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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • T.W.Thorson and the Polk County Fair

  • Kristina Gray will present more on Crookston's history at Crookston Library on Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 6 p.m.
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  • T.W. Thorson passed away in Bemidji in 1973 almost two score years ago, he would have been 80 years old had he made it to his birthday. He was born on Oct. 14, 1894 and died on Sept. 29, 1973. I'm reminded of a line I read in a Thornton Wilder play "Our Town" while exploring Crookston's early history: "Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings."
    Older Crookstonites might remember T.W. Thorson's energetic personality, also known as "Mr. Music." I knew Mr. Thorson as a little girl sitting in the second pew of Trinity Lutheran church while my parents sat in the choir loft and sang under his direction. This grandfatherly gentleman was like our built-in babysitter. As pre-schoolers, my sister and I squirmed and wiggled, waiting for the worship service to end. He and his wife Lillian had seven children so Mr. Thorson was used to children's restlessness.
    Unfortunately, small tykes don't know when they are sitting next to a great man (or woman). Young people only remember little things like I do about T.W.T.'s disgusting sucking lozenges that looked like bits of black licorice. Yet, after 50 plus years, I still have the rhinestone studded, silver cross he gifted to me. The kind you peer closely into the tiny magnifying glass to read the Lord's Prayer.
    T.W. Thorson had directed Trinity's senior choir from 1929-1970, over 40 years. He had moved to Crookston from Fertile in 1929. By 1932, he was supervising the music department with an acappella choir, orchestra and band. When he retired from the Crookston public school system in 1960, three music teachers replaced what he had started. Thus his name of "Mr. Music" seems appropriate.
    Older people referred to him as Ted or T.W. and he was also active in the Rotary club and Civic Music League. His musical touch extended to the International Peace Gardens in North Dakota where he was on the first Board of Directors for the International Music camp. He had gotten his start in the Red River Valley when he moved to Fisher, Minnesota at the age of 25 but then resided in Fertile in 1921 and stayed there for nine years before he moved his family to Crookston. That is where I found a connection with his helping to raise money to build new buildings for the Polk County Fair in Fertile. Another strong Fertile connection is that his wife Lillian had lived on the land that was homesteaded by her Swedish parents and later became the Bergeson farm and eventual Bergeson Nursery southeast of Fertile.
    I recently met a Crookston native who has Telemark, Norway blood. Clifford Oftelie, Jr. took on his father's penchant for collecting all things related to Crookston's early history. For forty odd years, he has collected trade cards from the 1880s and 1890s, postcards from the early 1900s that are from Crookston's first businesses. He has matchbooks and token collections, old photographs from Crookston's early history, old Northwestern fair ribbons from when it used to be held in Crookston, the list goes on and on.
    Page 2 of 4 - What do T.W.Thorson and Clifford Oftelie have in common? They are eternal beings, one who passed away almost 40 years ago and the other who has collected Crookston memorabilia for about that long. Looking over Clifford's collection of photos and postcards, I saw four photos he had that showed what the old Polk County (aka Northwestern) Fair in Crookston used to look like with a racetrack and four other imposing buildings for livestock. As I've written earlier, this Northwestern fair took place out by the Highland tennis courts where two stone pillars for the fair's entrance remain.
    As I poured over Clifford's other old photos through looking glasses to decipher details, I felt like a detective trying to find hidden clues concerning prominent names from Crookston's past. Some people are into genealogy discovering bits and pieces from their family's past. However, Oftelie Jr. has been bitten with the bug his father, Clifford Oftelie, Sr. started. That is to secure as many artifacts as possible related to the origins of Crookston as the "Queen City of the Northwest." I told Clifford he had been born in the wrong century. I admitted to him I'd been accused of that as well. Another thing we have in common is that I have Telemark blood from my mother's side of the family. If we cared to look into our own genealogies, we may share distant relatives back in Norway.
    One thing is certain about Crookston's past; the Norwegians and Swedes were wooed and enticed to move to this area for the good farming land to be plowed and cultivated in the Red River Valley. Ironically, I was told by someone from Thief River Falls that some earlier Norwegian settlers accustomed to the Old Country's wooded areas. They would chop down trees to cultivate the soil underneath to plant their crops, they skipped right over the RRV black soil. (Read Kurt Hamsun's book "The Growth of the Soil") These Norsk pioneers resolutely settled in Thief River Falls vicinity, next to the Red Lake River and trees, little realizing that they had just traversed over the best farming soil in the nation.
    An old timer originally from Ely, Minnesota gifted to me her old 1862 map of Minnesota showing Polk County, south of an oversized Pembina County. Polk county was just as huge but eventually splintered off into smaller counties. Pennington and Red Lake counties were two to the north that were lopped off. To the south, more land used to extend to Georgetown. Early Polk county even was east beyond Bemidji on its eastern border.
    Clifford Oftelie, Jr. informed me that in the earlier days, Bemidji wanted supremacy over Crookston, perhaps vying for the county seat. That would hearken back to T.B. Walker and his lumbering in the late 1800s. Apparently Walker's P.R. people created the fictitious character of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox that continues today. Crookstonites should respect Joe Rolette, the fur trapper during the earlier Ox Cart Days that predates lumberjacks. Joe Rolette was a real person, an eternal human being and part of Crookston's folklore. Bunyan was a composite caricature of many wood-chopping men, known as "fakelore."
    Page 3 of 4 - Things you learn as a child die hard, but when facts surface in archived writings, one has to soften. I had long thought farmers resented having their farmland cut up with the construction of major highways coming through. Not so. I read that farmers in the early horse and wagon days were compelling surveyors to contract the road from Crookston to Grand Forks (now Highway #2) to go by their land. During springtime melt back in those early days, roads were very sloppy and difficult to navigate. Naturally, the pioneer farmers yearned for improved roads so they could get their grain to market more easily.
    On a side note, I remember reading about Mr. Kiewel, of Crookston's brewery fame, and boasts made about how fast his new car traveled over that stretch of 25 miles from Crookston to Grand Forks compared to how fast a horse could go. Probably during Prohibition days, a fast car is what he really needed to stay ahead of the feds, but I digress.
    Another erroneous notion I had was that Crookston used to have the Polk County fair but it was "taken away" by Fertile. Even now, Polk County is a big county compared to many others in the state of Minnesota. To go to the fair each summer with our 4-H exhibits meant a fair bit of driving. Admittedly, Fertile is more centrally located than Crookston when you have Fosston on the eastern end of the county and East Grand Forks on the western side.
    That is why I tied in T.W. Thorson to the Polk County fair. Why would Thorson break allegiance with our "fair" city of Crookston to help Fertile erect buildings for their securing the Polk County Fair? Truth be told, Crookston's county fair in the summer was a money-losing proposition for the Crookston businessmen at that time of the 1920s. Superintendent T.M. McCall, of the Northwest School of Agriculture, already was busy enough heading up the Winter Shows that was held annually at Crookston's old downtown armory.
    Eventually this huge Winter Shows event for the Red River Valley and upper Northwest moved to the north of town and was capably managed by Superintendent Bernie Youngquist. To this day, that is where the statue of the real Joe Rolette still stands, in front of the "new" Winter Shows building. There is a fair bit of irony with old Joe, standing next to his ox cart, oversees the four lane highway of Interstate No. #2. I believe that is what is known as Progress!
    Yes, real human beings existed behind the names of streets, buildings, even the names of counties. Also lodged firmly in the memories of those native to Crookston are people like T.W.Thorson. Once the market for furs and lumber were gone, what else is eternal besides human beings? The Red River Valley soil. My last installment about early Crookston history will focus on the early bonanza farms in the Red River Valley and those pioneers who were brave enough to settle it.
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