It’s always a special day in May for Bemidji, a day when multiple lines of cars from both instate and faraway states come streaming into town; a day when there’s waiting lines to eat at the local restaurants; a day when the big parking lot at the Sanford Center fills up early and late-comers must take the far end of the lot and then endure that extra long walk to get inside the building to find a good seat, sometimes any seat, from which to see and hear first the band concert before witnessing the special proceedings for which they came: Graduation Day! Commencement ceremonies for Bemidji State University’s graduating class.

A big day indeed.

BSU’s graduation days have been going on so long (over a 100 years) that by now there’s little extra notice, let alone excitement, that a thousand students graduate every year!

However, those numbers are no big deal anymore. We’re used to it. Just another springtime tradition. The usual. A thousand grads. Ho-hum. Guess it’s always been that way…

No. Not true. Not even close. The current number of grads are staggering compared to earlier years. For example, in 1945, there were only a total number of 123 students enrolled at Bemidji State; thus there was a graduating class of 24, and of that number, only three were men. The fat numbers of grads would start in the 1960s and never let up. Today, Bemidji State University is taken for granted. Been here forever, or so it seems. Today, most of the Bemidji townspeople have long forgotten or never even heard about.. well… “Cass Lake State University.”(?) Ahhhh, therein lies a most important tale of “What Might Have Been…”

The starting point

In the early 20th century, the state of Minnesota had set up a system for training public school teachers in state-built, state-supported institutions called normal schools (teacher-training schools), a title-designation derived from the French system which they called “Ecole Normale.” These schools had two-year programs to train teachers to become elementary school teachers (if you enrolled for one year, you could teach in any rural school; if you went two years, you could also teach in any city school). Moreover, soon would follow a pattern of change in their titles that began in 1921 when all the normal schools “ended” and became four-year teachers colleges; after World War II, the word “teachers” was dropped from the previous designation; the last big change came with all declared and promoted to universities.

The early normal schools’ locations in Minnesota were determined by the populations of a region. Whenever a region appeared to have enough growing families, there was obviously a need for schools and school teachers, so the first state normal school would be built in Winona. And the pattern of migration continued, with normal schools coming to St. Cloud, Mankato, Moorhead and Duluth. All of the state regions were thus “covered,” with the exception of the north/north-central part of the state. So, the state superintendent of public schools in his formal report to the Legislature recommended the need for one more school somewhere in the north country. The legislators agreed. Thus the push (fight) was on in 1909 among communities in northern Minnesota to be awarded the site for the sixth and newest state normal school. The Legislature would again choose the town/winner – and with it, inadvertently, the losers.

Anger and bitterness

Getting a major state-funded institution to locate in a community is heady wine, so it is understandable that a number of northern towns began the needed push and promotion to win the prize, as it were, and among them were Warren, Grand Rapids, Park Rapids, Bagley, Ada, Clearbrook, Bemidji, and Cass Lake. Even a few letters came from Grygla. The area newspapers from these towns chimed in, all suggesting that to locate the new school in any town but theirs would be a monumental mistake!

The editor of the Cass Lake Times pushed it even farther, noting the old saw: To The Victor Belongs the Spoils. The editor wrote: “The spoils belong to the finder. So it shall continue to be true, and not even the immense wealth of Bemidji nor her slanderous citizens will be able to remove the custom.” And so, he wrote, Cass Lake will win!

Apparently Cass Lake had considerable influence in the legislature in the form of Daniel Gunn in the Senate and P.H. McGarry (townsite owner of the village of Walker) in the House. Moreover, C.G. Hartley, a wealthy man from Duluth, big in the Republican party, owned the Cass Lake village townsite. There was lots of potential money – eventually millions – at stake for the winner.

On March 18, 1909, the Senate approved the Cass Lake Bill 32-25; on April 2, the House approved the Cass Lake bill 60-54. That’s it. It was over. Cass Lake had won! Or so it seemed. The April 3 Cass Lake Times ran a big banner headline: “Cass Lake Bill Wins ‘Against the Field.’” The triumphant lead article began: “The long fight. . . is ended and Cass Lake by her straightforward manly course has won by a good safe majority.” But a caveat came at the end of the same article: “The only hope the opposition has is that Tams Bixby (Bemidji townsite landowner) can induce the governor to veto the act, which he never will do.”

But he did. Gov. John A. Johnson would not sign the Cass Lake bill. He vetoed it. That news meant a subsequent shock – and a new hope – for all the towns back to being in the running. The Cass Lake Times editor did not lose gracefully: “Were it not for the unreasonable, outrageous, and ignominious act of Gov. Johnson, the brilliant fight would have been gloriously rewarded.” So roiled up were some citizens that the Bemidji newspaper advised the locals, for their own safety, not to travel alone to Cass Lake. These antipathies and bitterness carried over for decades. To illustrate, one Cass Lake man, for many years afterward, would make a special trip to the capitol in St. Paul each spring just to spit on the statue there of John Johnson. (On a personal note, I moved to Bemidji in 1959. A Cass Lake pastor took me out fishing on their lake and on the way, he pointed to a wooded area along the lakeshore and said, with a tone of disgust and sarcasm, “That’s where Bemidji State College is supposed to be.”)

So emotionally charged was the school issue that there would be no mention of any new normal school in the next year’s legislative session.

Round 2 of the fight

Even when passions cooled off, there was the obvious conclusion that there was still a need for a normal school in northern Minnesota. But where? And who would pick the location? A compromise of sorts followed, the decision reached that there would indeed be a new school and its site would be chosen by a commission composed of five legislators. So Round 2 of the fight began again. Each town who wished to be chosen was visited by the commissioners for a full day; they carefully looked over each proposed site – and that night the commissioners attended a special dinner (feast!) for them, and following the meal began speeches and more speeches to try to persuade them to vote accordingly.

There was also a question-and-answer session and of interest was one question asked the Bemidji spokesman: “How many saloons in Bemidji?” Response: “We have 29 and the number is being decreased.” Question: “It is reported that you have sporting houses here. Is that true?” Answer: “That is not true. There is not a place of that kind within the city limits of Bemidji.” (In an interview back in 1993 with Herbert Warfield, then 72, and a lifelong resident of Bemidji, he was highly amused by the “answer” and added: “When WWI broke out (in 1914), there were 54 saloons and seven licensed sporting houses, all double deckers.”)

The next day, a commissioner spoke to a Pioneer reporter and summed up the difficult, if not impossible position, they were in: “Thief River Falls proved to us beyond any question of doubt that the school should be located there. Bemidji has shown us that to locate the school at any other point would be little less than criminal, and we expect that Cass Lake and Park Rapids will each offer proof positive that each of those towns should have the institution.”

The chairman later added that the decision of the winner would be announced in a week (on July 15) and so at that point all that the hopeful towns could do was to sit back and wait expectantly for the decision.

Bemidji's biggest celebration ever

And then came decision-day. The Pioneer on July 15, 1913, shouted the news with a special edition: “EXTRA!! Bemidji Wins the Sixth Normal School by Unanimous Vote” (not quite; Thief River got one vote). A later Pioneer added the particulars that afternoon of what followed the announcement:

“As the news reached Bemidji, the town almost went wild. The fire whistle was blown and both whistles of the lumber company mills were set off and continued to blow for almost an hour. Automobiles paraded through the streets tooting their horns, and shouts of joy from boys and men were heard everywhere. The fire bell was clanging and together with the firecrackers and other explosives, Bemidji celebrated one the of the greatest events of its history. A procession of automobiles loaded with enthusiasts was quickly formed and crowded the streets of the city, taking entire possession of every available thoroughfare. To say that all acted like a lot of ‘crazy hoodlums’ is putting it mildly. Boys formed in line with tin pans and sticks and all in all the town presented one of the wildest scenes ever known in its history.”

The town’s other newspaper, the Sentinel, on July 18, with three days’ perspective, described the scene this way:

“Within 15 minutes after a bulletin had been received Tuesday afternoon – a week to a day after the commission’s visit here – flashing the news, the city has gone crazy with joy. In the impromptu automobile parade, the occupants of each crashing tin pans, blowing horns, pounding drums, dangling cow bells, tooting whistles, firing revolvers, and making any other noise possible, and from out of the pandemonium continuously came the shouts ‘We Win!’ Bells in all parts of the city joined in and locomotives in the M and I shop shrieked back a reply. For two hours the noise would have made a boiler factory appear as silent as a tomb. It was 11 p.m. before the band stopped playing and the last tune was ‘Cheer, Cheer, the Gang’s all Here,’ and it was too. The celebration lasted until nine o’clock the next morning.”

And so Bemidji won the new normal school – eventually to become a university. Just consider the many ramifications of “what might have been” (or not been) had Gov. Johnson put his signature on the Cass Lake bill.

Originally published May 11, 2015, for the Bemidji Pioneer.