael's Bakery with friends.

The L. B. Hartz grocery store at 424 Beltrami Avenue had 16 apartments upstairs. When it burned on April 14, 1961, all the residents lost their homes and belongings as well. The fire was discovered about 6:30 a.m. and at times menaced the neighboring Koffee Kup café and the Ken K. Thompson jewelry store. The 16 second floor apartments, mostly single rooms, were all occupied. Everyone escaped although some were forced to leave by windows leading to adjoining roofs and fire escapes. The store had been recently remodeled. It was operated by Bob Oas and Lorenz Hegstad.

The L. B. Hartz grocery store and the intersection of Fifth Street and Beltrami Avenue before the Hartz building burned in a fire in 1961. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

Minnesota Avenue residents in the 1940s and 1950s

There were three apartments above Municipal Liquor Store No. 2 at 209 Minnesota Avenue. In 1946, the residents were Barton Heath in Apt. No. 1, Ottena Puff in Apt. No. 2 and Alex H. McNabb in Apt. No. 3. Although occupants changed in Apt. No. 1, Ottena Puff and Beatrice McNabb lived in their apartments for over 25 years. Ottena Stay married Emil Puff July 13, 1944, in Wilton, and he died only a year later. She had an interest in the Palace Bakery which she sold in 1946. She was a master of science graduate of Bemidji State College. She taught for many years at the Carr Lake School and was chosen Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 1967. She was active in the American Legion Auxiliary and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary, where she was Buddy Poppy chairman for 34 years and president in 1950-51. She lived in her apartment through 1987 when she moved to the Bemidji Nursing Home and died there in 1988.

The other permanent residents of 209 1/2 Minnesota Avenue were Beatrice and Alex “Andy” McNabb. They were married in 1913. He owned a saloon in 1910, but later they owned a confectionary shop. They owned a home at 504 Beltrami Avenue for over 20 years and moved into the apartment in 1942. Alex McNabb died in 1951, but Beatrice continued to live there until she moved to the Fairview Nursing Home in 1970.

The downtown had many other two-story buildings which housed apartments as well as businesses. A few of the others were above Doran’s, Naylor’s, Troppman’s, McClernan’s Furniture, Ben Franklin and the Coachman Café. Apartment living in downtown proved popular and practical for many decades. The second-story dwellers were a community within a community.


A parade passes along Third Street during World War I in downtown Bemidji. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

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