Like the rest of America, Bemidji experienced growth after WWII

Jun. 6—Editor's Note: This is the third chapter of five that chronicle the city of Bemidji's development since it was incorporated as a village on May 20, 1896. Each chapter covers a span of 25 years and was originally published in the Pioneer's Annual Report on May 22. Here you can find our printed section and

In the aftermath of World War II, America enjoyed strong economic growth and general prosperity. That certainly was the case in Bemidji.

As the nation celebrated its war victory and affirmed its role as a worldwide superpower, it also experienced widespread prosperity, rising wages, and the movement of many farming families to its towns and cities.

Charles Sattgast, president of what was then Bemidji State Teachers College, was among the many Bemidji soldiers who returned after the war ended in late 1945. Not only did Sattgast serve in the war, but so did his two sons, Morris, who served in the Merchant Marines, and Lawrence, who joined the Army at age 17.

President Sattgast was one of about 345 soldiers known as "The Monuments Men" who fought to protect historical and cultural artifacts in Europe during World War II. Sattgast served as the college's president from 1938 until his death in 1964. He died at age 65, two weeks after undergoing surgery. It was believed that Sattgast had pancreatic cancer.

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Bemidji soldiers were involved in two more wars during the period of 1946-71. First came the Korean Conflict, a bloody, inconclusive war, from 1950-53. Then it was the controversial Vietnam War, which sparked nationwide protests and left those who served without the fanfare afforded their counterparts from World Wars I and II.

On the homefront, Bemidji continued to grow. The city's population had increased by 30% between 1930 and 1940, and it finally topped the 10,000 mark by 1950.

"It was a great time to grow up in, and Bemidji was a great place to be," said Karen (Kopischke) Schley, a 1958 Bemidji High School graduate whose family lived on Irvine Avenue near Greenwood Cemetery. "I didn't really ever think about not being safe. We would walk around at night and not be concerned about anything. We walked to school for the most part. We took in cowboy movies on Saturday matinees, along with dances. We did a lot of driving up and down Beltrami Avenue, cruising around, just generally having what we thought was a great time."

Karen worked as a carhop at the A&W and hung out with 11 other girls known as "The Dozen." Although some have died, the close-knit group has met for a girls weekend for many years, even doing so via Zoom during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Television came to Bemidji in 1948 through Midwest Radio Engineers, owned by the Langhout family. Later the family formed Midwest Cable Communications and had the state's first 21-channel cable TV system up and running in 1971.

By 1950, M.B. Taylor, a court agent who had years earlier helped organize Beltrami Electric Cooperative, called a public meeting to explain the country's new telephone program under the direction of the Rural Telephone Administration. That marked the beginning of Paul Bunyan Telephone, which would later become Paul Bunyan Communications. The cooperative now is the region's largest all-fiber optic network covering more than 5,500 square miles.

Back before kids were kept busy by technology, Dennis Burgess and his Bemidji buddies used to cruise around town. Burgess, a 1964 BHS graduate, recalls a childhood free from worries and filled with fun.

"We had a route," Burgess said. "From the high school it went down Beltrami Avenue to Third Street, then west a block and looped around, back up Beltrami Avenue. We'd go by places like the movie theaters and the Melody Shop. On up to the high school, take a right, then slow down as you went past Jake's Drive-In, to see who was out there. Continue on down 15th Street to Birchmont Drive, then take a left and go down to Diamond Point. Go past the swimming area and snack shop to see who was down there. Then back up Birchmont to 15th and that kind of completed the loop. If you didn't run into anybody you might make that loop two or three times before you saw somebody to hang out with."

Burgess was part of Bemidji's most popular wintertime attraction: Lumberjacks basketball. After the program had won its first two state championships in 1936 and 1948, Clarence "Bun" Fortier took over as head coach in 1950, and during his 19 seasons at the helm, the Jacks went to state 14 times, including seven straight years starting in 1953. The old gymnasium was packed for every home game.

Burgess and his wife, Cheryl (Odegard), Burgess, a 1967 BHS graduate, remember the crowd chanting before every game: "Fortier, Fortier open the door. Let our Lumberjacks on the floor."

"There were no sports for girls," Cheryl Burgess said. "If you weren't a cheerleader, you just sat in the stands and cheered. After games everybody would chip in their dimes and quarters and we'd go to Dave's for pizza and pop."

She added, "Bemidji was a wonderful place to be. There was always something to do. Nobody was afraid of anything. It was just a wonderful place to live. Still is."

While basketball was still the biggest game in town, ice hockey got its start in the late 1940s, setting the stage for what would become a Bemidji tradition. In January of 1947, Bemidji State College Vice President John S. Glas announced that the school approved $100 for hockey sticks, found some old football jerseys, and with Ed Johnson donating some goalie pads, the Beaver men's hockey team hit the ice.

Even though that first season is not included in the official records of BSU hockey history, 1947 saw the Beavers play six games ending with a 0-5-1 record. Ken Johnson scored the first Beaver goal in history, although the Beavers lost that game to Itasca.

Although the hockey program was suspended for 11 years after the Bemidji Sports Arena's roof collapsed in 1949, the stage was set for a program that would eventually capture 13 national championships.

The Minnesota Vikings expansion football team was formed in 1961, and the National Football League upstart chose Bemidji as the site of its first five pre-season summer training camps.

The rookies arrived at the Bemidji State College training facilities on July 7, 1961, but when the veterans arrived July 17, Bemidji locals were amazed at the size of the men who seemed to rival the 18-foot concrete lumberjack on the shores of Lake Bemidji.

A highlight for Bemidji came on Aug. 4, 1962 when 5,503 fans attended a controlled scrimmage between the Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys at what is now Chet Anderson Stadium.

It was a source of civic pride, and the event brought together the community and region.

"It was a great event and still the most people I think ever gathered for one event in Bemidji," said Gale Falk of Bemidji. "The stands were full and on the lake end of the stadium there were people 20 deep behind the sideline."

UP NEXT: As northwest side developed, Bemidji became more of a regional center