Bemidji, 50 below and counting


Bill Batchelder Bemidji
Bemidji Woolen Mills fourth generation owner Bill Batchelder in his office/workroom next to the retail store. MPR photo/Dan Olson

No visit to Bemidji is complete without a stop at Bemidji Woolen Mills and, with luck, a chat with owner Bill Batchelder. He's not exactly the retiring sort and when he can spare the time, he's quick to show off some of the historic regional photos from his collection. One is an image of officials pointing to a thermometer registering minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The date was Jan. 30, 1950.

Bill recalls the town fathers were loathe to trade on the "icebox"  distinction because of the fear it would strike in the hearts of would-be tourists and other visitors.  He thinks not trumpeting the cold factor was a mistake given the fact Bemidji's neighbor to the northeast, International Falls, embraced the title of "Icebox of the Nation" and got lots of attention for the, ah, distinction. (Note: I-Falls even waged a legal fight for the name and in 2008, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted International Falls an official certificate awarding the city legal right to the trademark.)

But, back to Bemidji. My visit with Bill came during a reporting trip for a Minnesota Sounds and Voices radio report that you can hear this afternoon as part of All Things Considered.  It's part of our look at Minnesota communities called "Fighting For An American Countryside," and the very fine eBook that is the result.

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A tiny bit of history.  Bemidji is a name taken from the city's first resident, a man given the title Chief Bemidji, although others say he wasn't a hereditary chief and his name was really Shay-Now-Ish-Kung.   Here's a family portrait from around 1900 courtesy the Minnesota Digital Library


Back to Bill.

Batchelder is the fourth generation owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills.  The kick is that the retail store and the production center filled with exotic sewing machines are all under one roof.  The sign says, "employees only" or something like that on the door to the production rooms, but a visitor really should lobby Bill for a tour (sorry, Bill) because it's fascinating to see the work being done and Bill, as you'd guess, is an excellent guide.

Bemidji is thriving. The population is growing and tourism is rebounding after the recession.  Downtown looks great. The Paul Bunyan playhouse remains a gem. There's new construction underway. The big box store parking lots are always busy.  However, the historic problems and tensions remain.

The Beltrami County poverty rate is nearly twice the state's rate and the gulf between the large American Indian population and whites is wide and deep.

A look at a map is instructive.

Bemidji is nestled among three of the state's largest reservations - Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake - home collectively to more than 25,000 Ojibwe people.

Residents from both cultures are using gardening and food to bring people to the table, if you will, as a way to improve relations.