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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • Kristina Gray's Legendary Locals - Part V of VI: Russell Sundet, Crookston’s historian

  • Many people from Crookston have very fond memories of Crookston’s past businesses and one of them would be the Toy and Hobby Shop on 214 North Broadway. I remember going into the store as a little girl and meeting Mr. Sundet for the first time. I have read that often you do not remember what people say but you DO remem...
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  •     Note to readers: Local historian Kristina Gray is writing a six-part series highlighting more of the “Legendary Locals” that she’s featuring in her new book that will be available for purchase during the All-School Reunion in Crookston June 26-29. The Times will feature one installment in the series each week leading up to the start of the reunion, concluding in the June 27 edition of the Times.
        Many people from Crookston have very fond memories of Crookston’s past businesses and one of them would be the Toy and Hobby Shop on 214 North Broadway. I remember going into the store as a little girl and meeting Mr. Sundet for the first time.  I have read that often you do not remember what people say but you DO remember how they make you feel.  As a six or seven year old with money burning a hole in my pocket, I was marveling at all the cool, colorful things to buy.  Russ behind the counter asked me what my name was and when I answered, he said he knew my dad and family.  
        Russ made me feel very important because he knew who I was through my family name. I’m sure he made all the other children feel that way as well.  I also recall a punch card where Russ would keep track of my little purchases (school supplies only) and at a certain dollar amount I could redeem $1 or $5 worth of something else in his shop. Most kids opted for candy, I can’t remember what I got.  It was a good incentive to return often to the Toy and Hobby Shop and to talk to Russ while buying more sparkly, fun crafts.     
        Thanks to the writings of Richard Sundet, Russ’ son, I received some interesting material about his Dad.   Richard wrote that Russ was “known for telling jokes, some bad, some good and a number that left the recipient wondering why he remembered such a joke. Russell loved to pull tricks and gags on individuals especially kids while he owned the Hobby Shop, such as the electric buzzer in his hand or the sleight of hand trick of the coin that appears in the kid’s ear.” I don’t remember any of Russ’ jokes or tricks; I just remember enjoying the ambiance of the Toy and Hobby shop.   
        What I DO recall about Russ in the 1960s was that he was a happy, optimistic person with a ready smile on his face. Often we do not know what the family history is of those people who make us or other people feel important.  That is why I think it is necessary to end this five week series with Russ Sundet who was formerly Crookston’s historian.  He grew up in this town and cared about it deeply. Russell Stanford Sundet was born in Crookston on July 28, 1917. That means that soon he will be 97 years old. Keep that date in mind and wish him a happy birthday if you see him a month from now.        
    Page 2 of 4 -     When I was writing up information in my first book about Crookston’s history, I had wanted to ask Russ questions on certain things.  Sadly, this knowledgeable man has lost his memory about most everything related to Crookston’s past.  Therefore, I’m thankful for the writing Russ left behind and what little bit of information his son Richard wrote up about his dad.
        In the second upcoming book about Crookston’s history, “Legendary Locals of Crookston” I have chosen Russ Sundet as one of the 100 legends. I dug up more information about his parents and they are also featured in this book about to launch on June 27th.  Russ came from a typical Norwegian background.  In fact, in 1872, Russ Sundet’s family homesteaded between Neillsville and Climax along the Red River after the Indian Treaty was signed at Huot. Apparently Russ’s father, Ole Sundet, at age four walked or rode the typical covered wagon all the way from southeast Minnesota in 1872 with his parents. I do not have much information beyond that.  Thankfully, most of this article is based on Russ’ son, Richard’s writings, details he wrote out from what he had gathered about his father and mother.   
        Some of the facts that Richard Sundet wrote about his dad were the following, “…during high school, Russell played offensive and defensive guard for the Crookston public high school. Russell applied and was nominated by a local U.S. Congressman to West Point out of high school. However, Russ was denied due to bad teeth, i.e. at that time, he had only 23 of his original 32 teeth left. Also, Russ believed his rejection from West Point was due to his having a mild case of rickets when he was a child.
        “In August 1942, Russell volunteered into the U.S. Army for WWII at Fort Snelling in St. Paul. He then attended basic training at Hammer Field at Fresno, Calif. and was placed into the engineer corps of the Army. Next he went to Davis Monthan Field at Tucson, Ariz., then to Peterson Field at Colorado Springs, then to Geiger Field near Spokane, Wash. Russell was transferred overseas as part of the 1891st Aviation Engineer Battalion in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Fiji Is., Melbourne and Perth, Australia.   
        “He was sent to Bombay, India, and then to Myitkyina and Bhamo in Burma. He was stationed at Myitkyina and Bhamo (shortly) from 1943-1944 then traveled by road over the Burma Road to China. After traveling over the Burma Road, Russell arrived at Kunming, China, the home of the Flying Tigers. Russell then was stationed at Mengtzu, China from 1944-11/1945. While in the 1891st Aviation Engineer Battalion, he was a First Sergeant and the battalion was tasked with building forward airstrips. The 1891st also built bridges, including a pontoon bridge over the Irrawaddy River that was about a quarter mile wide and up to 80 feet deep. Even though he did not see much action, yet while on a patrol in Burma, a sniper shot at them. According to Russ, one bullet zipped about an inch in front of his nose.
    Page 3 of 4 -     “While in Burma he saw a lot of jungle, and a 15 foot python and a tiger which members of the staff had shot. In 1945, Russell was shipped back to the U.S. to be discharged. He traveled back to Kunming, China from Mengtzu, flew to outside Calcutta, India, next he boated through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean. After 79 days in a boat, he arrived in New York City. After he was discharged on January 1946, he moved back into his parent’s house at 320 Gorgas Avenue in Crookston.   
        From 1937 until Russell went into the Army then again from February 1946- September 1958, he worked as the manager of the Lyric, Gopher and Grand Theaters in Crookston. On June 21, 1949, Russell Stanford Sundet married Helen Mae Schmidt also from Crookston at the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. The two had met on a blind date arranged by mutual friends. They had two children, Richard Lee “Rich” and Judy Anne.
        Thanks to Richard, he included more info about his father: “In the 1960s, Russell served as president of the Crookston model airplane club, the planes he sold at his Hobby Shop. Russell also assisted the city of Crookston numerous times in Crookston’s flood control activities. Russell was alderman of the 1st Ward in Crookston from 1969-1974. Russ was Chairman of the Board for the Polk, Norman, and Marshall Counties Boy Scouts for three years in the late 1960s; served two years on the Advisory Committee for the Northern Lights Boy Scout Regional Council (for Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota) in the 1960s. He arranged the start-up of the Girl Scouts in Crookston in the early 1970s.  Russell was also Chairman of the Polk County Library Board from about 1980 to 1985 and building chairman of the new library at the same time he served from 1982-1989 on the Valley Crossing Arts Council in Crookston. Russ assisted each June in Crookston’s “Art in the Park.”  He served as President for three terms of the Crookston Collector Club (i.e., collecting stamps and coins) from 1992 to 1996.”   
        With all these civic activities, it is no surprise that in 1984, Russell was honored by the Crookston City Council with the “Outstanding Volunteer Award.” Later in October 1989, he was honored at the Experienced American Tea as Crookston’s “Experienced American,”   
        According to Richard, “Russell was also considered an expert in rare coins and stamps and was often called upon by estates to estimate the value of stamp and coin collections. During his business days at the Hobby Shop, he promoted stamp and coin collection, and building fuel powered model airplanes. Russ and Helen also built various craft products which they displayed at the Hobby Shop to promote sales of those items. Included in these crafts were painting portraits, making Christmas tree ornaments from kits and also wooden models of airplanes and boats from kits and finally constructing rockets from kits manufactured by the “Este “company when they came out in the 1960s. Over a two year span in the 1960s, Russ constructed from a wooden model kit the U.S.S. Missouri which was about three feet long, capable of operating by a fuel powered engine with remote control. The model of the U.S.S. Missouri was displayed at the Hobby Shop. After the Sundets sold their shop in 1980, battleship was shown for a time at the Polk County Historical Society until Richard took it back to his home in Alaska.   
    Page 4 of 4 -     “Russell’s interests were stamp and coin collecting, Bible archeology, construction of house additions and maintenance projects, Norwegian rosemaling, painting portraits, writing articles about Crookston’s early life, and reading. Earlier in his life, Russ was a professional photographer, while golf and fishing were his interests. In March of 2000, Russell also compiled a book of his experiences while servicing in the Army. Russell was the champion ping pong player of his WWII battalion and had learned to competitively play from an expert player in Crookston in the late 1930s. (I wonder who that legendary ping pong player was.) Russell also enjoyed playing horseshoes at the family cabin on Lake Sarah.  Both Helen and Russ loved to spend time at Lake Sarah and attend family gatherings, which often occurred for the Schmidt family at Lake Sarah.   
        “Russell was also considered a local historian of events in the Crookston and Red River Valley area. Between 1987 and 1995, Russell wrote nearly monthly articles for the monthly “newspaper” published by the Golden Link in Crookston. Some might remember the titles of articles that Russ wrote: ‘Those Merry Oldsmobile Days in Minnesota’ and ‘The Mystery of the Petrified Man’ and ‘Crookston’s Connection with the Famed Aviator Charles Lindbergh.’ Russell published a book titled ‘Reminiscing with Russ’ in 1998, which was a compilation of articles that he had written for the Golden Link or also recall the publication ‘Red River Valley Memories’ and sold about 300 copies to local or past Crookstonites, friends and relatives.”   
        In conclusion, I hope that those who care about Crookston’s history and future will come to the Carnegie Building on June 27 and June 28, Friday and Saturday between 10:00 and 4:00 p.m. I will be autographing and personalizing copies of the newly released book “Legendary Locals of Crookston.”     
        All during the time that we celebrate the many festivities for the All Schools Reunion.  The Polk County Historical Society will have different exhibits featured in the Carnegie Building as well.  Old memorabilia that has been collected by members of our community will be shown and explained by them.  Come to the festivities of our town’s history. Remembering Russ Sundet, a past historian of Crookston, is a good start.
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