Helga Township, Hubbard County, Minnesota

Paul Bunyan Trail on the way to Nary

Paul Bunyan Trail on the way to Nary

There was one more township hall to visit on July 12, 2014. After leaving the Guthrie Town Hall I continued north on the Paul Bunyan Trail, to the one-time community of Nary.  After having ridden through forested country the last 50 miles along the Heartland and Paul Bunyan Trails, it was good to see the countryside open up a bit.

Helga Town Hall - Front

HelgaTown Hall – Front

There was nothing at the old crossroads of (former) railway and county road to indicate that it had once been an incorporated village of 350 persons and more, or a village of any size at all.  But to the east, hidden from the intersection by trees, is an old two-story school that now serves as a community center and as the Guthrie Town Hall.

Nary School Reunion sign

Nary School Reunion sign

If the mere existence of the old schoolhouse wasn’t enough to suggest that people still had an attachment to their community school, there was a sign out front to remind people of an upcoming “Nary All School Reunion”.

The community got its start when the railroad came through here in 1898 and sent out spurs to the logging camps. Nary had a population of about 1000 people at that time.  The people quickly organized a local government for Helga Township, and school districts were established.   Big fires swept through in 1901 and 1908, burning down the town each time, but each time it was rebuilt to some extent.  It was in this decade that the population of Nary was about 350.

Bemidji Pioneer clipping

From the Bemidji Pioneer, 8 Jul 1921, courtesy of Newspapers.com

As the logging days ended, this became a region of small family farms.  In 1920 or thereabout, three rural school districts, each with its own one-room school, voted to consolidate.  That’s when the present two-story building was constructed.  The news clipping shown above, from the Bemidji Pioneer (July 8, 1921), indicates that the village population was down to about 60 by 1920, but there was still a general store and a church.

The school thrived and became an important part of the social life of the community. Years later people remembered the music classes, plays, operettas, and piano and voice lessons.  The school included a one- or two-year high school term for a while. There was a school bus (horse-drawn, at first) to bring children to school, and hot lunches were served.  (For persons like myself who attended one- and two-room rural schools in the 50s and early 60s, these would have been unaccustomed amenities.)

It had an enrollment of about 120 when it was caught up in another round of consolidation.  Long-time resident Vaner Tangborn explained, “The Nary School was closed in 1972. We had a referendum and voted against the closing, but the State politicians took away all our state aid, leaving us no alternative.”  As one who has long been interested in school consolidation controversies, I’d like to know what that was all about, but didn’t find anything in the issues of the Bemidji Pioneer to explain it.

Vaner Tangborn’s reminiscences can be found on the township web site, along with other historical reminiscences of the community.  These were the source of much of the above information.

Nary School - south side

Nary School – south side

Although the school closed, the building has always been cared for, and continues to serve the community.  It is now the Helga Township hall, and there is a move underway to make it a Performing Arts Center.

This YouTube video shows the interior of the building (something I didn’t get to see for myself) and gives more information about the plans for the future.


The above is another YouTube video on the same topic.  In this one, the name Tangborn appears in the acknowledgements.  I presume the persons mentioned are part of the same family as the Vaner Tangborn whose reminiscences tell about his many years conducting a band, first for a railroad and then for the Nary community – from 1930 to 1982.  The idea of turning this building into a Performing Arts center seems to be the continuation of a long history.

Nary School - entrance on east side

Nary School – entrance on east side

This photo shows the Town Hall entrance, with a place for the usual notices and announcements on the south side of a partition that serves as a bit of shelter from the winter winds for those entering the building.

Helga Township is the northernmost one shown on this map.

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Guthrie and Old Township Days

GuthrieThe Guthrie Town Hall is special in several ways.  For starters, the Guthrie Township web site has a map on its home page that shows exactly where the town hall is located.  On some township web sites one has to look hard for that kind of information, and sometimes it’s not even on a township’s web site. Never mind that most Minnesota townships don’t have web sites, and that in those cases, even if you somehow find a street address it isn’t necessarily one that’s used for mail, which means Google Maps may not be able to help you find it, either.  But Guthrie Township made that part easy by providing a map.

guthrie-0460Second, it’s located on a bicycle trail.  Not near a trail, as in the case of most of the others on this day’s ride, but immediately adjacent to the Paul Bunyan trail.  Not only that, but its parking lot can be used as an access point to the trail, and it even provides a porta-potty for trail users.

When I saw the cars in the parking lot I first thought I had finally found a Minnesota town hall that is used as an office during the day. But after watching bicyclers ride off the trail into the lot to load their bicycles onto their cars, I realized that none of the cars was here on township business.  They all belonged to people who were using the trail.  There is a sign that says no overnight parking, so it’s not a good access point for a multi-day ride, but it’s handy for day rides. There is plenty of shade for cooling down after a ride.guthrie-0455Third, the town hall is part of a memorial to a one-time community school that once occupied these grounds. (I like to collect photos these school memorials, too, though I don’t usually seek them out.) In this case the township hall is owned jointly by the township and a group called “Ye Olde School Grounds.” There used to be a separate town hall building nearby (just across the line in the adjacent township to the east) but that building is now gone.  The old school building is gone, too, but the schoolyard playground remains.

Finally and best of all, the township website provides some history that is missing for almost every other township I’ve looked at so far.  By that I don’t mean that no other township websites contain any township history. Many of them have do, some of it placed very prominently.  Some townships even fund historical museums and local historical societies.   What’s special about the Guthrie township site is information about the history of the changing role of township government.
There’s not much to it. It’s the brief reminiscences of three long-time township officers who all retired in 1976. But it touches on topics I’ve gotten curious about while visiting these township halls – about how the current system of township government came to be.
It’s not particularly obvious where to find it, either. But on the front page there is a link to “A brief history of our township.” Click on it and you get a PDF file of a couple of pages photocopied from some spiral-bound book.  What book it is, we are not told, but I’m guessing it’s a local history of some kind.
A paragraph about the three board members who retired in 1976 led me to a newspaper article about it in the Bemidji Pioneer, from which the following is taken.

“This township wasn’t much when I came here as a kid,” 76-year-old Steinbrenner said. Steinbrenner, who served as a town board supervisor for a total of 30 years, was only five years old when his family moved into Guthrie Township.
There was only about three and one-half miles of regular cleared out roads… when we came here than I remember, otherwise it was all bush trails,” said Steinbrenner, who was also township fire warden for 33 years.
First roads was just a grass track in the center… When the first cars came it was like that too. Just the grass in the center and the wheel track.”
Seventeen miles of township roads now exist plus 25 or 30 miles of county roads but with these roads come problems.
People used to walk or use teams in the winter. Now one of the biggest headaches on the board said Hess, who has been town board clerk for 14 years, is providing year-round all-weather roads.
But if responsibilities for roads has grown so have responsibilities in other areas. And more responsibility means meeting more often.
Steinbrenner first joined the town board as a supervisor in 1942. At that time the town board “met whenever there was a little business. And then we met here and there in houses and…in the store now and then in the sideroom.”
Even when Hess was elected to the town board they “met maybe four or five times a year and there wasn’t too awful much to it, there wasn’t the bookkeeping and stuff. Nowadays there’s so many rules and regulations, stipulations … open meeting laws … It’s a full-time job with part-time pay.
The town board no longer meets “here and there” or whenever business needs attention. The township, in 1968, got its own town hall and the town board meets regularly the second Monday of every month; plus special business meetings.”

 Some readers might wonder what’s so exciting about that.  Well, it isn’t much, but it’s just about the only such information I’ve encountered so far.  It doesn’t tell about acts of the state legislature  that brought about changes such as those that are described here. It doesn’t tell about changes in the townships’ relationship with schools, or with the social welfare systems. It doesn’t tell whether any of the changes were controversial. But it does give a hint that there have been changes, and that they have been noticed. Maybe I’ll find more of that kind of information elsewhere, and maybe even get the point of view of the people who were affected.

Guthrie Township is the second from the top on this map, and the second from the last stop on the ride on July 12, 2014.

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Cartways, Townships, and the Meaning of “Meaningful”

Lakeport Township Hall

The word of the day is “cartway”. Not that there is a cartway in this photo taken in the parking lot of the Lakeport Township Hall in Hubbard County. Rather, it’s a term that came up when googling for more information about this particular township.

The term sounds like a quaint throwback to a slower time when there were no such things as medical helicopters for rapid transport, which is what I presume the marking in the Lakeport parking lot is for. Helicopters are not usually practical, though, for people who want to travel to landlocked lake property that they own.

It happens. People sometimes find themselves the owners of property that has no access from a public road.

The owners of landlocked property in Minnesota, whether or not on a lake, can petition their township to create a cartway that passes through adjoining neighboring property to a public road. There are conditions for determining whether a property is eligible to get a cartway, and there are procedures to follow, but if those conditions are met and the procedures are followed, the township is required to establish a cartway.

When established, a cartway becomes a public road of sorts. It’s usually narrower than the width of a standard road — usually 33 feet rather than the standard 66. And although it’s not a private road, it is in most cases constructed and maintained by the petitioner and not by the township.

The affected neighbors are not always delighted to have their property taken for this purpose, even though they are compensated by the petitioner at a cost that is determined by the township. They can make their opinions known at hearings and can suggest alternatives. But if they still object to the resulting decision, there is an appeals process that can bring the issue into Minnesota courts.

It is by reading a few of the court decisions on the web, as well as articles by two attorneys who have been involved in such cartway proceedings, that I’ve learned these bits about Minnesota cartway laws.

Cartway law is a little different in Minnesota than in other places that have such laws. And in recent times it is more prominent in Minnesota than elsewhere. If you google for “cartway”, you’re likely to get more links about Minnesota cartways than anything else. Here are some I found that others might enjoy reading, too.

The Pepin Township case had an unique complication due to the picturesque Mississippi River valley terrain along Lake Pepin. The petitioner wanted access to a 26.6-acre tract of mostly steep land near the river, but especially wanted access to a 5-acre flat portion high on a bluff overlooking the valley. To access this portion, the petitioner requested a cartway through a neighbor’s apple orchard. The orchard owner objected, and the township granted an alternative route that was less disruptive, but which did not provide access to the 5-acre blufftop. The petitioner appealed the decision to the Minnesota courts.

One of the questions was whether that route provided “meaningful” access. The word “meaningful” is present in the cartway statute, but what does meaningful mean?   The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld an appeals court decision that in this case, “meaningful” meant access to the blufftop.

It also overruled another part of the same appeals court decision – a part that required the township to grant the cartway through the orchard. It pointed out that establishing a cartway route was a legislative action, and as such was an issue on which the courts need to defer to the township. The courts could not substitute their judgment for the township’s as to the route.

That Supreme Court decision was handed down in 2010. I don’t happen to know whether a cartway was subsequently built. The attorney who represented the orchard owner and who was the author of the Court to Township article concluded by pointing out: “[W]hile Minnesota cartway law does provide a way for a landlocked property owner to secure access to a public road, that access comes at a price.” The orchard route was probably going to cost more than the usual amount of compensation.

The second item in the above reading list, the article by attorney Tim A Strom, provides advice to townships (and indirectly, to cartway petitioners) on this matter of access coming at a price.

Strom advises that township boards make sure, very early in the process, that petitioners know what they are getting into. This can be done by holding a preliminary meeting with the petitioner, making sure that any other interested persons know about it, too. This meeting is an informal affair in which discussions can flow more easily than at the formal hearing which is yet to come. The immediate purpose is to get an idea of the scope of the project so the township can determine the amount of a security deposit that the petitioner will be required to pay before the process gets started. (The cartway statute allows a township to require a deposit.)  The total deposit can be broken down into several categories, such as damages to the neighbor’s property, the time spent by township officers, and township attorney fees. The process of gathering this information and determining the amount of a security deposit can drive home the fact that getting a cartway is not a trivial matter. As Strom puts it:

This, in turn, can have the salutary effect of making the petitioner more amenable to try again to work out a private easement agreement if relations with the neighbors have not entirely broken down. The neighbors may now have more reason to agree to a private easement because they may realize that it’s likely that a cartway will be established if they do not “cut a deal” with the petitioner.

Strom’s article has a lot of practical advice like that. I found it all enjoyable to read. But it also got me to thinking that the state township associations ought to print up T-shirts with the message, “Have you hugged your township trustee today?” Cartway petitions can put the township officers in a difficult position, because in many cases, establishing a cartway is mandatory. They can’t duck the issue, but it’s unlikely that they can please everyone. And when it’s all over they will still need to live together in the same small township with all the affected landowners.

But township officers are in a good position to handle these issues. They have local knowledge about the people, the properties, and and other issues such as the environmental sensitivity of potentially affected areas. They are in a good position to evaluate alternatives.

Local knowledge might even include a sense of whether husbands and wives are getting along with each other. On page 30 there is the following paragraph. (This also gives the flavor of Strom’s advice throughout. He is pretty good at translating legal talk into Minnesotan.)

The statute says, literally, that each owner and occupant of each tract is to receive this notification. That has to be considered carefully. The haphazard way the statute uses the terms “owner,” “occupant,” and “owner and occupant” is discussed on pages 10-11. If you have an affected tract of land on which a family lives, and there are 15 people in the family, most of them minors, do you really have to notify each and every one? Probably not, but the statute is unclear about this. Presumably, every adult who may have any type of ownership or leasehold interest in the land should receive a notice. Presumably, a notice given to one adult in the family should serve to be notice to all adults in the family, but I’d be careful about that presumption if I knew that, for example, a husband and wife were “on the outs,” and had reason to suspect that one might not tell the other about the notice. As with any notice, more notice is better than less notice.

I’ve sometimes remarked, after reading about controversies, that township government isn’t always like a Norman Rockwell painting. But Strom’s observations in a footnote on page 25 show how it can be. On this page, he advises that, although the township board sets the amount, there is nothing to stop a township board from acting as a negotiator in determining a reasonable price for the taking of property, and that it can be done at the same hearing where both parties are in the room, where both might feel pressure to appear the reasonable party:

A gambit I’ve seen work went essentially like this:  Supervisor: I don’t think I have many more questions about this. Jerry [petitioner], you’re saying that $1,000 would be fair. Jim [affected owner], you’re saying that $3,000 would be fair. I can’t say what we as a board would decide, but let’s assume for the sake of argument we decided that the fair amount is in the middle, $2,000. Jerry, could you live with that—not that you’d be real happy about it, but could you live with it? Jim, how about you—not that you’d be overjoyed, but do you think that would be fair, all in all?

And there is more along these lines. If you have read this far, maybe you’d enjoy reading Strom’s article for yourself.

Paul Bunyan Trail crossing in Laporte

The Lakeport Township Hall is located just outside of LaPorte, whose business district can be seen here, on the other side of the Paul Bunyan trail crossing.

By the way, I’d ordinarily have left the Lake Pepin case discussed above to a time after I had ridden to the township and taken photos of its town hall. However, Lake Pepin township doesn’t have a town hall. That’s unfortunate, because I’m looking forward to riding in that part of Minnesota. But some Michigan militia people from the Black Hawk war ended up in that general area, so there will be plenty of reason to go there, township halls or not.

Lakeport was the 4th township hall for the day and 9th for the year.

Lakeport Township Hall

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Marshall to Summit Township

Approaching Eckford Town HallAfter yesterday’s bike ride I downloaded the photos to my computer and was surprised to see this one at the head of the list. Other than photos at township hall sites, I thought I had taken only one other, and this was not it. And of all the fall foliage seen along the way, why would I have stopped at this place?

Then I remembered. Toward the lower right one can see the roof of the Eckford Town Hall. (You can click on the photos to make them bigger.) These days, whenever I first spot a town hall from a distance, I try to remember to stop and take a photo, traffic and road conditions permitting. In this case I knew the Eckford Town Hall was coming up, because I have ridden and driven past it many times, though not usually from this direction. So I knew the roof belonged to the building I was looking for.
I started in Marshall and ended up in Summit Township, near Jackson. In 37.5 miles of riding I visited 5 new town hall locations for my photo collection. That’s a record. I’ve managed to visit 5 town halls on several other days, but usually it takes a 50 to 70 mile ride to accomplish that much. (I call the Eckford location one a new one, although it’s possible that among my older photos there are some of that building that were taken in passing. But this time I pulled into the parking lot and got photos from several different angles. I’ll get to them eventually.)
Township halls visited yesterday:
  • Eckford (Calhoun County)
  • Albion (Calhoun County)
  • Concord (Jackson County)
  • Hanover (Jackson County)
  • Summit (Jackson County)

There is a new page on which I’ve marked all the township halls I’ve visited so far:  Township Halls Visited So Far. When I get further along with this project, I hope I’ll occasionally get comments like, “Did you miss the town hall at ___?  And a mile up the road there is an old school that used to be used as a town hall.”

F Drive SouthAbove is the one photo from yesterday that was not taken at a town hall. It was taken on F Drive South, towards the east end of Calhoun County.

GFHGF Ride along Upper Nottawa Creek

Between Newton and Fredonia township hallsHere are a couple of photos from the upper reaches of Nottawa Creek, taken on a ride late Thursday afternoon. This was the first ride to township halls since we got back from the Illinois Rock River country. I was able to add two more township halls from my home county of Calhoun to my collection. I’ll write about those when it’s their turn. These photos were taken on the road between the two township halls (Newton and Fredonia).

The creek itself can’t be seen here. It’s is a ways off to the right (south). The creek flows west into Pine Creek, which flows through the reservation of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Pottawatomi west of Athens, and then empties into the St Joseph River at the north end of Nottawa Prairie, which is where the Nottawaseppi Reserve was during the 1820s-1830s. That’s about 25-30 miles to the southwest by bicycle.

Up here the valley, if it’s right to call it that, is a broad, level place. In fact, the whole ride was on flat ground. Not even the overpass over I-69 required any climbing. I don’t think I needed to shift gears except at stop signs.

I titled this the “GFHGF” ride. The east-west roads in in Calhoun County have letter names.  Starting at the center of the county there is a B Drive North and a B Drive South. Further to the north and south there is G Drive North and a G Drive South. The road between the two township halls is mostly an east-west one, but departs from straightness enough to be interesting. It starts as G Drive South, then veers north and becomes F Drive.  At 12 mile road (the north-south roads are sometimes given mile number designations) I went south to H Drive South, then followed it as it became G Drive and then F Drive.

Between Newton and Fredonia townshipo hallsI had the road between the two township halls almost to myself. Usually when I stop for a photo I park my bike off the road, but here the traffic was so light that I didn’t bother.

This road is no more than 15 miles south of my home, but it seemed that there were a lot more leaves on the trees down here than at home. There is still a lot of corn in the field that needs to be picked, and soybeans to be combined.

It ended up being a 23 mile ride, with a final stop at Pastrami Joe’s in Marshall for evening lunch. YTD mileage: 2588.

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Steamboat River Township (#8)

Pinehurst Lodge resortSteamboat River Township doesn’t have a township hall. Meetings are held at the Pinehurst Resort on Benedict Lake. But a township with a name like that needed a visit, and besides, the meeting place was right next to the Paul Bunyan Trail. When I left the trail, I almost had second thoughts. It looked like I was on desolate gravel road. But then I saw this sign indicating I was already at the entrance to the resort.
Tom Knight, Steamboat River Township ClerkA couple of men who were working in the yard didn’t seem surprised to see a a guy ride up on a bicycle. I suppose not, given that even though it’s hidden from view, the resort is right next to a trail heavily used by bicyclers. I explained that I was riding to town halls and taking photos of them. This was the first time I mentioned this project to anyone outside my family, some of whom had questioned where such an idea had come from. So it it was encouraging that Tom Knight, pictured here, talked with me as though it was the most normal thing in the world to be doing. He said that yes, he was a township officer, the town clerk. And he noted that the Minnesota Association of Townships is trying to collect photos of town halls. (Here are some of those they have already collected.)

The resort is a multi-generational operation run by Tom’s family. There is a lot for everyone to do, and I managed to keep Tom away from his work while we talked. He was able to clear up some of my misconceptions about township government in Minnesota. I had thought that township government was not so important here as in Michigan, because, for example, building permits and inspections in Michigan are handled at the township level while they’re handled at the county level in Minnesota. But this isn’t quite true. Tom said that in Minnesota, it’s an option. Townships can do it. Those in Hubbard County do not, but some Minnesota townships do.  And now I’m not so sure all townships in Michigan do their own permitting, either, even though I don’t know of any townships in my part of the state that do not.

There are other variations from one township to another. For example, Steamboat River operates a garbage service for the residents, which is something hardly any others do.

It has seemed to me that every once in a while a Michigan governor, it doesn’t matter whether Republican or Democrat, will get the idea of shutting down the township governments, or at least taking away some of their functions.  But the townships seem to have successfully resisted such takeover plans. Tom said that has happened in Minnesota, too. Some minor state funding has been taken away, but the state government’s current position is more like, “We know we can’t make the townships go away,” so it has instead been working with them more cooperatively.
Steamboat River Township meeting placeSteamboat River is a small township.  It covers the usual 36 square miles, but most of this area is part of the Paul Bunyan State Forest, and there are less than a hundred eligible voters. There are only a few miles of township roads, those being all of the gravel ones. It doesn’t have a town hall, so Tom’s barn, as he calls it, is used for its meetings. The building is pictured above, on the other side of the garden. It is not used as a polling place for elections.

I found vote tallies from the 2012 election online. All three of the township officers up for election had run unopposed, each getting 100 percent of the 60-some votes cast for each office. Tom said that he has told other township officers that if he ever gets tired of being township clerk, he might run for supervisor. (The town clerk has more work to do than any of the other officials.)

We also talked about bicycling. Tom said that from what he has observed, it seems there are ten times as many bicycles on the Paul Bunyan trail as there were ten years ago. From what I’ve observed of the Heartland Trail, which intersects a few miles away, I can believe it.  It was probably ten years ago or so when I did a couple of rides on the Heartland Trail between Park Rapids and Walker. It was sparsely used back then compared to the number of bicyclers I saw on three different rides this summer – and not just on weekends. Tom says the DNR has talked of establishing a bike-in campground not too far from his resort – one that would not be accessible to car campers.  He was skeptical at first whether it would get enough use to be worth it, but given the increase in bicycle use of the trails he says it might work. He didn’t mention to me that camping is also available at his resort. That is something I learned from a brochure I got at the Pinehurst Resort web site. But maybe Pinehurst is set up more for RV campers than tent campers.

As to the name Steamboat River, I haven’t been able to learn much.  The Hubbard County Historical Museum says, “Steamboat River Township was named for the steamboats from Leech Lake that traversed the waters on Steamboat Lake and River.” That leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as when these steamboats were in operation, and for what purpose. The logging industry? Tourism? And it doesn’t explain the connection to the township. Part of Steamboat Lake is in the second township to the north, but neither the lake nor the river are in the township of the same name. So do they have some other connection to this township, other than whimsy? The internet has not informed me.

Pinehurst Resort is at the red marker on the above map. The day’s route is shown as a brown line.

I had spent so much time talking to Tom that I didn’t get to finish the day’s ride at Bemidji, as I had originally planned.  But I still had time for three more township halls before I was done.

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Akeley Township Hall (#7)

AkeleyThe second stop on July 12 was at the Akeley Township Hall in Akeley, Minnesota.  It’s just a block away from the Heartland Trail.

The township halls visited on this ride are shown with square markers. Akeley is the red one.  Township boundaries are shown in orange.

Akeley Township HallThe City of Akeley web site has this page about the township government.  However, there are no minutes of meetings online where I can learn about issues that this township is dealing with. My current practice, in cases like this, is to look at the notices that are usually posted on a signboard or in a window near the doorway. There may be official notices of elections or new programs, agendas of upcoming meetings, and even annual budgets. I make copies for myself using the CamScanner app on my smartphone.  But back in July I had not thought to do something like that.

There is no window by the doorway on which to post notices, but in the photo it looks like there may be something posted on the right of the doorway.

Akeley Township HallSpeaking of windows, this township hall may hold the record for the one with the fewest windows, i.e. none.  My photos of the north, west, and east sides don’t show any.  Maybe there are some that face an alley out back, but I didn’t go back there to take any photos.

Oh, well. I don’t have anything about township business, but here is an Akeley fish story from 1928 by Robert Page Lincoln, found on the Akeley page at www.lakenwoods.com.  When I came across this, it brought back memories of a time, long ago, when I used to enjoy reading this sort of thing.  I don’t unenjoy it now, but now there are so many other topics to read about.


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