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A pioneering blacksmith, a tragedy, and a secret marriage: The granddaughter of one of Perham's earliest settlers recalls her Schmidt family history

Sara Canada's grandfather, Henry Schmidt, immigrated from Germany to Perham in 1890.

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Sara Canada searches through the years of research she has on her family history at the History Museum of East Otter Tail County. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

Editor's note: This story is from Generations, a special joint publication of the Perham Focus and Wadena Pioneer-Journal. For more great stories like this one, find Generations inside the Thursday, August 26 editions of those two newspapers.

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No one who witnessed the formation of Perham is still alive today, but there is a local living descendent of one of those earliest European settlers, and she knows her family's story well.

Her name is Sara Canada, age 85. Her grandfather, Henry Schmidt, immigrated to the area from Germany in 1890, and Sara was born two generations later. She still resides in Perham, and spends time helping out at the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.

Sara met her grandfather before he passed away, but she was only about five years old then and doesn't have specific memories of him. Stories have been passed down to her, however, and she's spent time researching her family, the Schmidts, to find out even more.

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"(It's important to remember history) because it keeps repeating itself," Sara says. "Maybe people did something back 50, 100 years ago, and it was not a good thing to do… We need to learn from those prior mistakes."

She recently sat down with the Perham Focus to share her family's history, both the good and the bad.

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Brothers Henry and Louis Schmidt both ran Schmidt Brothers Manufacturers in Perham. (Submitted)

In 1891, shortly after Henry Schmidt moved to Perham, he started a blacksmithing business with his brother, Louis, called Schmidt Brothers Manufacturers. On top of typical blacksmithing, they made wagons, which were likely shipped all across the state of Minnesota.

Not everything was easy for these early pioneers of Perham. The Schmidt family suffered a tragedy on Oct. 16, 1910, when Henry's 18-year-old son, Henry Schmidt Jr., died while out duck hunting with two of his friends, the young brothers Otto and Albert Rick.

While out hunting, the three shot a duck that fell out of sight and into the water of a nearby lake. Henry Jr. and Albert decided to go get the duck, which meant taking their boat to the east end of a very deep body of water. They told Otto they would be back in about an hour, but were never seen again.

When they didn't return, Otto went searching for them and found their boat overturned on the west side of the lake. Their caps were floating beside the boat, along with a pipe and package of tobacco. Otto knew they'd drowned. He brought the sad news to town, and Henry Schmidt immediately got to work.

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He used his blacksmithing skills to build two grappling hooks, which were used to pull Albert and Henry Jr.'s bodies from the bottom of the lake.

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______'s grandfather built these hooks, dusty after years of storage, to find the drowned man's body in the lake. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

A 1910 article in The Perham Enterprise described the drowning and just how much it affected the community: "Just how the accident happened, or how they came to be on the west side of the lake, will never be known," it read. "The tragic circumstances surrounding the death of these young men has cast a pall of gloom over our village."

Outside of this tragedy, Henry Schmidt used his blacksmithing skills for more positive endeavors. Sara says he was the kind of person who would make almost anything if someone asked, and she believes he was a fun-loving man. He even built a merry-go-round for kids in town to ride on.

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Henry Schmidt is pictured with a merry-go-round he built. (Submitted)

His blacksmithing skills also helped Perham develop as a community. Along with his wagon business, Henry helped make the first fire engine for Perham, which can still be found inside the Perham Fire Department building to this day.

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Henry Schmidt (left) is pictured with Perham's first fire engine, which he helped make. (Submitted)

Despite coming from a family of blacksmiths, Sara's father, Richard Schmidt, wasn't very interested in blacksmithing himself.

"He was more interested in farming and the animals," she recalls.

Richard and Sara's mother, Ann, were the talk of the town in the 1920s, after they secretly eloped in Superior, Wisc. They didn't tell anyone for awhile afterward, either, choosing to keep it a secret. But Ann took Richard to meet her family in Eldred, Minn., and after this, an announcement of their marriage was leaked to a local newspaper. From there, the news spread to Perham.

The Perham Enterprise even published an article about their secret union, called, "Quietly Married," writing, "Friends in Perham were surprised last week to learn of the marriage…" When the couple returned to their home in Perham after visiting Ann's family, they were met with a charivari -- a loud mock parade and serenade -- meant to make as much discordant noise as possible.

Years later, in 1936, Sara was born.

Throughout her decades in Perham, Sara has witnessed how much the town has changed. Perham City Hall, for example, the community's cornerstone building at 125 Second Avenue N.E., used to have quite a different set-up. The liquor store, fire department and city jail used to all be located inside this one building, Sara recalls.

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Perham's City Hall used to house the liquor store, the Fire Department and the city jail. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

"You could always tell when someone was in jail because the little red light would always be on," she remembers with a smile.

Three large green doors, no longer functioning, can still be seen on the side of the building, showing where the old fire department was located. Faded text labeling the building as the "Fire Dept" can still be seen above those green doors. At some point in history, the fire engine Sara's grandfather helped build exited one of those green doors.

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On the side of Perham's City Hall, one can see where the old Fire Department was located. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

Not all of Perham's historical buildings are still standing, Sara notes with a sigh: "So many old buildings are being demolished."

She brought up the old Perham High School, which is currently being torn down, as well as the old Drahmann building. She's not fond of all these changes, and is worried that historical structures aren't being valued. She's also worried that Perham, while it has always attracted tourists, is now built more for tourists than locals, with lots of little shops but not enough places to buy basic, day-to-day necessities.

However, Sara believes there have been good changes in the Perham community, too. When she was growing up, she saw how separated the different church denominations were in town. Now, local churches of all denominations meet up and work together. They're more cooperative now, and she's fond of that.

Sara finds that the learning of history, good and bad, helps people broaden their minds, and so she hopes that more people will continue to learn and preserve Perham's history.

"I would suggest that people pay attention to what's happening around them, and why it's happening," she advises. "There's more than one side to the story, and maybe you need to look at all the different sides of what's going on… Instead of being narrow-minded, you need to have an open mind."

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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