Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Monday, February 19, 2018

Kemper Drug: A Significant Landmark in Elk River

Marking the history of Kemper Drug reinforces the significance of this landmark in Elk River.  This oral history collected from Bob Kemper provides new insight into the building and also contributes understanding to the business history of the city.

When I bought the store it was the only drugstore in town; and it remained the only drugstore for quite a while.  But, of course, eventually, all the grocery stores had pharmacies in them.  So, it’s quite a different picture, although Kemper Drug is still there.

My dad had a drugstore in Perham.  My older brother is also a pharmacist.  So, we grew up in the drugstore.  I worked in several stores after that.  And then, of course, the war came on; I went and joined the navy.  Then I came back and bought the store in Elk River.  My partner was my brother.  We also had the Perham drugstore.  Eventually, we separated and I owned the Elk River store and he, the Perham store.

Well, my dad had our drugstore in Perham, and when I graduated from high school, he asked me—I think the way he worded it—he said, “What do you expect now to make the world a better place to live in?”  I didn’t have an answer to that, so he said, until you know what you’re going to do, you can come to work for me.  So, I worked in the drugstore in Perham for a year.  And then, in the meantime, my father died and my mother died, and my brother and I were partners then and we wanted another store, so we bought a store in Elk River. 

When I came here, I was the only drugstore in town; but a situation existed that was kind of bad.  All the doctors had their own dispensaries, so when you went to the doctor and you needed some pill, he’d get them.  He didn’t write a prescription.  Well, I kept working on it.  I thought eventually I’ll get the guys talked in to do thing the way they ought to.  And they could practice medicine and send the people to the drugstore.  But I had a pretty good business even without the prescriptions.  We had a soda fountain.  We were sitting on the corner.  Lot of cars by and traffic, and so we had a pretty good business without that.  But I wanted to get the prescription business a little better.  Eventually it happened.

Kemper Drug after fire destroyed the
building in January 1960
Of course, about the fire: it was a cold, very cold day (January 6, 1960) a bitter cold day.  And we had opened the store and we had the hotel upstairs, too.  I owned that, too.  So, one of the clerks came to me and said, “Gee, there’s some smoke coming up on the side of the store here.”  And I went over there, and then I went down the basement.  Mac Hamlet, who took care of my store, the heating and whatnot, said the furnace acted up.  He had one of those fireman feeders.  He overdid it but says “I can fix it.”  So, I said, okay and I went back up to the store and everything was okay.  And then that clerk came back again and said, “there’s smoke coming up over there.”  So, I went down there and by that time, there was fire in the ceiling in the basement and Mac Hamlet was still there, and I said, “I guess we better get out of here.”  And then I had to go back to the hotel to be sure there weren’t any people there. 

So, at any rate, it was a big day, and cold, and we had fire departments from Monticello and Anoka.  A lot of people working on that fire, and this is a bitter cold day. 

It was a terrific blow.  And, I didn’t know quite what to do.  I had several people helping me, had some ideas I should find a place in town the would rent.  And people sent me back to Minneapolis to get some stock.  I went back to the wholesale drug company and told them what happened; and they were all excited.

Of course, now we lost the hotel upstairs, which was really not such a bad deal.  I didn’t like the hotel business.  So, I didn’t have that big building anymore; and I built a nice new building.  It almost, you might say, worked out pretty good for me. 

Bob Kemper rebuilt and the building standing on the corner of Highway 10 and Jackson Street remains a significant landmark to the city.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Betty Belanger Remembers Elk River

Nationally, there have been recent discussions about immigration and citizenship.  On a local level, here at the Sherburne History Center, in recent weeks, we have been called upon several times to discuss immigration and ethnicity in the county.  With so much information about immigrants in my brain, I wanted to visit one of the truly unique and valuable oral histories we have collected about immigrants and Elk River. 

Betty Belanger lived her entire life in Elk River.  She was born to Hungarian immigrants north of Elk River.  In the household, Hungarian was the language of choice until Betty started school at age six.  Although a brief excerpt of her longer oral history, Betty provides interesting insight into growing up in Elk River:

I was born on the farm with a midwife who was a Hungarian immigrant.  She delivered a number of babies for the Hungarian moms in the neighborhood.  Her name was Theresa Toth.
I grew up on the farm and started school at age six.  I fought with my parents to not make me go to the little country school.  I wanted to go to the big city school and ride the bus.  So I did go to school in town, in Elk River at the wood frame schoolhouse.  The Handke building was already built by the time I started school.  The senior high was over there in the new brick building and we were still in the wood frame building.  We rode the school bus for a long time because there were only a few buses, so we had a good one hour ride (each day).  
View of Jackson Street in downtown Elk River.  Some
of the businesses visible include: Kemper Drug,  the Bank
 of Elk River, the Variety Store, and Dare's. 

Downtown Elk River was awesome back then.  We knew all the businessmen and all the businessmen knew all the citizens around here.  It was really neat.  The best part of downtown Elk River was the park. With this wonderful gazebo, we had band concerts every Thursday night.  So everybody went into town for the free band concerts, and farmers did their shopping and listened to the music.  It was an awesome gathering of a community.  

My mother never went to town.  She never learned English well enough to be able to communicate with the store keepers.  But my dad and brother would go into town with the milk check and if I hollered loud enough they’d take me along and maybe I’d get an ice cream cone. 

Once a month the milk check would come in the mail from the Princeton Milk Producers Association then the next day he would go to the bank, he would cash the check, make his mortgage payment, and buy groceries.  And they could go in the bar and have a beer and buy me an ice cream cone. 

My father did dairy farming, but he also dabbled.  We always had a lot of chickens.  We took the eggs into the grocery store to sell.  I can remember going in the back room where the grocer would “candle” the eggs to make sure they weren’t fertilized.  And then the ones that were okay he would accept and he would pay my dad for the eggs and then Dad would use that to buy groceries with. 

Betty Belanger’s memories are rich in detail.  In discussing the business district of Elk River, she remembered a multitude of stores and businesses.  She explained the telephone company had offices and the switchboards upstairs above the Bank of Elk River.  She remembered the Fairway Grocery, the Federated Store, Dare’s Furniture and Funeral Home, Andy’s Electric, The Golden Pheasant, the bowling alley and the movie theater.  Like so many of the oral histories collected at the Sherburne History Center, Betty’s memories are truly rich and valuable. This brief excerpt provides a sense of growing up in Elk River during the late 1940s.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Maps Provide Interesting Information

An absolutely fascinating collection at the Sherburne History Center includes the many maps of the communities and the county.  This image is a portion of an Elk River map, probably dating around 1895.  The map contains the original street names of Jackson and Highway 10, originally Princeton and State Street.  Looking closely at the map, the two original hotels, located on the corner of Princeton and State Street, and near the corner of Main Street and Quincy, show themselves.

Exploring the growth and development of Elk River is an interesting process.  Using the maps from the collection enhances the research.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Townships: The Political Building Blocks of Sherburne County

The development of Sherburne County and the political divisions are common questions.  When were specific townships created?  How was the county originally divided? 

The Minnesota Territorial Legislature created Sherburne County from the southern lands of Benton County in 1856.  This legislation designated Humboldt (later renamed Big Lake) as the county seat.  Special elections chose Elijah Cutter, John Stevenson, and Ephraim Nickerson the first County Commissioners.  The newly created county was divided into three assessment districts.  The county Commissioner, two years later, created the original five townships of Sherburne County.  On September 13, 1858, Baldwin, Big Lake, Clear Lake, Elk River, and Briggs Townships came into being.  Briggs Township was later renamed Palmer. 

Although this map is dated 1874, a significant error on this
township map is the omission of Blue Hill, created in 1868
yet not designated on this sheet.
Over time, six other townships developed.  The county drew lines for Livonia Township in 1866, Santiago Township on January 7, 1868, and Blue Hill Township May 5, 1868.  Becker became a township in 1871, Haven in 1872 and Orrock in 1875.  More than 100 years later, in 1978 Elk River Township and the City of Elk River consolidated and the township ceased to exist as a political division. 

Beyond the townships, the villages, towns and cities of Sherburne County continued to grow and develop.  Yet, for a large part of the history of Sherburne County, the basic unit of government, designated to provide for the residents of the area, remained the township.  Knowing their dates of creation is the first step in appreciating the history of Sherburne County.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Sensational Crime in Elk River: Bank Robbery of 1929

Although not the site of the 1929 bank robbery, the lobby
of the Bank of Elk River gives a sense of the security
and business atmosphere in the bank.
In the heyday of bank robberies and crime, the 1920s; in the time of Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, and a slew of other criminals; Elk River experienced what the Sherburne County Star News called “one of the most sensational crimes committed in Sherburne county.” 

In the morning of August 9, 1929, three bank robbers kidnapped Dr. George Page, his wife, Zella, and bank cashier, T. E. Olson.  While one bank robber held Mrs. Page hostage, the other two escorted Dr. Page and Mr. Olsen into the First National Bank of Elk River.  After entering the bank, Mr. Olsen announced the robbery.  Cashiers turned over $7200 to the robbers. 

After leaving the bank, the robbers retrieved their third member at the home of Dr. Page.  Surprisingly, the bandits did not confine their three hostages.  After the robbers left the Page house, Dr. Page noted the license plate and description of the getaway car.  The bank robbers fled to Birch Lake where they picked up a fourth accomplice, a woman by the name of Alice Hull.  The robbers then fled towards Princeton. 

The detour to Birch Lake gave police time to organize, identify the bank robbers and track them towards Zimmerman.  Mike Auspos and Earle Brown, both from the Minnesota Highway patrol, identified the bandits and engaged in a running gun battle with the bandits.  Brown managed to wound August Becker, the bandit driver, and forced the getaway car off the road where all four suspects were arrested.  Because of his wounds, Becker’s arm was later amputated.  

In their court hearings, all three of the men pled guilty to robbery and kidnapping.  They received life sentences in Stillwater Prison.  Alice Hull maintained her innocence in the episode.  She claimed to be an unwitting accomplice of the bank robbers; a young woman simply wanting to experience a “good time” with the three men.  

The outcome of her trial is not reported.  

Although a seemingly exciting episode on paper, the bank robbery in Elk River proved to be dangerous to innocent victims and the bank robbers themselves.  Those that suffered the most were the bank robbers.  And, the “good guys won” in the end.  Yet, the perceived excitement of a bank robbery and car chase quickly looses the romance factor when the dangers of the episode come to mind.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Orlando Bailey and Bailey Station Worthy of Historic Note

Bailey Station Depot circa 1910
A number of early pioneers, or settlers, of Sherburne County deserve recognition. Every few months we  notice one of these individuals.  Orlando Bailey, founder of Bailey Station, warrants recognition as an influential person in the settlement of Sherburne County. 

Born in Chautauqua, New York in 1820, he migrated to Sherburne County with his family in 1852.  He built a small farm five mile west of Elk River and developed a stage station and hotel.  The site later expanded into a railway station and still later a gas station.  Orlando Bailey founded a transportation site encompassing every form of locomotion for 150 years. 

After Orlando Bailey settled the area, he built (for the times) an elaborate hotel.  A 1944  family history written by his nephew Vernon Bailey, remembered Orlando Bailey and his home.  “We stayed for a time with Uncle Orlando in his big house, no longer used as a tavern, but roomy and pleasant with broad piazzas along two sides, a large laundry and woodshed at the rear and ample barns and stables for the stage horses and considerable stock of cattle and farm horses.”  By the time of Vernon Bailey’s stay at the Bailey Station, the railroad companies had bypassed Bailey Station.  Orlando Bailey and his son Albert, devoted their energies to farming.  “Uncle Orlando and his son Albert were both lovers of good horses and kept the best to be had for both heavy work and for fast driving teams,” Vernon remembered. 

In addition to settling and farming outside of Elk River, Orlando Bailey actively supported the community of Sherburne County.  For a time he served as County Sheriff, County Commissioner, Justice of the Peace, and Postmaster.  He also instilled the importance of public service to his children.  Orlando’s son, Albert, served 40 years as Sherburne County Probate Judge. 

Acknowledging some of the early pioneers of Sherburne County remains a goal of the Sherburne History Center.  His work to settle the area and his contributions to public service for the county, Orlando Bailey stands out as an early settler providing significant contributions to the early community of Sherburne County.

Friday, December 29, 2017

100 Years and the Same News: War and Taxes

World War dominated the headlines a century ago.  In reviewing the news pages of January 1, 1918, comes the realization some things never change.  When the news coverage moves away from the death and destruction of world war, the economy and discussion of taxes takes up space in the newspapers. 
Column from the Star News reminding
 county residents to pay their taxes The
third headline seems most interesting:
Heavy Penalty For Failure 

In surveying the pages of the Sherburne County Star News for the first week in 1918, it comes as no surprise the war is a dominant topic of reporting.  Yet, the newspaper’s inside pages provide interesting commentary.  In addition to the war, the Star News reminded its readers to pay their income tax “before March 1, 1918.” 

In the five years since the passage of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, collecting income tax remained a new concept.  Yet, with the war continuing in Europe, paying income tax became a patriotic service.  “All good Americans who are making a fair living are now called upon to pay,” the paper opined.

Income tax in 1918 seemed much easier than 100 years later.  According to the paper, income is defined as “profit, gain, wages, salary, commissions, money or its equivalent from professions, vocations, commerce, trade, rents, sales, and dealings in property.”  The definition of income continues for several lines.  In other words, any money received is income and is taxable.  Congress set the tax rate a two percent over an income of $2000.  An inflation calculator estimated the amount in 2017 dollars as income over $50,000. 

As a final warning, the newspaper reported of significant fines and imprisonment for failing to file a tax return.  As the newspaper noted, “The government is not required to seek the taxpayer.  The taxpayer is required to seek the government.” 

Although the war dominated coverage in the early days of 1918, the economy and income tax claimed space in the newspaper pages.  Some things never seem to change, with taxes continuing to appear in the news.