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1 in 3,000: Meet the everyday people that make Perham go 'round

Me and Sara in the Perham Focus office on Tuesday, Jan. 8. 1 / 2
Sara Canada poses for a portrait in the History Museum of East Otter Tail County on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. (Carter Jones / Focus) 2 / 2

I am a city boy, born and raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis. My entire world changed when I took a job at the Perham Focus as the newspaper's main reporter in December. Now, I am here, in a town of just over 3,000 people, learning what small town living is all about. Perham started surprising me right from the start, and I quickly learned that I don't want to just report what's happening in Perham, I want to report on the people who make this town tick in the most inconspicuous of ways. Some people have a way of always attracting the spotlight, but my 'focus' will be on those who quietly go about their day making this community a better place to live. And since this is my new journey, too, and my "city" eyes are fresh, I wanted to document the adventure of discovering what this "Perham pride" thing is all about. Everybody in Perham has a story, unique in their own way...1 in 3,000.

Meeting Sara

It was Sara Canada's face I saw when I walked into the East Otter Tail County Museum for the first time to research a story. "It's you again," Canada said smiling from behind a book when I came back a week later to kick this series off with her. Canada was born in Perham and has spent most of her life here on and off. Canada, one of a handful of volunteers at the museum, was reluctant when I took her photo and even more reluctant when it came to publication. She felt she shouldn't have all the glory, given the fact that there are other volunteers there who deserve credit as well. After a week of negotiations, Canada's modesty subsided (or my sweet-talking worked) and she agreed, "as long as you make it small."

Canada began our conversation by telling me when she started school the streets weren't paved, and she and the rest of the students had to find their own way before the convenience of school buses.

"A lot of people didn't shovel their sidewalks in the winter, so we'd walk on top of the snow banks the snow plows made," she said. "We had a nice packed path to walk."

Canada also recalls the school lunch program not starting until the 1950s. Most kids that lived in town ventured home for an hour lunch before trekking back to school in time for afternoon classes. Curfew was strictly enforced by the town's one policeman. "You'd better be off the street when the whistle would blow at 9 p.m.," Canada smiled, thinking back to a simpler time in Perham. When I asked why curfew was so strictly enforced she didn't remember but recalled being out all day without any parental supervision.

After graduating from Perham High School in the 50s, Canada went to Concordia-Moorhead and then to a trade school in Chicago, where she met her soon-to-be-husband. From there she lived in Indiana for 15 years, but a divorce brought her and her three sons back to her hometown.

"The first winter back here was one of the worst blizzards ever," Canada said. "I'm sure my kids thought 'what on earth has mom got us into?'" Canada remembers the storm being so bad the town completely shut down as snowmobiles shuttled supplies from town to the hospital.

When I ask what brought her back to Perham after living elsewhere, she gets a little embarrassed. "I hate to say this, but Perham wasn't necessarily a draw for me. Most of my friends that I had growing up in high school were long gone," she said. "I like Minnesota, I like the Twin Cities, I like cities. I suppose because mom and dad were quite elderly I felt like I needed to be near to be able to help them if I can. Being a familiar place is what brought me back." After living in Detroit Lakes and teaching, she ended up back in Perham to take care of her ailing mother.

Canada became a history buff when she started filling in at an antique store during the summer. "History matters, and we don't learn from it," she said. "We keep doing the same dumb things over and over." Canada said the county museum has lost touch with the community, as people don't seem to be as interested in history as they used to be. "I don't know if it's because of this texting, and I can get anything online and I don't have to leave the house," she said. "It just seems that no one really cares that we're here or not."

Canada said she's involved with the museum because she wants people to learn from history and not do the same thing. "I want people to be aware of where they live, what it's about and how it came to be about," Canada said. "The first people that settled here maybe didn't have an easy go of it. What's happening here now is because of a vision someone had in the past that they worked on."