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Marie Nitke/FOCUS The top of what is now the Sugar & Spice building still displays its construction date, as well as the initials of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a religious and civic group that the building's original owner was a member of.

A historical tour of downtown Perham

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If you want to learn a little something about a town's history, just look up.

That's the advice of Otter Tail County Historical Society Executive Director Chris Schuelke, who points out that construction dates and other information are often carved in stone near the tops of old buildings, still visible even a century or more later, giving people vital clues about a place's origins.

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In Perham, for example, the date of 1896 is still displayed at the top of the building that is now Sugar & Spice, on the corner of Main St. and 1st Ave. S. 

Along with that are the letters I.O.O.F., which stand for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. 

Thoelke, a German immigrant who ran a general store out of the building, was a member of the Odd Fellows in Perham. A religious and civic organization, this 'friendly society,' as it is sometimes called, has its roots in England but came to the United States in 1819. Its members came to be known as "an odd bunch of fellows" because at the time it was unusual to find people organized for the purpose of helping others. 

The Thoelke building was just one of several stops along the way during a historic walking tour of downtown Perham, led by Schuelke last Thursday.

Schuelke noted that, after the general store, the building housed a butcher shop owned by Bever Palzer.

According to the account of a local man, Bob Riestenberg, the butcher was always smoking a cigarette, and ash was known to drop from the butts onto the meat, Schuelke said. The butcher would simply blow the ashes off before handing the customers what they came for. 

In an interview with the historical society, Riestenberg also recalled that the butcher shop used to sell live chickens; people would take them home and do the dirty work themselves.

Chuckling, Schuelke said, "That kind of thing probably wouldn't fly today."

Another interesting stop along the tour was The Spot (what we know today as Gathering Grounds). The Spot was a pool hall operated by Art Sacket, according to Schuelke. Locals who were around during the time claim that Sacket didn't stop selling liquor during Prohibition. When he got caught, which he often did, Shuelke said, he would pay his fine in pennies and nickels, just to annoy the officials.

Also, there was Kemper's Drug Store. Built in 1910, Bernard Kemper once ran the store out of what is now T.A. Gould Jeweler.

According to 97-year-old Ann Jordan (the daughter of Harvey Smalley Sr., who once ran the Perham Enterprise-Bulletin), Kemper's was a popular hangout for kids and teens, as it had a soda fountain. Jordan, who now resides in Fergus Falls, was interviewed by the historical society last summer, and Schuelke said: "She still says she never tasted sodas as good as what Kemper made."

The tour last week was the first of what Schuelke hopes will be many more, with more and more stories to tell as local history buffs tag along and share their memories and knowledge. 

Downtown Perham is unique, he said, especially for a town of its size, in that it has managed to maintain the character of many of its old buildings.

"The historic streetscape is a main reason people come to Perham," he said.

Click on the individual photos for more historical tidbits learned during the tour. Not everything from the tour is covered here. To learn even more, watch for future tours and be sure to take part.

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