Emmaville Store, circa 1969

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Viking Outfitter

I wish I knew Ray before. When I met him, shortly after we purchased Emmaville, he was struggling to recover from a stroke he suffered earlier that year.  His speech was difficult to understand, which made it hard for him to tell the stories he so wanted to tell.

Ray was a retired 3M employee, but never worked in Maplewood or any other manufacturing plant.  Ray worked as a fishing guide at 3M's conference center, located 3 miles east of Emmaville on Big Mantrap Lake.  He marketed himself as the "Viking Outfitter" and was a local legend.  Ray and his wife, Lillelue, a spunky retired schoolteacher, lived just a mile north of Emmaville in a modest house in the woods.

Ray was a true son of the North Country, at home in the woods and on the lakes.  His parents owned a resort on Third Crow Wing Lake, where Ray developed his love of fishing. He grew up in a time and place where a boy could learn all he wanted to know by being outside.

Ray learned other lessons about bravery, pain and deep friendship fighting in the Korean War.  In 1951, he was severely wounded in battle, and would not have survived without the actions of a friend who found him on the battlefield.  According to military records, Ray recovered and returned to duty, serving a total of 21 months.

The first few times Ray came in the store, he brought me samples of his hand-tied flies, made with deer hair, squirrel tails, and whatever else he could get his hands on. He would stand at the bar, his diamond willow walking stick at rest against a barstool, and tell me what fish species the flies were used for, how to cast them, and even where to go to use them. The words were so hard to get out, but he really wanted to share his knowledge with me.

While I was an attentive listener, wanting to soak in as much information as I could, I knew I wouldn't be able to follow through on Ray's advice anytime soon, given my work schedule.  Owning Emmaville is like owning a dairy farm - you can never really get away. I wish I knew Ray before.
One day Ray brought in some photo albums.  Most of the photos were black and white, showing him as a young man, holding up gigantic muskies and northern pike.  In some photos, one or more middle-aged men stood next to Ray.  From the looks of their "dress casual" attire, they appeared to be executives from 3M or other companies that dealt with 3M. In all of the pictures, Ray is smiling. In some of the pictures, the other men are looking at him, admiring the legend.

The pictures also told me that Ray had a conversion experience in his later years. Back in those heady days, no one thought about catch and release.  The fish were mounted by a taxidermist or eaten.  But by the time I met Ray, he was a staunch catch-and-release advocate.  He would get pretty worked up about this issue, or wolf management or other conflicts involving the land and water he loved. Sometimes he got so emotional he teared up, but that might have been an effect of the stroke. Although the Ray I knew may have been a shell of his former self, it was clear that he was a man of conviction.

There was another side of him, too. Ray was an accomplished musician, having learned to play the mandolin, the fiddle, guitar and even accordion. Years back, he and several friends would gather in the Emmaville Cafe and jam.  The Ray I knew couldn't play much any more.  When we had an open house or Christmas party, he would bring in his mandolin or accordion and play a few notes. He could play a bit of the melody, but couldn't finish. The stroke had robbed him of his musical talent.

The funny thing about Ray was he liked to make a fashion statement.  He wore a cavalry hat, complete with a braid, like the one John Wayne used to wear fighting the Indians.  He also wore a variety of bolo ties, many of them homemade, or necklaces, kerchiefs, vests, and colorful pearl-button cowboy shirts.  And always, always, dark aviator sunglassses.

I got the impression that Ray liked to draw attention to himself, and clearly knew how to manage his reputation. Perhaps that's just part of being a legendary guide and woodsman.  He insisted I display his flies, mounted on pieces of driftwood or cork.  It seemed that he saw in our store one last opportunity, not to promote himself, but to ensure he would not be forgotten.

One of the last items Ray brought in to show me was his custom-made, split-bamboo fly rod. Over eight feet long, it was a three-piece, perfectly balanced and beautiful. He also brought in a well-used Pflueger Medalist No. 1495 fly reel, probably made in the 1950s.  The amazing thing about Ray was he used fly rods to catch big northerns and muskies, the fightingest fish around. My guess is this was another conversion. Having been so successful with conventional rods and reels, he found using a fly rod more sporting.  He wanted me to put it on display in the bar.

Watching Ray's decline over past couple of years was heartbreaking. As Lillelue became Ray's full-time caregiver, friends and neighbors helped where they could with meals, housekeeping and running errands.  I'm sure Ray wanted to live out his days in his woodland home but Lillelue was wearing out. Often she came in to the store, exhausted and exasperated.  They moved to assisted living in town a year ago last fall.

We saw Ray one last time here in the store early last spring but I didn't get a chance to talk with him.  He passed away in May, not long after we lost Clayton.

His split-bamboo fly rod and reel still hang in the bar. We had a nice photo of him holding a large northern he'd caught on the rod in the Emmaville "Wall of Fame" photo album. I had hoped to frame it and hang it next to the fly rod, but sometime in the last couple years it went missing.

We still remember the Viking Outfitter anyway, and I still wish I knew him before. I'm lucky to have known him at all.
Ray and Lillelue at the Emmaville Cafe

Friday, October 24, 2014

Our latest project: for $10K you'd think it would be sexier.

When we bought Emmaville four years ago and started renovating the cafe, we talked about the need for a walk-in freezer, but didn't think we could afford one.  So we did what previous owners did, used the two ancient commercial chest freezers in the back room as well as three non-commercial freezers of unkown vintage located in the garage behind the house.

These three freezers did not meet Minnesota Health Department standards, as was made apparent by MDH stickers on them. Although the stickers indicate they can still be used, a previous health inspector told us these freezers would have to be replaced by NSF-standard freezers when they finally broke down.

This MDH sticker has been there a while.
For the past four years, Mel and Mary have been making the trek out to the garage to grab more hamburger, french fries, hashbrowns, sausages, buns, bread, etc.  This was not such a bad trip in the summer, when it was the only opportunity to take a break and get outside. But in the winter, it meant trudging through the snow and trying to stay warm while hanging upside down digging to the bottom of the freezers in the unheated and poorly lit garage.

It also meant having to scramble when the delivery trucks arrived to make sure everything got put away before it began to thaw (which, of course, wasn't a problem in winter!).  Often, because Mel and Mary were busy in the cafe when the trucks pulled up, Mike had to run out and put stuff away. Mike didn't mind this much, unless we were also busy in the store.

Compliant commercial freezer, probably made in the 70s.
The process of getting everything put away was like playing a three-dimensional game of Tetris.  Boxes had to be arranged in the most efficient manner possible to maximize storage, and the more time spent on the effort translated to longer wait times for customers.  While Mike often felt a sense of accomplishment when he got everything to fit, the ladies were less appreciative of his work. Too often, the "most efficient" manner of storage usually meant they had to jerk large, tight-fitting boxes out and dig til they found what they needed.

We knew using the old freezers was not a long-term solution. We knew it would not be long before one or more of the freezers gave out, and also knew it would not be long before a new health inspector might make their continued use an issue.  But we had already invested more than we had planned getting the place up and running, and were reluctant to spend even more.

However, in the long run, buying and installing a walk-in freezer would be necessary for the cafe to continue to operate. Also, if we were ever to sell the place, the issue would have to be addressed (yes, dear readers, we will sell Emmaville some day - we're not getting any younger!).

After going on-line and learning as much as we could about walk-ins, we ordered a model that would meet our needs. Then Mike got busy prepping the ground out back for the concrete slab on which the walk-in would be placed.  We were fortunate to meet Ron, a seasoned local concrete man, who laid out the site, set up forms, poured and finished the concrete in about 4 hours over 2 days.
Ain't it purdy? Note the little trap door to the left.*

The walk-in arrived on a pallet, with "some assembly required".  Mike scrambled to enlarge the door opening off the back room to create access (the freezer door was about 6" taller than indicated in the specs) while the guys from Central Lakes Restaurant Supply assembled the box and installed the compressor unit.

We had to wait a couple days for our favorite (and much in demand) electrician Brandon to come out and get the new unit wired.  He got it fired up for us, but noticed it was cycling on and off.  After a call to the manufacturer, we had to call in a refrigeration service to have a look. It turns out the new compressor/ unit had a leak. Fortunately, the manufacturer honored the warranty and picked up the repair tab.

We got it back up and running for a few days before it resumed cycling on-off. The refigeration guys wound up coming out 4 times before the problem was fixed, but again, the manufacturer took care of the bill.
TA-DAH! A very boring way to spend $10k.
The walk-in has been operating correctly for about a week now.  Finally, no more treks through the snowy depths or boxes of fries shoe-horned into old freezers. The cooks are happy, which is a very good thing.
*The little trap door in the photos was used way back in the day to slide in cakes of ice.  This would have been in the Lanning era (40s and 50s) before refrigeration.  At that time, the trap door was part of a small shed attached to the back of the original garage.  The garage, which was later used as a bait shop, was a separate building from the original store, as shown in this historic photo:
That garage is now a seating area in the cafe.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Emma's Legacy, Part 2

In last week's post we posed the question:  what happened to Emma Rockwell's family after she passed away?  Their lives seemed to have been shattered by the loss of their mother and their grandparents in less than two years. Ominously, they all left the area shortly after Emma's death.

Using ancestry.com and other sources, we can learn more about the fate of Emma's family. The children's names and birth dates were as follows:

Ada 1882
Chloe 1883
Mary  1884
Milo 1887
Stella 1889
Lulu 1892
Frank 1894

The 1895 state census lists Charles and the children living in Henrietta Township (today's plat map shows a Rockwell Lake located in sections 16 and 17). In 1900, however, the U.S. census lists the family in Rockwood Township, which is located in the far northern part of the county, west of Lake Plantagenet.  According to General Land Office records, Charles proved up his homestead of 156 acres there in 1905.

One can imagine the older girls in the family were a huge help to Charles, but soon, one by one, they married and started their own families.  The oldest daughter, Ada, married a man named Malterud and settled on a farm in Fern Township, just west of the Rockwell homestead. Malterud appears among the names of landowners there today.

Chloe married Deweese (sp?) Schreckengast and settled with him on a homestead near Becida.  Mary married Oscar Kellner, who was a neighbor in Henrietta Township and farmed near Dorset.

Charles Rockwell appeared to be settled on his own land with his family members nearby in 1905. But surprisingly, he and the four younger children turned up in Saskatchewan in 1906.  According to the provincial census of that year, they were living in or near Humboldt, about 160 miles north of Regina, and over 700 miles from Hubbard County.

What prompted the move? Did Charles have financial troubles? Was there a crop failure? Or was it the lure of new land? When Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, the new provincial government aggressively promoted new homesteading opportunities.  Hundreds of families from the U.S. emigrated to take advantage of Canada's version of the Homestead Act.

In 1911, Charles received a patent for his land, which was located near the small town of Lestock.  His son Milo, then 24 years old, also received a land patent.  A few years later, the youngest son, Frank, patented his land. Their apparent success prompted older sisters Chloe and Mary and their families to move to Saskatchewan, at least for a time. These two families later emigrated back to the U.S., settling in Okanogan County, Washington where they lived out their lives.

As for their siblings, Milo also went further west, had a family, and passed away in British Columbia in 1961. Lulu married, had a child, and died young in 1931. Stella married and moved all the way to Los Angeles where she died in 1971. Frank, the youngest, who passed away in 1964, married and had a family of three boys. Ada, the oldest of Charles and Emma's offspring, passed away in Bemidji in 1957.

We can't really know what their lives were like. Official records can only tell us so much. But sometimes these documents can tell a story. A border crossing notecard from 1944 records a trip by a fifteen-year old named Dorothy Pickett who was traveling from Canada back to her home in Spokane. She was accompanied by her Uncle Oscar. Although Dorothy had lost her mother (Lulu) and no longer lived in Canada, she came to visit her family, and her uncle made sure she made it home safely.  Other border crossing records describe trips made by the Rockwell siblings, across many miles, to visit each other.

Charles Rockwell passed away on December 1, 1915 in Saskatchewan. There are no records to indicate whether he remarried. We don't what kind of man he was, whether he was honest and hard working, or a conniver who ran from problems. But we do know that Charles started over in life at least three times and raised seven children who all survived him and held together as a family. I think Emma would have been proud.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Emma's Legacy

The Emmas keep coming to Emmaville. Since we opened nearly 4 years ago, we've been visited by dozens of Emmas, ranging in age from 9 months to over 90 years. They have come from as far away as Spain, the UK and Italy, to visit their town. We've had a lot of fun welcoming them and taking their photo for our "Emmas of Emmaville" gallery.  While some are bashful and even reluctant to stand for a photo, others are excited and full of joy and hope.

Of course, Emmaville was named after an Emma, but joy and hope aren't what come to mind when hearing her story. The following article appeared in the Park Rapids Enterprise on October 12, 1894:

Emma Rockwell, Wednesday, October 10, 1894, at her home near Elbow Lake, of heart disease, Mrs. Charles Rockwell aged thirty-five years.
It is seldom that a sadder case than the above occurs. The death of this mother leaves seven children motherless, the oldest only thirteen while the youngest is only a few months old. Mr. Rockwell's father also makes his home with him, and he is very old and needs the tender care which only a woman can give. The death occurred very suddenly, the deceased being in her usual good health the day before, and went to bed feeling as well as usual. In the early morning, however the husband was awakened by a noise as of someone choking and at once got up and lighted a lamp, only to find that the last breath of his life partner was gone. She was a native of New York, a daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Petrie who are residents of this village and has been married about fourteen years.
The funeral services were held at the Baptist church yesterday at 2 pm, conducted by Rev. William Carter. The Enterprise joins the many others in sincere sympathy for the bereaved husband in this affliction.

Apparently, Emma's death had a profound impact on the small community of Park Rapids. Soon a lake was named after her (Lake Emma is just north of Big Sand Lake), as was Lake Emma Township and the new little town of Emmaville, located on the north edge of said township.

The Rockwells had moved to Hubbard County from the Rochester, MN area, where they met and married in 1881.  Both their families had emigrated from upstate New York to Minnesota in the 1870s. This area was just starting to be settled when the Rockwells arrived and started their family.  Homesteading and raising seven children could not have been easy; no doubt their pioneer life took its toll on Emma. 

Emma Rockwell is buried in a family plot in Greenwood Cemetery on the west side of Park Rapids.  Also buried there is Martin, her father-in-law, who passed away less than a year after Emma.  Unfortunately, Emma's parents also passed within a year of her death, and are also buried at Greenwood Cemetery.  

It is difficult to fathom the pain and sorrow Charles and his children experienced during this time.  How did they cope? How did they find a way to go on?  And where did they go? The family plot has markers for only Emma and her father-in-law.

Through ancestry.com and other sources, we've learned some things about the fate of Charles and the children in the ensuing years. While we'll never really know them, what we've learned helps tell some of their stories. These stories become part of Emma's legacy.  

We'll share more about the Rockwells in future posts

Friday, July 11, 2014

GF: One Man's Story

They wander into the Emmaville Store glassy-eyed and exhausted. Gathering around the table with their coffee cups, they begin commiserating.  Joe's screen door is broken again.  Bill's beer fridge, so carefully stocked during last month's craft brewery tour, is all but empty.  The custom reupholstered bench seats in Fred's '96 Smokercraft have grape juice stains all over them.  Hank's pickup is half full of dirty diapers, making this week's dump run especially urgent. He gulps down the bottom half of his cup and heads for the door.  The rest stare into their coffee cups, mumbling about the effects of parked minivans on lawns.....

These men are suffering from a common seasonal malady: Grandpa Fatigue, or GF.  It seems to strike men with a unique profile:  retired, married for at least 30 years, pontoon owners*, who respond to names like Bumpa, G-Dad, and Poppa, especially if repeated several times by a small child. The phenomenon typically appears the first weekend in June after the school year, peaks around the 4th of July, and subsides through August. A recurrence sometimes is evident during Labor Day weekend, depending on weather conditions.

The symptoms are easily identified:  hand cramps from untangling fishing line, dark circles under the eyes consistent with insomnia caused by cranky babies or squealing little girls, and frequent trips to the store for boat gas.  Treatment options are limited, although over-the-counter remedies such as Dewars, Tanqueray, and Absolut may provide temporary relief.

In spite of exposure to the same environmental factors, most women do not appear to be affected by GF. Preliminary studies point to stronger immunity factors, such as the ability to bake cookies, kiss booboos, and tolerate annoying sons-in-law.
*Similarities to the profile of Cialis users is thought to be coincidental.

Back to our story:

As Hank leaves, he nearly runs into Dave, who seems to have a bounce in his step.  In response to his cheery "morning guys!", the men around the table only grumble.  

Dave, pouring himself a cup of coffee, asks, "rough weekend?"  A few heads nod. 

Dave sits down and says, "well, I'll tell ya, mine was no picnic. Especially the picnic part."  

At that, Bill looks up, "you went on a picnic?"

Leaning back, Dave gets comfortable before responding."Yeah, my wife got the brilliant idea to take everybody to Itasca Park yesterday. Just about killed me."

"What happened?" asks Joe.  All the guys are now listening intently.

"Well, my daughter Judy insisted we all stand on the rocks at the Headwaters to take a family picture. So she hands her camera to the park ranger - nice looking gal - anyway, the place was busy as hell and the deerflies were awful.  People were waiting in line to cross the Mississippi, and here we are out there trying to get organized, and -" 

Dave is interrupted by Joe, who says to no one in particular: "did you know they hauled those rocks in and cemented them in place?"

"Everybody knows that," Fred growls at Joe and then turns his attention back to Dave.

"Anyway," Dave continues, "this big guy wearing a t-shirt with skulls on it starts yelling at us to hurry up.  Of course, my son-in-law Jake has to -"

"Is Jake the skinny one with all the tattoos?" interrupts Fred.

"Yeah, that's the one," Dave continues, "so he gets into it with the skull guy.  Meanwhile, my grandson Henry slips and falls in and Judy starts screaming hysterically. I told her 'calm down, the water is only a foot deep,' and reached down and dragged Henry out.  Just as I try to stand up again, I feel my back go out."

As his friends groan in sympathy, Dave shakes his head, then continues:  "about that time, Lydia, Henry's little sister, gets bit by a deerfly and she starts crying. My wife attempts to comfort her by licking her fingers and rubbing on the bite. Then Judy starts in on her mother about contaminating the wound and how this is the 21st century where we don't use spit and on and on."

Joe says, "shoulda put ice on it."

Fred, glaring at Joe, responds, "they're standing in a river. Where they gonna get ice?"

Joe shrugs and says, "I'm sure somebody around there had a slurpie or something."

Dave, ignoring the debate, continues:  "and that's when I got knocked in the water by Jake."

Bill, still paying attention to Dave, asks "what did he do that for?"

Dave shrugs: "the skull guy pushed him into me, and I went into the lake."

"It's deeper on the lake side, isn't it?" asks Joe.

Fred says, "jeez. What a circus." 

Dave then leans in, looking sharply at Joe: "yes it is deeper, and I couldn't stand up because of my back."

"So what did you do?" asked an incredulous Bill.

Dave continued: "I had all I could do to keep my head above water and try to get their attention. But Judy was still arguing with her mom, Lydia's still hysterical, Henry's laughing and saying "grandpa's turn", and Jake and the skull guy are being separated by the park ranger."

"Who got you out?" asked Bill.

Dave shrugged again and said, "a couple of German bicyclists waded in, spandex and all, and grabbed me."

The men fell silent, shaking their heads.

Having finished his story, Dave jumped up, cheery again, and said, "well, I gotta go."

Bill looked at his friend quizzically, "you seem to be in a pretty good mood, considering what you went through."

Dave smiled and said, "yeah, well, my company all left this morning."

Friday, June 13, 2014

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Do you notice when you look at photos from the early 20th century, everybody looks so serious?  No one, and I mean, NO ONE, smiles in those photos.  Now look at the picture above. Nearly everyone is smiling. What is going on here?  In spite of the hardships of pioneer life, in spite of losing loved ones to disease, accidents in the woods and falling through the ice, in spite of the world about to embark on a terrible war, these folks are smiling. Whatever the occasion was, they got together their little community and enjoyed each others' company.

We're going to try to duplicate that event, and those smiles tomorrow.  Hopefully, we won't get rained out.  Hopefully, you'll see the next post with a picture very much like this one.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Meet Mabel and Buddy

If you've stopped by Emmaville even once you were probably greeted in the parking lot by either a blonde mop on legs or a tricolor bundle of energy or both. In either case you were instantly their new best friend. Since our dogs make up 50% of Emmaville's population of 4, we thought you might want to know more about them.


Mabel is an 8-year-old cockapoo and came from a breeder in the Staples area.  However, Mabel believes she is really from the manors and courts of old Europe. She thinks she is descended from royalty, like her great-granddog was the lap dog of the Grand Duchess of Lichtenstein, or something like that. She believes she should be treated accordingly, and that she doesn't belong here among us commoners.  And she certainly doesn't think she should have to share food and water dishes with that disgusting other dog. That's why she's always running up to our customers and leaping up on them.  She wants them to take her away from all this.

Despite her royal blood, Mabel is not above begging. She practically invented sad puppy eyes, and knows that if she whines enough, Mel will give in and share her dinner. Mabel also refuses to wait until Mel is done with her shift and is always scheming new ways to escape the house to find Mel in the cafe. She stands watch near the gate, waiting for us to slip up and leave it open. Her latest gambit is begging to go out in the backyard, and then running around to the front of the store, hoping a customer will let her in.

Mabel is equally adept at finding ways to sneak in the car when we're going somewhere.  Sometimes we have to trick her, which isn't easy to do because she's pretty smart and she doesn't forget. So now trying to get her in the car is tricky.

Mabel has been riding in the car with Mel ever since she was a pup. They've put many a mile on together. She loves to stand on her hind paws in the front seat and watch the world go by.  Mabel also loves her some cheeseburgers and can spot the Golden Arches from miles away.


Buddy came from a breeder outside Bemidji and an AKC-registered line of springers.  Buddy would be AKC registered if Mike ever got around to sending in the paperwork. But this doesn't matter to Buddy, who just wants his human to come out and play. In fact, Buddy seems to think that is what Mike was put on this earth to do - play with Buddy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Buddy is still training Mike to play his favorite game,Fetch/Keep Away. Mike still doesn't get the concept: he is supposed to chase Buddy down and grab the stick (or ball) and then throw it so Buddy can retrieve it and then Mike gets to chase him down again.

But whenever Buddy approaches Mike with a stick in his mouth, Mike picks up another stick and throws that instead. This disruption forces Buddy to drop the stick he was carrying and go get Mike's stick so he can show Mike which is the right stick. But when he returns with Mike's stick, he finds Mike throwing the stick Buddy brought! Since this stick is the original game piece, Buddy has to go get it in order to resume the game.

Unfortunately, Mike keeps disrupting the game by throwing sticks so they never get to the Keep Away part. Frustrated, Buddy finally retrieves his stick but doesn't drop it, hoping Mike will gave chase. But then Mike says "you win" and goes back to work. This is why Buddy keeps approaching our customers with a stick in his mouth, hoping to find a smarter human that knows how to play Fetch/Keep Away.

Unlike Mabel, Buddy doesn't like riding in the car. Whenever he is told to "load up" he stalls for time, sometimes picking up a stick and trying to get Mike to play. When he finally approaches the car door, he acts like he's paralyzed, forcing Mike to pick him up and throw him in. When in the car, he always assumes the same position: sitting up, leaning against the back rest with his eyes glazed over and not moving a muscle.  Sometimes he squeezes his eyes shut and looks like he's praying "please God don't let me puke."

In addition to playing Fetch/Keep Away, Buddy's favorite things to do are flushing grouse, seeing how many cockleburs he can collect with his ears, chewing on a bone when Mike and Mel are trying to sleep, and eating Mabel's poop.

If you like our dogs (or even if you don't) please come to our 1st Annual Centennial Celebration, when our customers will have the opportunity to vote for the official "Ambassador of Emmaville". Should it be Mabel or Buddy?  We'll ask you to donate $1 per vote, with the proceeds going to the Headwaters Animal Shelter.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Excuse us while we brag up our kid.

Some of you probably met our youngest daughter Hannah, who worked parts of two summers here until she moved to Seattle in 2012.  Hannah is part of the "Gen Y" generation, and like many of them, struggling to make her own way.  She is finding it tough to find a good job - her BFA hasn't opened many doors yet.  We told her that kids her age need to create their own job if they can't find any out in the world.

So Hannah is doing just that, by starting her own on-line comic.  Here's the link:


It may be a while before Cowboys and Indie Kids (or the Surly Girl and Tubby Cat Detective Agency) can pay her bills, so Hannah is working at a coffee shop/shipping service.  These are tough times for the younger generation, but we know Hannah is tough and resilient, and resourceful, and hard working, and really hard not to love, and...we know she's going to make it!  Please enjoy and share her comic - thanks!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Position Available

Emmaville Store, LLC has a position available, as follows:

TITLE: Local Character


5 am-8 am, Monday through Sunday:  regardless of weather, open the store, chat up the Wonewok guy, bring in and assemble newspapers, count previous day's papers and record returns, make coffee, greet owners when they crawl out of bed, eat a big breakfast, visit with the regulars, make more coffee.  Go "make your bed".

9 am - noon: scoop dog doo, rake pine needles, check and empty garbage cans, pick up litter, inspect the property and identify maintenance needs, sweep the front steps, strip beds in motel rooms after checkout, pick up tools that owners forgot to put away, play with dogs, perform other duties unknown to owners but essential, make more coffee.

Noon - 1 pm: LUNCH BREAK (Note: lunch provided, usually the special, or "whatever you got, not too much now.")

1 pm - 6 pm: ask if you should make more coffee, refill towels and toilet paper in the bathrooms, "make a deposit", hold down 2nd barstool from the right, spot incoming gas customers and hit the green button, watch the Weather Channel and nod off frequently.

6 pm - 7 pm: DINNER BREAK:  comment about portions being too large, but clean your plate anyway and have room for pie.

7 pm - 9:30pm: watch Twins game.  Sweep, take out trash and recyclables, empty and clean coffee pots. If the Twins are behind, retire early to bed. If the Twins are still in the game, watch until complete, including extra innings if necessary.


Conversationalist: strike up conversation with every customer who walks through the door. Must have glib  responses at the ready, for example:
Customer: "how you doing?"
You: "oh, pretty good for the girls I go with."

Weather observer: observe and provide commentary on the weather to anyone within earshot, monitor the Weather Channel and maintain a secret crush on a weather lady

Historian: recite details of Emmaville history, including quotes from Cal, but don't remember any names

Storyteller: tell stories about fishing on the Rainy River, working for the same company for forty years, serving your country in the Aleutians during WWII

Handyman:construct tools and make repairs using duct tape, broom handles or whatever is at hand; assist with repairs by holding the item being repaired by hand or with a shovel, stick, etc. or holding the flashlight, even during the daytime.

MaƮtre de: arrange tables and chairs, pour ice water, provide condiments and bus tables with grace and decorum on busy Sunday mornings

Stock-boy: assist with stocking of shelves when the grocery truck comes in, place items in their designated location or randomly wherever their is space

Baseball commentator: provide analysis and color commentary, based on your 80 years of watching the game, during Twins games, especially regarding the managerial skills of Ron Gardenhire and the consistency of Joe Mauer at not swinging at a perfectly good first pitch.

WAGE: None, except all the ice cream and homemade pie you can eat

Emmaville Store, LLC strives to provide equal opportunity in employment, but only gracious, friendly and genuine older gentlemen need apply.

One of a Kind

Clayton Severtson
June 2, 1922-April 21, 2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Truthier History of Emmaville

Sorry for the long absence, folks. We took on a major project last month:  renovating two bathrooms in the motel.  We're not talking about replacing the toilet paper holder or a paint job - this is taking it down to the studs and floor joists and starting over. Mike has done his part; now its Mel's turn. So while Mel is up to her ears in drywall mud and tile mortar, Mike has time to write.  

The following is a "truthier" history of Emmaville, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Colbert, meaning having more facts, than posts previously published here.  Most of the information was gleaned from the title abstract for the store property, U.S. census data (Ancestry.com), plat maps and the local newspaper.  

A History of Emmaville

Until the mid-1800s, the area around Emmaville was part of the large portion of what is now northern Minnesota inhabited by the Ojibwe people. In the Treaty of 1855, the Ojibwe ceded the north-central region and were required to move onto reservations.  The Treaty was one of several negotiated in the mid-1800s to free up land for logging and settlement.

The first timber claim at what is now Emmaville was conveyed to John S. Pillsbury in 1883, and included 80 acres of Section 34 (north and east of the County 4/24 intersection). Mr. Pillsbury was a founder of the Pillsbury Co. and served as governor of Minnesota from 1876 to 1882.  Timber land was one of his many investments. Presumably, this parcel was logged, as was much of the forested land in the region during logging's heyday in the 1890s and 1900s. Although the exact location is unclear, it is believed a logging camp was set up in the vicinity of Emmaville.

Settlement of the area was well under way in the 1890s; in 1897, one acre of land was acquired from Mr. Pillsbury to accommodate a school.  The remainder of the 80-acre parcel was acquired by Louis Kruse, with Mr. Pillsbury retaining the timber rights. Meanwhile, the parcel across the road (where the present store is located) was homesteaded by Richard Fearn in 1904; Mr. Fearn proved up his claim in 1905, and sold the timber rights to Park Rapids Lumber Co. the following year.  According to an article in the Park Rapids Enterprise from 1980, Mr. Fearn was Emmaville's first postmaster.
Emmaville School (photo courtesy of Rod Lof)

According to an article written by Clif Miller and published in the Enterprise in January 2008, the Green Trail, which connected Park Rapids with Bemidji during this era, passed just west of present-day Emmaville.  Miller mentions a gentleman named Art Raymond homesteaded along the trail. According to Miller, Raymond set up an "eating place....with a low attic where the travelers could bed down" and "called it the Travelers Home". The article references a family staying there in 1902 on their way to their homestead further north. A check of the 1905 census records for Clay Township finds Mr. Raymond listed as a mail carrier, and a Mr. Kruse listed as a storekeeper.

Assuming Mr. Kruse didn't commute to Park Rapids, he appears to have had the first store at Emmaville. It is unclear whether this store was located along the Green Trail or nearer the present location. The 1905 census also includes a pharmacist, stonemason and sawmill proprietor.

(Photo courtesy of Rod Lof)
According to old-timers in the area, other businesses, including a bank, were established in Emmaville.  No traces of these remain, but the schoolhouse still stands.  The school was in service from 1897 until 1955, when several one-room schools in the county were consolidated with Park Rapids.  The schoolhouse was purchased by Oak Hills Fellowship and converted into a chapel.

Meanwhile, the Fearn property was sold to Thomas and Fannie Todd in 1916.  Thomas Todd is listed as a farmer living in Todd Township (Park Rapids) in the 1920 census.  The Todds had the property until 1932 when it was purchased by Louis Zimmer.  Zimmer owned the property until 1937, when he sold it to Ed and Mildred Lanning.

Vacationers circa 1940 (photo courtesy of Leroy Bohn)
According to Ed Lanning Jr., in 1940 a small existing store on the property was torn down and the center part of today's store was built.  In a photo from that period, the sign on the "new" store says "Bemidji Trail Store" and an oxen yoke hung above the sign. The Lannings operated the store for over 30 years.  A postcard postmarked in 1958 depicts "Emmaville Store and Motel", reflecting the addition of two cabins by the Lannings. Ed Lanning Sr. passed away in 1966.  In 1972, Mildred and Ed Jr. sold 4 acres where the store is located to Leonard and Edna Reedholm. The Lannings retained the remaining 76 acres.

The Reedholms owned the property from 1972 until 1976, when it was sold to Cal and Betty Jensen. The Jensens initiated a major expansion of the store operations, including adding a cafe, bar, a modern motel, and storage units.  The Jensens built a reputation for great food and service.  They also also erected the quirky signs that made Emmaville famous; the signs reflect Cal's unique sense of humor. Cal, Betty and kids Shane and Beth gave "The Biggest Little Town in the World" a population of 4.

Oak Hills Fellowship determined in 1984 that they no longer needed the schoolhouse/chapel and sold the property to the Jensens. Cal and Betty attempted to use the schoolhouse to further expand their business, with mixed results.  Perhaps their best use of the property was as the "University of Emmaville", the sign for which still attracts visitors.

 Cal passed away in December 1999 and the family sold the store property and the schoolhouse to Joe and Kay Knuth and Joe's sister and brother-in-law.  Joe and Kay operated Emmaville until 2007.  In 2006, they sold the schoolhouse to Tim and Mark Nohre, who use it as a recreational cabin.  In December 2007, the Knuths sold the store property to Kathy Courtney under a contract-for-deed.  Ms. Courtney operated the store until April 2009, when the store closed and ownership reverted to the Knuths.

In November 2010, the Knuths sold the property to Mike and Melinda Spry.  After completing some repairs and renovations, the Sprys reopened the store and motel in January 2011.  The completely renovated cafe reopened Memorial Day weekend in 2011.

The story of Emmaville would not be complete without mentioning Clayton Severtson.  Clayton began coming to the area to visit relatives when he was a young man.  Clayton started camping in the small campground the Jensens set up behind the store in the 1980s.  After his wife passed away, Clayton began staying at Emmaville during the summer and fall, helping Cal with operations.  He continued to stay on when the Knuths took over.  When the store closed, Clayton stayed on as a caretaker, living in the house behind the store.  When the Sprys bought Emmaville, they learned that Clayton came with the place, and made full use of his knowledge.

The fact that a store has been in business here almost continually for over 100 years demonstrates the continuing need for supplies and services here. It also speaks to the spirit of community that still thrives in Emmaville.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Money Pit or Gold Mine?

After 5 hours of pumping steam, the septic tank guy emerged from the crawlspace and said,

"It's no good.  I can't reopen those lines because there are too many backward fittings and low spots where the water collects and freezes."

He was working to open up frozen drain lines under our "housekeeping" cabin. We hadn't rented it out the previous weekend, and the lack of activity allowed the lines to freeze just before our latest guests arrived.  When things backed up on them in the middle of the night, we had to open up one of the motel rooms so they could use the bathroom.  We had the organizers of the snowmobile race coming to stay in 10 days, so there was a sense of urgency.

The plumber recommended we tear out the existing drain lines and replace everything. I knew this day was coming.  Having spent time in the crawl space replacing insulation, I knew the plumbing was screwed up, but had plenty of other projects needing attention.

After getting the go-ahead, the plumber proceeded to dismantle the existing lines. He not only found backwards fittings, he found fittings that were no longer (or never were) glued, fittings wrapped in Saran Wrap and electrical tape, and at least one line that wasn't connected and was emptying into the crawlspace.  (Thankfully, this was a sink drain and not a toilet drain.)

A week and $1500 later, we had functioning lines again.

This was the latest chapter in our ongoing efforts to rehabilitate "Housekeeping", as its always been known. The three-bedroom unit had been sorely neglected when we bought Emmaville. The roof was in bad shape, the soffits were starting to fall down, a couple of windows were cracked (one looked like it had a bullet hole!) and the concrete steps at the front door were crumbling.  Clayton, God bless him, had rigged up a temporary handrail, using a fencepost, a broomstick, some tape and good wishes.

But the steps would have to wait. The first order of business after we closed on the purchase was installing a new septic tank to service Housekeeping.  The existing tank did not have a bottom, and according to the letter the previous owners received from the the county attorney, it had to be replaced. (We had tried requesting this be taken care of by the previous owners in our initial offer, but no dice.)

In our second year of operations, we had the roof, soffits and fascia boards replaced.  This work displaced the small colony of bats that had taken up residence in the attic. We also had a deck and new stairs (with handrails) built over the concrete steps, thus precluding (or delaying the inevitable) lawsuit. Last year we replaced windows and tiled the smaller bathroom.

We've noticed that a few cracks have appeared in the walls and in the ceiling. Also, the floor is very uneven, especially in the living room.  According to local lore, a previous owner had built Housekeeping by cobbling together two or three of the existing one-room cabins on site. Just recently, one of our neighbors who is
considered to be more or less truthful, depending on who you ask, claimed he had helped join the cabins together.  He had observed the crew trying to accomplish this by hand, and offered to bring in some steel beams and a tractor to facilitate the merger.  He said the crew on hand that day had little skill but plenty of adult refreshments on hand to do the job.  It seems highly likely that this same crew was responsible for the plumbing....

At this point, dear readers, you may be wondering why we didn't just tear the place down and start over.  The thought had crossed our minds. But we were embarking on a major overhaul of the kitchen in the cafe at the time, and didn't have room in the budget to replace Housekeeping. And Clayton assured us that Housekeeping was a favorite place to stay among long-time guests of Emmaville, so we thought it might be worth saving.

It turns out Clayton was right.

Housekeeping is nothing fancy, but guests like Pete and Betty don't care.  The couple has been making the long drive up from their home in Nebraska to Emmaville, sometimes twice a year, for close to 30 years now.  The Official Emmaville Photo Album has photos of their two boys holding fish from when they were preschoolers to when they were young men. Pete and Betty love to fish and they love to stay in Housekeeping. The cabin doesn't have air conditioning, but they get by just fine with a couple of window fans.

Ed Lanning, Jr., who grew up at Emmaville when his parents owned it in the 40's and 50's, stayed in Housekeeping every year during deer hunting.  The last few years he couldn't walk very well, so he appreciated the new stairs and deck. Every year, we are seeing more snowmobilers and ATV riders request to stay in Housekeeping.  With a full kitchen, the ability to sleep up to eight people and two bathrooms, the cabin is ideal for groups.

So, we'll keep plugging away making repairs to Housekeeping. This year, the slightly sagging toilet in the main bath seems to indicate we'll need a new floor in there next.  We might even put in an air conditioner, if that's ok with Pete and Betty.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Frozen Elephant in the Room

We Minnesotans love to talk about the weather. We can't help ourselves; it's genetic.  Nearly every one of our regular customers makes a weather-related comment when they come in the store; it's almost as automatic as "hello":

"Looks like rain. Boy, we sure need it."
"How much snow (or rain) did we get last night?"
"When is that wind gonna quit?"
"Sure is muggy out."
"What did your thermometer say this morning?"
"Cold (or hot) enough for ya?"

This last comment is probably most frequently heard, and usually elicits a smile, if not a chuckle.  We heard it a lot when we were first introduced to the Polar Vortex back in December.  As denizens of the Northwoods, we are used to shrugging off the cold, making jokes, laughing at Old Man Winter and then putting on another layer and going about our business.

But now, three months on, nobody is laughing. And nobody wants to talk about the weather.

After 78 of the last 90 days with a low below zero, we have nothing left to say.  Old Man Winter slaps us again and again as we go out the door in the morning, and we don't have a comeback.  We want to spit in his eye, but we're out of spit.

So now when our customers come in, the conversation is brief.   We won't bring up the weather now until it changes for the better, when we can be certain the below-zero stuff is behind us.  No one dares mention Spring - it's just too soon.  Nope, not going there yet.

Authors note:  I promise no more posts about winter! At least not until we can get excited about it again.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Emmaville Shuffle

You know its winter when you witness the Emmaville Shuffle. The dancers walk up to the counter in our store and start patting themselves. They grab their butts, pause briefly to think, and then start unzipping their outer wear. They stretch and grope inside their suits, and sometimes undo more zippers and straps before their hands dive back in. We sometimes feel the need to avert our eyes.

You might think we’re running some kind of backwoods burlesque show here, but all we’re really talking about is snowmobilers trying to find their money. We call it the Emmaville Shuffle.

While they’re gyrating and stripping, we occupy ourselves by trying to guess who they are. We like to greet our regular customers by name. But with their helmets, visors, and face masks on, it’s impossible to tell who is standing on the other side of the counter. They seem to know us, saying a muffled hello or greeting us by name like a friendly Darth Vader. Not until they complete the Shuffle and then pull out their credit cards do we know who they are. If they pay in cash, we may never know. We wind up saying something like “thank you, see you later, person I should know.”

The donning and doffing of snowmobile attire also requires that we adjust our usual customer service routine. When snowmobilers come in for a beer or a burger, we allow them time to disrobe. We wait until they’ve shed gloves, helmet, facemask, and jacket and arranged everything before asking what they’re drinking or if they’d like to see a menu. Sometimes, they just need to pee.

Similarly, when it’s time to go we wait a bit to allow them to get dressed before we say goodbye. If we thank them for coming in and wish them an enjoyable ride before they’re fully dressed, there’s always an awkward silence until the final glove is pulled on.

We don’t mean to poke fun, and really appreciate their business. We know all that gear keeps them safe and warm and we applaud them for getting out there and enjoying winter in the Northwoods. But if they remember to put their method of payment in an outside pocket, they wouldn’t have to do the Emmaville Shuffle.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Hard Part

Our adventure over the past three years has taught us much about being part of a community. We have met so many people, each with their own story to tell. We have been blessed to know them, whether they have shared much of their story with us or only brief hellos each day.

Sometimes we are told a story that has been told many times. Whether true or not, the story is part of them, the part they want known. These stories often involve the history of this place, when they first came here, or how they grew up here. These stories make up the fabric of our little community.

Sometimes we are told stories that are not widely told. Sometimes they are told to us only because they need someone to listen.

Over the few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas we lost three members of our community. Larry was a neighbor who came from Iowa to visit a childhood friend some years ago and fell in love with this place. Rod was born and raised in Emmaville, on the family homestead just down the road. And then there was Rob, who frequented the cafe with wife Linda at least once week and loved to talk hunting and fishing.

Larry liked to kid around and give Mary our cook a hard time. The two shared a history of pranks, involving rotten fish under car seats and the like. He would come in the store in the mornings with loud greetings and exchange slaps on the back and mild insults with his neighbors who had gathered for coffee.

We heard Larry's story as a hard luck tale. When his friends weren't around and it was quiet, he would talk about his failing health. He would grow wistful, saying how the doctor couldn't do much for him, and how he could no longer enjoy doing the things he once did. On top of that, he had fallen on hard  times, made a bad real estate investment and was likely to lose his home. There wasn't much we  could say to buck up his spirits, but he seemed to appreciate us listening.

Larry and wife Pam did lose their house and moved into an apartment in town last year. We only saw Larry a couple of times after that. As always, he kidded around a bit, but he also asked how we were doing. He always wanted Emmaville to do well and stay in business.

Rod had deep roots here and liked to share the history of the area with us. Some of the pictures from his grandmother's photo album decorate the cafe. Rod was quiet and somewhat reserved but when he had something to say, you listened. He was a man everyone in the area respected, a man people sought out to help solve problems.

As a man who lived most of his life here, working with his hands in the woods and in the dirt, it's easy to imagine Rod as someone insular and distrustful of the world and its complexities. But Rod  was quite the opposite, a man who enjoyed seeking and sharing knowledge. With his wife Sandy, Rod literally traveled the world and came back to Emmaville to share what he learned.

Rod was diagnosed with brain cancer the year before last. He and Sandy had to forego their travels as Rod underwent treatment. Last summer, Rod went back to work at his sand and gravel business, and  came in for lunch a couple of times a week. He didn't have much to say about his prognosis, but was focused on the day-to-day. Small victories became important, like being able to bend over and pick up something he dropped. The last few times we saw him, he seemed to be doing well, still interested in having a good conversation. Rod had made it known that he was unlikely to recover, so when we heard that he had taken a bad turn, we knew we wouldn't see him again.

Unlike Larry and Rod, we didn't get to know Rob very well before his accident. As a biologist with the DNR, Rob was very knowledgable about local fishing and hunting, and clearly enjoyed participating in those sports. Rob also appeared to us to be very devoted to his wife Linda, sharing many meals with her in our cafe. Sudden inexplicable deaths are always shocking, leaving us with nothing to say.

Regardless of what we know of their stories, it is hard to know what to say to those they leave behind. It's hard to watch as their families struggle with the voids left behind. All we can do is be  ready to greet them when they come in for their morning coffee or to pick up that loaf of bread on the way home from work. We can be ready to listen to their stories.