Emmaville Store, circa 1969

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.

1 comment:

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